Overcoming Plateaus - A Guide for Continued Progress

Written by Robert Forney ISSA CFT

Topher performing an 15 rep speed close grip bench press

We have all known people who seem to never progress, yet they keep doing the exact same thing year in and year out. Even though they don't progress, they still refuse to make changes to their program no matter how many people tell them to. There is only one main reason people stop making progress with exercise, and that reason lies in the fact they don't understand how the body adapts to exercise.

As a beginner, you can make progress with any type of program, but as you become more advanced, you will witness the laws of diminishing returns and you will hit a plateau. No matter what your sport or training objective, a stall in progress is caused for the same reasons.  In this article I will teach you why the body stops adapting to exercise and how to arrange your routine to ensure you have continued progress no matter what your goals are.

If you don't know, a plateau in training is the lack of further progress. When you hit a plateau, your progress has ceased and you seem to be in a rut. Now, plateaus are not a bad thing, since you have to usually make progress in order to hit a plateau in your training. The trick is knowing when you have hit a plateau and how to make changes in order to facilitate continued progress, or to arrange your workouts so that you don't hit a plateau at all. To understand plateaus, you must know how the body responds to training. So here is a few simple things you should know. They will help you understand the whole process of training.

Adaptation: There are a few things you need to learn and understand before about training in general. As the human body is a complex organism, it adapts to the stresses placed upon it. This leads to adaptation of the body to the stress. In our case the stress is some form of exercise and the adaptation is the body gaining muscle, strength, or whatever the goals are. So the main goal of training is to impose enough stress on the body to invoke adaptation of our specific goals, but not so much stress as to cause injury or overtraining. So the main law of training is adaptation.

The Overload Principal: This leads us to the overload principal. This means that in order to make progress, the stress must be greater than the habitual level, or the level the body is used to. For example, if you have never walked as a form of exercise and start to walk a mile every day, and only a mile, you will see some progress for the first few months, but then your results will slow until further progress is not possible (accommodation has set in) with same amount of walking. This means your body has adapted and you must now increase the amount of exercise in order to see more progress.

The same thing happens with weight lifting. If you lift the same weight for the same number of reps for every workout, you will soon see your progress grind to a halt.  In order to get the body to respond again, you must find new ways to overload the body and make it adapt further. As you will learn later, there are two ways to use the overload principal to accomplish this goal.

Accommodation: This now leads us to another law, the law of accommodation. Accommodation occurs as a result of the body adapting to the stress you place upon it. Accommodation is the lack of further progress due to adaptation to the training stimulus. After accommodation sets in, you must now overload the system to make further gains. Right away you probably understand that the less trained the athlete, the less overload needed to cause adaptation. This is why beginners can make progress doing almost anything, but as you get more advanced, you have to plan the training correctly.

The secret to avoiding or overcoming a plateau is variety in the training stimulus. Although this sounds simple enough, you must plan in order to have enough variety to keep progress steady, but not so much variety that your body does not adapt to your specific goals. So what you need to do is apply the right amount of variety and the right time.here are many ways to add variety to a program, but you need to add the right kind of variety. For example, If you are training for strength, you will train to lift more weight. If you are training for a marathon, you will train to increase endurance. Of course the right kind of variety depend on your specific goals.

There are two ways to add overload. One is to increase intensity or volume, and the other is to change the exercises you are doing. There are many ways to add variety and overload. Here are are few ways to add variety and overload to your routine:

  1. Increase the amount weight
  2. Change the reps
  3. Change the rest time between sets
  4. Change the speed of the exercise
  5. Change the amount of sets
  6. Superset
  7. Change the exercise

As for the right time to add variety, you should change the training stimulus every 2 to 6 weeks. The body will adapt to the stimulus in this time and progress will slow or come to a halt. This does not mean you need to change the exercise, but just change one of the factors, such as amount of reps, weight, etc. You will know when to make the change when you see that you have not increased the amount of weight you can use, or the speed of the sprint, etc. Of course this recommendation is for those who are at the intermediate level to advanced. The beginner can train for up to a few months before he/she needs to worry about variety.

A word on specificity: Here is a quick word on specificity. I am writing an article to cover this complex law, but we need to make a mention of this very important aspect of training here. Specificity is the type of adaptation that takes place. You must be aware of your goals and make sure you follow the law of specificity which states that the body will specifically adapt to the type of stress that is imposed upon it. For example, lifting heavy weights increases strength and muscle mass. Long endurance running increases aerobic capacity, but will not improve sprinting.

Although this sounds simple enough, there are many types of specificity. There is specificity of movement, specificity of muscle contraction, specificity of speed of movement, specificity of motor patterns, etc. If you are trying to increase absolute strength on the bench press, then you don't want to do 20 reps on the bench press with light weight.

Make sure you train for your specific goals. Of course you still can and should perform exercises that are semi-functional or assistance exercises. Not only will variety ensure that you will have continued progress, but it will also make your training more enjoyable. Instead of constantly doing to the same thing over and over, you will be trying new things all the time. Not only will this get you out of a physical rut, but it will also keep you mentally progressing.

Now you know how  the body responds to training and how to keep it responding. You now have the knowledge to create a routine that will offer you continued progress no matter what your goals. Get out there and put this knowledge to work and see for yourself how well it works.