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July 6, 2015

Hit a Workout Plateau? How to Bust Through It

workout plateauStruggling with a Workout Plateau?

One of the most frustrating things with exercise is reaching a workout plateau where you get diminishing returns on your effort. Initially, most people notice incremental improvement as they progress through the early stages of a new exercise program with significant improvement being noticed in the first 2-4 weeks. You may even begin to think, “man at this rate I’ll be benching 500 pounds in  another 2-3 months.” Nope, that’s not how it works. No, occasionally you will hit a workout plateau.

But, there are ways to get around or work through hitting plateaus with your workouts. And, everybody hits plateaus. So, it’s not just you. There are a couple of simple things you can do to avoid hitting plateaus.

Chart Your Progress

It’s very helpful to chart your progress to avoid workout plateaus. Whether we are talking strength training, aerobics, or high intensity interval training chart your progress. Charting your progress gives you a goal to shoot for the next time you exercise that body part. It motivates you to push a little harder to best your previous workout.

In reality, very few people chart their progress. They more or less work out based on feel. If they feel strong one day they may lift heavier loads than the previous workout and vice versa if they are not particularly motivated another day. But, the goal with strength training is to progressively lift heavier loads. So chart your workouts and try to do more the next time.

Modify Your Exercises

The body is quick to adapt to any exercise program and with those adaptations come diminishing returns. When that happens your body is saying, “Listen I’m as good as I’m going to get performing this exercise with this weight the same way. Change things up for me.” So listen to your body and change things up.

It is helpful to change your exercise program every 4-6 weeks to avoid a workout plateau. There are several ways to do this. You can:

  • select entirely different exercises for each body part.
  • change the rate at which you raise and lower the weight.
  • change the positions of your hands to isolate a different segment of a given muscle.
  • change the number of repetitions and sets.
  • incorporate supersets into your routine.

Let’s look at some of these strategies.

Select different exercises

Instead of performing pull downs do a body weight exercise and perform a pull up. Or instead of a bench press perform a cable fly.

Change the rate at which you raise and lower a weight

Consider lifting a weight slowly for instance using a two count to raise it but then lower it over a four count, or lift and lower the weight as fast as possible. You train the muscle fibers to contract differently when you change the cadence of the lift.

Change the position of your hands

Instead of doing a bench press with hands at shoulder width bring the hands in either closer or place them further apart. Same when doing push ups, or pull downs. The muscles then contract at slightly different angles and will activate other parts of the muscle providing for overall more uniform development.

Change the number of repetitions or sets

Instead of picking  a load that you lift 8 to 12 times (repetitions) pick a heavier load that only enables you to perform 4 to 6 reps or lighter load and perform 12-16 reps. The lighter loads stress muscle endurance and the heavier loads target muscle strength and power.

Incorporate supersets

Supersets involves performing one set of one exercise on one body part to immediately performing a set of an exercise on a different body part – usually the antagonist of the first exercise. For instance, you might do a set of biceps curls, then immediately do a triceps extension.

Then take a one to two-minute break and repeat and repeat and repeat for 3-5 sets of each exercise. Supesetting is a way to move through an exercise program faster and is something to consider if you are short on time a particular day.

Evaluate your Nutrition

Be sure you are eating properly to avoid a workout plateau. You need to feed the muscles before and after workouts. If you don’t they are not going to adapt to accommodate to heavier loads or more repetitions. Make sure you are consuming adequate protein and carbohydrate with both you pre-workout and post-workout meals. Many novices don’t even consider eating before a workout and wait too long to eat after workout.

Try to consume food 45-60 minutes before a workout and an immediate protein/carb food source after a workout with a more substantial post workout meal within 60 minutes or so.

So those are some ways to avoiding hitting those dreaded workout plateaus that prevent you from getting the most from your exercise program.



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Dr. Joe Jacko

Dr. Joe is board certified in internal medicine and sports medicine with additional training in hormone replacement therapy and regenerative medicine. He has trained or practiced at leading institutions including the Hughston Clinic, Cooper Clinic, Steadman-Hawkins Clinic of the Carolinas, and Cenegenics. He currently practices in Columbus, Ohio at Grandview Primary Care. Read more about Dr. Joe Jacko

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