Exercise plateaus: 4 ways to conquer them

A man opens up his water bottle after a workout at the gym.

Exercise plateaus can be sneaky and frustrating.

You think you’re in a good groove, on track to meet your goals, but the numbers on the scale suddenly won’t budge. Or those sculpted arms you’re working so hard for just are not developing the way you planned.

You adjust by skimping on your meals, or trying to squeeze in an extra workout, but you still seem stuck. That’s a plateau.

They can stall the progress of someone who has been faithfully sticking to a workout, or they can frustrate a fitness newbie who has been hitting the gym hard every day since making that New Year’s resolution.

What is a plateau?

Plateaus happen when your body acclimates to your new training stimulus – like a regular spinning class or a workout with weights. If you’re putting in the same amount of effort, intensity and volume, but returns are slowing down or leveling off, you’re hitting a plateau.

“You might call it a diminishing return on your investment,” said Tim DeBoer, a health and fitness specialist for Optimal You Fitness at Amway. “We typically see plateaus in weight loss, strength and athletic performance, often in as little as a few weeks into a new program.”

A ‘workout hangover’

If you’re hitting your workout too hard, you are not going to make progress, either, and you might actually move backward. Overtaxing yourself can also cause physical symptoms that are red flags, DeBoer said.

“You might have itchy eyes, a lingering soreness in your muscles. You might even have trouble getting going in the morning,” he said. “You could feel irritable, have a headache, that kind of thing. We call it a workout hangover.

“These symptoms just work to feed the fitness plateau, or even worse, backslide,” DeBoer said.

A man stands in front of a mirror at a gym lifting weights. He is worried about an exercise plateau.

Who’s at risk?

The people most at risk of overtaxing themselves – and hitting that plateau wall – are a group DeBoer calls the “stimulus addicts.”

“They work out purely for the feeling they get from working out,” he said. “They tend to come out on January 1 and they’re super motivated. They think more is better.”

But sometimes doing more just leads to disappointment. The important thing is to recognize when it happens, then switch things up to get back on track.

“When your body plateaus, it’s actually calling out for a rest,” DeBoer said. “You need to hit that reset button.”

Here are four strategies to break through that plateau:

One: Physical recovery

Taking time to let your body recover is vital.

“The first thing I tell people to do is to back off the routine and take a rest for about a week,” DeBoer said.

“You need to hit that reset button.  If those warning signals for rest are ignored, the body will respond with a metabolism in haywire, decreased immunity, increased sensitivity to injury, and an overproduction of cortisol — a stress hormone — all of which hinder progress.”

Change it up by picking a light activity like walking, snow shoeing or yoga. And remember to stay hydrated, either by keeping a water bottle at hand or making it more flavorful with a mix like the XS™ CocoWater in Strawberry Watermelon.

A woman does yoga in her home. She is choosing a lighter workout to help break through her exercise plateau.

Two: Focus on overall wellbeing

“Connect with an old friend, discover a new wellness podcast, make changes to nutrition or hit the spa if that’s your thing,” he said. “Take time to reevaluate your fitness goals and seek alternatives methods of reaching them.”

Three: Sleep is essential

Make time for seven to eight hours of sleep each night, even if you have to cut short a workout.

“It’s a misconception that some people can thrive on five hours of sleep,” he said. “In terms of overall wellbeing, sometimes it’s more important to get one more hour of sleep than one more hour of exercise.”

Four: Recommit to tracking

Keeping track of what you eat, when you sleep and how much you exercise can seem like a lot of work, but you need to see how all these pieces are working together and if you’re seeing the payoff based on your effort.

Once you’ve taken a step back and given your body time to rest and recover, then you can reset your fitness routine and make sure you’re getting the most out of every workout.

Pretty soon, that stubborn plateau will be in your rear-view mirror.

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