Breaking Through Your Fitness Plateau

March 25, 2014 Updated: March 25, 2014

Has your weight loss come to a grinding halt? Are you still eating well and exercising but pulling your hair out because you can’t seem to lose the next little bit? I am often approached by frustrated trainees complaining that they are doing everything right, yet still not seeing results.

Maybe you have lost a few (or many) pounds; you exercise, and healthy eating is now a part of your life. You never miss a session, and your food is consistent. You saw great results initially but are now struggling to lose the last few pounds. What’s going on?

Today I will discuss one of the possible reasons for this very frustrating yet surprisingly common occurrence: exercise progression and the results plateau.

We are creatures of habit. Once we start doing something, our body adapts quite quickly, making us more efficient at whatever we are doing.

After some time of doing any program, your body will adapt to the intensity, duration, frequency, and even the type of exercise you are doing. Doing the same workout again and again will only produce desirable results for a limited amount of time.

I regularly see people walk into the gym, day after day for months and months, doing the same thing over and over. They usually begin with a 20-minute run and then go straight into three sets of 10 on the bench, a bit of lat pull-down, and perhaps some dumbbell curls. They might even throw in a class here and there.

Initially, this got great results. They were shedding weight and added some lean muscle, but they still look exactly the same as they did six months ago, and their fitness and strength levels are probably fairly similar. Does this sound familiar?

When was the last time you felt those jelly legs when walking out of the gym? Or that cold feeling in your chest and subsequent endorphin rush to your brain after putting in 110 percent in your cardio session? When was the last time you did your personal best for any exercise?

If the answer to any of these questions isn’t “in the last fortnight,” then in my opinion, you are wasting your time in the gym.

Consider these questions: When was the last time you dropped a dress size, noticed a “new” muscle, or caught a glimpse of your changing body shape in the mirror? Again, if your answer isn’t “in the last fortnight,” perhaps it’s time to change your training.

I am a firm believer that without real intensity, the best program, performed with the best trainer on the planet, will only deliver average results at best. Once you are sure that you are bringing the desired level of intensity to your workouts, let’s look at how we can progress your exercise and bust through plateaus!

Increase Your Weights

I see numerous women in the gym or in a weights class literally throwing around 4- to 8-pound dumbbells for countless reps. This is not effective. They need to increase their weights. Lifting weights should be challenging. The last few reps of each set should be difficult to complete.

When performing compound exercises (barbell squats, deadlifts, and so forth) you should be gasping for air and need a good minute or so rest at the end of each set. If you are not reaching this point, increase your weight or reps until you do. And note that “heavy weights will make me bulky” is a myth.

I’m saddened a little every time I see someone plodding along on a treadmill or bike reading a magazine or watching television. Do you believe that is going to get you the body of your dreams? It will not.

In fact, I am willing to bet that these people will look no different in 12 months time. Instead, they will probably have gained fat and may be ready to give up because they think that going to the gym doesn’t work.

Instead of doing a mind-numbing 20 minutes on your favorite cardio machine, increase the intensity, add incline, do intervals, walk with dumbbells, and make it a grueling 20 minutes. Your body will thank you for it.

Crank Up Your Cardio

Do you have a favorite run loop or treadmill pace you do religiously? If you do, then change it. Lengthen your run, add interval sprints, hit the stairs, stop and do push-ups, dips-squats, or similar.

Measure and Track Progress

Use a training diary, and record all weights and reps. Use your previous performance as a guide, and set a target to beat or better your previous best, each and every workout.—even if only by one rep, 1 pound, or one second off your personal best time. In order to keep progressing, you must continually better yourself, leaving you fitter, stronger, and more motivated.

There are hundreds of apps available to track and record your results. For cardio, try something like RunKeeper (free app), which uses GPS to track, time and even notify you of pace for everything from walking to cross-country skiing. For lifting weights, a simple notepad will suffice. A printed program with all exercises listed would be ideal.

Change Your Program

This can be as simple as changing the order in which you perform exercises, to varying rep ranges, rep tempo, or volume of exercises. Plan to change your program about every eight weeks. This will give your body enough time to progress and make gains from the exercise being performed, while still being short enough to avoid a plateau.

Using squats as an example, the changes you make can range from a major overhaul, such as alternating squats with lunges or leg presses, to relatively minor adjustments like squatting deeper or to a box, changing your squat stance, doing speed sets, or significantly altering rep ranges or rep tempo.

Group-Class Fanatic?

That’s fine, but try a new class or rearrange your current schedule, add in back-to-back classes, increase your weights, or try the more advanced options your instructor provides.

On the group class note, I often see people pacing themselves for a class, making sure they don’t go too hard just in case the next bit is super tough. Get out of this mindset. I can think of nothing worse than leaving a class thinking, “I could have worked a little harder.”

Put in 110 percent. If you need to rest halfway through, that is fine. Nobody is going to judge you. In fact, your instructor will be impressed, as will the other participants.


If you have been training intensely for several months without a rest day or rest week, perhaps it is time to give your body a short break. While it may go against common sense, I have found that some of my best results have been achieved after a planned rest period.

Recently I found myself hitting a wall with my results. I was training regularly with all the intensity I could muster and eating perfectly, but noticed that my strength gains and changes to my physique had seemed to stall. I had been chasing a specific strength goal for eight months, only to fail on every attempt.

My initial conclusion was that I wasn’t training hard enough or I should increase my calories or learn a new technique. I had become very comfortable with my training program and diet, and it was only after a friend pointed out to me that I had been completing the same program (a great program at that) for several months with no rest, that I realized I needed to make a change.

I decided (reluctantly) to take a week off training altogether. Then on my return, I implemented a few of the strategies I have outlined above, like switching my training days and exercises with altering rep ranges. Essentially I started a new program.

The results were surprising to no end.

My personal best lift I had been chasing for eight months came only six days into my new program. I have since been setting new personal bests on almost every exercise for the last fortnight. I can assure you that constant progression and adjustment can make a big difference to your results.

Don’t become a victim of the “same, same, no different” exercise mentality. Stand out from the majority of gymgoers who look (and perform) the same, year in and year out, despite their best efforts. Make regular changes to your program and continue training harder, running faster, lifting heavier, and pushing further than you did yesterday.

Fusing the latest in sports, performance, and weight-loss nutrition with holistic wellness practices, while cultivating true emotional and lifestyle balance, Anthony and his team at Pure and Lean Nutrition System transform the bodies, minds, and lives of everyday people all over the world.