6 Ways to Avoid a
Plateau By Steve Edwards
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Not a lot can dampen our enthusiasm as much
as seeing our progress come to a halt.
P90X is a hard program. And
when we're working hard, we want to see results. But everyone who trains will
hit an exercise plateau at some point, even those using something as
meticulously crafted as P90X. Today we'll take a look at what to do when
What is a plateau?
When we trainers, well, train people, we
measure everything we do with graphs. The vertical plane usually measures
improvement, while the horizontal plane measures time. We design programs with
the aim of keeping the vertical line moving upward. When results taper off, the
vertical line flattens. Our desired result is a line that looks like a steep
slope. What we want to avoid is a line that looks like a plateau, or worse, one
that goes back down.
P90X is already designed to keep you from
hitting a plateau. The training blocks and the diet plan phases are both
constructed for this exact purpose. Regardless, everyone hits a plateau
eventually. By arming yourself with the knowledge of what causes a plateau, as
well as possible solutions, you can minimize your time on the flat line.
Why do plateaus happen?
It's part of the body's natural process to
hit a plateau because it's always trying to regulate itself. So basically,
your body is always trying to plateau. We call this regulated state
homeostasis. Your body's a creature of habit, but it doesn't care whether those
habits are bad or good. The more you do something to enact change, the more
your body adapts and tries to limit that change. This is a survival
instinctless stress is placed on your body. However, when you're
unhealthy, your body is willing to call unhealthiness homeostasis. So
the aim of an exercise program is to keep your body stressed.
We think of stress as bad, but we need it to
be healthy. Stress causes our bodies to react. These reactions include
releasing hormones that keep your body strong. This helps you fight the natural
aging process. The key with stress is managing it. You want to stress yourself,
but only enough so you can still recover from the process. When we're
overstressed, it's a symptom we refer to in the fitness world as
What is overtraining?
There's an old adage in the fitness world
that goes something like this—it's credited to two fringe characters who
referred to themselves as The Barbarian Brothers:
"There is no such
thing as overtraining. There is only undereating, undersleeping, and failure of
From this statement, we could call
overtraining underrecovering, and this would be accurate. But since athletes
tend to be of the "more must be better" variety, overtraining is the term that
stuck. No matter how you spin it, if we don't balance training, resting, and
eating, we will stop making progress, no matter how hard we push ourselves.
Why we train in phases
Our programs are designed with phases to
help you avoid overtraining. To get the most out of an exercise program, you
need to break habits from time to time. This is why most training programs are
broken up into phases or blocks that generally look something like this:
phase: Building base fitness; the time this takes varies per
phase: Learning to master the movements or cadence of a new workout
program; takes between 1 and 12 weeks, depending on a program's intricacies and
your fitness level.
- Growth or
Mastery phase: Once you've reached the growth or mastery phase, your
body has a limited time to make accelerated performance gains; generally takes
1 to 4 weeks.
phase: When results level off, your body needs to recover from the
stresses of hard training; generally takes 1 to 4 weeks.
Most athletes train in 3- to 6-week blocks, wherein they
work on one energy system at a time. Each block is broken down into the phases
listed above. At the end of each block, your body begins to plateau, which is a
sign you should begin a recovery phasea period of lower-level exercise
designed to help your body peak its fitness level, either for an event or a new
block of training.
The fitter you are, the quicker you adapt to
new routines. This is why the structure of P90X is so different from
- Phase I: Foundation
phase. Power 90 begins with the 12 workouts. P90X begins with a fit
test, which is a test to make sure your foundation is adequate for you to start
the program. If it's not, we recommend you do Power 90 or an equivalent to
build your foundation.
- Phase II: Adaptive
phase. This is where the biggest changes in the programs occur. Power
90 doesn't change its structure because it may take an untrained individual up
to 12 weeks to adapt to any exercise. At the P90X level, adaptations are much
quicker and will usually happen in a couple of weeks.
- Phase III: Growth or
Mastery phase. Once the body adapts to exercise, there's a short
window wherein very rapid improvement occurs.
- Phase IV: Recovery
phase. Exercise intensity is reduced to allow microtrauma to heal. If
timed correctly, fitness improves during this phase, until the body is
recharged and ready to begin its next block of training. The recovery phase,
which can also be called a transition phase, is a major part of P90X. In Power
90, due to the variable adaptive phase, there is no recovery phase built
Most sound fitness programs follow a similar
plan. This alone does not keep plateaus from occurring. They affect everyone,
from couch potato to Olympian, who engages in any exercise program. In fact,
the more finely tuned your body is, the harder it is to avoid plateaus, mainly
because there's less margin of error when your body is finely tuned.
What to do when plateaus happen
You're usually not sure why you've hit a
plateau; otherwise, you wouldn't have hit it. Luckily, there are only a few
- You've been training too hard.
- You haven't been training hard
- You're not recovering (includes
both eating and sleeping too little).
- You're eating too much.
you're in a plateau because you're doing too much or too little of something.
If you're not working hard enough, you probably know that. If your diet is bad,
you probably know that too. In fact, if this were the case, you probably didn't
see results in the first place, so you're likely not plateauingyou just
haven't gotten any results at all. For those "too-much" or "too-little"
scenarios, here are the solutions most likely to work:
- Start off.
First, you need to ask yourself if you did your program
all the way through. With P90X especially, results don't always come hard and
fast. The structure of P90X is designed to create a peak period near the end of
the 12-week program. Because the program is so intense, it's likely you'll
experience small peaks and valleys of improvement/decline over the first couple
of months. You're not plateauing. It's adaptation to a new program. In fact,
chances are you'd get better results early on with an easier program. This is
because you'd quickly master that program. What you would lack is the high-end
fitness you reach at the end of P90X that your body prepares for during the
initial blocks. Those who revamp P90X to improve their results in the first 12
weeks are not allowing the program to do its job.
- Back off. This is the most common scenario; you can't stop bringin' it.
Backing off doesn't mean you shouldn't exerciseit just means that if you
ease up a bit, you'll likely recover and get stronger. The time frames of the
P90X blocks are not set in stone. If you're finding it suddenly difficult to
get through a workout that was easy the week before, you're probably working
out too intensely. You should ease up your intensity and focus on technique and
flexibility. When I suspect this is the case, I usually suggest you go straight
into a recovery period until you feel normal. When you're this tired, gauge
your workouts so you finish them feeling refreshed rather than knackered. When
your energy level returns, you can launch back into your original program even
harder than before.
- Turn it up a
notch. Or you can try the antithesis of #2, because a
plateau may also happen if you're bored and/or listless. The best way to
increase intensity is by adding resistance. Change bands or add weight so you
start failing at a targeted number of reps (depending on your goals)
on all of the exercises, which changes the focus of the energy system you're
using. This added intensity will force your body to adapt and turn that
improvement curve skyward again. You'll know if this was the right tactic
because you'll either respond by feeling energized or you'll hardly be able to
finish the workout. If it's the latter, try step #1 or #6.
- Streamline your
diet. Most diets could use a little improvement. If
you've been giving yourself little rewards for a job well done (a good idea in
general), then try some withholding. Eat very cleanly and strictly for a week
and see what happens. If you feel better, you've found the culprit. If your
plateau continues, move to either step #1 or #5.
- Add some morning
cardio. Twenty to 40 minutes or more of easy to
moderate cardio in the morning on an empty stomach can help get your metabolism
steamrolling again. You can train your body to use stored fat more efficiently
as fuel, and this is one of the easiest ways to do it. This is a good tactic to
try if you're having trouble streamlining your diet and have an abundance of
- Add or subtract
calories. Dynamic caloric requirements are a reality
of a program as hard as P90X. As you become fitter, your body composition
changes, so your calorie requirements change. Adding calories is one of the
main ways our customers get themselves off plateaus. Adding 500 calories per
day works out to 3,500 per week, which equates to a pound. But this doesn't
mean you'll gain or lose a pound. You may simply need the extra energy to keep
fueling your now-much-fitter body. Keep in mind that this will only work if
you're eating proper nutrients. If not, try step #4 first, and then try
altering the number of calories you're eating. The best way to add or subtract
calories is to zigzag them up or down. Instead of simply adding/subtracting the
calories all at once, do it every other day while continuing to follow your
current eating pattern. This will not only help your body adjust easier, but
you'll begin to feel how the different amounts of energy you're consuming
affect your performance. Five hundred is not a magic number. If 300 (or 600)
feels better, then go with that. Your body will usually tell you what it needs,
if you can learn how to read its signals.