6 Ways to Avoid a Workout 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 plateaus happen.
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
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 overtrained.
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 will."
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:
- Foundation phase: Building
base fitness; the time this takes varies per individual.
- Adaptive 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.
- Recovery 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.
- 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
- 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 in.
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 possibilities.
- You've been training too hard.
- You haven't been training hard enough.
- You're not recovering (includes both eating and sleeping
- You're eating too much.
Basically, 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
- 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
- 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 extra
- 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.