Why we plateau, & how to get unstuck.
Ah the dreaded plateau. No matter what you train for, it's an inevitability. But why? Regardless if you're training for weight loss, endurance, strength, agility, power, or anything else; these specialties are not completely independent of each other and can only develop so far without your needing to reinforce it with other specialties. The good news is that it's pretty predictable when that's going to happen, and the solution is pretty straightforward. We call this process "Periodization".
What is periodization? Periodization is a tool used by athletes and fitness professionals to build structure and purpose into the ebb and flow of training results. Essentially the newer something is the faster you learn it, the more of an expert you are the harder progress is to achieve. If you've ever heard someone say their "in a strength/ power phase", "taking a rest day/ recovery week", "tapering" or "at their peak"; they're all talking about periodization.
To make use of this a trainer will look at your goals or performance needs, and if applicable the date by which they're needed, like a big race for example. We can then break those goals down into a progressive timeline, so they can be maximized one by one, feeding into each other and having the most important skills at their sharpest, when needed most.
What does this look like for non athletes? There are a few training phases we go through in a periodization cycle:
- General Preparation Phase (Simply getting the body used to moving and exercising)
- Base / Endurance Phase (Improve air & blood flow, as well as energy delivery and recovery)
- Strength / Hypertrophy Phase (Make muscles bigger & stronger, increase calories burned)
- Power / Speed Phase (Increasing total workload, and muscle explosiveness)
Taper and Peak phases are typically reserved for athletes in preparation for a major event where there needs to be a balance between being specifically well trained and well rested.
You can see how one phase feeds into the next, allowing each to build on the gains of the last. Each of these phases has a different set/rep/rest structure to target the specific gains of that phase, and most importantly is expected to be effective for 6-12 weeks before progress plateaus or stops completely. Because of this, most trainers will use 8-10 week training blocks to focus on a specific phase, generate as much progress as possible, then transition to the next phase, and continue progressing without getting stuck in a plateau.
What other things can I try?
Aside from changing the set/rep/rest structure, other things to help keep the body guessing and adapting include: - Changing the order of exercises or body parts worked
- Switching exercises for the same movement or body part (ie. swap leg press for squat)
- Switching from whole body workouts, to specific days for specific body parts
- Restructuring your workout week periodically
- Working in recovery weeks and balanced rest days to avoid overtraining