A training plateau is that dreaded period when your training program no longer becomes effective. You keep putting the effort into your training, but no longer see the results. If you’ve been training for over 3 weeks with no progress, then that means you’ve probably experienced it.
The reason this happens is because our bodies adjust to the environment we give it. This is actually a good thing because it helps us with real life situations. For example, say your job is to lift 50 pound boxes every day. In the beginning, this may be a pain in the ass, but eventually it will be thoughtless work because your body adjusts. If you weren’t able to adjust to your environment, you’d be putting excessive stress on your body and, in turn, this would cause more harm than help by causing muscular compensations and imbalances.
Overtraining (putting too much stress on your body and not allowing it to adjust through a plateau) is a problem you may experience it if you lift too heavy too fast. To avoid this, we want to make sure to progress properly through progressive overload.
On average, it takes your body anywhere from 3-6 weeks to plateau. This is simply based on genetics and current training experience, so it differs for every individual. When you hit a plateau, it signifies a need for your next phase of training. You don’t want to continue lifting heavier and heavier every day in your program (due to overtraining), but instead train in phases. A new phase must be started once you hit that plateau and not before that as to give your body time to adjust.
Going back to the work example, if you were to lift 50 pounds one day and then add 10 pounds to that every single day, your body wouldn’t be able to adapt to the environment, especially initially, because of the added stress you’re putting on your CNS. Instead, you would wait about 4 weeks to add more weight to the load as to allow your body to adapt.
If you’ve found that you’re no longer making progress, then you may be “stuck” in a plateau and ready to move onto your next phase of training. Congratulations!
To get out of a plateau, you need to move onto your next phase of training. This is done through progressive overload. By controlling factors like training volume, frequency, intensity, resistance, advanced movements, and time under tension, you’ll be able to continue moving forward in your progress.
Let’s say that you’re in the gym 3x per week doing total body circuits for 60 minutes, but for the past 3 weeks you haven’t seen any progress. Your goal is to lose 10 more pounds of body fat slowly and move into a hypertrophy phase.
There are several factors that will determine how your next phase of training will look. This is based on both your genetics, specific goals, and lifestyle. One example of how your next phase of training could look is by moving you up to training 4x per week and hitting specific muscle groups rather than doing total body circuits. Your sessions will still be 60 minutes.
This is just one example of several and gets more complicated and specific as you continue progressing. Something to be aware of is adding too much stimuli to the next phase of training for the beginner and causing them to overtrain. The above example would be for a beginner. Let’s say you’re a powerlifter training 5x per week and trying to hit a new 1Rm for all three lifts at your meet in 10 weeks. You’re currently lifting 5x5s at 70%.
To progress, it wouldn’t be optimal to add anymore days to your program because you’re already training 5 days of the week in a strength phase and it’s important to have rest days for maximum recovery due to the intensity of your training. This would be different if you were training for endurance or hypertrophy.
The next phase of training would be to increase the overall intensity and volume. To do this, we could go from lifting 5x5s at 70% to 6x4s at 73-75%.
To create progressive overload, we increased the training intensity from 70% up to 73-75%. We decreased the amount of total reps, but increased our training volume. We would also begin messing with the resistance of the training. For example, adding in specific exercises like pause squats or deadlifting with bands to target specific lifts that you struggle with in training.
Progressive overload is essential in making progress. If you’ve hit a plateau, this signifies your readiness to move on to your next phase of training and kick some more ass.