Avoiding the Plateau Pitfall
Between watching extreme weight loss shows on TV, following extremely fit athletes on Instagram and reading inspirational stories of fitness progress, our society puts a lot of expectation on us when it comes to achieving fitness and weight loss goals. However, oftentimes we don’t get the full story, and we end up disappointed in what real life fitness journeys actually look like. One very real issue that is rarely discussed in these outlets is that sometimes people don’t experience progress. Sometimes people can put in a ton of effort and think they’re doing all the right things and then not see it pay off. I’ve seen people come into the gym like clockwork and do the same routine several times a week, very consistently. They’re dedicated, they work hard—but there’s a problem with their method because they never change.
There are a couple explanations for this phenomenon, and I’d like to dive into them so hopefully you can avoid these pitfalls.
The first is nutrition. You can work out all you want, but if you aren’t conscious about what you eat, you are unlikely to see the results you would like. Several studies have been conducted that show this to be the case. We would all like to believe that we can simply “work off” all the fattening, sugary foods we eat, but science tells us otherwise.
The traditional idea that frequent exercise boosts one’s metabolism has actually been disproved. A study conducted by Dr. Diana Thomas of Montclair Sate University showed that as participants lost weight, their basal metabolic rates actually dropped, as opposed to increased. Essentially, their increased physical activity slowed their metabolism, causing them to lose less weight in the long run than what was originally expected.
Of course this doesn’t negate the positive effects of exercise. It just reinforces the idea that what you eat is considerably more impactful than your physical activity, when it comes to your health and fitness level.
The other issue that people encounter is stagnancy in your routine. When you first begin a fitness routine, you notice changes almost immediately. Your jeans feel a little looser, you feel more energized, you’re able to bring the groceries into the house without breaking a sweat. But then something happens—sometimes just months later, sometimes not for a few years. You hit a plateau. You’re not getting faster or stronger, you’re not losing weight anymore, you’ve stopped feeling like you’re improving. What happened?
Don’t worry; there’s nothing wrong with you. Everyone experiences a plateau in their fitness journey. It’s part of being a human being. We can’t consistently achieve linear progress forever. Something eventually gives. Maybe you’ve been consistently losing five pounds a week, but you still have 20 to go to reach your goal and suddenly you experienced a week where you only lost two pounds, or maybe you even gained some back. Or perhaps you’ve been working on a strength movement in the gym that has been consistently improving, but the past few weeks you haven’t been able to increase your weight.
Don’t panic. As with anything in life, you’re certain to experience bumps in the road. The best thing you can do when you hit a plateau is, first and foremost, not to get discouraged. You will still be able to achieve progress. It might not come back at the accelerated rate you’ve been accustomed to, but it will come back. Focus on achieving some goal, even if it’s not quite what you want. Any type of progress is good progress when you’ve hit a wall. You should also try mixing up your routine. The more your body does a movement, the more it becomes accustomed to that movement. Over-familiarity can breed stagnation. Switching up the method of doing something, whether it be the number of reps, the positioning or just swapping it for a similar movement, can help to sort of trick your body into thinking you’re doing something different. Once your body has kind of un-learned its adaptation to an exercise, you might find that when you go back to try it again a week or so down the road, you’ll be able to see progress once again.
Good luck on your fitness journey! Remember to appreciate the little victories you achieve each day and not to get discouraged if you’ve had a bad week (or month, or several months!). Keep a positive mindset and do your best to avoid the plateau pitfall.