How to Break Through an Exercise Plateau


Ever been stuck in a rut with your workout routine? You know that feeling of seeing no change in your body despite all of your careful work in the kitchen and in the gym?

Well, before you become too discouraged and get ready to throw it all away, know that you aren’t alone. There’s even a term for becoming acclimated to your exercise routine called a “workout plateau.”

Whether you have created the same old routine at work, the gym, or in your personal life, your mind, body and spirit simply become overly accustomed to a prolonged period of nothing new under the sun. The “same old, same old,” seems like a flat line in your life.

You aren’t seeing the numbers on the scale change, you aren’t seeing muscle growth or feeling stronger and you are losing motivation. All the while feeling that you are working as hard as you can. You begin to see that you haven’t made any real progress for a few weeks while increasing your reps or adding weight to your resistance.

Sound familiar? Yep, that’s an exercise plateau.

We owe our understanding of how we can find ourselves stuck in a plateau to two psychologists, Michael Posner and Paul Fitts, who in the early 1960s, discovered that we go through three stages in reaching a plateau.

First, we spend a great deal of effort thinking about what type of exercise routine we are going to tackle.

Then, we become more comfortable doing a workout routine, and concentrate less of our mental energy on it.

Finally, we exercise so well that we’re on autopilot and may workout without spending much time thinking about it.

Hitting a wall, getting stuck in a rut or crashing into an exercise plateau was thought of for a long time to be tied to your genetic ability. People would erroneously believe: “Why me?” or “Why do I have these bad genes” or “Why can’t I be more successful like that other person over there pushing more weight?”

Today, we know this type of mindset and belief system will keep you stuck. With the right approach, mindset and strategy plan you can break through your plateau. You are in control of beating a plateau. Are you ready to take some risks and grow through your comfort zone?

I didn’t just say “go through”, but “grow through” your comfort zone. Unless you are mentally telling yourself it’s OK to fail, and that you’ll be OK if you do, you will not break through any plateau.

Have a trainer or coach who knows how to speak to you without the sugarcoating? If you do, do you listen? If you’ve told yourself you don’t want to hear the real truth of what’s required to move forward, you won’t hear it, and you won’t move forward. How are you enjoying the plateau?

Let’s go back to our psychologists, Posner and Fitts who first uncovered the psychology of hitting a plateau, for more antidotes. They offer three:

  1. Put your mind’s laser beam on technique
  2. Put your mind’s laser beam on your goal
  3. Put your mind’s laser beam on deliberately practicing

I’ll translate this into more specific strategies:

  1. Are you getting enough calories, protein and carbs to build strength and muscle?
  2. Have you had truthful feedback on your form and followed it, or have you allowed yourself to get sloppy?
  3. Have you fallen into the trap thinking that more exercise is better, and forgotten that overtraining actually blocks muscle and strength gains?
  4. Are you ignoring what everyone tells you about recovery and the need for sufficient restorative sleep?
  5. Is too much cardio in your routine getting in the way of building muscle and strength – you know it will, right?
  6. Have you been forgetting about baby step changes in moving up with smaller weight increments and/or increasing reps by a couple?
  7. Remember that “FIT” can mean “Fundamentally Independent Thinking,” trying something out of the box, and it can also mean “Frequency, Intensity and Time”.
  8. Have you forgotten that where you are is not where you are meant to stay?

Try these best-in-class, time-tested, and scientifically backed strategies and you’ll soon be past your workout plateau, better equipped to prevent another one down the road.

Dr. Michael Mantell

Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D. has been providing psychological and coaching services for nearly 5 decades and continues to empower positive change among his global clients to enhance life in every way. He is a highly sought-after healthcare professional coach, an executive and team building consultant, and a longtime specialist in cognitive behavioral coaching.

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