Get Past A Fitness Or Workout Plateau With Our 6 Helpful Tips

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Many people have heard of the concept of a weight loss plateau, which occurs when you stop losing weight despite continuing to follow your diet and exercise plan that had been previously successful in helping you lose weight.

But, did you know that you can also hit a fitness plateau?

Some people notice that despite continuing to work hard in their workouts, they hit an exercise plateau in the gym or workout plateau in which improvements in fitness seem to stall.

So, what exactly is a workout plateau? How do you break a plateau in fitness?

In this article, we will discuss what a workout plateau is and how to break a workout plateau so that you continue to see improvement with all of your hard work in the gym.

We will cover: 

  • What Is a Workout Plateau?
  • How Do I Know If I’ve Hit a Workout Plateau?
  • Why Have I Hit a Workout Plateau?
  • How To Break A Fitness Plateau

Let’s dive in! 

A person at the gym, bent over, exhausted.

What Is a Workout Plateau?

A workout plateau refers to a stagnation in your improvements in fitness despite continuing to work out consistently.

Most people use the term “workout plateau“ to refer to a plateau in the gym either in terms of failing to see increases in strength so that you are not able to consistently and progressively increase the weight that you are lifting or a workout plateau with your hypertrophy where you stop seeing increases in muscle mass.

A fitness plateau can also happen with aerobic exercise. For example, you might find that you are not getting any faster despite doing consistent running workouts.

How Do I Know If I’ve Hit a Workout Plateau?

There are various signs and symptoms of a workout plateau.

The most notable sign of a workout plateau is simply that you stop making improvements in whatever training goals you have, be it strength, fat loss, muscle mass, aerobic fitness, or speed, among others.

A person hanging over a barbell, exhausted.

For example, with weightlifting, you might find that you aren’t able to increase the number of reps that you are doing or progress to the next weight increment even after a couple of weeks. 

You might even begin to experience an increase in body fat and a decrease in muscle tone.

Your workouts might feel easy, and from a cardiovascular or aerobic standpoint, you may be struggling to get your heart rate up as high as you would like it to be.

It is also important to note that a decrease in motivation and enthusiasm often accompanies a workout plateau. You might begin to feel less excited about your workouts and bored with your fitness routine.

This can be a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario in that a workout routine can cause you to lose motivation and enthusiasm because you are not seeing results, but at the same time, if you have become bored or unmotivated by your workout routine, you might not be pushing yourself hard enough in your workouts, or as intensely as you initially were. 

This, in turn, will decrease the effectiveness of your routine and can cause stagnation or a plateau in the gym.

A person sitting on a tire at the gym exhausted.

Why Have I Hit a Workout Plateau?

Hitting a workout plateau is quite frustrating but, unfortunately, quite common.

The body adapts to your fitness routine, so if you are not continually changing and adjusting your workout program, eventually, your fitness improvements will stall, and you will hit a plateau working out.

As your body adapts to your workout routine, you burn fewer calories, and the stress imposed on your body is less significant. This, in turn, leads to less fat loss and muscle gain.

Consider a simplistic case where someone begins squatting 100 pounds for three sets of eight repetitions. At first, this weight and training volume is more than your muscles can handle. 

As a result, after the workouts, your quads, glutes, and hamstrings will have small tears because some of the muscle fibers mechanically failed under the load, which will trigger the process of muscle protein synthesis, and your muscles will get stronger.

If you continue to do this same exercise with the same load at the same training volume for a number of weeks, your body will adapt. 

No longer will 100 pounds for three sets of eight repetitions overload your muscles because your muscles have become stronger and bigger. 

A person doing Russian twists with a medicine ball.

Now, you can easily perform the workout without inducing any structural damage to your muscles.

Thus, after your workout, not only do you not feel sore but the process of muscle protein synthesis will essentially not be triggered because there is no damage to repair.

In addition to failing to progress your training program adequately or aggressively enough, a fitness plateau can be caused by other lifestyle factors such as a lack of sleep, a significant increase in stress, a poor diet, or inconsistent training.

It is important to examine the factors in and out of the gym when trying to troubleshoot why you have hit a workout plateau.

Finally, although it may be counterintuitive, you can also hit a workout plateau if you are overtraining

When you are training too intensely and not giving your body adequate rest and recovery, levels of cortisol rise significantly. 

This can cause increases in appetite, increases in weight, as well as increases in abdominal fat storage. Moreover, overtraining syndrome leads to fatigue, excessive muscle soreness, and overall decreased exercise performance. 

All of these symptoms will absolutely impact your ability to make progress in the gym, which can lead to an exercise plateau.

A person running up a flight of stairs.

How To Break A Fitness Plateau

The good news is that breaking a workout plateau or a plateau in your fitness improvements is very doable, and there are a number of tips you can try to help do so.

#1: Change Your Workout Routine

When you hit a workout plateau, you need to switch up your workout routine.

There are four primary variables to consider with workout programming, known as the FITT principle: frequency, intensity, time, and type.

Adjusting any or all of these variables can help you bust through a fitness plateau to start seeing gains again.

Frequency refers to how often you are working out, intensity is your effort level or how vigorously you are working out, the time is the duration of your workouts, and the type is the mode of exercise that you are doing.

With intensity, if you are doing cardio workouts, consider adding intervals

A kettlebell class at the gym.

With strength training, try to adjust the loads, reps, or both so that you are lifting heavier weights for fewer reps and more sets, or if you are already lifting very heavy weights, try decreasing the weight slightly and performing as many reps as possible.

Also, with strength training, try different exercises and different resistance. For example, if you usually use dumbbells, try kettlebells or resistance bands. If you use weight machines, try free weights. 

With the type of exercise, if you are normally running, try doing stair climbing or the elliptical machine. If you are doing mostly swimming, try rowing. 

If you have a workout routine with a set of specific exercises, try different compound and isolation exercises that target the same muscles but with different movement patterns to try to trigger your body to make improvements by stepping out of what has become your comfort zone.

#2: Add Weight

If you are doing aerobic exercise such as walking, running, or stair climbing, try adding a weighted vest to increase the intensity of your workouts.

A person a an inverted squat machine.

#3: Try an Exercise Class

People often hit a fitness plateau when they have lost some motivation and just aren’t putting in the same amount of energy and enthusiasm into their workouts. 

Consider joining a group exercise class to capitalize on the power of group energy and the instruction and motivation of a trainer.

Particularly if you are doing your own cardio workouts, you might find that a group spin class or HIIT class kicks in your competitive spirit and helps you push yourself harder.

You can also use group exercise classes to introduce yourself to different types of exercise that you haven’t tried. 

By challenging your body in new ways, you may be able to see improvement in your fitness and break through your fitness plateau.

A trainer holding someone's feet while they do a sit-up.

#4: Get a Personal Trainer

If you can afford to do so, consider working with a personal trainer or using a fitness app that has guided workouts and workout programs.

A custom fitness program or personal trainer can help tailor your workout plan to your goals and needs.

A proper training program will progress at an appropriate pace to help prevent a workout plateau in the future.

#5: Employ Progressive Overload

The best way to prevent your body from fully adapting to your fitness routine and stalling progress is to use the principle of progressive overload.

Make sure to continually increase the difficulty of your workouts in an incremental fashion.

Two people at the gym high-fiving.

#6: Rest and Recover

Many people hit a plateau in the gym because they are not getting an adequate amount of rest and recovery. 

Make sure that you are taking at least one complete rest day per week, and if you have been at a fitness plateau for a while and you don’t think it is because of a lack of effort or consistency in the gym, you may need to back off for a little bit and take a week or two to fully recover before hitting the gym again.

In addition to a plateau working out, you can also hit a weight loss plateau. For information on hitting and breaking a weight loss plateau, click here.

A person standing on a scale.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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