Seattle Athletic Club


Overcoming the Exercise Plateau Effect

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”-Albert Einstein.

Although not intended, Einstein’s famous statement closely relates to exercise. Think of the people who have been going to the gym every day for years. They show up like clockwork. They have been on the same cardio machines, lifting the same weights and using the same Nautilus equipment since day one. The people that do the same exercises, for the same amount of time, in the same exact order without fail. Yet, even with such devoted consistency, they still see no change in their physique and wonder why. Simply put, they’ve reached their exercise plateau.

The phenomenon known as the Exercise Plateau Effect occurs when the body no longer responds to a certain stimulus because it becomes accustomed to it. This effect can be one of the most frustrating, yet inevitable consequences of routine (aka “the exact same”) workout programs. Plateau effects can derail any progress you hope to make in your fitness program and eventually lead to reversibility. Reversibility is when improvements from training begin to deteriorate and fitness level may decrease. This occurs when one is in the Plateau stage for a long time and the body has not experienced workouts challenging enough.

To overcome the dreaded plateau, you must make a change NOW. Your body has been waiting long enough. Here’s a few ways to do just that:

The body is a remarkably efficient machine. It can and will adapt to any demand you place on it. With that being said, in order to improve through training we need to apply greater demands on our body. This is the principle of OVERLOAD. The point at which the muscles are overloaded and exercise is demanding enough to have an effect on the body is known as ‘Threshold Training.’ To overcome the lull of exercise plateaus, always aim for Threshold Training.

Variety is a crucial element in fighting exercise plateaus and preventing you (and your body) from boredom. If you habitually run on the treadmill every morning, try running on an incline. Better yet, try a new machine! If you normally use machines for strength training, try picking up some dumbbells instead. You’d be surprised by the different muscles being activated in a leg press machine versus a free weight squat. Point is, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of ways to work your muscles. Why limit yourself to one?

There is a linear relationship between fitness and intensity levels. As one goes up, the other must follow. As your strength increases, the workload must also increase in order to stress your muscles enough to create a CHANGE. Eventually, curling 15lbs dumbbells will be a piece of cake and once that happens, bump it up to 20lbs. The idea is to make your body work. They don’t call it WORKout for nothing! It goes without saying that the same rule applies to cardiovascular exercise. For example, you’ve been doing 30 minutes on the elliptical for 4 weeks and notice it isn’t as difficult as you remembered. This means two things: 1) you are getting in better shape (awesome, good for you) AND 2) it’s time to increase the resistance and stride pace.

Sometimes it only takes a small change to shock your body. Something as subtle as switching the order of exercises can do the trick. If you regularly start with push-ups, followed by squats, and then make your way to seated row, try mixing the order and do squats first, seated row, and then push-ups. When your body becomes accustomed to a specific sequence of exercises, it knows what to expect and when to expect it. Your job is to stop that from happening. When you deviate from the regular routine, your body is forced to work and adapt.

Nutrition is a crucial element to getting the lean and fit body you want. Often times people will do everything right in exercise; adding variation, monitoring intensity levels, being consistent, etc. They will seek help from a personal trainer, sign up for group fitness classes, keep up on the latest exercise trends, yet STILL aren’t getting the results they want. What they don’t realize is the importance of maintaining a healthy, well-balanced diet. Poor eating habits prevent your body from reaching its full potential. Truth is, exercising doesn’t make you invincible from the negative effects of junk food. Unhealthy eating can and will stunt your progress, making it more difficult to achieve your goals. In fact, a recent study on fat loss examined three groups: an exercise only, diet only, and an exercise combined with diet group. The latter group showed greatest decreases in body fat percentage, proving that exercise alone won’t give you the best results possible.

Track Your Progress
An exercise log is a helpful tool to track progress as well as provide motivation. If you are able to physically see the fruits of your labor written down every day, it could be just the incentive needed to make those numbers change. Record your workouts, including the machines used, exercises, duration, weight, sets, and reps. Write notes about intensity levels, what you need to work on, how you felt, etc. Plan out your schedule and make sure to change exercise programs at least once a month.

If you’ve been agonizing over why your body hasn’t changed in months, maybe it’s time to take a different approach. Step out of your comfort zone and try something new. A challenging exercise program combined with healthy eating could be the recipe needed to kick your body into gear and past any plateau. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!

1 Ounis, O., et al. (2008). Impact of diet, exercise, and diet combined with exercise programs on lipoprotein & adiponectin levels in obese girls. J Sports Sci & Med, 7, 437-445.

1 Comment to Overcoming the Exercise Plateau Effect

  1. July 20, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the info. Good tips. Stretch, exercise, and eat healthy daily.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Click to verify BBB accreditation and to see a BBB report.