What to Do When You Hit A Plateau

Ugh, the dreaded plateau!

We’ve all been there.  Whether we’re trying to lose weight, add muscle, or even develop a new skill, we hit that point in our progress where everything seems to stall:

  • “I’ve been losing weight at 2 pounds a week for months, and yet I’ve been stuck the past two weeks despite doing all of the same stuff, what gives!?”
  • “I’ve been adding 5 lbs a week to my deadlift for half a year, but this week I lifted less than before! WTF?”
  • “I’ve been running faster and faster miles for a year now, but I can’t seem to break past the seven minute mark. Not cool.”

Today, I’m going to talk to you about plateaus.  Are they real?  What happens when you get stuck on one?  How can you break through?

Plateaus: it’s game over for you.

What is a Plateau?

A plateau occurs when you stall out on progress despite continuing to do “all of the right things,” usually including eating right, exercising properly, getting adequate rest, etc.

Our bodies go from losing weight consistently to getting stuck at a certain number. Or we go from building muscle and getting stronger, to having a week or two where we can’t seem to lift anything heavier.

We call this point in our training “The Plateau,” and we don’t being stuck on them.

As we learned in our previous article on happiness, humans (nerds especially) are happier when we make progress.  When we work hard for something and don’t see progress, we get unhappy.

Do they really exist?  REALLY?!

I get a lot of emails from people who tell me they’re stuck in a plateau.

They talk about how they’ve been eating right, exercising, and getting enough rest and they can’t seem to make progress!  They throw their hands in the air (sometimes), freak out, get discouraged, and give up or quickly move onto the next plan that they hope will work.

When somebody comes to me saying they’ve plateaued, my first response is always:

“Have you REALLLLLLLLY plateaued?  REALLY?”

In a strong majority of the cases, plateaus are really just issues with concentration in disguise.  Before you think you’re stuck, or in a plateau, consider the following:

1) Track your meals for the next few days.  Oftentimes we think we are being diligent, until we realize that after a few weeks of eating great we’ve started slacking. “Oh I’ve been good, just this one time…” and “Hmmm, sure why not” become more commonplace as we start to fall back into old habits.  This one issue is probably responsible for more than half of the ‘plateau’ cases out there.  For women, a big issue is not eating ENOUGH calories (which I explain towards the end of this article).  If you are trying to bulk up, are you eating ENOUGH calories to promote muscle growth? Rededicate yourself for two weeks, track your meals, and see if progress picks back up!

2) How are your workouts…REALLY?   If you are weeks or months into a workout plan, I bet the initial luster of “NEW! PROGRESS! WINNING!” has worn off.  Have you been skipping that last rep, cutting out an exercise here or there, getting bored and wanting to go home?  I know when I hit a plateau at the gym, it’s generally because I haven’t been pushing myself as hard as I had been previously.  Track your workouts diligently for two weeks and see if these changes kick you back on track.

3) Are you getting enough sleep?…REALLY?  This is one that most people skip out on.  They are exercising, eating right, but for whatever reason they’ve been slacking on their sleep.  We all know sleep is important; lack of sleep leads to increased levels of stress, less time for our bodies to rebuild muscle, to recover from strenuous activity, and more.  I know that if I didn’t get a good night’s sleep, then my performance in the gym the next day will suffer.

Can you honestly say you’ve spent two weeks with quality sleep, nutrition, and exercise?  In many cases we think we’re stuck, in need some sort of drastic change or adjustment to kickstart progress again.  Now, there are definitely instances where we ARE stuck or stalled, and that’s when things need to change.

However, before we get to covered the dreaded plateau, let’s get a few things clear.

To start, linear progress cannot continue indefinitely: 

  • If you are learning to squat and you start with just the bar, adding 5 lbs a week (which is how you should learn to squat!), you will eventually reach a point where your body cannot build the strength/muscle fast enough to continually add 5 lbs a week.  If it DID work that way, in three years everybody would be squatting 1000 pounds.
  • You will run into the same issues with weight loss.  For example, it’s easier for you to lose 3 pounds a week when you are at 300 lbs than it is to lose 3 pounds a week when you are 150 pounds….there’s more of you to “lose” when you’re bigger and thus progress will be easier.  If you could lose 2-3 pounds a week every week forever, at some point you’d disappear, and we don’t want that.  Weight loss might slow to 1 pound every other week.

Your progress at a consistent pace will definitely slow down, which can FEEL like a plateau.  If you’ve been training for more than a few months, you might need to slightly adjust your expectations.  Maybe this week you can only add 2.5 lbs to the bar.  Or 1lb.  Maybe your muscle-building will crawl to 1 lb gained a month.

It happens to all of us. It’s science.

Now, if your progress stalls out COMPLETELY or you actually regress, AND you are doing all of the right things, then congrats!  You may have plateaued.

Like in games like World of Warcraft, at some point you will stop gaining experience from killing rats – you could spend all day doing so but because you’ve hit a certain level they no longer provide you with value.

It’s time to move onto attacking spiders, then orcs, then dragons.

If it’s something worth doing, there will most likely be grinding involved, and that’s why I need to talk to you about The Dip.

The Dip

I want to introduce you to Seth Godin, author of The Dip.

We all hit plateaus in our lives and quests for health and happiness.  In order to be successful at the task at hand, we need to grind our way through that low point (or flat point) until we can climb out and continue progress.

Here’s a visualization of the dip:

When you first start something new, you can make quick progress and everything rocks because you see big changes.  However, after a few months (or even years), the reward you get from your effort decreases and it seems like you’re going in the wrong direction:

  • In the first few weeks of weight loss, everything is GREAT!  The scale is moving, your clothes are getting looser, progress is exciting because it’s coming so quickly.  Then, you might have a few weeks where you’re really trying hard and yet the scale stalls or increases.
  • When building a new running habit, each new run is exhilarating – you rapidly progress from wheezing and coughing after two blocks to now being able to run a whole mile!  A few months later, that progress slows, and you find yourself struggling with the same distances and speeds even though you’re doing all of the right things.
  • When lifting weights, the first few months can be life changing.  Squats, deadlifts, pull ups, push ups.  Every session in the gym is an opportunity to see massive progress compared to the time before, except for that week or two when you walk in and you have to lift less than before! What gives!?

When we hit that dip/plateau where our hard work seems like it goes unrewarded, it’s easy to give up and say “I’m a failure.”

Not true.  We will all experience a dip when it comes to progress on things that are important to us.  If we want to TRULY be successful, we need to anticipate the dip’s arrival so that it doesn’t completely derail us. Much like grinding out experience points in an RPG, sometimes we need to grind out practice in life, workouts, nutrition, and more…until we can hit that sweet spot for progress again.

So, how do we stay dedicated, focused, and motivated through the dip?

How do we progress during the plateau when we feel like our hard work is a waste of time?

What do we do when we feel like we are just spinning our wheels?

We focus on small wins, and always find a way to get a teeny tiny bit better.

Set a personal record every day

In order for us to crawl out of a dip or off a plateau, we need to find a way to make a small win every day.

Think of these small wins like “a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”

The longer we’ve been training, the older we get, and/or the more advanced we get in our training, the more likely we’ll be to hit plateaus and the more necessary it will be to grind out small victories, prepare for dips, and power through them.

Here’s how you can grind out your own small wins and prove to yourself that you are still progressing when you are in the dip:

1) TRACK EVERY SET, REP, AND WORKOUT METICULOUSLY.  Find a way to be better today in SOME WAY than you were yesterday, and prove to yourself that you are still making progress – even if it’s progress in a different way that you were progressing before.   If you are stuck at 3 sets of 5 reps of 150 pounds on the bench press and haven’t been able to go up to 155 lbs for a few weeks, try 3 sets of 6 reps of 150 pounds.  Or 4 sets of 5 reps of 150 pounds.  Then come back to 3 sets of 5 reps of 155 a few weeks from now, and see if you can do that.  If you wait 60 seconds between sets, try waiting 55 seconds instead and lift the same amount of weight.

As long as SOMETHING has progressed in some way – your total amount of weight lifted, decreased time between sets, one extra rep, or one more pound lifted – it proves to yourself that you made progress. Remember, progress makes us happy.  RECORD EVERYTHING.

2) COLLECT TINY WINS. Optimus Prime doesn’t transform with one single movement; it’s a combination of hundreds of thousands of tiny movements that happen rapidly.

We are transformers (Joe especially), and our small changes add up too.

It’s these tiny, small victories that can push us over the edge. Enough small victories and we can reach that tipping point, that end of the dip where progress continues again.

Find a way to set a tiny win in SOME WAY each day that shows you that you are getting better/faster/stronger.

Here’s an example:  I have been working on handstand balancing for probably 18 months.  For the past few months, my progress has stagnated and even gone in reverse on some days (helloooo Dip!). I continued to work on building the habit of handstands for five minutes a day (Hard Hat challenge for the win!).  Progress felt nonexistent, but I knew that my continued dedicated practice was adding up in ways that didn’t make themselves readily apparent.

I had “stalled,” so I focused on getting tiny wins: increasing flexibility in my wrists, staying against the wall as long as I could, practicing my kick ups, tightening my core, etc.

Despite not being able to balance for longer than 10 seconds at any point in the past, last week I kicked up into a handstand, without even touching the wall (something else that had never happened before), and I held my handstand for 24 seconds!

[embedded content]

(Steve Handstand Balancing Video)

I still have a ways to go before I’m holding perfectly vertical handstands for 60+ seconds, but months spent grinding out practice in the dip have paid off.  I made it through the plateau, and my progress has continued rapidly after struggling for months.  Those months of struggle were teeny tiny wins in different ways that added up until I hit that tipping point where progress exploded.

3) TRACK OTHER METRICS OTHER THAN THE SCALE.  The scale can lie.  The scale will DEFINITELY slow down even if you are making progress in healthier ways, simply due to the fact that you have less weight to lose than you did before!

So, track other things!

  • Take biweekly photos.  Who cares if the scale isn’t moving.  Are you looking better?  Are you FEELING better?  That is progress.  Do your clothes fit better?
  • Take measurements. Spend 5 bucks on a cloth tape measure (or one of these), and measure the important parts of your body.  Maybe the scale isn’t moving, but you took half an inch off of your waist. Or maybe you added a quarter of an inch to your arms.
  • Track your body fat percentage.  A simple caliper is enough to show trends.  Remember Saint? His weight went UP but his body fat percentage dropped.  Had he only been tracking the scale, he might have panicked during his ‘dip.’ Fortunately, he was tracking more metrics and used that momentum to catapult himself to victory.

The goal is to consistently to prove to ourselves that we are moving one step closer towards our goal.

More plateau tips and tricks

The above is just the beginning.  This will also help you make progress and get out of that dip:

1) Shock your workout.  Our bodies crave efficiency, and love to be as lazy as possible….but we truly thrive on chaos.  So introduce some chaos into your system!

Note: This is NOT the same as “muscle confusion” (which is a made up marketing term to sell DVDs). We’re still progressing, lifting more, and doing the same exercises – we’re just throwing in some variation occasionally to help stimulate progress. 

If you do the exact same thing over and over and over, your body becomes more efficient at that activity.  In fact, your body can learn and adapt after doing the same thing enough times so that it burns fewer calories to carry out the process.  So mix it up!

  • If you are trying to run a faster 5K? Mix in a day of sprints rather than just basic runs.
  • Trying to increase your deadlift?  Rather than just doing a 1-rep max, do a day of higher volume, or train the deadlift twice a week.
  • Want to squat better?  Squat with higher frequency.  Here’s the plan Staci followed for 13 weeks (Warning: not for beginners).  Your body can adapt and overcompensate by getting stronger.
  • Want to improve your upper body strength/size? I’m currently doing a PLP program along with my regular workouts.  Starting with 10 total reps of Pull Ups, Lunges, and Push Ups, and every day add a rep, for 50 days.

2) Start researching periodization.  This is more advanced stuff for advanced for more advanced lifters (which we can cover in a future article). Periodization may be helpful for who has been training for more than a year and looking to further improve their progress or athletic performance.  Instead of linear progress (adding weight each week to your lifts), the goal is to cycle your workouts in such a way that you go heavy on some days, lighter on others, and adjusting your weight as you get stronger.

3) Shock your diet.  Your body can also become quite efficient with calories (not to mention the oft-mentioned but controversial “starvation mode” theory), and can sometimes struggle to progress.  Try upping your caloric intake from 1800 to 2200 by eating more healthy fats or protein (avocado, nuts, almond butter, more chicken, etc.).  Your body will learn that “food is abundant, time to stop hoarding these few calories as fat stores and instead burning them as fuel or using them to build muscle.”

Consider throwing in one day a week of OVER eating (which Anthony lays out really well here), along with days where you are intermittent fasting.  Keep your body guessing and see if that shocks your system back into weight loss mode.  From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense: some days we’d have plenty of food, while other days food might be more scarce.

4) Adjust your goals.  Maybe your body needs a new dragon to slay.  Again, nature loves chaos.  If you are focused solely on weight loss, you might feel like you have stalled out.  So shift your focus. Work on handstands. Or running faster. Or doing your first pull up.  Pick a new skill!  Try something different.  Give your body a chance to recover and then come back to it.

If you’re solely focused on the scale and it stalls out, it can be depressing. So put the scale away for a month, and instead focus on the process of getting stronger and eating better.  Stop stressing and remember to enjoy the game you’re playing.

5) Accept that we have bad weeks.  We are complex pieces of machinery.  Sometimes shit happens.  We just have bad weeks and can’t lift enough or we GAIN weight when we expected to lose weight.  It doesn’t make you a bad person, it doesn’t make you a failure, it makes you human.   So on days when you feel great, PUSH yourself harder. On days when you feel like crap, scale back the heavy lifting and focus on more reps or better technique.

The greatest predictor of success in our lives is grit (which can be developed).  Grit is what you need to slog through these slow weeks.  These dips are where we find out who’s truly dedicated.  I know you are, and you know you are. So, you might as well keep pushing.

Remember, look for any sign of progress in any way to reveal that “light” at the end of the tunnel.

How did you break through?

“If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there. You must go beyond them.” -Bruce Lee 

Hopefully I’ve covered everything you need to know about plateaus. What’s that? You were expecting some lame joke about plateaus somewhere? You know me too well. Okay, how bout this one:

Did you know that a Plateau is the highest form of flattery?

Thank you, thank you.  I’ll be here all week.

I want to hear your story:

  • Have you successfully busted through a plateau? Leave a comment with how you got out of it.
  • Are you currently stuck?  If so, what’s ONE SPECIFIC piece of advice you’re taking from today’s article to apply to what you’re going to do this afternoon?

I haven’t given anything free away in a few weeks, and I want to reward you for reading this monster article, so leave a comment about plateaus before 11:59pm EST, January 26th and we’ll pick a winner at random to get a Nerd Fitness t-shirt of their choice!

Let’s hear it!  I’m excited to hear how I can help.



Author: marcus