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Q: How do I break through an “exercise plateau”?

I love, love, love it when a reader’s question gets me thinking about something in a new way. Really, there’s nothing better than a little brainstorming sesh with somebody to get the creative problem-solving juices flowing!

So here’s the question that a reader posed to me recently about breaking through her “exercise plateau,” followed by my answer. If you’ve got additional ideas for her, please post them in the comments section below this post, or email me and I’ll pass ‘em along. And remember, if you’ve got a question – or a great healthy living tip! – please don’t keep it to yourself. More than likely hundreds of other readers have had the same thought. We all benefit when somebody brings it up for discussion. Click on the “drop me a line” button  and I’ll share it with the #ItMatters community.

Remember, we’re in this together!

Reader question: Hi Marilyn, I’ve got an idea for an article: could you talk about how to change exercises so you don’t plateau in your workouts?  I’m interested in what exercises to switch on and off to and how much of a change it has to be.

My answer: Hi Meghan (not her real name), I’m so glad you asked! Plateauing in a workout routine can be so frustrating. Workout plateaus can be physical, in that you’re no longer seeing physical gains for your effort, or mental. A mental plateau can manifest as feeling apathetic or even dreading your workout. Especially if it’s something you’ve really enjoyed in the past, this is a major red flag and it’s time to change things up.

All kinds of things: injuries, illness, busy schedules, stress, general lethargy … can render us stuck. The best cures I know of for getting unstuck from that mental stuck-ness are cross-training and pushing outside of comfort zones.

Cross-training just means engaging in two or more sports or activities to work muscles in different ways. This is a widely-used and very successful practice because, rather than working the same muscles over and over again, (possibly leading to overuse injuries) you target different muscle groups with complementary exercises. Lots of runners also do yoga, for example.

Similarly we can get stuck (read: bored) with our workouts when we don’t push ourselves to try new things. Comfort zones are overrated. Muscle growth – and personal growth – only come from pushing beyond the familiar. The more nervous it makes you, the more you need to do it. I would never have known how much pleasure I could find in swimming if I hadn’t had an injury that forced me out of my comfort zone and into the pool.

We experience physical exercise plateaus when we’re doing the same workouts we’ve always done, at the same level of intensity, but we no longer see improved results. This can happen surprisingly quickly. What starts out as a tough workout gives way to mastery and before you know it – BAM! – you’re sitting smack-dab in the middle of a plateau. Even though it’s frustrating, this is actually a really good thing! Think about it: a workout that once challenged you to your limit is no longer a struggle. The workout didn’t get easier, you got stronger! Halle-freaking-lujah! That’s cause for celebration in my book!

It’s also cause to go back to the drawing board. That plateau means that you’re no longer making physical gains and you need to up the ante a bit. There are several very effective ways to do that:

  • Increase the time, speed and intensity of your workout. No need to do all three at the same time, though; go up incrementally. For example, increase your speed for one month until you’re comfortable at a faster baseline pace. The following month, add intervals to improve conditioning. The month after that start adding minutes to the clock. You get the idea.
  • Add strength training. If you don’t already do some form of strength (or resistance) training it’s time for you to jump on the bandwagon! The primary objective of strength training is to build lean muscle mass. Doing so improves metabolic rate (aka your body will burn more calories even at rest). Totally a win-win.
  • Double up on your workouts. I realize this is complicated (you’re thinking: You want me to do two workouts back-to-back? I barely have time for one!), but lemme just make my case. First, you needn’t do it for every workout, maybe just once or twice a week. Second, combine your two easiest workouts; I like to swim after yoga. Feels so good! If you don’t have time to do two workouts consecutively, split them up so that you do one in the morning and one in the afternoon/evening. Or maybe add a 15-minute upper body routine onto a cardio workout one day and a quickie ab workout to it the next day. Those simple add-ons can make a huge difference!

We all know it’s great to be in an exercise routine (people who workout at the same time every day are much more likely to be consistent than those who try to squeeze it in here and there), but routines can become just that – routine! And boring. Bust through the boredom – and the plateau – by adding variety and intensity to your workouts.

Great question! Thanks for asking, Meghan!


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