Updated: Apr 1, 2021
We’ve all been there; you start a new class, programme or style of exercise and it feels like a challenge. You keep at it, and progress quickly which feels great. You might feel stronger and everyday tasks feel easier, you have more energy for those around you, perhaps your clothes fit a little better. Fantastic! Soon the workout feels manageable and you coast along for weeks, months (or even years!) doing the same thing. However, you start to feel like you’re stuck in rut. Your weight might start to creep up, or you might start to feel unchallenged or bored by your workouts… you’ve reached a plateau.
The fact is, our bodies are incredibly good at adapting to our environment and the stimulus it provides up. Strength training creates micro-tears in our muscles which we rebuild during recovery, making them stronger and larger. Over time, repetition of the same exercises makes us stronger, and those same exercises no longer feel so hard.
Similarly, with cardio training our cardiovascular system becomes more efficient at pumping blood around our body to transport the oxygen our muscles need, and our lung functionality improves for efficient gaseous exchange. Think about how out of breath you might be after climbing 1 flight of stairs compared to 10… chances are you’d catch your breath quite soon after climbing 1 flight because you’re conditioned to this level of stimulus and it no longer challenges you, however 10 would be a different story (or storey!).
So is reaching a plateau even such a bad thing? Not necessarily. It can be good for us mentally to exercise in a way that feels manageable. If you’re under a lot of stress in general, throwing exercise that really challenges you into the mix can be a step too far for your cortisol levels. Doing that same class with those same 3lb weights feels achievable so you’re more likely to actually do it, and leave feeling energised rather than exhausted. Same goes for that familiar 5K run. However, it’s also really good for us mentally to feel like we’re making progress. If you have excess weight to lose, a fitness goal to work towards (perhaps you want to do that charity run next year) or are simply looking to increase your overall health, stepping out of your comfort zone might be just what you need to progress. So if the benefit of pushing yourself a little harder outweighs any negatives you might experience (temporary increased fatigue for example) then go for it!
So, What's the Plan?
With some exercise programmes it’s easy to see how we might progress: In a class were you usually use 3lb hand weights, how about upping this to 4/5lbs or adding wrist weights for a smaller increment of increased resistance? If you always do the same 5K run route, you could easily add an extra loop, or simply time yourself to see if you can complete the same route in a shorter time frame (double motivation to do this for those who are time-poor!). When resistance training, try a heavier weight for the same exercise, upping the amount of reps/sets you’re completing, or playing with tempo so that the time under tension is increased (read: slow your movements down or add holds/pulses to make them feel harder).
If you’re running or resistance training with your own plan, it’s simple to progress yourself, as described above. However, in group classes you might not feel like you’re in control of how hard the session is because the instructor is setting the exercise plan. This mindset will do you a disservice as it puts to onus of how much you get from the workout on an external factor. Within that class there will be a huge range of variables which you are in control of. Master your control of these variables and you’ll maximise your results.
Here are some considerations to get you started:
- Listen to your coach: they will often cue progressions of exercises, so level up if you feel ready.
- Be strict with your form and technique: often the devil is in the detail, and perfecting your execution of an exercise will allow you to get the most from it. Take responsibility for this yourself, as often an instructor will be too busy in a group class to really dig-in with you. However, always grab them at the end of class to ask questions, I promise they’ll be happy to help and will be more likely to look out for you in the next class (top tip!).
- Work on your mobility: don’t be afraid to take the modification so that you can work on moving through your full range of motion (think: dropping your knees in a press up so that you can get your chest to the floor).
- Choose a heavier weight: adding even a small amount of weight will make the same exercises more challenging. And don’t be afraid of bulking up! It takes years of consistent, calculated training and diet to build large muscles.
- Be honest with yourself: how hard are you really working? Could you fit in a few more reps, another set, jump with more vigor or fasten your pace in cardio? No one else can do this for you.
- Push yourself: your mind will tell you to stop before your body needs to (injuries and contraindications aside). Push passed the “wall” - the other side is easier!
- If you’re doing all of the above to your maximum capacity and the class is no longer serving you, consider changing up your choice of class or the style of training you’re doing. If you’re wedded to a class, try a new instructor as they'll bring different qualities to the same class content.
I hope you’re feeling invigorated to step out of your comfort zone, even by just a touch! The results you’ll experience will be your reward.