How to Recognize & Break Fitness Plateaus

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There’s nothing more frustrating than watching what you eat, working your ass off in the gym, and not seeing progress! First off: You’re not alone. Our bodies are tricky, and tons of us experience the same thing.

When you’re working toward any health and wellness goal, progress is usually easier at first, and then things slow down—or stop. If this is true for you, it’s probably time to pause and evaluate whether this is a plateau, or you’ve fallen off track. Either thing can be fixed!

A “plateau” can mean many things, depending on your goal. If you’ve been on a weight loss journey, losing consistently, and all of the sudden you can’t shed any more pounds, that’s likely a plateau. If you’re working toward a performance goal, you can also reach a stalemate where you can no longer increase strength or endurance. Since we’ve seen (and been asked about) more of the former, we’ll focus on weight loss plateaus in this post.

What Fitness Plateaus Really Mean

The first thing you should do when you reach a plateau in fitness is high-five yourself. Seriously. You’ve established a consistent enough rhythm and lifestyle that your body has caught up with you. It may seem like a defeat, but it’s actually the result of thousands of victories! If you hadn’t worked incredibly hard to date, this plateau wouldn’t have happened. Congrats!

Now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and take a good look at the details of the habits you’ve created. Nine times out of ten, you can find a misstep along the way, or something that can be improved. So let’s do some detective work!

1. Identify any nutrition gaps.

Nutritional deficiencies can take your well-oiled machine of a body and turn it into the Tin Man. Make sure you’re getting all of the essential needs that your body has to be healthy. Typically, if someone I’m training is off their nutrition game they’re suffering from low-level hydration, or not enough vitamins and minerals, protein, and essential fatty acids. To find out where you stand, consider getting your diet analyzed by a dietitian (typically cost around $100-$150). Also, check out this excellent post by Dr. John Berardi of Precision Nutrition. It includes an infographic with tips about how to fix a broken diet.

2. Try tracking your calories.

This is a BIG one. We eat more than we think. According to eating behavior expert Dr. Brian Warsink, the average person makes well over 200 decisions about food every day. Breakfast or no breakfast? Sugar in our coffee or not? Leftovers at work? The list goes on. This means that we can often mindlessly eat much more than we think. How often are we grabbing snacks (even healthy ones) here and there and not paying attention to how many calories could be adding up? If you’re in a plateau, consider measuring this temporarily to see if it can get your goals back on track.

3. Make sure to plan your workouts.

Take a sober look at what you’re doing at the gym. Are you going in with a plan? Or do you find yourself wandering and Facebooking between sets? There are some workouts that I’ve done where I see the clock and think “what the heck have I done in the last hour?” If I’m asking that, there’s a good chance that I haven’t done enough. Going into the workout with a plan will help you to focus and be efficient and effective with whatever time you have. Check out the Anytime Fitness App for a fitness plan and workouts that fit your level and goal(s). In addition to that, consider seeing a personal trainer to up the ante!

4. Get a body fat test with a trainer.

You may find that you’re not in a plateau at all. It’s possible that you’ve just gained some muscle and lost weight in the process. Imagine this: You’ve gained four pounds of muscle and lost four pounds of fat. Your weight stays the same, but you’re still headed in the absolutely right direction! Keeping track of your measurements in ways beyond weight, plus your body fat percentage, will help you keep a more well-rounded and scientific eye on your progress.

5. Watch your alcohol consumption.

Alcohol is delicious, but it’s also a toxin. When consumed, your body will prioritize processing the alcohol and this could lead to wasted calories down the road. Let’s not even get into how easy it can be to “drink your calories” without getting any nutritional value. Alcohol can slow down your ability to burn fat and also slow down your ability to build muscle, too. So watch out, and make sure your goals are clear before you crack another beer.

6. Eat more protein.

Protein will help increase your muscle mass, and muscle mass can increase your metabolism. In addition to this, protein provides the most satiation when you eat, if you’re comparing carbs, fat, and protein. Adding more to your diet can make you less hungry when temptation arrives!

7. SLEEP!

Getting too little sleep can cause a chain reaction of decline in your health. It can actually be the reason for the plateau itself. Sleep deprivation can affect your self-control and ability to say no to snacks, it can cause hormonal imbalance, and make it increasingly difficult to lose weight, and it can slow down muscle recovery because your body needs to rest and rejuvenate. Read this sleep-related article for more information about how it can affect your weight and performance.

8. Consider seeking medical help.

There are many more reasons why you can be experiencing a plateau. Consider seeking medical help if you have tried and tried but can’t seem to get results. There may be more to the story.

These eight are just a handful of the many reasons that your body can be experiencing this plateau, but focus on the fact that you are doing a TON already! Keep digging, keep pushing, and most of all, keep in mind why you do this in the first place. Health itself, and all the positive effects of good health, are the ultimate win—not the weight loss. Keep your head up!

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Luke Andrus is a certified personal trainer, ACE health coach, writer, folk music drummer, husband, and a father. Most of his writing experience is in poetry and fictional short stories, and he also proposed to his wife with a self-published children's book. He is a Narnia nerd with a degree in History, a minor in English, and a semi-obsession with the French language. He believes that fitness is not just about vanity, but about lifestyle, integrity, and the ability to take control of your life.