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My top tips for busting through plateaus

July 22, 2013

When most people complain about plateaus they are usually either talking about fat loss plateaus or strength gain plateaus. A plateau happens when our body has grown accustomed to our diet or fitness regime. It’s the “dreaded” point where our results slow right down or even come to a complete halt, even though we have remained consistent with our program.

If you feel that you have been stuck in a plateau for awhile and can’t seem to get past it, here are some of my favourite practical tips for getting back on board and making progress again. These are some things you could possibly add or change in your diet or training program, which could give you the boost you need to start getting results again. Of course everyone is different and every situation is different, but I have found these things to work on a few different clients as well as myself.

Plateau buster # 1: Increase your protein intake

Make sure you are getting enough protein, and also eating enough food. A lot of people also are not getting enough calories overall in their diets, which is causing them to go into a weight loss plateau.

If you are diligently following a fat loss plan and you have plateau-ed, I would definitely not recommend restricting calories and portions even further, to the point where you’re hungry all the time. Small changes to your training routine can help you keep moving toward your goals. As well as that (assuming you haven't allowed extra calories to sneak back into your diet) cutting more calories is probably not the best way to get past your plateau; you actually may need to eat more, and possibly think about increasing your protein a little bit.

Similarly, if you are stuck in a strength plateau you might need to up your calories or protein, to not only support the new muscle and strength gains you have made, but to make room for new gains.

Plateau buster # 2: Add in a “refeed” day each week

This tip is pretty self-explanatory. If you’ve been dieting for awhile and you’ve come to a fat loss plateau (assuming you have stayed pretty strict with your calorie intake), try adding in a “refeed” day once a week where you eat more food and carbs than your normal days. A “refeed” day basically just means a diet free day, where you don’t track your calories and where you eat more carbs than normal. Preferably pick a weekend or rest day for this. This will help give you a metabolism a boost and it can help to raise your leptin levels. Think of leptin as “the anti-starvation hormone”. It plays a dominant role in regulating hunger and energy expenditure.  This is the hormone that tells the body if it is starving or not. Leptin levels can be raised by having refeed days, and this can help "trick" your body into thinking you aren't restricting calories anymore, so it loosens its grip on your fat stores once again.

Plateau buster # 3: Change a “variable” in your training program:

Here are some ideas of ways you can make little changes to your training routine to give you a boost, while still being consistent and sticking to your program. These tips can apply whether you are after strength gains or fat loss results from your weight training.

  1. Try flipping your reps and sets: Instead of doing 3 sets of 10, do 10 sets of 3. A program with 3 sets of 10 is an example of volume training and 10 sets of 3 is an example of intensity training. Volume training tends to produce increased muscle size. Intensity training tends to produce increased strength. Mixing these two things up once in awhile can give you a boost.
  2. Try a giant set. Here's how: Do three exercises for the same body part, back-to-back-to-back, in one big-ass rep set. Similar to supersets, this will puts new demands on all your different muscle fibers responsible for growth and strength gains.
  3. Wear a Stopwatch Are you sure you're resting for just 60 seconds like your program calls for and not longer? Is your strength going up from week to week? Or are just your rest periods going up? Wearing a stopwatch can help to keep your workouts honest and consistent.
  4. Tweak the tempo: Changing the tempo of a move means manipulating the time under tension—and time under tension is the key to growth. You can increase or decrease the concentric part of the move or increase the eccentric part of the move.
  5. If you have been stuck at a particular weight and can’t seem to get any stronger in a particular movement think about adding accessory exercises (that work the assisting muscle groups for that particular movement), or even changing the exercise slightly. Don't panic if you have to use a slightly lighter weight. For example, when squatting, generally, the closer your stance, the less total weight you can squat. But remember, when it comes to strength gains, it is not ALWAYS about the total weight.

(When adding variables to your program, don’t change them on a daily or even weekly basis. Remember, it is important when you make a change, even if it’s a small change, to stick with it to allow you ample time to progress in the new exercise modification strategies.)

Plateau buster # 4: Make sure you are drinking enough water

Even if my clients are sticking to the diet plan and workouts to a T, they’ll still hold onto fat if they’re not drinking enough water.  I’ve noticed this more commonly amongst women who for some reason just don’t like to drink water.

A good rule of thumb to stay hydrated is to drink at LEAST half your bodyweight in fluid ounces daily.  And that’s the absolute minimum, if you’re working out, eating lots of salt, drinking caffeine and/or drinking alcohol you should drink more.

Plateau buster # 5: Boost your calorie intake and exercise output

A little trick that I picked up along the way for breaking a weight loss plateau is to increase you calorie intake by 25% while also at the same time increasing how many calories you expend by 25%.

By doing this you’re pretty much telling your body that you’re not "calorie broke" and you still have food coming in.  When this happens your body will often go right back into fat burning mode.

All you really have to do is add another small meal or snack in somewhere in your diet or eat a little more with each meal than normal.  Then get in the gym and start building some serious muscle and shedding some fat again.

Plateau buster # 6: Rest and Recover properly

Every 4 to 6 weeks try taking an easy week where you do about half your normal training, or full training at about half the intensity. This will help give your body time in which it can replenish itself and build even stronger. Remember that the principle of weight training and muscle building is progressive overload: muscle damage, repair and new growth. But some times we are so busy trying to work our muscles harder and harder that we don’t give the entire process a chance to occur.

To finish, I'm including some links with awesome information on plateaus and making progress:

The ten rules of progression overload By Bret Contreras
Plateau busters By Mike Robertson
Body fuel - Busting the plateau By John Berardi
The science of scale fluctuations part 1 By Leigh Peele
The science of scale fluctuations part 2 By Leigh Peele



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