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We’re approaching summer, and many of us who swore on Jan. 1 we’d shape up are beginning to panic. Months have passed and life has a funny way of getting in the way of things – fitness and weight loss goals included. Maybe you’ve made some progress but still aren’t seeing the results you’d hoped for, or maybe you’re getting sick of your routine. Maybe you just haven’t yet found a routine that works for you!

I know I sure get bored, and as a spin instructor and exercise aficionado, I’ve tried just about everything to avoid the dreaded “plateau.”

Fear not: There are ways to break through a period of fitness stagnation regardless of why you’ve hit a wall. I’ve rounded up some of the greatest plateau-breaking tips to help you improve your fitness level in a safe, sustainable manner.

Tip No. 1: Don’t Get Comfortable!

Let’s say you discover that you LOVE cycling. Sure, you’ve clocked so many miles this year that you’re down 10 pounds and have quads like a Greek god/goddess. Why hit the treadmill when you’re great at cycling? Cycling is so easy, and you’re used to it. After all, it burns 400 – 800 calories per hour, so the weight should just keep dropping off, right?

Not necessarily. Our muscles adapt. They learn to work more efficiently. This isn’t good news when it comes to improving your fitness level, as one or two things may happen:

  1. Overdeveloped muscles
    • When one muscle group is overdeveloped, it creates a harmful imbalance.
    • A stronger muscle group will overcompensate for a weaker muscle group, leading to injuries and poor posture.
    • If you place too much focus on one muscle group, you put yourself at risk for overuse injuries like tendonitis or stress fractures.
  2. More effective muscles, which lead to fewer calories burned each session
    • Once your muscles learn to work more efficiently, they’ll conserve/burn calories more efficiently.
    • Over time, you’ll burn fewer calories even though you’re working just as hard unless you vary your routine enough to keep your muscles “guessing.”

Tip No. 2: Mix It Up

“Throwing a wrench into the mix” is a tactic used by physical trainers to help clients lose their last 10 pounds. Here are some suggestions of how you, too, can mix it up: 

  • If running is your go-to cardio activity, swap a day or two per week for a session on the elliptical machine or stationary bike.
  • If you use cable machines for your arm routine, try to mix in free weights and calisthenics.
  • Focus on muscle groups you’ve previously neglected: If you’ve skipped leg day for weeks (or since birth), commit to training your lower body at least once a week.
  • If you run 30 minutes a day, add five minutes of running or another cardio activity (e.g., elliptical machine, stationary bike, jumping jacks).
  • Increase your intensity – lift a little heavier, run a little faster, jump a little higher.

Tip No. 3: Incorporate HIIT Training

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a training technique where you push as hard as you can for a short and intense interval, followed with a short active recovery. The key is to get your heart rate close to its max (100%) during the effort and bring it back down to 70% of your max heart rate during the recovery.

This type of training has been proven to burn more fat than steady-state cardio or standard weight lifting. It increases your resting metabolism, which means burning more calories throughout the day, and can also improve your cardiovascular endurance.

Timing your intervals correctly is largely dependent on your current fitness level. Experts have different opinions, but generally a 1:1 hard effort/recovery ratio will work. Many advanced athletes use a 2:1 ratio – called Tabata training – and less experienced athletes would be wise to start off with a 1:2 ratio. As a rule of thumb, if you’re too tired to begin the next hard effort, you may need a longer recovery period.

Sample HIIT Routines:

  1. Treadmill
  • Warmup: Jog, 5 minutes
  • Hard Effort: Sprint, 30 seconds
  • Active Recovery: Jog or power walk, 30 seconds
  • Repeat Hard Effort and Active Recovery pattern for 20 – 30 minutes
  • Cool Down: Jog or power walk, 5 minutes
  1. Bodyweight Only
    • Hard Effort: Burpees, 30 seconds
    • Active Recovery: March, 30 seconds
      • Repeat this combination 4 times
    • Hard Effort: Power lunges, 30 seconds
    • Active Recovery: March, 30 seconds
      • Repeat this combination 4 times
    • Hard Effort: Pushups, 30 seconds
    • Active Recovery: March, 30 seconds
      • Repeat this combination 4 times
    • Hard Effort: High knees, 30 seconds
    • Active Recovery: March, 30 seconds
      • Repeat this combination 4 times
    • Repeat entire circuit 2 times

Tip No. 4: Pump That Iron

Perhaps the most underrated plateau-breaking tactic is effective weight training and muscle building. It’s almost impossible to obtain a bulky bodybuilder physique without aggressive training and supplementation.

So, how can pumping iron help you break a plateau? In three ways:

  1. Increased Metabolism
    • Your body burns more calories maintaining muscle than it does maintaining fat.
    • For every pound of muscle you add onto your body, your body will burn 5 – 6 more calories at rest.
    • The heavier you lift, the faster you’ll build muscle.
  2. Improved Confidence and Motivation
  • There’s something exciting about seeing your body change and discovering new muscles as they begin to grow.
  • If you’ve not tapped into weight lifting yet, this is a great way to add passion and motivation.
  1. Increased Stability and Injury Reduction
  • A more balanced, stable physique equates to more effective workouts and fewer instances of injuries, when movements are performed correctly.
  • Fewer injuries means less time off from the gym recovering, more time working on that summer body!

Don’t Know Where to Begin?

If you’re new to weight training and not sure where to begin, a personal trainer may be a good investment. If you’re not a fan of gyms or 1:1 training, the internet can certainly help you get started. Just be sure you’ve picked a credible source, such as BodyBuilding.com or FitnessBlender.com.

BodyBuilding.com is the number-one resource for many meatheads like me. It contains a plethora of free workout programs, training tips and guides for newbies.

FitnessBlender.com has more than 500 free full-length workout videos showcasing great visual cues and form demonstrations. They have everything from beginner weight training programs to HIIT cardio, yoga, stretching and kickboxing. 

Not a Novice Iron Junkie?

If weight training is already a part of your regimen and you’re no longer feeling sore the morning after a workout, there are a few things you can do to up the challenge level:

  1. Make it heavier
  2. That dumbbell sure feels a bit lighter after months of training. A good rule of thumb is to add weight on when you can complete more than 12 repetitions in a set.
  3. Work that muscle a different way
  4. Confuse those muscles and find a different way to target them. You can alter the movement by switching from cables/machines to free weights, changing your grip or trying a new move that isolates the muscle a little differently.
  5. Leave no muscle un-torched
  6. Instead of focusing only on the “vanity” muscles (the ones that show), pay attention to the smaller, stabilizing muscles that are commonly neglected. This will help prevent injuries, painful workouts and time out of the gym by creating a balanced physique.
  7. Training stabilizing muscles, like your intercostal muscles, can help pull in your stomach, making that hard work show even more!

Break That Plateau

Whether you choose to break that plateau by adding a new activity, speed/intensity or weight, remember that a little change goes a long way. If you’re relatively new to fitness, it’s wise to consult your doctor and a personal trainer to ensure you’re not setting yourself up for injury or risk.

What are you waiting for? Try out one of these tips and continue on your fitness journey! For more great fitness information, check out our series on marching your way into fitness.

Have you hit a plateau in the past? In the comments section below, Tell us how you overcame it.

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