Strategies for Overcoming Plateaus

The dreaded plateau: Anyone in the fitness game long enough will most likely encounter one.

It typically goes like this: You’ve been consistently working out for several months, eating better, feeling great overall and becoming excited that your clothes are starting to fitting loose — everything is working!

Then all of a sudden, the magic abruptly stops. What gives?

Unfortunately, the human body can be quite stubborn. It is continually seeking a homeostatic state, making it resistant to consistent change. The truth is, your body would prefer to keep the status quo and is very smart when it comes to adapting to exercise and dietary changes.

This can create a great deal of frustration, especially when it comes to fat loss. Essentially, it becomes a chess match against yourself.

Fortunately, there are numerous ways to troubleshoot if you find yourself in this situation. Outlined below are some strategies that can help regarding the three areas that might be the source of frustration: nutrition, exercise or recovery.

Remember: It’s a chess match, and it’s more effective and easier to determine what is working by making one change at a time.
Also remember that the body inevitably has to comply as long as you stay the course. Be patiently persistent and stay one step ahead at all times, and you’ll put that plateau in the rear-view mirror for good.


As contradictory as it may sound, it could be that you’re not eating enough.

While a reduction in calorie intake works in the beginning of any weight-loss attempt, eventually your metabolism will actually slow down.

This is because the body’s survival mechanism kicks in. The body gets to a point where it senses a lack of control and the possibility that it is being starved. When this happens, our thyroid actually begins to produce less calorie-burning hormones, and our progress stops.

A trick that can be used to avoid this is “caloric cycling.” Rather than continuing to take in the same number of calories each day, we throw in a higher-calorie day one to two times per week.

For example, if you have been consuming 1,500 calories per day, bump your calorie intake up to 2,000 calories after three consecutive low days. This signals to your body that you are not going to starve, and there is no need for survival mode.

Also, make sure you are getting good-quality, nutrition-dense food every day. This allows our bodies to adequately refuel from workouts, rebuild muscle and help maintain high amounts of energy. Remember that it takes calories to burn calories.

A healthy diet includes fruits and vegetables at every meal, quality carbohydrates, protein-dense foods and healthy fats.

Remember that carbs should be reserved for postworkout or physical activity if fat loss is a goal. This is because the body is most tolerant of carbohydrates after a workout than any other time. Also, it will help refuel the body without any carbohydrate “spillover” into fat storage.


Undertraining: It’s easy to get lulled into the same routine. If you find yourself consistently doing the same exercises, sets, reps and same mode of cardio week in and week out, then this is simply a case of adaptation setting in. Quite frankly, it’s time to take it to the next level.

This involves disrupting your comfort zone. You can do this by either increasing the number of reps or the amount of weight you are lifting during strength-training sessions. If your cardio sessions have been strictly steady-state up to this point, try mixing in some interval training one to two times per week.

Overtraining: On the flip side, there is such a thing as trying to do too much. When results come to a screeching halt, the natural instinct is to think: “Well, I just need to do more!”

All of a sudden you are doing everything under the sun: Tabata, weights, running, kickboxing, zumba, workout videos — anything and everything. Slow down, killer!

The body needs to recuperate from the demands that are placed on it. By continuing to keep the foot on the accelerator, we can actually start losing results — or worse, you can get injured.

Working out too hard for too long can overload the hormonal system, create chronic inflammation and increase the production of cortisol, which makes us more likely to hold on to fat stores.

So rather than adding more exercise at that plateau, give your body a much-needed break by taking one to two weeks off from structured exercise and replacing it with some light recreational activity instead.

Sometimes just giving your body a moment to breathe is all it needs to reboot to the updated and improved version of yourself.

Try switching modes of exercise: This is a simple, yet very effective method. You’re not changing anything exercise-wise, just gaining a new weapon of choice. Regarding strength training, this may involve switching from machines to free-weights, free-weights to body-weight exercises, barbells to dumbbells and so on.

The same goes for cardio machines. Try the rowing machine or step mill if you have been glued to the elliptical for the last two months. Any switch-up is worth trying. Surprising enough, this does the trick in a lot of cases.

Train for an event: This shift in mindset can be the magic ingredient for a lot of people. It’s important that your fitness routine address more than scale. Weight loss can be an emotional roller coaster, and many people aren’t willing to stay on that plan for the long haul.

The scale can have you jumping for joy one day and crying the next, but the exhilaration of crossing the finish line at a Color Run or conquering a Spartan Race is something that will stay with you forever.

And more often than not, the pounds will continue to come off as a result of your training. So in addition to creating good memories and getting into fabulous shape, you become lean and mean in the process.


Unloading: Recovery is the yin to the yang of exercise. As previously stated with overtraining, sometimes it’s a matter of giving the body a chance to actually adapt to the training demands that are being placed upon it.

At a minimum, you should “unload” with a lighter workout week every four to six weeks of training. It’s during this period that our body finally gets a chance to play catchup and physically adapt to the training demands placed upon it.

This is where we experience increases in strength and endurance as we carry over into our next training cycle and even experience more reduction in the fat loss we’re after. You can unload by cutting your workout times in half, decreasing your intensity or simply just participating in recreational activity.

Sleep: Sleep is huge. Let me say that again. Sleep. Is. HUGE! And it may be one of the reasons why you’ve hit a plateau.

Sleep has been said to be the “athlete’s steroid.” The National Sleep Foundation recommends at least seven to eight hours a night. It is during this time that we produce human growth hormone (HGH). HGH is important in tissue repair, healing, muscle growth, brain function, bone strength, energy, endurance and metabolism. Additional benefits include improved cognitive function, increased reaction time and better immune system function.

There isn’t really any downside to getting adequate sleep, and it’s a critical part of continuing to get results from training and feeling 100 percent.

Jason Wanlass is the owner of Champion Fitness Training in Meridian. Contact him at or