If you’re a serious athlete or a weekend warrior, you’ve probably experienced “hitting a wall.”  You’ve been in a groove, making progress with your goals…then things slow down and level out. 

When progress plateaus, there are several underlying reasons for this.  One is the opposite of what you’d think – overtraining.  Another is lack of variability or organized periodization and another common one is not keeping track of nutrition.  These are just three of the “biggies”.   There are other reasons, but I’ll just focus on these more common ones here.  

Overtraining is a phenomenon where one is pushing themselves so hard from beginning to end of a work out, day in and day out.  If you’re not giving yourself time to recover, your body will eventually fall behind with being able to keep up.  During intense workouts days in a row, muscle is being broken down, muscle glycogen stores are depleted and the Central Nervous System (CNS) is on overload.  Some symptoms of overtraining are excessive and prolonged muscle and joint pain, fatigue, overall lack of energy, frequently getting sick, and headaches (different from normal).  If you realize you may be overtraining, the best remedy is to take a full week of rest.  This not only refreshes you physically, but also mentally.  Many athletes prefer to participate in “active rest”.  This means that you’re still moving your body and lightly exercising, but are doing some completely different activities at a much lower level of intensity.  For your serious athletes, a deload phase in a regimented training routine is always built in.  This is a period of time where the athlete is still in the gym, but the % of max changes to 40-60%.  For less serious gym go-ers, sometimes staying completely out of the gym for a week is helpful. Change of state is important.  Instead of your regular lifting and HIIT routines, get outside and bike with your family, do yard work or take walks.  You’ll still feel active, but this will give your body a chance to rest, reset and refresh.  You’ll feel stronger and more motivated when you return.  

Another reason for overtraining is lack of workout structure.   This was touched on in the previous paragraph.   If your workouts are stagnant and you aren’t building in a deload phase, this slack of structure will also kill your progress.  Referring back to the title of this blog, when your body has the answers, change the questions!  You want to expose your muscles and your CNS to new and different training methods constantly.  There are several ways of accomplishing this.

“The most common method of deloading is just to reduce your poundages. As a guide, all your sets should be performed at around 40-60% of your 1RM.

A less popular option is to keep your weights more or less the same, but greatly reduce your volume. Say for instance your regular training program calls for five sets of five squats with 275 pounds.

Under a normal deload, you’d probably do your five sets of five at around 155 to 175 pounds. With a volume deload though, you could stick at 275 and hit a couple of singles or doubles, or just go for one set of five reps.

This approach does work better for some people. Particularly competitive strength athletes who find performance suffers when they don’t have a heavy load on their back or in their hands week in, week out.

A more obscure, though equally effective way to deload is to change your exercise selection. This is harder to regulate but definitely has its advantages. Keep your split the same, but change up how you workout those muscle groups.  I personally do this often.  I lift chest using different exercises each week.”

If you feel unsure how to deload or active rest, ask a trainer to look at your routine and he or she can give you some guidance on which method might best serve your needs and your lifestyle.

The last reason plateauing can happen is lack of awareness with nutrition.  The kinds of foods that you’re choosing could be halting your momentum.  If you’re not taking care to ingest the proper amounts of macronutrients and adequate calories, you could be asking your body to run on empty.   Same with a car – it won’t go without gas.  It’s counterintuitive to think about increasing calories for results, but less is not more in this scenario.  Your body needs fuel to function.  If you are not taking in enough calories, your body turns to “eating” itself for fuel.  The cruel trick of nature with extreme calorie deficit is that your body will not reach for fat in this state.   Your body will reserve fat because it thinks it’s being starved.   It’s saving it.   Your body will deplete blood sugar, the muscle glycogen and then (gasp) muscle………THEN fat.  One indicator of this is low energy level, but also if you’re having your body composition monitored and you’re seeing a loss in lean mass, that’s when you should immediately reevaluate macro percentages and total calorie intake and make sure you’re where you need to be for your age, gender and activity level.  Consulting a trainer or registered dietician is helpful for individuals who need extra guidance with nutrition or have underlying health issues such as diabetes which require a different nutritional plan.

These are some common reasons that can cause a stall in exercise progress.  If you feel as though you’ve hit a wall with your training, try working through some of these solutions.  If you don’t know where to start, ask a trainer for some help!