In a phrase widely attributed to Albert Einstein, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. (He never actually said this and it’s also not true anyway, but moving on). Point is, when it comes to working out, it’s certainly not true: Whether you’re losing weight or trying to gain muscle, inevitably, your results will change over time. They can even come to a grinding halt once you enter the dreaded plateau stage, where after making nice, steady progress in your physique, suddenly, after a few months, your once awesome routine stops working and you can’t seem to improve anymore.
Rest assured, you’re not the only one this happens to: Even fitness trainers, athletes and celebrities hit this stage and have to find creative ways to get past it. While there are a wide variety of reasons this happens — and many ways of getting out of it — according to high intensity trainer and dietician Ben Bailey, the two key ingredients in overcoming that plateau are to get creative about what you’re doing, and believing that you have the ability to overcome it.
If losing weight is your goal and you suddenly hit that wall where you can’t lose any more, you may have to reduce your caloric intake. No need to go crazy, but reducing things by 100 calories or so might be all you need to wake your system back up and start losing again. Really, the key to dealing with any kind of plateau is to keep surprising your system and finding new challenges to overcome: When speaking about Christina Aguilera’s weight loss following giving birth, her personal trainer Tee Sorge pointed to a constantly changing workout routine, specifically to prevent plateauing.
Nutritionist and personal trainer Sean Salazar, of AnywhereGym, says that in his career, he primarily sees a leveling out on weight-loss progress when people start to ease up on their diets. “People see some progress, then they decide that they can have that burger or maybe a little more alcohol, and they get a bit lax in their diet.” The trick here is not to let up until you’ve hit your goal — keep your foot on the gas all the way.
Now, when you’re trying to put on muscle or build strength, the approach to beating the plateau may end up being the exact opposite. “To increase your strength during a strength-training plateau, you might actually have to increase calorie consumption,” offers Salazar. The trick here it to activate your system by giving it increased fuel, then utilize that fuel by turning it into muscle (and fat as well, which you’ll need because your muscles can only grow so large).
Salazar says that your system may end up needing a pretty big shock: Increasing your caloric intake from 2,000 calories up to 3,000 calories may be required to jumpstart your progress again. When doing this, though, Salazar warns that you don’t get to increase your caloric consumption with fun things like pizza and burgers — instead, you want to keep the proportions of what you’re eating pretty much the same, but have more of it. This means that ideally, 40 to 50 percent of your diet will still be carbs, 20 percent would be fat and around 30 percent would be protein.
While it may sound glorious to suddenly be allowed to eat 50 percent more food, Salazar says that in reality it will probably be pretty boring to have all that chicken breast and vegetables. And before you increase your diet that drastically, Salazar recommends consulting a personal trainer first, as they’ll help to figure out your resting metabolic rate, weight, height and a slew of other relevant information first.
Perhaps though, what you need to continue seeing progress is to switch up your workout routine. Bailey explains that once your body adapts to the stimuli of a certain workout, the results will end up being less profound over time — often, after just six weeks or a couple of months, you’ll see a plateau because your body has now gotten used to this exercise.
The pros agree: Olympic cyclist Stephen Pedone told Applied Physical Medicine that when he hits a plateau, “I go back to the basics and just go ride my bike for fun and enjoyment, with no structure and plan. Then I begin to re-implement training, but I try to shake up my workouts by using different bikes, going different places and doing different types of workouts. This can usually break the staleness and help me find my motivation again.” MMA star Conor McGregor swears by this method too, telling Men’s Health that people get stuck in a plateau because they’re “caught in a routine, doing the same things over and over.”
Finding a buddy to work out with and spot you may also be helpful, Salazar explains. With someone to spot you, you can lift more weights and challenge yourself a bit more without being unsafe, and increasing that weight or giving yourself just a couple more reps is likely going to help you push forward.
It may also be psychological, medical or some combination of the two. When training to achieve his power gut, strongman competitor Richard Valentine recalls that he hit a plateau at around 230 pounds: No matter how much he ate, he couldn’t gain more. After more than a month of this, Valentine — who was still coming off a bad breakup — visited a doctor who told him he was suffering from depression and stress. After receiving a prescription to help with that, his power gut — and his strength along with it — continued to grow.
Finally, you may be in a rut because you’re training too much. Bailey explains that without good recovery time, you’re not giving your muscles a chance to grow, so by continuing to work out and push harder and longer, you may be doing more harm than good.
All in all, so long as you keep things interesting by switching up your routine, getting enough rest, eating right and mentally assuring yourself that you can push past this discouraging, yet inevitable stage, you will be able to make it past your plateau.