post by Amy Tulip, NASM CPT
Have you ever hit a wall in your workouts and stopped seeing progress – a weight loss plateau or no strength gains? If not, email me your secret.
If so, what do you do when that precious momentum grinds to a halt?
For me, I dig into my bag of tricks.
Your body is a highly adaptive machine. That is a great benefit for most things, like conditioning your body for a marathon or doing an extended fast. Unfortunately, it also has drawbacks.
The key to preventing your body from adapting to your routine and minimizing metabolic expenditure (i.e. burning less calories and building less muscle) is variation.
Smashing Your Weight Loss Plateau and Making Muscle Gains
Here are a few ways to prevent plateaus or bust through them when you get stuck.
- Add instability. Most of my exercises are done on a solid, stable surface. This is where all exercises should start. But once they become easy, one way to switch things up is to add a form of instability. For example, instead of 20 regular push-ups, go for 20 push-ups with your hands or feet on the flat side of a BOSU ball. Add variation to your leg day with single leg squats or deadlifts (weights or no weights – whatever you can handle). Change up your plank by lifting a leg off the ground, or better yet, lifting an arm and a leg and holding it. The BOSU ball and Swiss Ball are some of my favorite tools to add instability to an exercise in order to make gains.
- Increase your weights. Not rocket science right? But don’t overlook this simple method. Even if you can’t perform as many reps as in the past, increasing the load sends a clear signal to the brain: “We need more muscle!” When I’m increasing my loads, I typically make the first set the heaviest and return to normal for the next few sets. After a few days, I either push myself to use that heavier weight on the first two sets, or on the first and last. I keep pushing until the heavier weight becomes my go-to normal weight. My colleague, Joe Cross, will often increase his weight with every set, forcing his body to subsequently build strength.
- Attack from a different angle. I made huge back gains this past fall. I did it by working my back from a million different angles. Some of the exercises I included were strict pull-ups, chin-ups, neutral-grip pull-ups, lat pull downs, narrow-grip lat pull downs, bent over rows, low cable rows, and high cable rows. Do you always squat with your feet in the same position? Try a wider, more turned-out stance, or narrower directly-under-your-pelvis stance. If you always do back squats, add in front squats. For more advanced lifting, throw some olympic lifts into the routine. You might find that by working at different angles you hit muscles that you haven’t worked in quite a while!
- Vary the pace. This takes very little thought (as far as what needs to change) but makes a big difference. Focus on the negative (eccentric) portion of your lifts during your next workout. Lower nice and slow with each rep. Slowing down your negatives may feel like the last thing you really want to do, but increasing your time under tension is one great way to build muscle strength and get those gains. Studies consistently show more muscle fiber breakdown occurs during the negative part of the movement. And the more you break down, the more you build up.
- Add plyometric movements. Plyometrics are great for a number of reasons. If you are aiming for fat loss, short bursts of plyometrics can accelerate the process. If you are aiming for strength, plyometrics can help you add power. Really, there’s no reason not to have a few plyometric movements in every workout. Some of my favorites include squat jumps, box jumps, clapping push-ups, burpees, ice-skaters, and knee tucks (if you need an explanation, let me know in the comments). Add a couple of these to your routine the next few weeks, and you’ll love the results.
So, if you’re stuck in a workout rut, mix it up. Simple changes like adding weight, adding instability, working muscles from different angles, varying the pace of your movements and adding in plyometric movements might be enough to push past that weight loss plateau and get those gains you really want. Let me know how these variations work out!