Workout Plateaus (And How to Break Them)
You walk into any gym in America and you will see at least the one of each of the following types of people:
1. The guy walking at 2.0 on the treadmil, watching Sports Center and reading the newspaper, and drinking a McLatte that has more calories than he'd burn in 4 hours of exercise at the rate he's going.
2. The life-long athlete who's using equipment you've never seen, expletives you never heard, and producing so much sweat you've seen people get out of swimming pools with drier clothing.
Obviously, most of us fall somewhere between these two people on the effort scale, but it's hard to figure out just how hard to push yourself during a workout. If you've ever wondered about just how crazy your workouts are supposed to be, look no further... the answer could help you break you break through a plateau.
What Happens With Your Body When You Workout
Exercise is the process by which you make your body do things it doesn't comfortably know how to do. When your body is forced to do something challenging, it naturally adapts (yay nature!). For example, when you do a set of 10 lunges for the first time, your body says
"Oh man! That was incredibly unpleasant! If this darn brain is going to keep making me do things like that I'm going to have to make some changes. For starters, if I get rid of a little extra fat I'm carrying and use that material to make my quads stronger...."
Then, you continue to do sets of 10 lunges. Your body gets a little thinner, a little more muscular, then one day your body says
"Voila! Look at that! It doesn't hurt anymore. I'm done changing."
This is the point at which most people get stuck. The logical statement from the brain's point of view is that if sets of 10 lunges made us skinnier at one time, that should be "the thing" that makes us lose weight whenever we need or want to shed a few pounds.
Unfortunately, we have to look at things from the body's perspective. If we could find the "key thing" that made us lose weight without fail, no one would ever gain back weight that they had lost. As we all know, this is far from the case.
To get your body to change, you have to make it do things it's not comfortable doing. Now, this doesn't mean that you have to be in incredible amounts of pain every time you work out, but it does mean you can't do the same exact workout every morning for years and expect to have the same results after a year as you did on day one. So what do you change? You don't have to work out a gajillion hours a day or jump through hoops of fire or anything.
The way to make sure your body continues to progress is to vary your routine when you stop seeing change from what you're doing. Here are some variables you can change to kick-start your progress:
Variables to Consider for Your Workout Routine
Time: This one is simple. If you have been running for 15 minutes a day and you stop seeing progress, try kicking it up to 20 minutes or a half an hour. This is a good way to make sure your body is still challenged, but (as most of us are still trapped in the same 24-hour day and have to work, eat, sleep, see people, etc.) there are also some limitations on the sheer amount of time we can devote to exercise.
Type of Exercise: This is another excellent variable you can play with to keep your body on its metaphorical (or literal) toes. Switching up the type of exercise can mean something completely new, such as a swimmer taking a kickboxing class or a hard-core biker going for a run, but it can also mean switching up the individual exercises you do in a workout routine. In financial terms, it's most effective for your body if you diversify your workout portfolio.
Difficulty: Changing up the difficulty of your workout is only an option with certain things. For instance, it is impossible for a swimmer to change the 'difficulty' of freestyle. It is what it is. This is a factor for things like running, weight lifting, crossfit, and other things that have a difficulty level. For example, a runner can up the speed on the treadmil, a weight lifter can do more weight, someone doing crossfit can jump on a higher box, etc. It's easy to increase effort on things where there is a numerical difficulty level. For things where there is no way to set a 'difficulty' level, you have to dig a little deeper...
Intensity: The way to dig deeper is to increase the intensity of your workout. If you asked 20 different people what intensity means you might get 20 different answers. My favorite probably came from one of my kickboxing students who described the moments when she went super-intense, throw everything you have into your workout, crazy as "ninja mode". The best description of intensity I can come up with is working out as if it's the last 20 seconds of a race and you need to throw all of your energy and effort into getting to that finish line before the person next to you. Now do that throughout your entire workout and that, my friend, will be a super intense workout. It's about effort: how much you try, how little you care about the complaining your body does, and how much you tell said body to shut up because you decide when you're done not your muscles.
So, intensity sounds really painful and annoying right? Here's the benefit: if you increase your intensity, you can work out doing the same exercise for the same amount of time and still break through your plateau. However, this IS hard work. You will sweat, grunt, make un-lady-like faces, and sweat. (Did I mention sweat?)
Why It's Worth It
I would like to relay to you an actual conversation one of my college friends (who just started BurnIt) had with someone she was telling about BurnIt:
Other Person: You're already in pretty good shape. Why are you starting a training program?
My Friend: Because I want abs like these! *shows picture of me from the website*
Other Person: Yeah, but she probably works out like 12 hours a day and eats only lettuce.
My Friend: False. She works out an hour a day MAXIMUM and I've seen her put away an entire pizza by herself.
Liz's Disclaimer: Yes, that is all true. No, I do not advise trying the pizza thing on the regular, but I am never going to tell you not to have a cheat day.
The Answer: The reason I can have abs, only do a normal length workout each day, and eat like a normal human being all at the same time is that when I workout I absolutely murder myself. By keeping a ridiculously-high intensity level, it is possible to get great results in a modest amount of time. This enables you to...you know...have a life.
If you're currently struggling with a plateau, take a week and do a different length of workout, a different type or variety, a different difficulty level, a higher intensity, or any combination of the four. You should start seeing results again in no time.
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