In strength training and fitness, everyone plateaus. I’ve had many conversations with individuals – when they’re stuck in a plateau they speak as if they’re doing something wrong, or as if the system has stopped working. They’re frustrated that their progress has stalled, or maybe they’re just looking for new ways to stimulate progress.
But it happens to absolutely everyone. Not 95%. 100%.
It’s what bodies do. And people don’t often talk about what’s good about the plateau, they just try to bust through them. This might work, or it might not, you might achieve success, or you might injure or burn yourself out. But plateaus can be protective, and your response can be forceful or patient.
Many things might cause a plateau – overtraining, or being in the habit of not training hard enough – but people always think it is the latter. And it might be a systemic issue, or something pertaining to a muscle or an isolated area.
Muscles adapt relatively quickly, in the scheme of things. They strengthen and they grow. But tendons and ligaments – your joints, so to speak – respond much more slowly. Training plateaus allow for your connective tissues to catch up with your muscles.
Tendons connect your muscles to your bones, and ligaments keep your joints moving in the correct alignment. If your muscles are weaker than your tendons, this is a good thing. If the muscles were stronger, the tendons would pop. If the ligaments were not strong, the joint would move the wrong way. You don’t want your muscles out-powering your joints.
This is not meant to be intimidating in any way. The body has a way of self-regulating. But maybe if you’re stuck in a plateau, you aren’t actually stuck. You might simply still be adapting to your increased capacity, on a subtle level that you can’t quite perceive. Be patient. Work appropriately, push as far as you are happy to push, invest in your recovery and pay attention. I like to ask myself, from time to time, “is this (exercise) helping me to get better at moving?”
Don’t overstrain your joints. Learn the difference between muscular tension and joint fatigue. If you’ve been focusing on maximal full-body lifts, try some isolation work. If you’ve been lifting dumbbells, try some bodyweight training. If you’ve been overdoing any particular movement pattern, try practicing the opposite. If you’ve been doing long training sessions, do short ones. There are no right or wrong methods, barbells are not actually superior or inferior to dumbbells, there are only helpful methods or inappropriate methods. The best training systems try to strike a balance between consistency and variety, and are fluid. You can still ‘work hard’ but you can work hard at being aware and sensitive, and remain confident that you are progressing. Take your time, eat a lot of food, and trust that your body is actually doing what it needs to do.
Be patient. A plateau is an opportunity to learn about yourself, to investigate, and to grow in a new direction.