You've started exercising better and you're right on the edge of greatness. You weigh less, people notice, and — more importantly — you feel healthier and more confident than you have in ages. Then the plateau arrives, and your progress grinds to a screeching halt. Here's how to push past it and take your health and fitness to the next level.
The final stretch is always the hardest. After losing most of your excess fat and gaining strength, progress naturally slows. Plateaus occur because a fair amount of exercise and a relatively healthy diet can get us to a respectable level of fitness, but you can't get beyond that point if you don't start working harder. When you lead a busy life, spending more time at the gym and managing your nutrition can seem impossible because you just don't have the time to step it up.
That's why fitness plateaus feel more like brick walls you'll never break through. Without the necessary time and motivation, it seems like you need to settle for the progress you've made or just give up altogether. Luckily, this isn't the end. Healthy diets don't require constant management and calorie counting. A more challenging workout will take more effort, but it doesn't have to take much more time. With a simple approach, you can break right through that brick wall and get into great shape.
Upgrade Your Workouts
If you started with the Lifehacker Workout, you've followed a good starting plan but need to step it up if you want to push past that plateau. To get the most out of your sweat dollars, you'll need to train your entire body each time you step into the gym. In this section, we'll provide some tips to doing just that. Here's what we recommend:
- Each week you should alternate between two 30-45 minute full body workouts (if you don't have a good one already established, there are two full-body workouts at the end of this article). Each workout begins with the same simple warmup routine, which is also described below.
- You should perform each workout at least two times per week, allowing yourself one or two days off. (For example, you could do Workout A on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, then do Workout B on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.)
- You should still engage in some physical activity during your days off, but you don't need to go to the gym.
While the workout is the core of this plan, there are other issues to consider.
Choose The Right Weights For You
The right weights make a big difference when attempting to overcome an exercise plateau. You need to choose a load that allows you to get the prescribed number of repetitions in your workout but not much more. Too little will make your exercise too easy and too much will prevent you from completing it. Don't let your ego come into play, or feel that you aren't strong enough — just be realistic with your choices. For example, if you're aiming for 10 reps and feel that you could have done 12 to 15, then you need to increase the weight for that exercise. The flip side is also true — if you're aiming for 10 reps but only were able to get 6, then decrease the weight accordingly.
Perform all the prescribed sets of each exercise before moving on to the next one. Make sure to rest for at least 45-60 seconds between each set, giving yourself more rest time depending on your fitness level. You can also decrease the number of sets initially by 1 if you need to work yourself into an intense program such as this, adding them back in as your strength and endurance increases.
Stay Active On Your Days Off
On days that you aren't weight training, aim for 30-60 minutes of activity. This doesn't necessarily mean heading to the gym to use the treadmill. It could be a walk in the park with a loved one, a game of basketball, a quiet bike ride or a random game of Dance Central. No matter what you do, make sure that it's something that you enjoy doing. Just 30 minutes of activity four days a week adds up to two hours — definitely enough to burn some serious calories without wearing you down and hurting your recovery.
Supercharge Your Diet
The workouts are only a small part of your overall success, and in order to maximise your results you need to make sure that your nutrition is locked in as well. Exercise only burns calories, but if you're taking in too many it's a waste of your time and you'll never overcome a plateau. To help you achieve your fitness goals without losing your mind in the process, here are the big basics for you to focus on and implement.
Track Your Food Intake
When trying to lose body fat, the simplest thing you can do — and the one that will yield the biggest return on your investment — is track what you're eating. You probably do this already, but when it comes to overcoming a plateau, tracking yourself a little more closely can help. You have plenty of tools at your disposal to help you out.
The easiest method is to use an old fashioned pocket notebook, making it easily accessible to you at a moments notice. Every time you eat something, just write it down for the day. If you're more of a technophile, websites such as MyFitnessPal and Lose It provide free browser software and phone apps that you can use to make tracking your food easy as pie (ahem). For the more visually-inclined, snapping pictures of your meals is a simple way to keep an eye on your intake in less than five seconds.
Remember: what gets measured gets managed. Fat loss is just as much of an emotional process as it is a physical one, and as with anything emotional it can be hard to be objective at times, which is why having a method outside your own head is critical to your success.
Focus on Whole, Minimally Processed Foods That You Like/Love
In order to give yourself the best chance of success, focus on eating only minimally processed foods. Are these foods magical? No — a calorie is a calorie regardless of the source, but processed foods (such as cakes and soft drink ) have more calories per serving than fruits and vegetables and are more likely to cause you to overeat. Occasional indulgences won't hurt, but too much processed food can negatively impact your progress.
Getting the fat off is only half the battle — keeping it off is where the war is won. By not only focusing on whole foods, but making sure that you actually love (or at least enjoy the taste of) them you'll prevent the weight from coming back. Although by no eans an exhaustive list, here are the healthier options in the primary three food groups:
- Proteins: beef, pork, chicken, seafood, shellfish, dairy, eggs and supplemental sources such as protein powder.
- Fats: nuts, seeds, oils, and also what is found in the above sources of protein — some contain higher levels of fat than others.
- Carbohydrates: fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and foods such as potatoes, pasta, rice and cereals.
Do What Suits You Best
If you've perused the internet or bookstore shelves for any length of time, you know that there are many different perspectives on what's necessary to lose the fat once and for all, and with all the choices out there it's easy to overload your brain with too much information. Here's the only take-away nugget of knowledge that you'll need to succeed: you're the captain of your ship.
How many meals should you eat per day? However many meshes with your lifestyle and schedule. Two-to-three is a good place to start for practical reasons. Can you eat food at anytime of the day (even before bed)? Certainly. As long you maintain the calorie deficit, you can eat whenever you like.
The best diet is the one that you're able to stick to in the long run, so you should incorporate any strategies that increase your compliance and make you feel empowered to continue making consistent positive changes.
Our Full Body Workouts
Before each workout, warm up properly by performing five reps of the following exercises:
- Prisoner Squat
- Lateral Squat
- Hip Hinge
- Spidermans with Rotation
- Rocking Ankle Mobilisation
- Wall Slides
- Front-to-Back Leg Swings
- Side-to-Side Leg Swings
If you're not familiar with any or all of them, watch the video above for a demonstration. These exercises help to ensure your joints and muscles are ready for action, so don't skip them.
Full Body Workout A
Perform the following exercises (click on the links for video demonstrations):
- Dumbbell Goblet Squat : 3 sets of 10 repetitions
- Dumbbell Floor Press: 3 sets of 10 repetitions
- Dumbbell Split Squats: 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions
- Planks: 3 sets of 30-60 second holds
- Dumbbell Hammer Curl: 2 sets of 15-20 repetitions
- Mountain Climbers: 2-3 sets of 30-45 seconds
- Jumping Jacks: 2-3 sets of 30-45 repetitions
Full Body Workout B
Perform the following exercises (click on the links for video demonstrations):
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift: 3 sets of 10 repetitions
- 1 Arm Dumbbell Row: 3 sets of 12 repetitions each arm
- Lat Pulldown Machine (Overhand Grip): 3 sets of 8 repetitions
- Dumbbell Reverse Lunge: 3 sets of 8 repetitions each leg (feel free to use bodyweight initially)
- Pushups: 2 sets of as many repetitions as possible (with good form)
- Cable Machine Face Pulls: 2 sets of 15 repetitions
- Two Arm Dumbbell Swings: 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions
- Bodyweight Squats: 2 to 3 sets of 30 seconds
If time allows, include 15-20 minutes of walking or jogging after your workouts, with the goal being to increase your distance (or incline if using a treadmill) each week.
Roger Lawson is a personal trainer, nerd and professional lover of life committed to helping people feel good and look great through exercise, diet, and lifestyle changes (making sure to have a helluva a lot of fun along the way). You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook, and find out more about him on his web site.