The fitness plateau is like puberty. Nobody likes going through it, and marketing companies love making money off you to help you get out of it. Plateaus suck for real, and while they're a necessary evil to make you more badass, they're not always easy to banish. Here's what you can do.
First, how do you know you've actually hit a plateau?
The general rule of thumb is if your weight loss/gain, strength or running performance has stagnated or made a turn for the worse for more than two consecutive weeks, then it's likely -- although not always -- you've (reluctantly) bumped uglies with the dreaded plateau. The "not always" caveat is to remind you that sometimes you may be just having "off weeks" that could hinder performance, and that progress in any of the aforementioned aspects cannot be predictably linear all the time either.
Keep in mind also that hitting a plateau is different from simply being bored of a program. But if you've been doing "everything right" and something still seems amiss, then it's time to take a closer look at the possible cause and what you can do (listed in the recommended order that you should examine these things):
- Getting enough sleep? Very often, a lack of sleep is your progress' kryptonite: too little can severely impact performance and scale measurements. So, if you discover that you've been getting iffy sleep lately due to work, family or one too many raids in World of Warcraft, then add, like, 50 more Zs to ZzzzZz. (Seriously, practice a better bedtime ritual.)
- Are you eating accordingly to your goal?Seems like a silly question to ask, but it's possible that you've been less diligent in eating for performance or your goal. Track your intake for a few days to see how much and what you're eating. Renew your dedication for a few weeks and notice if any improvements!
- Re-evaluate your training: Be honest with your training: How hard are you pushing yourself in your workouts? Is your workout program congruent with your own goals? If these seem a-ok, you might want to check your exercise technique and/or make sure you're not training through an injury, as either of those can also compromise progress.
- Remember your training age: Also known as the length of time you've been seriously training. If it's anywhere between 6 months to 1 year, it's possible you've just hit your newbie gains ceiling. At that point, it's time to cross the fitness chasm, as we outline here.
- Try something different: Sometimes you really need to just breathe some new life into your workout or diet. Try a radically different training approach. Been doing 1 to 3 reps at heavy loads for strength? Try a workout with higher number reps, more speed and lighter weights. Been eating at a consistent deficit for weight loss? Try increasing your intake a few hundred calories for a few weeks and see what that does for you. A simple change is ideal to give yourself wiggle room for more changes later, if needed.
- Go take a break: It's entirely possible you've just been training way too hard, placing all kinds of stressors on your body. Time off from training and dieting can do wonders for your body, mind and progress, and may actually make you stronger when you finally return to training. Step away from the gym or your running program, and do something fun for a week.
Remember that when you try one of these things change only one variable at a time. Otherwise, you won't know which one works! It will be a slower process, but in the end you won't burn yourself out from changing everything at once.