“If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them”
I got the above graph from Alan Aragon. It represents exactly what happens in the long term when trying to change body composition either yourself or with clients. Plateaus are necessary for our survival — they occur because of two causes – psychological adaptation, and physiological adaptation.
You can see by the graph that each plateau includes a period of no progress, followed by a slight “sliding back” before you progress again. Additionally – each subsequent plateau occurs at a faster rate than the previous one, and is usually a smaller progression each time. This phase length varies from novice to experienced trainees. Novices can likely progress on the same program for far longer than an experienced trainee – although changing the routine can be useful psychologically.
The key to “breaking” plateaus is to manipulate your nutrition and exercise programs SLIGHTLY. A subtle change (e.g. switching from the bike to the treadmill in your cardio workouts) is often enough to ‘kick start’ progress. The progression of a single variable like load used in an exercise can keep forcing adaptations even when other variables remain the same.
A good coach is always trying to stay one step ahead of any plateaus – by manipulating the training variables to ensure continued progress. For example, in our fat loss programs one of the tools we use is to adjust the rep range every single workout (using undulating periodization) and change the exercises completely every 4 weeks. You could also change the load every workout, the nutrition program every four weeks, and also change the resistance training and energy system portions at the same rate. Basically a sixteen week program is a sequence of four, four-week programs, and can easily be adjusted to become a 24 week program for the beginner.
The bottom line is to remember that plateaus are not necessarily a bad thing. In actual fact, our ultimate goal IS a plateau – to reach a favorable body composition range and stay there.