Ah, the dreaded plateau—when our once-effective workouts suddenly stop working and our results totally stall. But why do plateaus happen to good people? Usually it’s because you’re just not challenging your body enough. And while that probably means you’ve gotten better at your routine (cool!), it’s still incredibly frustrating.
“If you do the same thing over and over, your body adapts and isn’t stimulated to grow or get better,” says Nick Clayton, C.S.C.S., personal training program manager for the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). “You need to do a little more every time to create stress so your body has a better recovery response and you get stronger or fitter,” he explains. The experts call this whole ‘do a little more’ thing ‘progressive overload,’ and it’s this idea that will help you move past the plateau.
What Is Progressive Overload?
When you work out as hard as you possibly can, you force your muscles to adapt in multiple ways. For one, you push them to metabolic fatigue, which means you use up all of the glycogen (energy from carbs) stored in your muscles. This trains your muscles, making them able to store more carbs and grow, explains Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., host of the All About Fitness Podcast and adjunct professor of exercise science at San Diego State University. Two, you break down your muscle fibers, which signals your body to form new muscle cells to repair them. And, three, you challenge your muscles’ efficiency at using oxygen and carbs for energy, which tells them to adapt so you can go faster and harder in the future.
To give your body the constant push it needs to get stronger, you need to gradually increase the difficulty of your workouts and hit new personal maxes. If you’re doing cardio, that means either increasing your speed or your distance. If you’re strength training, that means increasing the weight you lift or the number of sets or reps you lift for.
Want to ramp up your workouts? Here’s how:
Progressive Overload FoR Strength Training
When it comes to using progressive overload to build muscle, you have two options: increase your weight or the number of sets or reps you do. So if you’re doing three sets of 10 reps of a move, try to hit 11 or 12 reps with that same weight the next time you work out, says Clayton. The next time? Go for 13 or 14. Once you can hit 15 reps, it’s time to increase your weight and start back down at 10 reps a set.
You can use the same approach if you’re lifting for lower rep ranges to focus on strength. McCall recommends working your way up from four to eight reps. Once you can perform more than eight reps, up your weight.
Another way to switch up the stress you put on your muscles: Mix up your exercises and the types of weights you use. Every couple months, change up your go-to moves (like swapping squats for lunges) and equipment (like swapping barbells for dumbbells)to keep your body guessing, McCall says.
Keep a journal or a note in your phone to track your progress throughout the month. “Ask yourself: Within the past month, have I gotten better at what I want to do? If not, it’s time to make these tweaks,” Clayton says.
Progressive Overload FoR Cardio
When it comes to cardio, you’ve got two ways to embrace progressive overload power: increase your volume (miles) or increase your intensity (the speed at which you run your miles). Overachievers be warned, though, you should only increase your distance or your speed—never both at once, according to Clayton. So don’t try to add half a mile to your five-mile run and try to shave 30 seconds off each mile. (More on the reasons why below).
If you want to attack volume, increase your distance by 10 percent—but not more—each week, Clayton recommends. So if you run 10 miles one week, you’d run 11 the next.
Once you’ve built up a solid base distance-wise, you can start to push your pace. The most effective way to do so? Sprints, says Clayton. Here’s how to adjust if you usually run, say, three miles three times a week. On one of your running days, run a shorter distance and break that distance up into sprints. So instead of running three miles, you’ll run two miles total, broken up into four quarter-mile sprints. If your normal running pace is a nine-minute mile, you’ll try to hold an eight-minute mile pace for each sprint and rest for a few minutes between each. And since progressive overload is the gift that keeps on giving, you can continue to up your sprint pace as you get better.
You can work on distance and speed in the same week, but make sure to slow your pace on the days you run slightly longer distances.
How To Do Progressive Overload Right
Ready to start going harder, better, faster, stronger? Progressive overload has the power to take your performance (and body) to the next level—but it’s all too easy to turn overload into overboard.
As pumped as you may be to step up your workouts, it’s important to stick to the experts’ guidelines for adding incremental challenges. “All too often people end up crushing their bodies so much they burn out, which can lead to injury and a lack of motivation,” says Clayton. If you constantly feel tired, achy, sore, or irritable, you might be overdoing it, he says. And though these signs start to pop up after a few days, it might take two weeks for them to really knock you on your butt.
To avoid burnout, keep these tips in mind:
1. Give yourself time to recover.
Obviously your workouts are key, but it’s in the 24 to 48 hours after you work out that you actually become stronger, says Clayton. So stick to three or four high-intensity ‘overload’ workouts per week and either rest or do low-intensity exercise—like walking or jogging—in between, says McCall. And every two or three months, take a full week off to rest and recover. You’ll come back to your workouts with the restored glycogen and revitalized energy you need to crush your workouts, he says.
2. Be patient with your progress.
Progress isn’t always linear, so don’t hold your gains to too tight a timeline. “It’s not like you’ll get better every time you work out,” says Clayton. “There’s always variability based on your stress levels, recovery, diet, and other factors.” You might be able to hit 15 reps in one workout and barely make it to 10 the next. Focus on the long-term, and don’t beat yourself up for having a bad day or week. Clayton recommends looking at your progress in six to eight-week periods.
3. Eat enough.
Don’t drastically cut your calories while pushing your body to its limit during your workouts. While exactly how many calories you need depends on your current weight and fitness level, the experts agree you shouldn’t have more than a 500-calorie deficit per day. When you demand more of your body, your body needs more calories, Clayton explains. Which brings us to our next point…
4. Pack in the protein.
Whether you’re aiming to improve your cardio or build muscle, down about 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (about 70 grams of protein for a 130-pound person, says Clayton. Your muscles are built out of amino acids, the molecules in protein—so not eating enough of this nutrient will hold back your progress. Protein is your number-one priority, but carbs are important, too, since they’re your muscles’ primary source of energy. Eating a protein and carb-rich snack after your workouts—especially if you’re training for more than an hour five days a week—can also help ensure you’re well-fueled. Clayton recommends a snack that contains one gram of protein for every four grams of carbs, like chocolate milk.