4 Ways to Push Past a Plateau

By Adam Bornstein on June 21, 2016 , categorized in Endurance, Strength + Conditioning

fitness plateau

It’d be great if building a plan to improve your body were as structured as cooking a good meal. Start with a great workout and then add a healthy diet. Mix in consistency, accountability, and some motivation, and you’re supposed to have the perfect recipe for the body you want.

Unfortunately, adding up all the right elements of a good plan doesn’t always result in success. You probably have learned this by now (both in the gym and the kitchen). While the ingredients are all important, it’s the errors in your approach—or certain behavioral tendencies that you’re not aware of—that typically ruin even the best plans.

That’s why it’s time to rewrite the recipe—and your approach—to changing your body. It’s time to focus on the errors most people overlook; the mistakes that only an expert would notice. Follow these tips to help you avoid the common traps that usually sabotage your results.

  1. Determine Your Why

Much like finding the person you want to marry, a good health plan can start with a very simple, but candid question: Why?

If you simply focus on your “why” for getting into shape, that can be the first step to overcoming the overwhelming feeling of being judged or falling back into old, bad habits, says strength coach Jim Smith, C.S.C.S., founder of Dieselsc.com.

Your why could be anything: Maybe you want to lead a healthier life, spend more time with your kids, move better, feel better, have more energy, or to just have what you define as a better quality of life.

“As you discover your why, you must make sure there’s a strong enough trigger to drop the hammer and launch the missile far enough to make an impact,” says nutritionist Alan Aragon. In many cases, people think they’re ready to make distinct, permanent changes in daily habits, but they soon find out that this desire to make changes lasts only a week or two, and the reason is that the motivating trigger was not strong enough, says Aragon.

A classic example of a strong trigger for change is a trusted doctor telling a patient that he will not live to see his children graduate from high school if he doesn’t clean up his habits and maintain a healthy weight. The trigger has to be profound, and it has to shake a person to the very core in order to cause permanent change. There has to be a groundbreaking epiphany driven by an intense, all-consuming motive, otherwise the results either won’t happen or won’t last.

Here’s how to make it happen: Your why is all about you and not other people’s judgment of you

“Someone once told me that they stopped worrying about what others thought of them when they realized people rarely thought of anyone but themselves,” says Smith.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t care for others. It just means that sometimes you need to prioritize your own goals–especially when it comes to your health–in spite of what others think, because odds are they aren’t thinking about what you’re doing. (They are focusing on themselves.)  Your why can give you focus, drive and the determination to help you keep going when things get harder–because they eventually will.

You won’t always get the amount of sleep you want, your kids won’t always be on their best behavior and your free time might be limited due to the latest project you have to finish at work. This is when you have to step up, be tough, and not miss the scheduled times you have set aside for your weekly workouts. It’s not an issue of motivation. It’s about remembering your priorities.

  1. Establish Clarity

It might sound ridiculous, but once you start a plan you typically lack any real focus of what you want to achieve. Selecting your goals is similar to the lens of a camera; things are either clear or hazy.

Most people approach their lifestyle change with everything hazy, armed only with a set of vague generalities. This usually takes the form of goals that look great on the surface:

“I’m going to lose some weight.”

“I’m going to start eating healthy.”

“I’m going to give up junk food.”

All of these are fine goals, but they still leave too many questions and ambiguity that can cause you to fall off track. How much weight should I lose? When do I want to lose it by? What is eating healthy? What do I consider junk food?

If you come at a lifestyle change without a clear, focused idea of the things you need to do, chances are you won’t do them. When you have too big of a picture and not enough specific action steps, it might make you feel like you’re taking on too much, adds Ashley Borden, a fitness and life coach. “This is the first step that leads to defeat,” says Borden.

The solution? “Write down your goals in the form of a list, and then, write out sub-lists consisting of definitions of those goals, and the action steps needed to be successful,” says Borden.

Instead of the vague items listed above, an example of a better approach would be:

“I want to lose 10 pounds of fat in the next 8 weeks. I will do this by eating healthier, which I define as 3 servings of veggies per day, 5 glasses of water per day, and protein with every meal. I will eliminate junk food, drink no more than 2 alcoholic beverages a week, cut out refined carbohydrates, and avoid anything with heavy sauces or glazes.”

Whereas the first set of goals—while admirable—were vague, the second set is not only defined, but has clear steps lining a path towards the goal, and is therefore designed for success.

  1. Take a Step Back

Once you have your focus, the next step is teaching yourself patience. “The biggest mistake I typically see is people diving into things head first and overreaching,” says Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, M.D., founder of the Bariatric Medical Institute.

“When people start off in my gym I’ll regularly ask them to spend the first few weeks purposely working at a lesser intensity than they think they can muster and to use lighter weights than they think they can handle,” says Freedhoff.

Using this approach, you can be more likely to prevent injuries, and limit the type of soreness that will keep you out of the gym. More importantly, you could gain confidence, build consistency, and help support your body to transition from “couch to cut,” says Freedhoff. It’s been said many times, but it can’t be stated enough:

“Healthy living is the world’s longest ultra-marathon,” adds Freedhoff. “Sprint out of the gates and chances are you’re not going to be hitting any finish lines.”

  1. Focus on Progress, Not Perfection

Finally, always think progress, not perfection. When most people start a new program or hit bumps in the road, they think they need to find the perfect program, or that fast results are an indication of success. The truth is, this approach can lead to your downfall.

Working too hard, too fast can leave you sore and unmotivated to continue with your fitness plan. You have to think of the amount of time it took you to get out of shape and realize that it will take a comparable amount of time to get you back where you want to be. You don’t have to be perfect or have the perfect program. 

Instead, you should focus on sustainable changes that you can replicate over time. This can be anything from consistently exercising three times per week to even logging what you eat–even if those meals still aren’t the healthiest. Success is built in habits. Small changes applied consistently in your life, in and out of the gym, can make a big impact and set you up for the type of transformation you will appreciate, without overthinking the process or dealing with added stress.

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Adam Bornstein

Adam Bornstein

Adam Bornstein is a New York Times best-selling author, an award-winning fitness and nutrition writer and editor, and regular contributor to Vega’s Expert Panel. He is the founder and CEO of Born Fitness and Pen Name, a consulting agency. He was formerly the editorial director for Livestrong.com and fitness editor for Men’s Health. He has contributed to and been featured in The New York Times, Fast Company, GQ and more.

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