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February 21, 2023 10 min read
Once you've been working out consistently, it's normal for results to slow down as your body adjusts to the stresses you're putting on your muscles or body systems. However, this is not always the case. There are an assortment of variables that you should examine and steps you can incorporate to assist you in seeing continued progression.
One of the first things to do is re-examine and adjust your goals. Be sure your goals are as specific as possible, as this can help you work towards behaviour change (Bailey, 2017). Examples of goals may be certain physical attributes such as increasing muscle bulk or increasing muscle strength, improving functionality, or being able to walk further. There are a broad spectrum of goals that should be tailored specifically for the individual. For more information specifically around goals and goal setting, check out our blog post"5 Stages of Readiness to Achieve Your Fitness Goals"
Take your form into account when doing exercises, and work to become aware of any habits that you could have developed with various exercises. It's also good to become aware of any muscle imbalances that may be developing from a combination of training styles, exercise selection, or your occupation. You may wish to work with a trainer for a couple of sessions, as external input may help you identify these factors. Addressing these issues early on may help you continue to progress in addition to aiding in injury prevention. If you do not have access to a trainer, you can film your movements and examine them to check your form.
You should ideally try to incorporate muscle-mind connection into your training. This is where you focus on what you are trying to do, so if you are doing deadlifts and you are trying to optimise glute development, focus on the glute muscles throughout the movement and ensure that you are engaging them throughout the entire range of motion. This is the case for any exercise; strive to have an understanding of what muscles you are trying to work and get familiar with the sensation of them firing (Rossi, 2017). This can help you see greater improvements, in addition to letting you know if you are doing the exercise correctly. It can also be an important facet during the rehabilitation process, as there are some muscles in the body that are shut down by the body when there is pain present. The quads are a great example of this; they can start to atrophy with knee pain, so part of the rehabilitation process would be to reestablish the mind-body connection while performing exercises.
If you are not seeing progress with your workouts anymore, examine your stress levels. Exercise is a form of stress for the body. If you have experienced a surge in stress in your life or at work, this may influence how several body systems react. For example, from an endocrinological perspective (hormones), a spike in cortisol is a normal response to exercise. The amount of cortisol in the body at any given time should fluctuate, typically being higher in the morning and lower in the evening (Kronemer, 2017). When you have a sudden boost in stress from another source, like work, added to the stress from exercise, more rest or cortisol reducing activities like breathing, meditation, or other calming activities can help. If the cortisol continues to spike without dropping, a cascade may begin that ultimately leads to the body resorting to catabolizing its tissues, which would inhibit your progress (Kronemer, 2017). Cortisol can also impact other body systems like the pancreas, thus influencing insulin secretion, which may also have implications for your results, particularly if your goals are based around physical appearance or weight loss.
Moderation is essential in everything. Overtraining occurs when you overload the body and do not allow sufficient rest between exercise bouts. This may lead to suppression of your immune system, anxiety, an increase in injury rate, fatigue, apathy towards exercise, and a plateauing of your results (Bishop & Woods, 2008; Lorenz, Reiman, & Walker, 2010). Changing the intensity of your workout sessions throughout the week is important. Mixing low intensity days with high intensity days is important to allow for recovery. A low intensity session may include longer periods of rest, fewer sets and reps, or a shorter workout overall. High-intensity exercise could include explosive movements, reduced rest between repetitions, an increase in sets, or anything that boosts your heart rate and keeps it elevated for a set duration.
Ensure, when you are looking at your training schedule, that you are getting enough time between sessions. A review by Bishop and Woods (2008) found that 70% of individuals need 48 hours to recover when pushing near maximal loads to be able to perform again at the same rate with the same weight and number of repetitions. The amount of rest needed will depend on your overall exercise intensity and current fitness level. Beginners may need more rest as they will not have the same adaptations as trained individuals. The greater the intensity, the more recovery you will need to be able to perform at a high level. This is also important for injury prevention. (Bishop & Woods, 2008). A metric that you can use while exercising to gauge if you are getting sufficient rest between sets and overall is rate of perceived exertion (RPE). This is how hard you feel a given exercise is on a scale of 1–10; tracking this over time, you should see a non-linear progression where the same amount of repetitions, sets, and weight will feel easier over a period of time (Lindberg, 2019). If you are seeing the opposite occur, you may need to alter your exercise intensity or incorporate more rest into your routine.
Heart rate can also provide clues as to whether you are getting sufficient rest between exercise sets; this is a concept that may have been introduced to you in gym class. Monitor your pulse before, during, and after a bout of exercise. The heart should increase with exertion and slow with rest (Frey, 2021). There are resting averages based on age as to what the resting heart rate should be; this can differ with certain medical conditions. To figure out your average resting heart rate, take your heart rate in the morning upon waking before you get out of bed; on average, the lower this number is, the better shape you are in. You can get a rough estimate of your maximal heart rate by taking your age and subtracting it from 220 (220-age). These two numbers can give you an idea of your maximum and minimum heart rates. When exercising, you should be able to get closer to your maximal heart rate with high intensity exercise when you are in better shape. The key thing to note is how long it takes for the heart rate to slow down after a bout of exercise. The faster the heart returns to normal, the greater the cardiovascular fitness of the individual (Frey, 2021). If you notice a trend where it takes the heart longer to recover after an exercise bout than it usually does, you may need to take more rest. This could include more rest between bouts or more rest days to allow for recovery. Please note that there are medical conditions and medications that can have an effect on how the heart behaves on average; these are general guidelines and principles.
Be sure that you are getting sufficient sleep and rest to improve recovery. The amount of sleep that you require will vary from person to person; it is recommended that you get between seven and nine hours on average, though this varies with age (CDC, 2022). You may need more sleep when you are just starting out with an exercise routine or have changed variables in your training. This is vital to seeing progress on any fitness journey, as sleep and rest allow the body to recover. If you find that you are having multiple suboptimal workouts in a row, you may be at risk of burnout. Be gentle with your body, slow things down for the remainder of the week, and try to get more sleep before re-examining where you are and making adjustments as needed. Exercise should not be all or nothing; try to find activities that you enjoy, as consistency is key to seeing progress.
Food intake and hydration status are also important for muscle growth and recovery. Sufficient protein and macronutrient balance, as well as sufficient micronutrients, are important. This may be an area where it could be helpful to seek the assistance of a dietician or a nutritionist. It is not necessary, but if you feel completely overwhelmed, you may find that seeking help from someone within this field may be useful. As with anything, please do your own research to figure out what best suits you.
Progressive overload is the concept that you can do more over a period of time (Chertoff, 2020). To apply this to your exercise programme, alter one of these variables—weight, range of motion, repetitions, tempo, adding an explosive element, or rest periods to continue to see progress over time. This may look like sit squats, to squatting parallel to the ground, to deep squats, then reducing range to parallel and adding weight, to weighted full range of motion squats, to unweighted jump squats to weighted jump squats. This would differ depending on your training goals. Ideally, you would change a variable every couple of weeks, you may have to change facets like range of motion while incorporating other variables. This differs from muscle confusion and does not mean that you should not try to exercise a muscle in different planes of motion.
This is related to the concept of "muscle confusion," which states that changing exercises frequently prevents the body from becoming accustomed to a particular exercise, resulting in faster progress (Rossi, 2017). There are a few problems with this: it's difficult to track your progress, the muscles can't get confused, and you could limit any progress you see as adaptations are necessary; the muscle must be worked consistently over a period of time to see adaptations and change. Approaching the muscle with different exercises or the principles of progressive overload as stated above (changing weight, reps, or rest periods) has been shown to yield results over time (Zaman, 2016). Incorporating progressive overload and periodization can yield optimal results and adaptations.
Progressive overload will be non-linear over time, much of this is due to how the body adapts and changes to exercise. Form and technique become vital as loads increase. It can be detrimental if you attempt to lift weights that you are not ready for, or perform lifts with poor technique or insufficient support like a coach or a spotter. Always prioritise proper mechanics, form and most of all listen to your body. Improvements will be slower the longer you train or if you have included weight loss or multiple goals to your training. This is not to say you should not have multiple goals, but it is good to be aware that you may not see progression as quickly as you would with a singular focus. As the body adapts to exercise the improvements observed by a beginner decreases and progress begins to look like an increase of half a pound for a lift, or a time improvement of a fifth of a second for high level athletes.
It's common to think of intensity as only being applicable to exercises within a single session or within a short amount of time. It's important to take that into account when looking at exercise in terms of weeks and months. Changes to your workout routine may be required, such as adding less impact by incorporating Pilates or yoga into your routine or taking a week or two off from exercise. Keep in mind that even high-performance athletes take complete breaks from exercise during the off season.
Periodization is a concept of systematic progression or a resistance training programme that follows a predictable pattern of change in training variables, including intensity and rest, in the short term, which is important for peak development over the long term (Lorenz, Reiman, & Walker, 2010). Paying attention to the variables discussed earlier, such as how your body is feeling generally, it's better to allow yourself a break or lower the intensity to allow for recovery than to continually have substandard workouts and risk either burnout or injury. If you exercise consistently, periodization may look like taking a weeklong break every two to three months, depending on your goals and training intensity.
Consistency is the key to seeing long term changes and results with any exercise programme. This is why it is not uncommon to see eight- to 12 week programmes. There are a multitude of factors to take into account beyond just a training programme to see results over a prolonged period of time. If you notice that you are no longer seeing results and you have been consistent in sticking with your exercise routine, You may benefit from examining and incorporating the various principles discussed above. As with anything, all bodies are unique to the individual. What works for one person may not work for another, so it is best to take an individualistic approach to things like exercise to ensure that your needs are met.
Bailey, R. R. (2017, September 13). Goal Setting and Action Planning for Health BehaviorChange. Retrieved February 12, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6796229/
Bishop, A., & Woods, A. (2008). Recovery from Training: A Brief Review Brief Review : The Journal of Strength and Conditioning ResearchJournal of Strength and Conditioning Research,22 (3), 1015–1024. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e31816eb518
CDC (2022, September 14). How much sleep do I need? Retrieved February 11, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html
Chertoff (2020, July 30). Progressive Overload: What It Is, Examples, and Tips Retrieved February 21, 2023, from https://www.healthline.com/health/progressive-overload
Frey (2021, January 27) How to Use Recovery Heart Rate for Fitness Retrieved February 10, 2023, from https://www.verywellfit.com/what-is-recovery-heart-rate-3495557
Kronemer, C. (2017, July 14). Does exercise lower or raise cortisol levels? Retrieved February 10, 2023, from https://www.nfpt.com/blog/exercise-lower-raise-cortisol-levels
Lindberg. (2019, March 8). RPE: What Does This Scale Tell You About Exercise? Retrieved February 11, 2023, from https://www.healthline.com/health/RPE
Lorenz, D. S., Reiman, M. P., & Walker, J. C. (2010). Periodization: Current Review and Suggested Implementation for Athletic Rehabilitation andSports Health,2(6), 509–518. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738110375910
Zaman, M. (2016, August 24). Debunking Bro Science: Do I Really Need to Confuse My Muscles? Retrieved February 12, 2023, from https://www.shape.com/fitness/tips/muscle-confusion-real-thing
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