You probably step inside a gym or training facility with goals. You’re probably not there to waste time. If you’re going to spend time, energy, and money, you expect to see results.
But what if you’re stuck on a plateau? What if you haven’t seen much progress in the last few weeks, months, or even (gulp!) years?
Let’s learn about plateaus and what to do if you’ve hit one.
Disclaimer: You shouldn’t expect overnight progress, but any improvement would be a welcome outcome at this point.
Why are you stuck?
How did you get here? What could you possibly be doing wrong? Are your expectations too unrealistic? Is it time for an overhaul?
All fair questions. They represent a big, important first step — being aware that you’re stuck and at least planning on doing something about it.
Several factors could be at play:
You’re going through the motions for the sake of it
Are you just showing up doing what you’ve always done? Is your workout a bit robotic and on autopilot? It might be time to snap out of it.
You’re too comfortable
Have you done the same workout for years because it’s what you’ve always known? Maybe you’ve lived in that same old training silo for too long and are in need of something new.
You’re stuck in your beliefs
Maybe you’re a bit hard-headed and believe that your approach is the only one that will work. Since your lifting buddies still do the same thing, why not you?
Your ego is an accomplice
Attached to your beliefs is your ego. Maybe you have such deep ownership of what you’re doing that it prevents any new ideas or perspectives from seeping in.
You lack the motivation to learn more
Lastly, you may not be the lifelong learner type. You possibly adopted a program to follow many years ago and have been too lazy and unmotivated to educate yourself on new things.
Many lifters who want to build muscle or lose body fat often start by publishing their BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) for everyone to see but then rely solely on serendipity or luck to figure out the rest. They think it’s like an automatic switch. The goal is set, and the rest is cake.
That old mindset further says that all you have to do is keep that goal at the forefront, and all will be fine. If you run into any obstacles and give up, that just means you don’t want it bad enough.
What to do instead
Goals are great, but what you need is another approach. A reciprocal perspective that has you working on habits instead of goals.
Yes, you need an ultimate goal, especially if it’s one that has an end result such as a competition or a planned event like a birthday or anniversary. But to achieve that goal you’ll need to devise steps to get there and also develop positive habits to accomplish each step.
Adopting habits that get you to your goal is the essence of achievement. In other words, you can’t just think of your goal and automatically do everything it takes to get there. You need small, deliberate, daily steps to inch your way forward.
Let’s say, you want to gain 10 pounds of muscle (goal). You train five times per week for 16 weeks (steps). You also will start to pack your gym clothes and meals, and go to the gym right after work (habit).
Habits are those small steps that make up a thousand-mile journey. Focusing only on the goal can quickly become overwhelming and frustrating because you haven’t really set up any habits to get you there.
Here are a few training habits to try out:
- Pack a gym bag the night before.
- Review your planned workout before each session.
- Cut out time to stretch after every workout.
- Go to bed at a specific time every night to get adequate rest.
- Wear a watch to time your rest periods between sets.
Here are a few dieting habits to try out:
- Pre-cook your weekly meals every Sunday afternoon at a specific time.
- Have a protein shake after each workout.
- Wake up early to ensure you can prepare a healthy breakfast.
- Carry extra water with you throughout the day, so you’re never without.
- Have go-to snacks for when you’re hungry in the middle of the day.
Progress tracking is one of the most important habits you can adopt. Writing things down will solidify your adherence to whatever you’ve set out to do.
In fact, a study cited in an article from Psychology Today concluded that handwritten note-taking was superior to digital note-taking . It stated that:
- Jotting things down on paper is faster.
- Handwritten notes tend to be more accurate and have personalized flairs.
- Handwriting in a notebook triggers more robust brain activity.
- Writing by hand is associated with stronger neural encoding and memory retrieval.
Additionally, the fMRI neuroimaging data from the study “suggest that the act of physically writing things down on paper is associated with more robust brain activation in multiple areas and better memory recall.”
Keep a detailed notebook on your meals each day and energy levels, training sessions complete with exercises, sets, reps, weight used, and important measurements such as weight, body fat (if applicable), circumference measurements, and sleep habits.
The more you track, the more you’ll be in touch with where you’re going and if you need to change anything along the way.
Just be sure to write it down by hand. Digital is convenient, cool, and novel, but nothing beats a good-ole fashioned notebook.
Must Read: How To Track Your Progress Like a Pro
You will inevitably encounter bumps in the road, obstacles, and setbacks. That’s life. Expect them. The trick is how you manage them.
Most lifters, fitness enthusiasts, and even beginners will traditionally start from scratch when they run into something that derails them. They either scrap everything and set an arbitrary date to restart, or they are a part of the Monday crew. That is no matter what sidetracks them, they will always start back on a Monday.
Create the mindset that you’ll restart the very next day no matter what happens. Avoid setting some unwritten rule that you’ll just start back on a specific day of the week or whenever you feel like it. Wherever you are right now, simply start back up the next day.
This gives you no way out. It squashes even the thought of coming up with excuses. It’s as if you’re running a race and trip and fall. You wouldn’t just lay there and give up. You would get right back up and finish the dang thing.
If it ain’t broke…
Finally, when things are going well, resist switching things up for the sake of it. Don’t fall prey to the shiny things syndrome. It goes like this: Everything is humming along nicely and then, lo and behold, you see a new, radical program or diet guaranteeing faster and better results.
Human beings love new and novel things. We gravitate toward the latest and convince ourselves that one thing will be the key to unlocking our potential once and for all.
If things are going well, resist. That is why keeping track of your progress, making small tweaks, and trudging forward is the best approach for long-term success.
Setting realistic goals and developing healthy, real-world habits are essential for sustainable success. Lofty, abstract, unmeasurable goals will lead you nowhere. They fulfill a short-term desire to appear as if you’re progressing, or at least feel like you’ve set the tone but only end up forcing you into a dead-end.
If you’re stuck or are currently submerged in a plateau, find out why, ask yourself tough questions, adopt good habits, closely track your results, weather setbacks, and keep moving forward. It might be just what you need to get better results.
- Umejima K, Ibaraki T, Yamazaki T and Sakai KL (2021) Paper Notebooks vs. Mobile Devices: Brain Activation Differences During Memory Retrieval. Front. Behav. Neurosci. 15:634158. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2021.634158
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