Why You Might Have Hit a Plateau With Your Fitness Goals

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Reviewed by Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD


From hitting a wall with your workouts to stalled weight loss, plateaus can occur at any stage.

But all that hard work hasn’t been for nothing. Plateaus, although frustrating, can be useful.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what causes them, how to push through, and when to consider embracing the plateau and shifting into maintenance mode.

What is a plateau in fitness?

A plateau refers to a period of time where you feel like you’re no longer making progress. For anyone who’s been actively pursuing fitness for a while, you know the signs: maybe you’ve stopped losing weight or gaining muscle, you’re bored by your workouts, or you’re struggling to find energy and recovery properly.

Progress isn’t linear, and the gains you make initially aren’t sustainable at the same rate indefinitely. Newcomers to health and fitness often experience rapid initial results, which they might expect to last forever.

However, as you become more seasoned, progress becomes more challenging, and you’ll inevitably hit plateaus more often.

Does a plateau only refer to your workout routine?

Plateaus can happen in any aspect of your wellness journey. Remember that “wellness” incorporates more than exercise—it’s about your whole, multidimensional health. Also called “Deep Health,” this refers to the many aspects of your lifestyle that work together to contribute to your overall well-being, including:

  • Social health
  • Physical health
  • Emotional health
  • Mental health
  • Environmental health
  • Existential health

While we often talk about plateaus in the context of your workout or fitness routine—you can’t increase the weight you’re deadlifting, or lose another few pounds of body fat—it’s not the only place a plateau can happen.

Sometimes working out harder might not be the answer, and you’ll have to address one of the other dimensions of your Deep Health—whether that’s working on your sleep, mindset, or supportive relationships.

Is a plateau always a bad thing?

Contrary to what you may have heard, a plateau is not inherently negative. It’s a natural and expected phase that occurs for various reasons (which we’ll cover in more detail below).

A plateau is simply your body’s way of providing valuable feedback.

A plateau may actually signify that you’ve reached a level of fitness worth preserving. In fact, learning how to navigate and sustain a plateau is a valuable skill. It ensures that you don’t lose the progress you’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Just as breaking through plateaus can be essential to keep working toward your goals, mastering the art of maintaining your current state of wellness also contributes to the overall success of your health endeavors.

Ultimately, that’s many people’s long-term goal: to be able to sustain the progress they’ve made at the apex of their achievement.

Why does a plateau happen?

The more you understand why you’ve hit the plateau, the better you’ll be able to adjust your plan accordingly to move beyond it.

We’ll list seven common reasons why you might have hit a plateau, plus some initial fixes to try.

Plateau reason #1: Repetitively performing the same workout routines

A fitness plateau can happen when you stick to the same workout routine without variety. While routine helps you build habits, your body adapts to the repetitive stress, which leads to diminished returns.

▶ To work through this plateau: Diversify your exercises, introducing new challenges that keep your muscles engaged and responsive. For example, if you’ve primarily taken cycling classes, it might be time to include some weightlifting.

Plateau reason #2: Performing ineffective training routines

Not all exercises yield the same results for everyone. If your current routine doesn’t target specific muscle groups effectively, you might hit a workout plateau.

▶ To work through this plateau: Focus on exercises that align with your goals and provide adequate challenges. Once you’ve determined your goals, research and select workouts that specifically target the necessary muscle groups.

Plateau reason #3: Not pushing yourself hard enough (Intensity not high enough)

In fitness, intensity matters. If you’re not pushing yourself hard enough during workouts, your body won’t experience the necessary stress to prompt muscle growth.

▶ To work through this plateau: Gradually increase the intensity of your exercises and challenge your limits without compromising safety. This could mean increasing the weight you’re lifting or the tempo at which you’re completing your exercises. Take note of the number of reps you perform and/or the pace you move through your workouts so you can measure progress over time.

Plateau reason #4: Not progressively overloading your muscles

Muscles adapt to stress over time. If you’re not progressively increasing resistance or intensity, your muscles won’t get stronger. Plateaus can occur when your workout fails to challenge your muscles beyond their current capacity.

▶ To work through this plateau: Regularly increase the resistance or intensity to stimulate ongoing improvements.

Plateau reason #5: Training inconsistently

Keeping a consistent workout schedule is one of the keys to fitness. Irregular workout patterns can lead to plateaus as your body doesn’t receive a consistent stimulus for growth.

▶ To work through this plateau: Establish a regular workout schedule and stick to it to maintain steady progress.

Plateau reason #6: Needing to adjust your nutrition plan

Your eating habits can also cause plateaus. If you’re experiencing persistent fatigue or energy crashes, your nutritional intake may be falling short of your body’s needs.

Your body needs certain nutrients and enough calories for peak functionality, and if it doesn’t receive those, you might not be able to perform your workouts as well.

▶ To work through this plateau: Try to incorporate a higher proportion of nutrient dense, minimally processed foods into your diet so you get the macronutrients and micronutrients you need to achieve your goals.

Plateau reason #7: Not paying attention to other lifestyle factors

Fitness is more than just exercise. Ignoring lifestyle factors such as nutrition, sleep, and stress can contribute to plateaus. Your body needs proper fuel, recovery, and stress management to thrive.

▶ To work through this plateau: Try to focus on incorporating high-nutrition foods into your diet, creating an atmosphere of calm before bed, or learning healthy techniques for coping with stress.

How do you know if you’ve hit a plateau?

Here are some things to look out for.

Plateau sign #1: Your workouts feel easy

When your workouts start feeling noticeably easier than they used to, it’s a strong indicator that you might be experiencing a fitness plateau. The initial challenge that once accompanied your exercises diminishes, suggesting that your body has adapted to the current routine. Pay attention to changes in perceived effort during your workouts.

Plateau sign #2: You’re not noticing progress

Lack of progress is a clear sign of a fitness plateau. If you’re not seeing improvements in strength, endurance, or other fitness parameters over an extended period, it’s time to reassess your approach. Tracking your performance and noting any stagnation can help identify when you’ve hit a plateau.

Plateau sign #3: Hitting a standstill with a particular exercise

Whether it’s running at a consistent speed, lifting heavier weights, or performing more repetitions, a plateau becomes evident when you can’t seem to push past a certain point. If you consistently struggle to make progress in a particular aspect of your fitness routine, it may be time for an adjustment.

Plateau sign #4: You’re feeling fatigued

If you’re experiencing persistent levels of tiredness, or you feel like your energy skyrockets then drops, your wellness routine—including your workout and your nutrition plan—may not be providing your body with the support and fuel it needs.

Excessive fatigue or brain fog may point to nutrient imbalances or insufficient caloric intake. On the other hand, it might indicate that you’re training too hard and not allowing your body the rest it needs. Either way, this could lead to a plateau since your body doesn’t have the resources it needs to recover and continue making progress.

How to break through a plateau

While you don’t always need to break through a plateau, it’s often worth trying.

These seven methods can help you push through if that’s what your body needs.

Or, if they don’t work, they can let you know that it’s time to shift into maintenance mode.

Plateau breakthrough #1: Upend your routine

To overcome a workout plateau, consider a radical shift in your routine.

If cardio has been your mainstay, integrate strength training to challenge your muscles in new ways.

Conversely, if you’ve been predominantly lifting weights, experiment with machines, resistance bands, or high intensity interval training to introduce variety.

Altering the type and intensity of your workouts not only targets different muscle groups but also prevents your body from acclimating to a specific routine.

Plateau breakthrough #2: Focus on nutrition

Breaking through a plateau isn’t only about changing your exercise routine—it’s about addressing all aspects of health.

Assess your nutrition to ensure it supports your fitness goals, providing the energy and nutrients your body requires.

Experiment with meal timing and frequency to optimize energy levels throughout the day, preventing slumps and cravings.

Hydration also plays an important role in performance, so make sure you’re drinking enough water daily.

Plateau breakthrough #3: Try something completely new

Introduce novelty to shake things up.

If solo workouts have been your norm, join a group fitness class for a change of pace. If the gym is your usual setting, consider engaging in a local sports league or trying a new outdoor activity over the weekend.

The unfamiliarity of a new challenge not only sparks physical adaptation but might also rekindle your motivation.

Beyond exercise, shake up your nutrition. Experiment with different foods. Try new recipes. Explore a different dietary approach. These can all provide the nutritional variety your body needs for renewed progress.

Plateau breakthrough #4: Focus on progressive overload

If your focus is on strength training, a plateau may arise when you neglect to consistently challenge your muscles. Avoid this plateau (or push through it) by gradually increasing the resistance or intensity of your exercises.

Carefully track your current lifting capacity and strategically plan increased increments of resistance.

Aim for gradual but steady progression, whether it’s adding more weight, increasing repetitions, or adjusting the intensity of your workout.

Plateau breakthrough #5: Rest, recover, repeat

Overtraining or consistently pushing your body without adequate recovery can lead to plateaus. To break through, incorporate planned periods of rest into your routine.

During rest, the body repairs and strengthens itself, allowing muscles to recover and adapt to the stress of previous workouts. This process helps you avoid burnout, reduce the risk of injury, and ultimately overcome plateaus.

Consider incorporating active recovery days, where you engage in low-intensity activities to promote circulation and flexibility without imposing excessive stress on your body.

Always listen to your body’s signals. Rest and recovery are not signs of weakness but essential components of a well-rounded fitness routine—and life.

Plateau breakthrough #6: Practice healthy sleep hygiene

While a full eight hours a night of uninterrupted sleep may not be realistic for everyone, you can take proactive measures to help yourself get a good amount of rest.

Turn off devices well before bedtime, make your room quiet, cool, and comfortable, and try to stick to a consistent sleep-wake schedule.

Helping yourself learn healthy sleep habits can help you feel better, manage your weight, reduce stress, and improve your mood—among many other benefits.

Plateau breakthrough #7: Work with a health coach

When facing a plateau, enlisting the support of a health coach can be a game-changer.

A health coach brings expertise in nutrition, exercise, anatomy, physiology, sleep, stress, and recovery to help you uncover the reasons behind your plateau and navigate potential solutions tailored to your unique situation.

A health coach specializing in exercise and movement can design a progressive and personalized workout plan, ensuring that you’re incorporating variety and addressing potential weaknesses. They can also analyze your diet to ensure it aligns with your fitness goals. They may also help you improve other lifestyle factors such as sleep, stress management, and overall well-being.

Additionally, a health coach can help you determine whether this plateau is an opportunity for a breakthrough—or a sign that it’s time to focus on maintenance.

We’re here to help you reach your goals

The coaches at Precision Nutrition can help you make sustainable lifestyle changes to reach your goals. With one of our health coaches by your side, you’ll never be left alone to figure it all out. We provide expert nutritional and wellness advice that’s customized to your goals and lifestyle.

Learn more about our 1:1 Coaching Program and find out how we can help you transform your life for the better in a sustainable, healthy way.

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