We all reach that stage in our exercise lives at some point. It just seems that nothing much extra happens -- no more fat loss or muscle gain. For some it seems like endless progress because of a low fitness starting level; others reach this progress plateau quickly. Here are some practical tips to kick-start a stalled fitness engine.
Set reasonable goals and expectations. This may seem obvious, but not to everyone. Girls, you can't get rippled abs within a few months of giving birth; and guys, ten years of booze does not a quick six-pack make. Get real, get to work, learn to love small gains and log, log, log.
Make a note of your progress so that you know exactly when your weight loss, muscle enhancement or waist size reduction starts to plateau. This is important because unless you note it or chart it, it's easy to imagine things are better or worse than they are.
Use a decent set of scales with the ability to measure body fat. So that you can really tell how much progress you are making in losing fat and building muscle, get access to a set of electronic scales that show you body weight plus fat mass. Often, your total weight will not change but your muscle will increase and your fat mass will decrease. Scales made by Omron and Tanita are good quality and select models include this functionality. If you can't afford such a scale, try to find a gym, health club, medical institution or public place that provides such a service.
Watch your diet and nutrition. Keep the saturated fat and refined carbohydrates DOWN! I want no more than 25 percent total fat, and no flaky, flimsy, fatty pastries, refined sugars, colas, biscuits, cakes, sweets and junk like that. Just get rid of it, period. None.
For weight gainers, I want low-fat protein, mainly poultry meats, non-fat dairy, fish like tuna and salmon, and beans and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Make sure you eat enough. See my article The Weight Trainer's Bodybuilding Diet. The most fundamental error that hopeful weight and muscle gainers make is not eating enough quality food, and I don't necessarily mean protein.
Load up those muscles. To put on muscle and lose fat you need to overload the muscles sufficiently to promote muscle growth. This means exercising all muscle groups at least twice each week and preferably three times a week. See my Basic Strength and Muscle program for an example.
Now if you find yourself at a plateau after several months of this program, try to squeeze in another session, making it 3 or 4 sessions each week if you feel your constitution can take the extra training. Bear in mind that at this point you should still be exercising to failure or thereabouts, at 12 repetitions for 3 sets for the set number of exercises in the program. You may have adjusted the weight load upward to account for strength gains.
Eat and drink according to your workout. Meal timing according to exercise intensity and workout duration is one of the most crucial aspects of any exercise regimen, and weight training is no exception. Take a pre-exercise protein 'shooter' with about 20 grams of protein. Skim milk will do. Take some sports drink with carbohydrate if you exercise for more than an hour at high intensity. Protein is not necessary at this time. Within 30 minutes of a solid workout, eat or drink 20 grams of protein with at least the same amount of carbohydrate and more if the workout has been of long duration and high in intensity and includes cardio. Don't skimp on carbohydrate if you train hard for 4 or more days each week. You need it to protect your muscle protein from breakdown and to replace glycogen stores.
Rest and recover. Every 4 to 6 weeks take an easy week where you do about half your normal training, or full training at half the intensity. This provides a 'window' in which the body can replenish itself and build even stronger. The principle of weight training and muscle building is progressive overload, muscle damage, repair and new growth. Give this process a chance to occur.
Do some cardio. Some weight trainers and bodybuilders live in fear that aerobic exercise will delay or even inhibit muscle growth. Aerobic exercise is good for your health, burns calories and fat and can even assist in muscle growth. Keep it to less than 50 minutes a session at low to moderate intensity and it won't cause a problem for muscle growth. In fact, a good cardio session can help exhaust the muscles of glycogen (glucose) and give you an even greater anabolic 'rush' when insulin, a muscle building hormone, is called upon to rebuild tissue with new growth factors, protein and glucose.
Try an intensity change. If you're not getting any further after many months, try a change. The body responds to variation in intensity and program. If weight loss is your goal, try a circuit program like Circuit Fit. If muscle building and fitness is your goal and you're a bit stale, then switch from 3 sets of 12 reps to 4 sets of eight reps, or try pyramid or drop sets where you alter the weights and reps up or down for each set. See the Best Weight Training Guide for details.
Switch the time of workout. I can't guarantee success with this one, but it's worth a try. Bio-rhythms can be different for people and this may affect the way you train and your results. For example, cortisol, a natural muscle-breaking hormone, is highest in the early morning for most people. These patterns can vary from person to person, so perhaps you could get better results from finding the best training time for you -- morning or afternoon.
Get plenty of rest, relaxation and sleep and don't overtrain. Again, this may not sound critical but it is. Stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol can play havoc with muscle development and fat loss. Being stressed produces a catabolic or 'breaking down' internal body environment which leads to muscle degradation, in some cases fat accumulation, and susceptibility to infection. Overtraining can create a similar internal environment. Rest and grow strong.