The Scourge of the Plateau

By Michael Krueger 
If you have been a regular exerciser for any amount of time, you have no doubt run into a period of time where the gains slow or stop and no amount of effort seems to get the ball rolling again. What causes it, and what can be done to beat it?
New Phrases, Old Ideas
The biggest new idea in plateau busting comes in the form of “muscle confusion.” This isn’t really anything new, it is simply an old idea renamed, repackaged, and expertly marketed. It was called “try something a little different.”
The “try something different” idea meant switching up your reps and sets, trying an incline or seated move instead of flat or standing, or changing the order of your exercises. Now it is suggested you do something completely different to have any effect, sort of a “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” approach. If you had been making good, solid progress on your routine, then there isn’t any science-based reason to make wholesale changes. Some small tweaking may be all that is necessary to get the ball rolling again. I can guarantee you that if you take your bench press and add 20 pounds of iron to the bar and switch the rep scheme from 3 sets of 10 to 5 sets of 5, your muscles will be mighty confused.
Real-World Solutions
The best way to avoid plateaus is to design a program involving some sort of periodization. This concept was originally developed in the former Soviet Union to ensure athletes would peak for a particular competition. They used very precise and intense training procedures, stressing progression along a predetermined track. At a specific time, they would cycle the intensity down and build it back up again over and over until the desired level of strength, speed, or endurance was achieved for a particular competition. Unfortunately, they cycled huge doses of steroids as well; but that aside, the basic muscle-building concept has some real world, nondrug-using applications.
Most of us have no specific competition in mind that we are specifically train for (Combat Challenge aside, but I’ll talk about that some other time). Our training is for a steady progression of functional fitness rather than a one-shot competition peak. As firefighters, you need to be at your peak condition every day, and that in itself is a huge challenge to undertake without overtraining.
If your program is well-designed, you may progress more or less steadily for quite a while. This doesn’t mean that every exercise you are doing will continue to improve during the same time frame. Different exercises will progress at differing rates, depending on a number of factors, including your specific abilities with regard to an exercise as well as the priority you assign it in your program. Progression means that you are regularly adding reps to a set or weight to the bar. No matter how well you are doing at the moment, the time will come when progression grinds to a halt. The only thing that changes regardless of how hard you try is your attitude, and that isn’t changing for the better. This is the time to make some alterations.
The idea of cycling is periodization at its simplest: just lower the weight and increase the reps and perhaps the sets, or change the exercise order and start the progression over again. If your program was indeed working, the new starting weight will be more than the weight you began the previous cycle with. For example, you may have stalled at 5 x 200 for 3 sets and you began at 10 x 135 for 5 sets. Now when you cycle back down, you may be able to begin at 10 x 165 for 5 sets and work your way back up. If you are progressing well, perhaps your next peak will be at 5 x 225 for 3 sets and then you cycle down again and start over.
This type of simplified periodization doesn’t use a predetermined calendar time frame. Some people recommend going for 8 or 10 or whatever number of weeks and then cycling down, even if you haven’t peaked yet. It makes more sense to me to milk all you can from a cycle; it may go on for many weeks or months before the increases stall. It all depends on the individual.
The stress on the muscles continue to change as the weight, reps, sets, and exercise order change, always presenting a new challenge without actually changing the whole program. This way you are able to see the improvements over time within the framework of the original workout as well as maintain your original goal.
Chronic Program Changing
A sure way to kill progression, enthusiasm, and results is to change what you are doing without a good reason. Often people will quit on a program when the results don’t come fast enough, blaming the workout rather than seeing that the fault lies in the effort and intensity they are putting into it. If something truly isn’t working or if it is causing pain or injury, by all means drop it and put in something new. If this situation presents itself, it is important to be honest in your assessment, because if the workout is simply hard, then it means it is probably working and you just need to keep at it.

There are only so many safe and effective exercises for building strength and muscle. Some charlatans would have you believe that they have magic machines, supplements, and routines that can make you big and strong. Even the “muscle confusion” folks admit that there isn’t anything new in their workouts other than how they are presented and marketed. By the way, despite the hype, if one of these programs is working for you within the context of your goals, then stay with it; there isn’t anything wrong with it.


Sometimes You Really Need a Change

Everyone who exercises regularly can tell you that there are days, weeks, or even months and years that for whatever reason the fitness thrill is gone and they are just slogging through in an effort to wait out the doldrums. Sometimes this is caused by overtraining, but usually it can just be chalked up to it being “just the way it is.” There isn’t anything specifically going on in your training to indicate a problem, but everything good has disappeared from your workout. They aren’t fun, challenging, or effective. This is the time to make some major changes.
Of course, one person’s major change is another person’s tweak. This is a fact of life both in and out of the gym. As a firefighter, you need to maintain your fitness even if your enthusiasm has temporarily waned. So what do you do?
The simplest way to reinvigorate your workout is to make a new goal or find a new challenge. This might be a physical challenge like competing in a sport or even something nonphysical like taking a class outside of your field. A change in one part of your life can cause a major attitude shift across the board and get everything, including your workouts, moving forward again.
It is also possible that you just need a break from your workouts. A week or so out of the gym every few months or so isn’t a bad idea. You may find that after a short break you will be chomping at the bit to get back at it.
It’s Your Life
You know yourself better than anyone else. When progress grinds to a halt, it’s not always your workout that is the culprit. Review all aspects of your life, what you’ve been doing, and how you’ve been living. Inadequacies in your sleep and nutrition are frequently contributing factors. Identify the causes of your difficulties, and make some positive changes that will put some enjoyment back in your workouts and get you moving forward again.


Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at 


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