How to Avoid an Exercise Plateau

One of the key principles of exercise is the concept of adaptation. As you perform new exercises and workouts, your body adapts to the effort. For example, if you can only jog for 15 minutes when you start jogging, eventually your heart and lungs adapt, build strength and stamina, and you can jog for 30 minutes or longer. If you can only lift 100 pounds, your muscles will adapt after you start strenght exercises, they’ll grow larger and you’ll be able to lift more weight.

This means that as you perform and repeat exercises and workouts, your body grows stronger and the activities become easier to perform. This leads to a decrease in your benefits, including weight loss, if you continue to perform the same workout routines that did so much good in the beginning.

The simplest way to avoid these plateaus is to vary your workout routines. Tony Horton, the creator of P90X, requires people using his program to change their exercise routines every two weeks to avoid hitting a plateau. He calls this “muscle confusion,” which is his name for addressing the adaptations that make exercise easier. Following are some ways to mix up your workouts to avoid a plateau.

Change Equipment

Don’t fall in love with an elliptical, home gym or resistance band set. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a particular piece of equipment and using it long-term, but it should only be part of your workout routine. Try adding body-weight exercises, or calisthenics, workouts to your weekly training. Take a week off from your treadmill or exercise bike and try a rowing machine, resistance bands, running stairs or jumping rope. Try changing equipment every 15 minutes, or at least every other workout to add variety.

Change Heart Rates

If you perform steady-state cardio workouts, try adding interval training for a week. You’ll exercise at a higher heart rate for 30 to 60 seconds, then recover at a walking pace for one to two minutes. Your workout will consist of continuous, start-and-stop intervals. This will burn more calories than a steady-state aerobic workout, work your muscles differently and burn more calories. Adding strength-training workouts lets you exercise at a lower heart rate while building muscle. Check with your doctor before you try high-intensity interval training to make sure it’s OK with you.

Change Resistance Levels

Instead of raising your heart rate with a low gear setting and fast pedaling on your exercise bike, or a low resistance setting and fast rowing on your ergometer, increase the resistance and raise your heart by performing your reps slowly. Use heavier dumbbells to create a circuit-training workout, stoppign for a to 30-second break after each set of 15- to 25-rep exercises instead of holding light dumbbells nonstop during a cardio workout.

Change Your Workouts

Feel free to use your elliptical machine for one or two week, but give it a rest for a week or two and try body-weight routines, resistance band circuit training, kettlebell swinging or tennis or racquetball. Alternating low-resistance cardio workouts with high-resistance strength training is a good way to “confuse” your muscles and make them work harder. Try alternating exercise methods every week, or adding a new routine every third week while you take a break from your favorite cardio machine workout routine.

Additional Resources

American Council on Exercise: What Are the Benefits of Varying Your Workout Routine?

Mayo Clinic: Getting Past a Weight-Loss Plateau