Beat Training Plateaus

by Jason Karp, PhD on Jul 14, 2011

Plateaus are boring. They are flat, unchanging, predictable. Many people who have been exercising for a while reach a plateau, during which their fitness level doesn’t change and they experience a period of stability: they can’t lose more weight, they can’t seem to create a leaner look and they can’t increase the number of reps they lift or the amount of weight they're lifting. What does it take for them to bust through the plateau to reach higher levels of fitness and achieve greater results? Try periodization.

Periodize Training Programs
Periodization is a method of maximizing fitness and performance by structuring training programs into periods or phases, using programmed variation of training loads and recovery in a cyclic fashion. It involves focusing the training stimulus on one or two variables at a time and manipulating and systematically changing those variables over the course of the training program. By varying the training, you change the stimulus so that clients continue to adapt.

A number of studies have shown that training using a programmed variation of volume and intensity produces better results (e.g., greater strength gains and a greater decrease in percent body fat) than training without variation, although the research is limited to strength training (Kraemer et al. 2000; O’Bryant, Byrd & Stone 1988; Stowers et al. 1983; Willoughby 1993). While variation is vital to preventing plateaus, you should make all changes to your clients’ programs with concrete training goals in mind. Never make changes on a random basis simply for the sake of variety. When you design periodized programs, the training emphasis and sequencing should be guided by your clients’ strengths and weaknesses, with more time spent on aspects of fitness that attend to their strengths.

There are a few different ways to schedule and organize the variation of training stimuli. The traditional way is called linear periodization, during which the training program initially builds in volume before decreasing in volume and increasing in intensity. The opposite structure, reverse linear periodization, begins with higher intensity and progresses to lower intensity and higher volume. Finally, with a nonlinear structure, or undulating periodization, the volume and intensity change from week to week or even from day to day throughout the program. Which method is best is hard to say. Studies have shown mixed results. It seems that undulating periodization and linear periodization are most effective for increasing muscular strength, while reverse linear periodization is most effective for increasing muscular endurance.

For sample cardio and strength training program designs for busting past plateaus, see “Busting Through Training Plateaus” in the May issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

Allow for Adequate Recovery
Recovery may be the most overlooked aspect of training. Improvements in fitness occur during the recovery period between workouts, not during the workout itself. When clients finish a workout, they are weaker, not stronger. How much weaker they are depends on the severity of the training stress. Positive physiological adaptations to exercise occur when the alternation between stress and recovery is correctly timed. Following a training stress, clients adapt and physiologically overcompensate, so that when they encounter the same stress again it does not cause the same degree of physiological disruption. If recovery between workouts is not adequate, your clients will become fatigued and their ability to adapt to subsequent workouts will decline. They’ll adapt most to their training when they have recovered from previous training and are fully prepared to tolerate a new training stimulus.

How quickly and completely clients recover from their workouts depends on a number of factors, including age, training intensity, nutrition, stress and level of cardiovascular fitness. The most significant of these factors is age: younger clients recover faster between workouts, enabling them to perform intense workouts more often. Workout intensity is the next biggest factor, with higher-intensity workouts requiring longer recovery times. Nutrition also influences recovery: a lack of nutrients or a delay in consuming nutrients postworkout slows recovery. High stress levels can likewise hinder recovery. On the other hand, since recovery is an aerobic process, a high level of cardiovascular fitness speeds recovery because the circulatory system is able to deliver nutrients and remove metabolites more quickly.

For more information and a complete set of references, please see “Busting Through Training Plateaus” in the online IDEA Library or in the May 2011 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

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About the Author

Jason Karp, PhD

Jason Karp, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

Dr. Jason Karp is owner of, a state-of-the-science running coaching and personal training company in San Diego, California. The 2011 IDEA International Personal Trainer of the Year, ...