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“How do you get clients through their training plateaus?”

Feb 20, 2014

Tricks of the Trade

Clients who have hit a plateau may need some additional tweaking of their program or lifestyle to get them to progress toward their goals. In my studio, we focus on the trifecta for success: nutrition, stress management and sleep.

When it comes to nutrition, it’s not always about compliance; finding nuances with each client is key. For example, utilizing starch for postworkout nutrition and for meals early in the day can aid in energy maintenance. Another complexity of a plateau is adequate caloric consumption. There are times when a client has restricted consumption too much, allowing the body to halt weight loss. This is when we reiterate the importance of appropriately fueling the body’s energy for working out, recovery and more.

Stress has no calories, but it can also do a number on a physique. By negatively impacting fat loss and muscle growth hormones, stress can be a key factor in creating a plateau. Stress never really goes away completely; however, we give our clients tools to manage their stress. Everyone has a unique stress management frequency, but many have found techniques such as low-key restorative walks, yoga, Epsom salt baths, massage therapy and/or a gratitude journal to be helpful. A stress reduction practice takes time and experimentation, but it doesn’t need to consume hours per week. Many clients spend just 10–15 minutes daily on quality stress management once they have found what works for them.

The final component is sleep. When clients are sleep-deprived, it’s more difficult for them to make sound nutritional choices and it increases stress. Factor that in with the negative physical impact of sleep deprivation (even minor deprivation), and it’s no wonder training often plateaus when clients aren’t sleeping. Sleep is the physical and mental reset.

How can we help clients sleep? When nutrition is dialed in and stress is properly managed, better-quality sleep will often come naturally. We educate clients about the value of sleep questions? and the tools to improve their sleep. Clients should be aiming for 7–9 hours of sleep a night. If they struggle to fall or stay asleep, it’s often related to blood sugar and can be remedied with a bite of dietary fat right before bed or a half serving of starch at dinner. Reading, relaxing, avoiding alcohol in the evening, and drinking hot, decaf tea can aid in the quality of sleep.

Julie Stubblefield
Owner, SparkFit
Mechanicsville, Virginia

Clients typically reach training plateaus after initially experiencing a period of success by strictly adhering to their program guidelines. People trying to shed body fat may find they are no longer losing weight at the same rate they did when they first began diligently following their diet and exercise program. Similarly, clients trying to overcome chronic back pain may experience stag- nation in the alleviation of their symptoms even though they are performing their corrective exercise homework on a regular basis.

The key to overcoming these inevitable plateaus is not to encourage your clients to work even harder on their current program but to introduce other program variables that might seem, at first, unrelated to helping them reach their goals. For example, people who have reached a fat loss plateau usually think they need to be even stricter with their diet and exercise regime. However, this can lead to overtraining, starvation and burnout, causing even longer plateau periods.

An alternative strategy would be for trainers to help clients become aware of those non-exercise-related factors that might be contributing to a weight loss plateau, such as lack of sleep and/or sufficient recovery. Similarly, clients experiencing pain-relief plateaus should be guided by their corrective-exercise specialists to other program variables, such as stress-relief techniques, sleeping/sitting postures and life coaching. Helping your clients see the benefit in committing time and energy to the non-exercise-related aspects of their programs can help them burst through training plateaus and soar to new heights.

Justin Price, MA
Creator, the Biomechanics Method®
Corrective Exercise Educational Programs
San Diego

What I have found successful is to sit down with clients at a nontraining time. While clients may feel like they are communicating with you, you may sense a wall or stress when they talk. You want to be able to read their body language and know when to listen and when to speak. Knowing how to ask the right questions can help you draw out pertinent information. But you need to do this with an informal quality that puts them at ease. Sometimes this requires a neutral territory.

That’s why I recommend an excursion. Grab a cup of coffee, go shopping, etc., and chat about other parts of their lives. Many times, the non-health-and-fitness parts of their lives can become a point that needs attention and focus. Getting them out of the gym so you can see them in another environment and they can see you in another environment can assist in bringing out what is deep within. It helps me, as the trainer, to better understand clients’ thought processes, and it reaffirms that their trust in me is not ill-fated. This experience can help to reenergize all parties involved. I can create new programs based on what is going on in their lives, and they feel they are getting the fresh start or push they need.

Nancy Matican Bock
L.A.S.T., Lifestyle and Sports Training
Melbourne Beach, Florida

I am a registered dietitian and a personal trainer who specializes in weight loss management. I incorporate lifestyle changes and behavior modification, nutrition and fitness. Here’s the process I go through when a client hits a plateau.

Rather than simply concluding that the fix lies with the client’s workout or nutrition regimen, experience tells me there’s more than meets the eye. I delve deeper into the root of the problem.

If a client has stopped losing weight, I assess her adherence to her program. Is she still following the program as attentively as she did in the beginning? Sometimes after some initial weight loss, clients are not as diligent as they were at first. A typical pattern I see is that cardio isn’t performed as often or as long; portion size starts to slowly creep up; treats make their way back into diets; and meals aren’t logged anymore or aren’t planned as attentively.

To assess if a client is following her program, I ask a few key questions:

  • Are you following the meal plan that I have created for you? (I am a dietitian and can create specific meal plans.)
  • Are you planning your meals in advance?
  • Are you measuring your food and logging your food and beverage intake?
  • How many minutes of cardio have you done this week? What type, and what was your heart rate range?
  • Did you get two weight training workouts in this week?
  • Did you get at least 7 hours of restful sleep?

Remember that making changes is difficult and that falling back into unproductive ruts is easy. Listen carefully for indications that the client is facing challenges incorporating the new changes. Most often, she just needs a few suggestions on how to incorporate new behaviors into a daily routine. Ask what challenges she is having and, together, come up with some ideas to overcome them.

You may, however, face a situation where your suggestions aren’t met with a positive response. Have you ever heard a client say things like “I know I need to exercise, but I hate it” or “I know I need to stay away from treats, but it’s just so hard.” These statements signal conflicting beliefs, desires and behaviors. The client knows he “should” make some changes but can’t seem to. If a client is ambivalent, he is not going to be moved to make changes if your response is simply to give more suggestions. This client may not be ready to make any big changes. Take a step back at this point and assess his readiness to change.

You may want to consider getting trained in motivational interviewing, a method often used by health coaches that helps facilitate motivation within a client. If you don’t feel skilled and you think your client may benefit from help exploring his ambivalence, you may want to ask if he feels that talking to a psychologist might help him explore and resolve ambivalence.

Of course, it is certainly possible that a medical issue exists that has created a plateau. Such issues may include hormonal changes, Cushing syndrome, hypothyroidism, polycystic ovary syndrome, or insulin resistance, and a visit to the doctor may be justified.

Maria Faires, RD
Owner, Active Nutrition Fitness and Nutrition Consulting
Sammamish, Washington

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