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 their plateaus to reach higher levels of fitness and achieve greater results?
It’s important to understand adaptation and to add training stress gradually, systematically and progressively. How much your clients adapt to a training stimulus ultimately depends on how responsive their cells are to signals. Muscle cells are able to detect all kinds of signals—mechanical, metabolic, neural and hormonal—which are amplified and transmitted via signaling cascades and which lead to the events involved in gene expression. This signaling is fast, occurring within minutes of a workout’s end. Signaling results in the activation of transcription factors, which are proteins that bind to a specific part of DNA and control the transfer of genetic information from DNA to RNA.
Many of the physiological and biochemical adaptations to training begin with DNA and the copying of one of its double helical strands (a process called replication). The replicated DNA strand, under the action of transcription factors, is then transcribed into messenger RNA (a process called transcription), and the messenger RNA is then translated into a protein (a process called translation). Finally, the protein is transported from the nucleus of the cell, where transcription and translation occur, to the place where the protein will function.
While a single workout, especially if it is new to the client, introduces a specific signal and activation of transcription factors, repeated workouts lead to a concerted accumulation of messenger RNA molecules that can be translated into a host of structural and functional proteins. In the case of cardiovascular exercise, the accumulation of proteins is manifested, for example, as an increase in the number of mitochondria, the microscopic aerobic factories responsible for aerobic metabolism.
When clients begin a training program, they will experience many signaling responses and subsequent adaptations. However, continual training at the same level decreases the training-specific signaling responses involved in the adaptations to training. In other words, if the training stays the same, the fitness level will stay the same. For example, if a client lifts 20 pounds on Tuesday instead of the usual 15, a strong signal is sent to make specific adaptations (e.g., an increase in muscle fiber proteins and a more rapid central nervous system recruitment of muscle fibers). By continuing to lift 20 pounds every Tuesday for a period of time, the client will continue to send signals to make adaptations until those adaptations are fully realized. After the client has lifted 20 pounds often enough to become habituated to it, a 20-pound dumbbell will no longer provide enough of a stimulus to initiate any further adaptations. Therefore, to force more adaptations, that same client must now lift more than 20 pounds (or increase the number of repetitions). To become more fit and continue to see results, the client must gradually, systematically and progressively increase the amount of stress in order to increase the signaling response and subsequent adaptations.
That being said, each client has a personal threshold of training above which further increases in training volume or intensity do not result in greater fitness, weight loss or decrease in percent body fat. When a client is untrained, improvements in fitness come quickly, even with modest training. For example, a sedentary client who works out with a trainer three times per week will likely see a large improvement in fitness. However, as the client undertakes more and more training, the return on the investment becomes less and less. The more fit a person gets, the harder it is to improve fitness, despite a lot more training. Therefore, every one of your clients will eventually reach a plateau; the goal is to delay when that plateau occurs.
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 training 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 strictly random basis for the sheer 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. Prestes et al. (2009) found that linear periodization increased muscular strength more than reverse linear periodization did, while Rhea et al. (2002) found that undulating periodization increased strength more than linear periodization did. However, Buford et al. (2007) found no differences in strength, percent body fat and chest or thigh circumferences between linear periodization and undulating periodization using daily or weekly variation. When testing muscular endurance rather than muscular strength, Rhea et al. (2003) found that reverse linear periodization increased muscular endurance more than linear periodization and undulating periodization did. Thus, 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.
Recovery may be the most overlooked aspect of training. Many trainers and clients focus on the components of the workout: heart rate, time, reps and sets. Improvements in fitness, however, 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.
A number of factors affect how quickly and completely clients recover from their workouts, 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.
The next time your clients reach a plateau, make sure they gradually, systematically and progressively add training stress, periodize their training programs and adequately recover. If they train in smart ways, they’ll not only avoid a boring plateau—they’ll also reach new and exciting levels of fitness.