How to Bust Out of a Fitness Slump

When you first started that workout regimen, you loved the results you were seeing. Look! Ab definition! But recently, the pounds stopped dropping and the quads stopped chiseling. You’re frustrated and confused because you’ve been so good about sticking to your program. And it used to work! So why the hell did your progress hit a brick wall?

Sounds like you’re caught on a fitness plateau.

I’m not good with geology. What’s a fitness plateau?

It’s definitely not a fitness butte. “When you first implement a workout program, the reward directly correlates with effort,” says Cindy Present, Fitness & Activities Director at Lake Austin Spa Resort. “You see or feel results as you work to improve your fitness level. But if you continue to stick with the same workout, over time, your body will adapt to the stimuli repeatedly placed on it; physical change stops occurring, and that’s a fitness plateau.”

This principle is also known as SAID: Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. Explains Kent Edwards, Master Trainer (NASM) at Crunch Fitness in NYC, “A plateau in your workout is similar to driving a car up a hilly and windy road. The first time, it’s difficult to maneuver through inclines and sharp turns; but the more you drive the same road, it gets easier to anticipate each turn or hill in conjunction with using the gas, brake, and steering wheel. Eventually, doing the drive is easy because your mind and body are prepared for the obstacles ahead.”

Sometimes, however, the reason for a fitness standstill is less scientific. “A plateau also has a lot to do with your motivation and focus,” says Helen Macey, personal trainer at New York Health & Racquet Club. “If your workout is no longer delivering your desired physical transformation, it’s discouraging. We call it a plateau, but it’s largely a lack of that initial drive we once had.”

Either way, hitting a standstill sucks. So we asked the pros for their best tips on busting out of a workout rut so you can start seeing results again.

Follow the classic Glengarry Glen Ross advice

In order to break through a plateau, you must follow the fitness ABCs — Always Be Changing. “If you’ve plateaued, it means your body has gotten used to the demands placed on it during your everyday workouts and needs a new challenge,” says Edwards. “It’s really important to switch up your routine — whether that means altering sets, repetitions, tempo, or load — to shock and stimulate your muscles and mind.”

And yes, this applies to you who’s slothing on the elliptical and wondering why you still have love handles — it’s time to bask in the chance to recalibrate with a new fitness activity. Try that Tuesday night kickboxing class. Start swimming laps. Download a new fitness app, or go for a hike. Exercise is allowed to be fun!

Keep serious track of all the work you’re doing (and NOT doing)

Before you curse your favorite cardio circuit for no longer delivering the fat-shedding results it used to, seriously check yourself first: has your body completely adapted to your routine despite your 200% effort in the gym? Or have you mayyybe been going HAM on Cold Stone Birthday Cake Remix?

“Your exercise program should be changed every eight to 12 weeks.”

Start by writing it all down — your workout and your food intake — to make sure you’re giving it your all and to see where there’s room for improvement. “Keeping track of every rep and set is essential,” says Macey. “You might notice that you are not finishing that last set and are giving up before your rep count. If you think you’ve plateaued with weight loss, start writing down your daily food intake — every snack, meal, and drink — so you can pinpoint areas that need more balance.”

And no cheating! Snitching fries off Sarah’s plate doesn’t mean you can “forget” to jot it on paper — they still count.

Reframe your thinking about the slump

Instead of kicking yourself for flat-lining, remember that your body is just doing what it’s supposed to — adapting. So take ownership of this plateau and view it as an opportunity to turn things up a few notches.

According to Jermaine Bailey, group fitness instructor at New York Health & Racquet Club, your exercise program should be changed every eight to 12 weeks by way of the overload principle, which includes three cycles of training: strength and conditioning, loading, then power/plyo sports conditioning. “To help you remember to change things up, coincide the different workouts with the changing seasons,” says Bailey. “Do high-intensity interval training (HIIT) during the fall/winter, power and strength training in the spring, and endurance training in the summer.”

Make your goals specific and time-based

For a decade of my life, I ran exactly six miles a day — sometimes on the treadmill, sometimes through the NYC “wilderness” so I wouldn’t get bored. Unsurprisingly, I was bored anyway, and totally stagnant because my workout wasn’t a challenge anymore. It was just part of my routine. But as a self-proclaimed fitness fanatic (and someone who can’t afford a personal trainer and rent), I realized that only I could make a necessary change and push myself.

“Aim for a tangible accomplishment.”

That’s when I signed up to run my first half-marathon through a vineyard in California. I trained religiously and actually had fun working out again; incorporating both shorter, more intense tempo runs and longer distances into the training program kept things interesting while also challenging my body. Plus, working toward a goal gave me a sense of purpose — and it paid off, because I placed in the top 10% in my age group. Wine was also being served at the finish line, which may or may not have affected my swift finishing time.

But if running a half marathon isn’t on your bucket list (I wouldn’t blame you), Present suggests setting any type of attainable fitness goal for yourself: “Commit to a new workout program for four weeks; or aim for a tangible accomplishment, like performing one-hundred pushups or a four-minute plank.”

Don’t kill yourself trying to break out of your slump

If you’re lifting like the Hulk seven days a week, stressing about that promotion at work, and/or not sleeping because those Pokémon aren’t going to catch themselves, then your body’s performance is going to suffer; a plateau is almost inevitable.

So instead of worrying about client presentations and Jigglypuff’s whereabouts, take a breather. “Check how much rest you are getting and what is detouring you from focusing on feeling strong and fit,” says Macey. “Sometimes, we don’t realize how much stress and lack of good rest impact our daily routines and personal goals.”

If all else fails, invest in a personal trainer

Everyone benefits from having a coach — the Olympic athletes certainly didn’t pave the road to Rio without proper training and instruction. “Often times, a plateau occurs because you can’t see how to push yourself beyond where you currently are,” says Macey, “but a personal trainer can offer you a new perspective and guidance.”

In short, a professional knows what’s up, boasting a bottomless well of new exercises and physiological knowledge to help you achieve (and surpass!) your goals safely and efficiently.

Brooke Sager is a NYC-based contributing writer for Thrillist and probably (definitely) that girl slothing on the elliptical. Catch her on Instagram and Twitter: @HIHEELZbrooke.



Client: Thrillist
Date: September 9, 2014
Service: Writer