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Prevent The Fitness Plateau: Continuing Adaptation


To prevent the dreaded fitness plateau, you have to continually challenge your body as it adapts. Before knowing what the fitness plateau is, it is important to first understand what fitness truly is. From a purely biological standpoint, fitness is the ability for an individual to handle stress from their environment. Stress from the environment comes in many forms; for example, the summers in Phoenix are extremely hot. Johnny Chicago just moved from a much colder climate, and for him to survive the scalding hot temperatures, his body is forced to adapt. Johnny undergoes significant changes in order to better cool himself under this new stressor. In turn, he becomes more “fit” as a Phoenician transplant.

What is a Fitness Plateau?

Fitness ultimately determines our ability to survive. Simply put, fitness is resiliency. That is, the faster an individual is at adapting to an environmental stressor, the greater fitness that individual has. Hitting a plateau in fitness means the individual is no longer adapting in response to the same environmental stressor. In other words, they have reached the pinnacle of their genetic potential for a particular adaptation. Go back to Johnny: comparing his body in moving from Chicago to Phoenix, he has increased his body’s sweat rate, number of sweat glands, and optimized his heart and lungs to suit the hot Phoenix summers. He has reached the plateau of physical adaptation, or fitness, in response to the hot Arizona temperatures.

Know Your Exercise goal

We can take another lesson from Johnny on how to prevent the fitness plateau, specifically with exercise. As Johnny settles into his new desert homeland, he decides he would like to run a 5K race. He sets out on his first run, only to find that he tires out after about a mile – that is 2.12 miles short of the full race length. Much like the heat, exercise is a new environmental stimulus Johnny needs to adapt to to compete the upcoming race. As Johnny continues his training, he runs a little longer each time. He first runs 2 miles, then 2.5, and after awhile, he finally achieves 3.1 miles. He continues to run 3.1 miles every few days until his race. Johnny completes his race, averaging an 8-minute per mile pace. He even notices he finishes around the middle of the pack among the participants!

Johnny has now reached a fitness plateau in regards to running his race. Along the way Johnny adapted to the exercise stress of running and slowly began to increase his running distance. He reached the pinnacle of adaptation for running 3.1 miles. That is, without changing one of the stressor variables, such as distance or pace, Johnny would not be able to run longer distances or get faster. The only way to adapt is to change the stressor in the environment. 

ChangE the stressor

Simply put, to prevent the fitness plateau, you have to keep changing the stressor. Johnny Chicago found that he needed to gradually increase his distance in order to reach his eventual goal of 3.1 miles. In the same vein, Johnny also adapted to the stressor of the temperature in Phoenix. The only way for Johnny to continue adapting is by changing the stimulus (either temperature or distance). Luckily for Johnny – and for you, too! – there are many ways to change the stressor when it comes to exercise.

In order to break through the fitness plateau, Johnny will have to alter the difficulty by modifying the stressor and adapting to it. Although there are other ways to change the stressor, altering the intensity is traditionally done by changing either load or volume. Altering load in this case could mean running faster, adding a weight vest, or tackling a more challenging running terrain (uphill, off road, intervals, etc.). Altered volume can be achieved by increasing the distance, time per session, or even the number of days he runs per week. Johnny did indeed alter his volume as he trained for the 5K race. At first he could only run about a mile before tiring out, but after gradually increasing the distance and owning up to the stressor, his body adapted. 

How TO Prevent the fitness plateau

Preventing the fitness plateau involves two things: what to change and when to change it. Johnny Chicago lucked out during his training and did it right by altering volume first. Changing volume should almost always precede changing load. In technical terms, muscular hypertrophy and endurance are a precursor to muscular strength and power. Now that Johnny has steadily increased his volume, it’s time to give him a new goal of a 7-minute mile pace to get him out of the middle of the pack! He should now alter his load and try running shorter distances at faster pace.

As stated previously, knowing when to change is just as important as knowing what to change. Johnny’s strategy of gradually increasing distance is called progressive resistance. This is a popular and reliable strategy that works and can work with both volume and load. Not only does it work with Johnny’s running, it also can be applied to weight lifting. As you find yourself easily completing the reps and sets using a certain weight, you can increase the weight. This method works well with beginners, but as with all stressors and stimuli, it leads to a plateau. Another go-to strategy is the 2-for-2 rule. If you can complete the last two repetitions on your last set consistently for two workouts, then it’s time to increase the intensity. This is also a pretty conservative strategy and works well for beginners like Johnny.

My favorite method to help you to continue adapting measures workout intensity subjectively. Rate of perceived exertion, or better known as RPE, allows the user to describe their exertion on a scale of 1 through 10. From a scientific perspective, this self-described number correlates highly with actual exertion across a variety of exercise activities. I would suggest adopting this RPE scale and use it after each set or workout. That way, there is no what you will hit a fitness plateau in your program!

Prevent your plateau

Take a lesson from Johnny Chicago and follow these steps to prevent the fitness plateau as you strive toward your fitness goal. 

  1. Know your exercise goal
  2. Know the stressor
  3. Change volume first, then intensity
  4. Adopt a strategy for knowing when to change
  5. Ultimately, never hit a fitness plateau!