It seems that around this time of year, every year, I am inevitably presented with the good-intentioned, self-disciplined, and yet somewhat desperate plea from those who feel as though they are “failing” at their fitness goals. These exasperated souls are those who go to the gym three to five times a week, are conscious of what they put into their bodies; yet, still feel as though they are treading water concerning those last five pounds, the desired increase of muscle mass, or setting their personal best time in a marathon.                                                       

Time and time again, however, I see those same people gravitate toward the same machines and execute the same workouts, day in and day out.

It’s no wonder people plateau- their bodies have mastered these movements and are no longer being challenged to do so.

I’ll never forget meeting a new female client for the first time, who had been working out with her previous trainer for five years. During our first workout, I advanced toward her and produced two, 10-pound dumbbells. With wide eyes she said, “I don’t think I can lift those”. May I interject here–she was a healthy thirty-eight-year-old with minimal past injuries. After delving into her exercise experience I learned that she had not once, like ever (let me repeat: ever), lifted more than an 8-pound weight. I was floored. My first thought (other than that she needed a hell of an explanation and full refund from her old trainer) was how do you expect to get any stronger if you limit yourself to “Barbie weights”?
Granted, an 8-pound weight is an essential piece of equipment for specific exercises and populations, but in order to progress in any program you need to push those strengths.

It’s called Periodization. One rule of thumb for periodizing your workouts is: Break your old record every workout. Now, this doesn’t mean increase your load with every exercise or set. You do not want to burn yourself out; or, worse, cause injury. Breaking a record could mean that you perform one of your exercises for three sets rather than two (if that’s what you did last time). If that exercise is done toward the beginning of your workout, then everything you do afterward will have been approached with a higher level of fatigue, thus periodizing the remainder of your workout for that day.  If you are able to easily perform ten to twelve repetitions of any exercise, you know that you are ready to safely increase weight load. My best advice for this is to keep track. Keep a notebook with dates, sets, repetitions, and weight used, if applicable.

The body has the incredible ability to adapt to movement. Previously , it was a commonly held belief that it takes days, maybe weeks, for muscles to adapt to an exercise. More recently, however, studies (and personal experience) have shown that your muscles will adapt to the demand during your workout. Pretty amazing stuff. Unfortunately, once the muscles have adapted, you are no longer going to reap as many benefits, since your body has figured out how to make the exercise as easy as possible. Solution? Periodization. Keep your body guessing.

I admit that I fall into the same old habits like everyone else. There are some exercises that are just more fun to do. However, in order to break  that plateau you need to find the inspiration to challenge your body. Try a new class. Watch a video on a new method you hadn’t previously considered. Seek out anything new that takes you out of your “routine”. The key is to find activities you enjoy and build on them.

Look around you. Step out of your comfort zone. Be inspired. And please, put down those Barbie weights.

Jodilyn Stuart is the owner of Moda Body Fitness and has been a fitness professional since 1997.  She has recently begun contributing to 303 Magazine as a fitness writer.