It is only a blessed few athletes who continually train throughout life and exclusively experience “effort in, equals effort out” results. By far, the vast majority of active individuals will experience plateaus in their training. This is not an indication that bad habits are present, or that a body cannot continue to grow toward its potential. It only means that a person is experiencing one of the most incredible and fascinating attributes of the human body. That attribute is adaptation.
When subjected to physical stress such as exercise, the body will automatically try to conquer the stress through a number of physical, mental and hormonal processes. Bodybuilders, competitive powerlifters, marathon-style runners and other elite athletes notice this frustrating condition often. The plateaus manifest as performance “stalling points.” For runners, this can be hitting-the-wall at the same time during every run. For powerlifters, this can be an unexpected inability to set new personal records. For bodybuilders, it can mean a disappointing amount of growth compared to how much work is dedicated to the gym.
Plateaus are experienced by almost every athlete, even if they are doing everything right. Their training is consistent, nutrition is clean and performance technique is stellar. What does it mean when noticeable gains are not achieved, though all other factors are concrete?
A rare cause of performance plateaus is an athlete achieving genetic potential. More likely, the plateaus will happen when an athlete discovers the need to incorporate different principles of intensity into their exercise and training regimens.
People can become so used to a workout schedule that the body learns to overcome the demands of a particular workout. Good stress (eustress), as opposed to bad stress (distress), is the primary means through which a body becomes more fit. If there are no incentives for the body and mind to excel, the athlete will experience a plateau.
Intensity is a way to continually keep the body in a state of eustress. There are virtually unlimited ways to incorporate intensity into your workout. Here are eight of the most proven principles any athlete can use to promote growth. These principles are used in many of my workout programs like STS and Xtrain. Principles for increasing exercise intensity are especially useful for powerlifters and bodybuilders, but they translate easily to the aspects of other sports.
Principles of Exercise Intensity #1. More Work In The Same Time
When an athlete becomes accustomed to a certain workout, preparation, execution, and recovery from that workout become mundane. As a consequence, the ever-adapting human body will instill certain “safeties” that allow it to handle familiar workloads but can cause plateaus.
A proven shocking method is to radically change the amount of work in the same time frame as a normal routine. The ambitious weight lifter is a great example. When the weight lifter becomes wary of pressing the same poundage, it is advantageous to take a risk with a heavier weight (with a spotter, of course).
Though the lifter might not be successful in cleanly lifting the weight, his or her body will recognize the prompting to prepare for more of a workload. The routine has been broken, and now a greater load must be conquered. This type of change will release an amazing amount of hormones and body change contributing to athletic growth. Increase intensity by tackling abnormal loads.
Principles of Exercise Intensity #2. Less Rest Between Sets
Everyone must take a break between sets of exercises. Unfortunately, the majority of people will slowly fall into a habit of taking more rest than is necessary for recovery. This is a prime factor for experiencing athletic stalling.
If an athlete is used to completing a repetitive exercise followed by a long break before the next set, there is room for intensity modification. If the body is used to breaks of three, four, or five minutes between exercises, decrease those intervals to one-minute breaks. The brain will recognize a demand for more activity in a quicker sequence. Incorporating super-sets, and being a “slave to the clock” are great ways to manage rest. Rapidly switching between exercises prompts the body to continually work harder.
Principles of Exercise Intensity #3. More Resistance
If muscles are properly fed and prepared for work, increasing resistance is one of the most effective ways to break plateaus. Many athletes train at levels that are comfortable and rewarding. Radically increasing weight amounts for lifters, and tackling uncommon inclines for runners, are examples of resistance increases. The shock of suddenly being challenged with a nearly-overwhelming workload will cause metabolic shifts and adjustments to handle the new tasks.
This intensity principle is especially useful for bodybuilders and powerlifters because it tells the brain to prepare for the necessary growth associated with continually progressive physical demands.
Principles of Exercise Intensity #4. Change The Workout Cadence
When someone works out, they usually have a personal “coaching conversation” taking place in their mind. People tend to lift, crunch, jog, bike, and do activities at the same pace every time. If you perform the same number of reps and sets for a muscle group each workout, it will be an eye-opening experiment to see how many seconds (not minutes), each workout deviates from the other. This is part of adaptation. The body can learn to do almost anything if it is allowed to perform at a comfortable and familiar pace.
The word “cadence” is a music-related term that signifies key points in a song or harmony. Exercise cadence is similar. It marks the beginning, time of execution, and ending of a set or single repetition. The intensity of an exercise can be increased by slowing, or speeding-up the cadence. Perform exercises at a faster or slower pace. Faster cadences force muscles to work harder in less time. Slower cadences make muscles exert energy over longer intervals, thereby forcing growth.
Principles of Exercise Intensity #5. Change The Exercise Order
The expectation of activity is a common reason why people experience fitness plateaus. It is possible for the body to compensate for workloads by anticipating routine demand. Sometimes, it isn’t necessary to be inventive with working out. It might only take the shuffling of the sequence in which exercises are performed.
Most people will start with exercises that demand the greatest portion of energy. This usually includes compound movements. The workout will end with lighter exercises focusing on smaller muscle groups. In truth, the body will learn to recognize the sequence of exercises and physiologically compensate to handle the exercise sequence in the most efficient way.
Every third or fourth workout of a particular muscle group, it is a good idea to rearrange the order of exercises. Try working the larger muscle groups only after pre-exhausting the smaller, supporting muscles. It is ideal to commit to a workout sequence that is strikingly different each session to maximize intensity.
Principles of Exercise Intensity #6. Incorporate The Unfamiliar
The mind and body can sense “boredom” associated with working out. If the same exercises, in the same sequences, and at the same pace are performed each session, it is nearly impossible for progress to occur.
Continually strive to incorporate new exercises and variation into your workout. The more distinct demands placed on the body will equate to a physique that is always ready and willing to grow. Think about constantly trying to perform new exercises using the workshop analogy. The more tools there are in the toolbox, the better the variety and quality of projects that can be completed. More variety equals less frequent adaptation and fewer plateaus.
Principles of Exercise Intensity #7. Increase Workout Volume
Changing the overall amount of work is also key to tricking the growing body. If you reach a plateau, tell yourself that your new goal is now “just doing more.” Instead of a 4 sets x 10 reps, or 5 sets x 20 reps scheme; tell yourself to perform 100 reps in as much time as it takes. Or, for an athlete like a runner, plot out a course that is far beyond your normal distance and commit to finishing it. Finish the course even if you have to crawl part of the way!
This is the most basic intensity principle to fight stalled progress. Command your body to expect more by doing more.
Principles of Exercise Intensity #8. Adjust Workout Frequency
If your workouts are religiously completed at the same time every day, and on the same days of each week, try taking a week off. If you only workout twice per week, start exercising five times per week. If you find yourself never taking days off, switch to three days per week and use other intensity principles to maximize the less frequent sessions. This will help an athlete find an equilibrium that promotes the most measurable progress.
There are hundreds of variations of these principles that equate to the “shocking” of a body into greater performance and growth. The key is to take the time to evaluate your personal style of exercising, and identify how efficient your mind and body have become in adapting to the routine. Constantly demand more from your body. Give it the fuel needed to achieve new goals, and watch how plateaus become less of a hindrance to your athletic life!
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