When your performance at the gym is less than the kick-assery* you hoped for…
When the weight doesn’t go up on certain lifts, or even goes down…
When the same run is just as vomit-inducing today as it was 6 months ago…
When you’re in a rut, or hit a plateau, it’s time to figure out how to step up your game.
*Kick-assery is an industry term. A related, but opposite, industry term is “douchebaggery.” Both can be seen in the gym, but you should strive for the former.
Santa, the Easter Bunny, and…
Ever heard of the Plateau Fairy?
It’s kind of like the tooth fairy. Except, instead of coming in the middle of the night to give you money and take a tooth away, the plateau fairy comes out of nowhere and takes your progress in the gym away.
The thing they both have in common is that they don’t really exist (don’t tell my 3 year old daughter — she’s big into her gym gainz).
When the work you put in at the gym becomes unproductive, it’s not because of some unavoidable plateau that happened for no reason. Sometimes it’s caused by poor sleep management, or a period of poor nutrition, or poor recovery in general (read more about better recovery here).
Other times it’s more elusive, but if you want to bust out of your rut and get back on track, it often comes down to one or more of these 3 things:
Changing It Up
Take a look.
Changing It Up
You don’t have to take up kickboxing, or goat yoga, or goat kickboxing (I don’t think PETA will be endorsing that anytime soon).
If something uncommon interests you, go for it. Otherwise little changes are all you need. Like these:
1. Rep Range
If you always do the same basic rep range on an exercise, switch it up.
Just be sure to match the difficulty of the exercise to the goal number of reps, either with the weight selection, or with a variation that is more (or less) challenging.
Doing the same exercise, but on different equipment (e.g. switching from barbell bench press to dumbbell bench press) can be just enough of a different stimulus to cause massive improvements.
Different aspects of fitness complement each other in unique ways. If your strength is at a standstill, focusing on endurance might help your strength take off, and vice versa.
If you always work out at the same intensity, you’ll eventually either plateau, or lose progress. Mix it up. For instance, if it’s cardio, set a new pace (faster or slower), or complete a new distance (more or less).
Similar to using different equipment for a similar exercise, you could also do a similar workout as normal, but from a different approach.
For example, an endurance workout that switches from running to rowing, biking, or swimming. Or a strength workout that switches from free weights to a bodyweight approach.
Making small changes only works if you know what you’re changing. If you want to take your workouts to the next level, you’ll need to take notes. The more the better. Like these:
Don’t just go to the gym and wing it. Follow a program. Write down exactly what you do every time, then pay attention to what you do too often, and what you tend to skip.
How heavy did you lift when you did goblet squats last week? What about last month? Last year? If you don’t write it down, you’ll have a hard time making improvements in the long-term.
Keeping track of the total number of sets you do in a week for each muscle group plays a significant role in the type of goal you achieve. Do too many and you might not recover appropriately. Don’t do enough, and you might not see improvements in strength or muscle growth.
Certain rep ranges can be more optimal for certain goals, but what’s more important is knowing how many reps you did on an exercise last time so you can see what adjustments to make from week to week.
You won’t remember if you don’t have that information logged.
You might know exactly how far you ran today. But the distance on any given day is meaningless if you can’t view it in the context of all your past workouts.
If you find you cover the exact same distance every time, that’s a problem, too. You need to make progress.
This could be literal miles per hour, or staying within a certain heart rate range. Ideally it’s both. That way you know how hard you worked compared to how far you went every time you exercise.
How long did your workout take? How much time did you spend on each exercise? How long did you rest between sets? These are variables that can be changed in one way or another to make progress, but would be impossible to remember without a record.
No matter what type of exercise you do, keep track of how difficult it felt on a scale of 1-10. Then look back and see if you’re working yourself too hard too frequently, or not challenging yourself often enough.
In lifting, specifically, keep track of how close you got to muscle failure on each set. If you did 10 reps, could you have done 12? 15? Or did your muscles give out on your last rep? Write it down.
In conjunction with the difficulty of your workout, you can also mark how well you performed. Take notes like:
“It was a tough run, but I’ve done it before and felt better about it this time.” Or…
“I could have done a couple more reps, but I felt like my form was starting to slip, so I stopped.”
Sometimes it helps to take notes on the context of a given workout. Such as:
“Slept horribly last night.” Or…
“Had an extra day’s rest between workouts this time.” Or…
“Didn’t get to eat beforehand like normal.”
The purpose of making small changes and tracking all the variables is to make improvements. A big mistake you can make is to look for improvements only in one area, causing you to think you’ve plateaued.
If you want to step up your gym game, sometimes all it takes is being able to recognize the progress you’re making and then continuing to develop in those areas. Watch for these things:
Stop trying to do more. Just do better.
If you change nothing about your workout, but over time you can look back at your records and see that it’s continued to get easier, you haven’t hit a plateau.
Be happy with small steps, not just big jumps.
If you did one more rep this week, or your pace was better by just 10 seconds per mile, you aren’t in a rut. It’s these subtle improvements that add up to big changes in the long-term.
If you always try to push yourself harder, you might miss out on opportunities to just keep up the same efforts longer.
This can happen through heart rate training, or by something as simple as taking more time and controlling the weight more as you lift.
When you can’t add weight or reps to a lift, adding a set significantly increases the total amount of work you do in a week. You can also increase the number of workouts you do per week.
I wanted to mention this one because it’s a valid way to make improvements, just make sure you don’t jump into doing way more than you do in your current program, or you might not be able to recover appropriately.
Speaking of which…
If you find yourself needing a little less rest between sets, or if you don’t feel as drained the day after a workout, your body is recovering faster.m
Improving recovery directly affects future progress. Don’t take this one for granted.
Sometimes changes just don’t happen as quickly as we’d like. The key is to not get derailed by it.
If, after several weeks (certainly months) you’re still not seeing ANY improvements (including the ones mentioned about), take a look at your notes, then decide where it makes most sense to change things up.
If you like these principles but aren’t sure where to begin, I recommend our free At Home Beginner’s Workout. You can do it in 20 minutes a day or less. You don’t need any exercise equipment. And there are 3 different levels to keep you improving and progressing all the way to the end.