Stagnant vs Steady Progress


When you start to lose weight, but then the scale won’t budge…

When you see increases in strength, but then go months unable to lift more weight…

Whenever you make progress toward a goal, only to have it come to a screeching halt, you need to understand these two truths:

  1. You have to have a consistent routine.

  2. You can’t do the same thing all the time.

There’s no better way to explain this paradox than by the example I recognized on a recent walk.

No Cake-Walk

My walk starts with our driveway, which resembles the ramp ski jumpers take off from in the Winter Olympics. It’s long and steep, and if it snows, skis are about the only mode of transportation you could use on it.

The rest of my neighborhood is anything but flat, as well. It keeps the walk interesting. The problem is, if I don’t walk it regularly, the first time I try again is a bit demanding (as far as walks go).

I recently started getting more consistent about making that trek, and I was amazed at how quickly I got used to it again. It won’t take long before the walk is no longer a challenge. At that point I’ll stop making progress and slip into maintenance mode.

For something like a walk, I’m fine with that. But in other areas of fitness, whether it be fat loss, gaining strength, increasing endurance, etc., if I don’t continue to challenge myself appropriately, I may stall out before I’ve reached my goals.

Fortunately, there’s a way around that.

Making Progress

You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) make drastic changes to see steady progress.

For example, if someone did want to continue to see results in how they feel on a walk, the wrong thing to do would be to buy a unicycle and learn how to ride it backwards around the neighborhood.

The right thing would be to keep walking, either a little faster, a little farther, or a little of both.

These small adjustments provide enough change to prevent your body from getting used to the routine (and stalling progress) without changing the exercise completely, which wouldn’t give your body a chance to adapt and progress at all.

In other words, you need to change things up, just not too much.

Here’s another example:

A normal bench press is a different exercise from a wide or narrow grip bench press. It’s also different from a dumbbell bench press, or a bench press on a slight incline.

But they’re all still a bench press.

Between these variations, weight selection, and how many sets/reps you perform, there are limitless ways to change an exercise without actually “changing” the exercise.

There’s no magic formula for how often you need to mix up the variables. A good trainer can streamline the process based on your goals, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.

If you’re making steady progress, feel free to keep going. If progress becomes stagnant, make small changes.

(This concept applies to your diet, too, as we wrote about in “Don’t Change Your Diet, Adapt It.”)

The Good News

If you’re a beginner, when you start to exercise consistently, change comes quickly.

Because of this, you could do the same thing for months and continue to make progress. Even still, there are a few reasons to include variety:

  • It’s less boring.

  • It can prevent overuse injuries.

  • It keeps progress steady longer.

No matter who you are, at some point progress will slow down. You can’t make “newbie gains” forever. When that happens, don’t stress it and think you need to do something totally different.

Continue to be consistent, just don’t be monotonous, and even if it’s a little slower, you can still make steady progress.

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