By Ryan McUmber
During our journey towards fitness goals, we will hit some walls along the way. Common plateaus could include struggling to shed those last couple of pounds or falling short on a strength goal. As natural as hitting a plateau can be, they are always frustrating. Now is the time to take a deep breath and a step back, then look at what factors may be limiting you to reach your goal. I have 4 main factors that I will look over when my progress has stalled. These factors are hydration, sleep, nutrition, and training. I’ll break each of these down to subgroups to further explain.
Water is essential. As corny as that sounds it will always be true. With something so simple, it is often the first thing that is overlooked. Everyone (should) know that they must be well hydrated but most people usually fall short in drinking enough. Water is the ultimate detox drink and keeps your body from falling apart. With the lack of water being my number one concern there is another common mistake when it comes to drinking water. People tend not drink any water during the day and then having a drinking contest at night. Maybe this sounds familiar- you woke up, had two or three cups of coffee, then maybe a glass of water with lunch (or worse, soda), then another couple of cups of coffee to make it through the afternoon, and before you know it it’s 5-6-7pm and you’re playing catch up with water. (And you wonder what keeps you up at night). At this point you decide that you are going to consume 8 glasses of water in the next 2-4 hours before bed. After about glass four you going to the bathroom every 20 minutes and the color of your urine matches the water you just drank. You are not a camel; you cannot store the water. So try to avoid the late night binging of water and keep a constant flow in your system throughout the day- like starting your day off with a big glass of water.
If you have ever had me as a personal trainer, then I have asked you “how is your sleep?” an annoying amount of times. Sleep is ideal for brain function, building motor patterns, aerobic performance, and hormone balance. If you have any goal at all, even it is not fitness related, you must get optimal sleep. Now I am sure that you have heard that you must get 8 hours of sleep. As obnoxious as it is, 8 hours is a solid rule to go by for most people. Something that always gets overlooks is the quality of one’s sleep.
The quality of sleep is by all measure more important than the amount of sleep. When I am referring to quality, things like tossing and turning, snoring, dogs, kids, bathroom breaks- all interrupting your REM sleep. There are different stages of sleep, in which all of them are very important. Each stage has an important function in regards to hormone production or neurological function. I am not a doctor but you if snore, I highly recommend getting a sleep study test. I have heard from countless people how their health improved. From waking up and feeling energized, to not needing to drink coffee anymore and one the greatest ones being blood pressure dropping to a healthy level. If you snore, call your local doctor to get a sleep study.
If you toss and turn there are multiple factors that could contribute to this. The first thing I would look into would be what temperature your room is at night. I try to have mine around 65 degrees, if it’s too hot I am sweating and flipping my pillow constantly so I can get the cool side on my face.
I would also look into your Vitamin D levels or consider vitamin D supplementation. When vitamin d levels are low, studies have shown a correlation between poor sleep or restless sleep. Dr. Stasha Gominak has done extensive work on sleep with some free videos online discussing vitamin D levels and sleep. Vitamin D supplements are very cheap but always consult your doctor before taking any supplement.
I am not going to be discussing calories here. I want to discuss nutrients. Probably the most common goal we see are members wanting to lose “x” pounds, which is a great goal if this is something that will improve your health. Now with this goal in mind people immediately drop the calories and start running on the treadmill like they are training for marathon that’s happening next month. I get excited when people are motivated but drastic drops or extreme changes are not ideal, especially with food. Food should be considered fuel for your body while providing much needed nutrients at the cellular level. With that being said when you drop your calories so quickly, like someone jumping off a cliff, usually the first thing to suffer is your nutrient intake. Take a moment to think about what a caloric deficit is…now how do you expect your body to reach any sort of goal if it’s not getting the baseline ingredients it needs to be healthy. This is like asking a car to drive 100 mph with a flat and an empty tank. It just won’t happen. When performing any goal make sure you are getting enough fuel and nutrient dense foods to help you.
Intensity is what some see as the most important factor in the fitness industry- maybe because it’s inspirational or it sells. Spend 2 minutes on Instagram or YouTube and you will see enough workout hype videos that involve people yelling and screaming at each other to get through their training sessions. Maybe this is fun to watch when you have a hard workout ahead of you but it’s not the most important factor. Consistency trumps all.
Look at two types of people. “Richard” decides he’s going to commit to the gym after a whole year of putting it off. So he dives in day one and goes hard for two hours, posts a video to his Instagram with #savage underneath, goes home and forgets to eat dinner and stays up until 2am watching TV. Congrats Richard- you got ten likes and you’re headed down the road to Burnout Town. What’s the likelihood that Richard will be back in the gym the next day? Or what if he does and gets injured because he’s not taking any time to recover? His effort is great, but his lack of consistency will make his road tough and unpredictable, likely leading to a plateau or worse, injury.
“Stan” takes a different approach. Stan is in the gym 4-5 times a week, always makes sure that he is getting eight hours of sleep, eating nutritious food, and drinking enough water to be fully recovered. Which is great because Stan can come to my classes more, hang out with me, and chip away at his fitness goals everyday. Here’s an example of the overall accumulation of work for Stan vs Richard. Because of Stan’s sustainable, consistent approach, he’s able to get to the gym 16-20 times per month. While Richard, if he’s lucky, will feel “good enough” to get to the gym 8-12 times per month. Moral of the story- don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you stay consistent, the amount of work will build up and show results.
Blending it all:
Being attentive to these four basic factors can help with any goal that you have in mind. When I feel stuck, I write these pieces down and look back to the past few weeks to honestly assess if and where I’m falling short. Once I’m able to pinpoint the issue, I fix it.
One last thing that you should always consider when hitting a training plateau- am I being realistic with my goal or my timeline for my goal? As powerful as this simple approach can be, getting to 10% body fat in six weeks or adding 50lbs to your bench press this month can be unfair to expect from yourself- and quite unrealistic, really. So when deciding your goal you need to be brutally honest with yourself. If you set an unrealistic goal and fall short you will get so discouraged that you may not reach any of your goals. Now set a realistic goal-aim at a target you can SEE and REACH, keep track of your four factors, and see what you can accomplish.