A couple of years ago, being fit meant that ‘I could still fit into my jeans’! With a job that required me to be on a flight every other week and entertain clients at the hottest restaurants, fitting into those jeans became more of a struggle. I knew that change was essential in my life but I didn’t know where to start.
How I Got Started
My first attempt at becoming ‘fit’ started with walking on the treadmill in the tiny gym in my Chicago apartment building. Soon enough, I graduated to a light jog and even attempted running. Although they were only small steps, I was proud of myself for breaking a sweat, period.
Unfortunately, this sentiment never lasted long and I quickly lost interest in these treadmill routines.
During my second attempt at becoming ‘fit,’ I decided to research real fitness plans. Gyms in Chicago were expensive and so a cost-effective downloadable guide seemed like the perfect alternative. I finally settled on a fitness guide that offered a mixture of cardio and strength training, which seemed more exciting than my treadmill routines!
This fitness guide was a significant step for me in learning how to lead a fit lifestyle.
- I learned the importance of consistency and mental fortitude
- I learned the difference between low-intensity steady state cardio and high-intensity interval training
- I learned the difference between a barbell and dumbbell
- I became comfortable using equipment and even noticed changes in my body
- I had lost a little weight and gained a little muscle
I re-started the plan and completed it at least three times before buying additional similar plans.
By this point, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this and what the problem was. It all sounds pretty good! Now, don’t get me wrong, these plans were effective for me…for a time.
However, before long, I realized that my body had stopped changing. My weight had remained the same for months, and I didn’t feel any stronger. I had reached the point we all dread in the fitness world: a plateau.
So, what was I doing wrong?
I was using weights and performing cardio – isn’t that what you’re supposed to do for the best results? After a ridiculous amount of trial and error, research and eventually pursuing a continued education in the field of physical fitness, I finally managed to unravel the mystery of my body’s plateau and how I could overcome it.
Advice if you've hit a plateau
If you work out regularly, then you have likely already experienced a fitness plateau and stopped seeing results at some point. It’s common and it’s frustrating, but it’s something you can overcome. In fact, it’s very simple. Our bodies require a constant challenge in order to grow.
If you’ve been following the same (or similar) workout plans for too long, your body has likely adjusted to those exercises, weights, and movements. Changing your workout will be incredibly beneficial and allow you to start seeing results again.
How do you change your workouts effectively?
We can choose to challenge our bodies in various ways, but the most effective methodologies involve intensity and weight.
Women especially struggle here, as the need to lift heavier can be far too scary a concept if you've believed the myth that the only answer to your fitness goals is cardio and lifting light weight for high reps.
However, the reality is that lifting heavier will help you achieve your fat burning and muscle building goals while allowing you to jump over that dreaded plateau hurdle.
Let’s take a look at how…
- Muscle burns 2-4 times more calories per day than fat
- Muscle increases your body’s resting metabolic rate (burning more calories all day long)
- Muscle requires your body to exert more energy (keep your caloric intake the same, and your body will turn to fat cells for fuel)
- Muscle growth = strength increase
Heavyweight, fewer reps
Instead of your typical strength training and cardio exercises, begin introducing your body to heavier weight via fewer reps. This process will recruit additional muscle fibers, which will, in turn, stimulate greater muscle growth, strength and fat burn. If you are able to lift your chosen weights for a particular exercise more than 15-20 times, it's time to go heavier.
Supersets, tri-sets and pre-exhaustion sets are different techniques that you can begin to incorporate heavier lifts, especially when you are short on time and want to maximize every second you spend in the gym.
Variety is important
Additionally, it is also imperative to switch up the specific exercises being performed in each chosen set. For example, don’t do a standard bicep curl every time you workout for several months. Incorporate different variations, while increasing weight, and to keep your lifts fresh and challenging!
What about supplementation?
As I changed my workouts to focus on muscle building, I quickly learned that muscle maintenance required extra care. Managing my protein intake became an instant priority. Living in my ‘on-the-go’ busy world, it can often be difficult to find protein heavy foods available. Whey protein powder became my lifesaver.
BCAAs are essential for my recovery. I take them once per day at a minimum (usually twice per day) and have noticed significant differences in the way my body recovers from muscle fatigue and soreness.
What's an ideal workout schedule for someone overcoming a plateau?
My ideal weekly workout plan would involve a strong focus on weightlifting, with the purpose of increasing strength and be maximizing the caloric burn process in the gym (and outside of it!). Of course, the specific structure of my recommended workout would adhere to an individual’s training knowledge and capability.
For a beginner, I would suggest full body weight training 2-3 per week with 1-2 very short cardio sessions intermixed. The weight training would involve reps of 10-12, until comfortable with the exercises, moving up in weight as often as possible.
For mid-level, I would recommend increasing weight lifting days to 4-5 per week with optional short cardio sessions on 1-3 days. The weight of each lift should increase, making 12 reps per set difficult (or impossible) to complete. These individuals should focus on heavier weight for roughly 6-8 reps per set and integrate isolation exercises for specific muscles into their workouts days.
Seasoned fitness professionals may increase training to 5-6 days per week, still keeping cardio to a minimum. Weight lifts should be heavy and reps should sit around 6 per set, with that last set being VERY difficult to accomplish, if at all. Isolation exercises are key at this level and workouts should be very strategically planned, so as not to conflict muscle groups.
My favorite workout
I’ve filmed a short clip from one of my recent upper body workouts. These exercises utilize an incredibly versatile piece of equipment: the EZ bar.
Integrating the EZ bar into your workouts is a great way to begin busting through plateaus, as it can be used for compound and isolation movements. An EZ bar typically weighs 20-25 lbs. and can be used for each exercise without any additional weight.
However, as you progress and build strength, adding weight to the EZ bar will continue to challenge your muscles. Each of these exercises can also be performed with a straight barbell, but keep in mind that the curvature of the EZ bar will help prevent wrist and elbow injuries.
This upper body circuit should be performed 3-4 times through with 60-90 seconds of rest between each set.
Bent Over Row – This exercise can be performed with an overhand or underhand grip. Your back should remain straight (which requires your core to be engaged) and your knees slightly bent. Slowly pull the bar up just below your chest, squeezing your back before returning to starting position. [Main Muscle Group: Back Secondary Muscle Groups: Biceps and Shoulders]
Bicep Curl – Stand with your back straight, core tight and a very slight bend in your knees. As you exhale, contract your biceps as you curl the weight of the EZ bar towards your shoulders. Make sure to keep your elbows close to your side; the forearm should be the only part of your arm to move. This exercise can be performed with a wide grip or narrow grip. Alternatively, the EZ bar can be used to perform negative curls with a reverse grip (palms down). [Main Muscle Group: Biceps Secondary Muscle Groups: Forearms and Shoulders]
Bicep Curl into Shoulder Press – Follow the directions above for the bicep curl, however, instead of lowering the EZ bar back down to your bicep curl starting position, immediately stretch your arms and push the EZ bar above your head. Slowly bring the bar back down to bicep curl starting position. [Main Muscle Groups: Biceps and Shoulders Secondary Muscle Groups: Triceps, Chest, Back]
Seated Military Press – Sit down on a bench or other flat surface and hold the EZ bar with an overhand grip that is slightly more narrow than a standard shoulder press. Your back should be straight and your core tight while you position the EZ bar in front of your chest; this is your starting position. Slowly press the bar above your head and lower back down to starting position. Be careful not to let your elbows flare out as you lower. [Major Muscle Groups: Shoulders Secondary Muscle Groups: Triceps, Back]
I hope you enjoy this circuit!
Here are a few more of my favorite exercises to perform with an EZ bar. Use these exercises to create additional circuits, supersets or tri-sets that will challenge your body and kickstart that new energy you’re looking for.
EZ Bar Squat
EZ Bar Front Squat
Bench Step Ups
Bulgarian Split Squat
Sit Up (with EZ bar overhead)