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Hello I was wondering how to effectively work through a plateau, I work out with cardio and weights,and for my cardio I use a stationary bike and a elliptical machine, for example for a week I'll work out 5 times both between the bike and elliptical one day 40 min on the bike, the next 40 min on the elliptical and so on through the week, what am I doing wrong. How much more could I change it up. ps don't like to run , but do play hockey once a week and have a good balanced diet. - Paul


Hi Paul,

Plateaus are caused by a mismanagement of recovery and fatigue. The basic idea is on days you are fatigued, do less or do nothing - take the day off. On days you are recovered you have an opportunity to push a little harder or a little longer, or both.

However most people will do one or both of the following:

  • Exercise too hard too often without sufficient recovery time between exercise sessions.
  • Exercise at the same intensity for the same duration regardless of how they feel.

How we feel does not always accurately reflect our real state of recovery. Sometimes we feel lethargic and unmotivated prior to a workout, but end up having a great workout once we get going. Other times we're motivated, but seem to run out of steam. This means how you feel may or may not be a good indication of how recovered or fatigued you are. Compare how you perform during your workout with how you feel. If performance is down and you feel tired, you're fatigued. If you feel great and performance is up, you are recovered.

Interpreting conflicting information; you feel great but perform poorly despite trying, you are fatigued. If you feel a little tired and unmotivated but performance is good, you may be starting a fatigue cycle - use caution in your training.

When you are fatigued, cut your workout in half, or simply leave the gym and come back after a couple days off. If you are recovered, push a little hard and or longer than usual, but don't go for broke: successful increases are modest, not all out efforts.

From a broader perspective, no long term planning is a also a cause of plateaus. Until you have achieved your ideal fitness level, your fitness should continue to increase every month so long as you have a logical approach to gradually increasing the physical challenge. While common quick fix exercise programs look at 12 week programs, in reality plans ought to be a minimum of one year. This doesn't mean every workout is pre planned for a year; but there are fairly standard progressions to make in sets and reps in the weight room, and time/ intensity in cardio that follow phases of training over one or more years.

Read this article on Periodization to get an idea of how to organize your exercise week and learn about long term planning. These articles on lactate testing and heart rate formulas will help you with determining the correct intensity for cardio.

- Cris LaBossiere

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This page was last updated on January 20, 2008