Using Breaks to Overcome Fitness Plateaus

Bear in a Basket by Ucumari

Even bears know the importance of taking a break once in a while.

Sometimes you just hit a wall in your progress.

It happens to everyone – it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been training, how well constructed your program is, how perfect your diet, sleep patterns and recovery are – at some point you’re going to plateau. Often times it’s extremely frustrating because it feels like you’re doing everything right, but you still can’t make any progress.

The natural response for most people is to try to power through it. They up the intensity, super fine tune their diet, obsess over every little thing and about kill themselves to push as hard as they possibly can in each workout. The problem is this is the wrong response. So how do we get back to progressing?

Simple. Take a break.

Why Have a Deload Week?

For some people it’s puzzling why I would recommend taking a week off or switching to something lighter (deloading) for people who are stuck and want to get stronger. The problem is that they’re not looking at the big picture and still think exercise makes you stronger. It doesn’t.

Recovery makes you stronger.

Essentially while all the hard work in the gym is necessary to provide the stimulus to start the process of muscle growth the actual muscle growth itself doesn’t happen in the gym, it happens over the next few days and while you’re sleeping.

Exercise is the ignition switch that starts up the engine, but recovery is the engine itself – it’s what really does the work you want in the end.

Sometimes after a while it gets to a point where you’ve just done too much intentional damage to your system and haven’t given it or aren’t giving it enough time to recover. That can translate to putting in a lot of work, but not seeing any results. When something like this happens the best course of action is to provide your body with enough rest to recover fully so you can get back to work. How do you do that?

Take a break.

How to Deload

For some people, wrapping their head around not training for a week can be painful. I used to feel that way too. Once you see the benefit a well-timed deload week can have though you’ll see why I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m not suggesting that you just drop everything and spend the week lying around on the couch eating ice cream either, when you take a break to help push through a plateau it should be an active, intentional break. Here’s a few options if you have no idea how to do that.

  • The Traditional Deload Week – Generally when people in the lifting world talk about a deload week they mean a week with a 40% or so reduction in training intensity. So that means on higher rep lifts a reduction in reps by around 40% (e.g., 12 reps instead of 20) and for low rep high weight lifts a reduction in weight by 40% (e.g., 180 lb. squat instead of a 300 lb. squat).

    Why specifically 40%? To be honest I’m not sure other than that historically it has always worked well. As to whether there have been any rigorous scientific studies to back that 40% up as the ideal amount I’ve been unable to find any. You could certainly reduce by a different percentage, but just know that the 40% deload has been used often and with lots of success.

  • The Active Recovery Week – Instead of a traditional deload week, you can always go for an active recovery week. An active recovery week differs from a more traditional deload in that here you don’t necessarily do the same exercises as your normal training program. Instead you focus on different related exercises and things that get you moving but aren’t nearly as intense as your standard routine.

    Spending some steady time on the rowing machine, focusing on mobility work, checking out some yoga classes, switching to a bodyweight routine or doing assistance exercise to your core lifts at a lower intensity all fall under the category of active recovery.

  • The Play Week – Another option if neither of those sound interesting is just to take a week and focus entirely on playing. Go have fun, climb some things, give parkour a try, play some football/baseball/hopscotch/whatever, go hiking, you get the point.

    Play is a big part of alive and happy so go do it. Make the whole point of the week to be up and moving as much as possible but in a relaxed, fun, playful way. By the end of the week not only will you feel better physically, you’ll probably be a lot less stressed and more happy on top of it.

A Note on Nutrition

Just because you’re taking a break from your standard exercise schedule doesn’t mean you should necessarily take a break from your normal nutritional plan. Depending on how you’re eating one cheat day in there may be fine if you have them normally and they’re a part of your program, but don’t take the week off as an excuse to go into some Bacchanalian feast mode and nom your way through three tons of junk food.

Instead, if you’re going to change your dietary habits at all during your break, eat lots of meat. Protein is your very bestest friend during recovery time, so go nuts. If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, well… you have my sympathy.

Have you had success breaking through a sticking point in your fitness by using a break or a deload week? Tell us about it in the comments! If you’ve got any other good ideas for how to relax and recover properly, be sure to share those too.

Photo Credit: Ucumari

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com