Hitting a Plateau
When you get started doing cross-training, improvement comes easily. However, after about a year, many people hit a plateau. They keep working hard, but don’t see the radical, memorable, and motivational gains they saw over the first few months. This post is about how to deal with the plateau, and eventually break through it.
Fitness gurus have a solution to the problem of the plateau. It’s often captured in slogan form: “Stop exercising, and start training.” I find the slogan a bit too dramatic, but I think the message behind it is about right. The idea is that working really hard whenever you’re at the gym is not enough. You need to adopt specific goals distributed over multiple time scales, and then find ways to modify your training regime to achieve them.
What kind of goals are appropriate? Of course the answer to that question depends on individual factors. But I think the key for many of us who are on a plateau is to transition from an attitude that emphasizes general goals like weight loss, improved endurance, faster metcons, increased mobility, and the like, to goals that are movement specific and quantitative. In particular, you should set goals designed to improve the raw strength and raw speed on all the fundamental movements we see regularly.
Notice that strength and speed are more easily quantifiable than either mobility or technical prowess. Of course it is always a good thing to get your hips a bit more flexible and to get the bar to travel along a slightly straighter line, but if you’re at the one-year plateau, it’s likely that improvements in those dimensions will be linear and relatively slow. We want to jumpstart your training to get you off the plateau, and therefore need to focus on improvements that, assuming things go well, will be non-linear.
I’m in a plateau myself right now, and know that my relative weakness in squatting movements is one of my primary limitations. My technique is not bad, but my 1RM is (relatively) puny. Working on raw strength is one of the best ways to break out of a plateau. If I can get my 1RM from 275 up to 300, the extra strength will almost certainly translate into improvements at all sorts of other movements. For example, I’ll be able to do more #95 thrusters before putting the bar down. For other people, the deadlift, benchpress, strict press, or strict pullup might be the weakest link. Luckily, we’ve just started a new strength cycle in which all of these movements will be revisited on a weekly basis. So identify your weakest link and make sure you show up for the days when we’re going heavy. In the strength cycle, we’ll be calculating lots of percentages. Talk to your coaches and make sure yours make sense. You should be lifting a little bit heavier every week.
Speed is important for many movements in cross-training. For some movements though, your speed is capped by general work capacity. For example, my speed on Grace (30 clean and jerks for time) is not (directly) limited by how fast any individual clean and jerk is; it is determined by how much rest I need between reps. For other workouts, the speed of individual reps makes a big difference. Here I am thinking in particular of faster workouts that include double-unders, burpees, and kipping pullups.
Many of you at the one-year plateau can do double-unders. But do they look like this?
As long as you’re consistent, it is better to jump two inches off the ground than 6 – it will allow you to get in way more reps in a given interval. To practice that, time yourself on blocks of 10 reps, or 15, or 20. Whatever the number, don’t go to exhaustion. Then rest for two minutes and try to beat your time. Repeat.
Another movement where individual rep speed matters is the burpee. On 20-minute workouts like 16.1, it makes sense to go slowly and try to save your energy. But in faster workouts, linking burpees together quickly will save lots of time overall. To link burpees quickly, you’ve got to drop to the floor in one fluid movement, and then bounce directly into the next rep.
This guy does it really nicely. To train for that kind of speed, the plan is straightforward. After a workout this week, time yourself on a set of 10 burpees. Try this again a few days later and see if you can beat your time. Then try it again next week. Then again. You get the idea.
Here is a video with some quality kipping pullups. Nice, right? Now check out Dan Bailey’s kipping pullups at minute 1:30 in this video. For faster workouts where you can sprint through at least some of the pullups, getting yours to look more like Dan’s will make a huge difference. Here again, train with small sets of the same size, and see if you can improve your time. However, when blazing through dynamic pull-ups it is very easy to develop bad movement habits, so I recommend asking someone to watch you and keep an eye out for deteriorating technique. Also, keep in mind that aggressive kipping takes a toll on your shoulders. You’re generating a lot of force that can lead to injury if the joint isn’t sufficiently warm, or you do too many reps.
Can you eat your way off the plateau?
I don’t know which diet is optimal for me, and I definitely don’t know which is optimal for you. So I’m not in the habit of giving nutrition advice (except for advising a healthy skepticism about nutrition advice). Nevertheless, it isn’t all that difficult to identify nutritional habits that are egregiously sub-optimal. If you eat donuts for breakfast every day, there’s room for improvement. And eating well can definitely help your body adapt to all the work you’ve been throwing at it. Nutrition is relevant to everyone, but it is probably especially relevant if you feel that you aren’t recovering fast enough to go hard two days in a row, or if you find yourself feeling nauseous during/after long metcons.
If you fit either description, I recommend giving Wodify’s nutrition journal a try. Just keeping tabs on your eating habits may lead to wiser nutritional decisions, and wiser nutritional decisions might be just what you need to jumpstart your training. I’ve just started using it myself. I can’t say I’ve been great about it yet, but it definitely had something to do with my decision to go for the grilled veggies at lunch today. I’ll report back after I’ve had a bit more experience with the system. Until then, happy lifting.