Updated: Sep 8, 2021
It can be frustrating to start a fitness program that is working well for you, just to have progress stop or even regress. Before giving up on a plan that may still be right for you, you want to read this.
With over 20 years experience in the fitness industry we see a common cycle we call the "psychological plateau".
A psychological plateau is when multiple - but "unintentional" - slip ups start and overtime become more frequent.
These slip ups usually involve food, drink, and skipping exercise. Each going against your once strictly followed fitness plan, while minimizing the true impact they have on your overall physical goals. A little here and a little there, until progress stops.
Instead of identifying individual choices as the culprit, it's easier to think something is lacking in the fitness program or even think your body is broken - Essentially forgetting when the program was followed, the body responded.
The good news is it is in our power to fix.
The Psychological Plateau
A psychological plateau has nothing to do with the physical side of fitness, even though it absolutely affects your physical progress. Your body can do more of what you want it to do, but the mindset has shifted whether it's fully recognized - or not.
Changing one's body takes time. The psychological side of muscle gain, weight loss, sports performance, endurance improvement and more is paramount – and can be more difficult than the physical side.
As people get further into their fitness program, challenges arise that can make it tough to incorporate a healthy lifestyle long-term.
A variety of situations like family responsibilities, career obligations, financial pressures, community & social engagements, and extended travel can derail momentum. Life is not going to stop placing demands on our time and energy. We have to expect them and adjust, rather than becoming complacent and defeated.
Consider someone with a 50-pound weight loss goal. If they follow a nutrition and exercise plan. After dedicated work for six or so months, they lose 20 to 30 pounds of that goal. This person also has a demanding job, busy routine with kids, and volunteers at the school. Implementing a healthy lifestyle in this schedule requires both mental effort and physical planning. It is easy to understand how someone could become distracted from the finish line and relax in daily habits, unintentionally forgetting there are still 20 or 30 pounds left to lose. Mental focus can shift towards other important responsibilities.
Because these cycles happen unintentionally, anyone can find themselves in one. Most never stop wanting to achieve their goals, so it can be tough to see things objectively. But, anyone who becomes lax in their daily habits can hinder physical progress - including professional body builders, athletes, Nutritionists and Fitness Trainers.
Consider someone trying to improve athletically. As they diligently work an athletic training program, they will get better. As their skills improve they begin to feel more secure in their sports performance and perhaps even start feeling a little bored. Overtime, if they unintentionally stop putting in as much intensity into their training, they will not continue to improve at the same rate. But because they still go to training, and the athlete never stopped caring about their goal, they may be confused when performance drops or plateaus.
Staying motivated is not always easy. It can be a grapple to go the distance with discipline, focus and commitment - all needed for success.
Psychological plateaus can also be found in those who reach their fitness goals. For example, when a person loses 50-pounds, they must continue to eat good nutrition and exercise to maintain their fitness level. Their program may shift to maintenance, but if they start allowing to many unhealthy food choices and poor exercise habits creep back in, they will revert to an unhealthy version of themselves. Regardless of life demands or work already put in, weight will come back.
This is not because they “cannot keep weight off.” It is because they are unintentionally making the same lifestyle choices that caused the issue in the first place.
How to Combat a Psychological Plateau
Here we are sharing ten strategies we use to coach our personal training clients and think you may find them helpful.
1. Remember “Your Why”
This, in our opinion, it is the most important. Your “why” can have a powerful effect on your determination to finish what you started or maintain what you have worked so hard for.
Your reason(s) for starting a fitness program in the first place is your motivation.
Something inspired you. What was it? Has that been achieved? If not, why? If it has, do you want to lose it after all your challenging work?
Remind yourself of your “why” daily, so you remember what you are working for! You want this! You are in control and are choosing your path!
Try visual reminders of your "why" to stay on track.
Here are a few ideas: *Cleverly placed sticky notes *Daily reminders set on your calendar with positive messages *Wear a specific piece of jewelry *Hang up an old pair of jeans you want to fit in in your room
2. Stop Over Thinking and Go Back to Basics
When recommitting it is common to think you need to come out blazing. If full throttle mindset is something you thrive on, that's great. But it's not a necessity to get things done. Many times, less is more.
Break it down into a simple pattern. Why did you start? Who helped you? What helped you? Return to that.
If working with a personal trainer works for you, reconnect.
If meal prepping on a certain day works for you, do that.
If tracking food is good for you, start.
If you know exercise works best for you directly after work, make it happen.
Rather than planning out an elaborate strategy to get back on track, start with what you know works for you.
We recommend everyone start with three basic healthy lifestyle choices.
*Focus on healthy nutrition *Do not skip exercise. In fact, find more ways to move. *Increase daily water and avoid drinking empty calories
3. Positive Results, Require Positive Energy
Be sure to speak positively to yourself. Positive results are not won with negative energy.
For instance, beating yourself up for losing site of your goals will not produce change. It's a negative message to send yourself. You may be frustrated with yourself, but focusing on those feelings are not really motivating and hard to sustain long term commitment.
In contrast, focusing on thoughts like “I want to be healthy and see what my body is capable of,” is positive energy.
This type of mindset is inspiring and sustainable when you are tempted to cheat on your plan.
Positive motivation is what sustains commitment and work ethic. After a little thought, you may recognize optimism is the driver when making the most progress towards your goals.
Words like “look how far I have come” and “I’m really sticking with it this time” can go along way. What you think and say to yourself has power. So be optimistic. Be generous. Be kind. Be positive. You can do this!
4. Tell Your Goals to Multiple People
Telling a coworker, spouse, friend, trainer, or teammates your specific goals can be a powerful accountability lifeline. Choose these people wisely. You want someone who will encourage you and help you.
You can decide what this looks like. Personal details really don't have to be shared. You can ask for help if they see you slipping or just put it out there that you have goals.
Having a lifeline when you are feeling weak or unmotivated can truly be helpful, especially if this person understands why you want to achieve the goal. With that, consider people you are comfortable with knowing your “why.” A little encouragement from a like-minded person can go a long way.
5. Consider a Meal Prepping Service
In our experience, food is the number one factor in folks back sliding on their goals. Most people agree food can make or break any fitness program. It can be tough to master food and especially meal preparation. It can feel daunting and be time consuming for people not used to cooking for themselves.
If this has been a pitfall for you, we highly recommend investing in a meal prepping service. Specifically, one who delivers healthy, balanced, prepared meals to your door. Utilizing these resources to bridge gaps is a smart idea and can be structured to accommodate your life and schedule.
For instance, if you struggle with dinner after a long day at work, purchase a weeks' worth of dinners. If you need help with lunch during busy afternoons, purchase meals for that.
Here is a link with 10 of the best meal prepping services for your convenience.
6. Don't Celebrate Milestones as a Victory
Milestones represent short-term goals. Personal trainers, Nutritionists, and fitness enthusiasts use short term goals to carve a path to a bigger objective.
Milestones can be hard earned and really should be celebrated. But not to the extent that the long-term objective is no longer the focus.
When an NFL team is working to get to the Superbowl, they are incredibly happy and celebrate each game they win. However, they do not lose sight of the Superbowl and the work they still have in front of them. It would not make sense for the team to continue to celebrate last week's win during this week's practices.
In our experience, next to food this is the second most common pitfall in psychological plateaus - Over celebrating milestones. Ironically, the over celebration is usually extended and unbridled food cheats.
The Superbowl analogy speaks to the psychological plateau: At a progress assessment a client reaches a milestone they set for themselves and wants to celebrate. They choose to celebrate with a cheat meal. That cheat meal often turns into a cheat weekend.
A few more small slips start creeping in during the week.
More frequent cheats start triggering craving, until slowly and unintentionally, some vices are back in every day eating.
It starts with a “celebration of a milestone,” but it is the psychology behind the celebration that causes the real damage. Inadvertently justifying a little extra has been earned, will not hurt, and will not stop progress.
The truth is, not only will it stop progress but can also undo progress.
Milestones should be celebrated and with a cheat meal if it's desired. Being proud of the work accomplished is good. But keep your eye on the Superbowl.
7. Ditch “Cheat Meals”
“Cheat Meals” are as bad as they sound. We are not treating ourselves; we are cheating ourselves when we abuse our bodies with bad nutrition.
It can be extremely difficult to get unhealthy foods out of our daily eating. This is true both mentally and physically. Cravings can take days and even weeks to overcome in the first place.
Allowing those foods and drinks back in will more than likely start that process over. Plus, our body does not want or need junk for. Our mind does.
Yes, it is reasonable to think eventually it will be ok to have birthday cake, desserts, and drinks back into life. But save that for after goals are reached and on a maintenance plan.
For now, think outside the box to truly reward your hard work and celebrate your accomplishments. There are much better ways to honor your efforts.
Rethink your milestone celebrations. Here are some of our favorites:
*A new outfit / shoes *A pedicure / spa day *An active date night *A vacation or destination trip *A piece to a hobby or interest *A home furnishing / tool *Technology you have your eye on *A free day to sleep and rest
8. Put it On the Calendar
Treat your workout schedule the same as your other appointments. Put it on your calendar and do not double book. When you review your calendar for availability for other obligations, do not look at your workout as a movable appointment. It should not be.
Of course, emergencies will arise, and adjustments will need to be made from time to time. But these should be the exception and not the rule.
9. Mentor a Friend or Family Member
If you were far into your fitness journey before you hit a psychological plateau, it may be time to mentor someone. If you now have a good understanding of nutrition and exercise, helping others get healthy can inspire the mentor to “practice what they preach.”
Of course, we do not want to offend people. This tip is best done with someone you know has been working on similar goals.
We see great synergy between athletes with mentoring. When a seasoned player reaches out to a younger player, it can inspire both to do their best. Especially if they have a good friendship, play the same position, and see potential in each other.
Mentoring can also be applied to a close family member, such as a child. Guiding their food and exercise in a way that invites togetherness and unity can provide quality time and personal goal progress. That is a win / win.
10. Set a New Goal to Reach Your Original Goal
This tip can be a powerful tool for rekindling interest when experiencing a psychological plateau. Strategic goal setting can motivate and help keep us on track.
For instance, if someone is already eating good and going to the gym with a weight loss goal, they may desire some variety. Especially if it will take some time to achieve their healthy weight.
Choosing a goal or activity should always keep the original objective in mind and naturally give the same results.
For instance, if a person with the weight loss goal decided to join a local rock climbing gym; their physical movement increases, interest is engaged, and the activity chosen helps them in the overall goal to lose weight.
Some Ideas for Physical Activity Outside the Gym
*Join a beginner city league for a sport you are interested in *Register for a local charitable run that challenges you *Sign up for a class that teaches skills such as self-defense or boxing *Take a culinary class and invite family over for dinner
These are just a few ideas we have used to help clients avoid the pitfalls of psychological plateaus. We hope you have found some (if not all) helpful. They can and do work. You are worth every ounce of effort.
The Physical Plateau
Our bodies adapt to conditions placed on them, such as exercise and nutrition. Adjustments to food and exercise may be necessary to help your metabolism stay active as your bodyweight changes and fitness levels improve. This is especially true when working towards a long-term fitness goal.
If you are adhering to your nutrition and exercise plan, we recommend working with a qualified Personal Trainer or Nutritionist to adjust your program. They have the expertise to customize your plan.
However, if you are working through this on your own, we have more information on how to combat this and get your metabolism going in our article 3 Ways to Know If You Are In Weight Loss Plateau.