We have all been there, the same weight that felt light as a feather last week, feels like a tonne at the next workout; the 2 km on the rower that you once breezed through, now takes everything you got to finish. Perhaps you were making dramatic progress with your body composition goal and now that has stalled completely. It can often seem bewildering, how can this be happening? It doesn’t have to remain a mystery.
When progress hits a road block, there is a checklist that you can work through to examine why this might be happening. Once you have narrowed down the limiting factor (or factors) that is making it difficult to achieve optimal results, the necessary changes can be made to get your training back on track and have you feeling like a champ again!
The Progress Checklist:
Whether you want to gain muscle, lose fat, pursue a healthy lifestyle, or even compete at the highest levels of sport, the most important limiting factor is almost always nutrition. Poor nutrition will hold you back; good nutrition will propel you forward.
If you are looking to increase your strength and put on muscle mass, ensuring you are taking in enough total calories and an optimal amount of protein is critical. A positive energy balance (when energy flow into the body exceeds energy flow out of the body) is required for muscle growth and proteins are critical for nearly every metabolic activity in the body.
If you are looking to lose weight, a negative energy balance (when energy flow out of the body exceeds energy flow into the body) is required. This can be achieved through increasing activity level and/or decreasing caloric intake. If your weight loss progress has stalled, look for the non-essential, calorie dense foods that you could potentially live without. For example, instead of a large double-double, could you manage with a medium black coffee instead? Rather than a sandwich and french fries, could you tolerate a sandwich with a side salad? In addition to reducing caloric intake, look for ways that you can get in a bit more activity by doing some things you enjoy. All these small changes add up over time and can make a big impact on your results.
In some situations, when caloric intake has been drastically reduced in a short period of time, the brain slows down metabolism to conserve energy and keep the body functioning on fewer calories. The extent of the slowdown depends on how severely you cut calories, the foods you eat, and other factors such as whether you exercise and your general health. When calories drop too low, your body goes into ‘starvation mode’. In other words, the body adjusts the number of calories it burns based on the shortage of calories consumed. The best way to lose weight – and prevent massive metabolic slowdown – is to reduce caloric intake gradually and always maintain a base level that will sustain the life-supporting functions of your body.
Water makes up nearly 60% of our bodyweight, clearly it is essential to life. It serves many different functions in the body, acting as a solvent, catalyst, lubricant, temperature regulator, mineral source, and regulator of growth.
Adequate hydration requires attention to both daily fluid intake as well as intake around working out. Exercise speeds up the rate of water loss. As a result, intense exercise can lead to cramping, dizziness and sudden dehydration. If you have been noticing muscle cramps during your workouts, it may be an indication of dehydration.
Many people think of replacing lost water only after they have begun sweating heavily, or after completing their workout. Yet, it’s also important to begin the hydration process before water is lost. This “pre-hydration” ensures that you will start the physical activity well-hydrated and with normal electrolyte levels. As a general guideline, aim for 500 ml about 30 minutes before exercise.
A BCAA supplement added into the water that you drink during the workout can speed up your recovery from exercise. BCAA stands for branched-chain amino acids, the building blocks of protein, which you need for nearly every body function.
We need enough good quality sleep to be healthy and fit. It makes us feel good, helps us recover and helps us get leaner and stronger. Sleep is the time when the body literally repairs itself, so this clearly has a massive impact on our ability to recover from workouts. During sleep, the brain triggers the release of hormones, such as somatotropin, that encourage tissue growth.
Good sleep doesn’t just magically happen, though. Just like you can’t go from deep sleep to super-energized first thing in the morning, you need time to transition between a busy day and relaxation. A ‘sleep ritual’ can help with this, including:
- Turning off all electronics (TV, computer, cell phone).
- Listening to some relaxing music.
- Dimming the lights.
Even spending 10-15 minutes on a sleep ritual can have a big impact on your ability to get a deep and restful sleep. Aim for a minimum of 7-8 hours of good quality sleep per night for optimal results.
Mobility plays an important role in muscle recovery. Doing 5-10 minutes of mobility work before and after working out can make a big difference…it’s just a matter of consistently doing it!
A warm-up can include a few minutes of light cardiovascular exercise (rowing, cycling, skipping, jogging, etc.) to increase body temperature, followed by foam rolling and dynamic stretches relative to the main movements in the workout that follows. For post-workout mobility, incorporating static stretches and/or more foam rolling is a good way to cool down.
Dynamic stretching increases range of motion and improves blood and oxygen flow to soft tissues prior to exertion. Static stretching can increase the flexibility of your joints, enhancing your ability to move more freely and efficiently. Foam rolling offers many of the same benefits as a massage, including reduced inflammation, scar tissue and joint stress, as well as improved circulation and flexibility.
If you have been following the same workout plan for a number of months, you would likely find some benefit to shaking up your training. Variation can come in a many different forms, such as exercise selection, rep ranges and loading strategies. At the Muscle Hut, we base our training around a 6 week programming cycle which utilizes a wide variety of exercises and rep ranges. Variation is a key factor in continually making progress as it prevents the body from growing accustomed to the type of stimulus it receives. Remember, too, that variation can be achieved through small changes like stance width, grip width, bar placement, rep tempo, paused reps and drop-sets.
Overtraining is the result of giving your body more stress than it can handle. Remember, we don’t build muscle and get stronger from the stimulus during the workouts, we build muscle and get stronger from the recovery time between the workouts.
If you have been training quite hard for a number of weeks or months, it would likely be beneficial to ‘de-load’ for a week. A de-load is simply a reduction in weekly training intensity (weight load) and/or volume (sets performed). The primary purposes of de-loading are:
- Alleviating central nervous system fatigue.
- Reducing muscle, joint and ligament strain.
- Reducing the risk of injury.
- Reducing psychological stress.
Essentially, de-loads encourage recovery before another period of harder training with heavier loading. If you have been in an overtrained state, you will likely come back even stronger after your de-load, as your body will have been able to fully repair itself. It is in these times of de-load that ‘supercompensation’ can flourish, the body’s ability to adapt to prior stimulus (exercise) and deal with the next stimulus better. This adaptation is what allows you to gain muscle and strength.
Always remember where you started. If you are tempted to let a lack of progress bring you down, think of how far you’ve come and all the accomplishments you’ve made along the way. It’s natural to only focus on wanting to achieve more; sometimes a shift in mindset can help you realize how far you’ve come and keep everything in perspective.
Perhaps the motivation to train simply is not there. In these times, switching up your environment can go a long way. If you have been training by yourself, try finding a friend to train with. If you are looking for some guidance and support, personal training or group classes are both great options. At the Muscle Hut, you always have a coach to help motivate you, keep you accountable and ensure that you are getting the best results possible. You are also surrounded by a family of clients that are encouraging and supportive every step of the way.
This blog post references information from Precision Nutrition, the leaders in habit-based nutrition.