The first major challenge we face when we exercise regularly is just getting started and committing to a consistent pattern of working out. I say “consistent pattern” to cast as broad a net as possible. For you, working out regularly might mean going to the gym three times per week, or it might mean going for a morning walk 4-5 times per week, or it might mean training twice a day for 13 consecutive days and taking a rest day. The only thing I mean to exclude is an irregular pattern of exercise, i.e. going to the gym “when I have time” or going for a run “when I feel like it.” I’m not trying to criticize anyone, I’m just trying to focus my message on the subset of people who exercise regularly.
It can take weeks or months to reach the point where you are committed to exercising regularly and showing some progress with your work. It’s not easy. If you’ve made it that far, take a bow – you deserve it.
After that, you reach the dreaded plateau, the point of diminishing returns, when you keep hitting the gym hard, but you stop showing any kind of progress. Perhaps your weight loss has stalled at the wrong number, or your muscle size gains are inadequate, or you find that you cannot run any faster or lift any heavier weight, even though you have still fallen short of your goal. This is the second major challenge.
It’s natural and, to a certain extent, inevitable. You need not feel as though you’ve failed or that you’re not capable of accomplishing what others can accomplish. That isn’t what your body is telling you. Your body is telling you, “Try something different now.”
At this point, you might want to look for a new workout program entirely. Stop running, and start swimming. Stop lifting, and start doing calisthenics. Stop doing yoga, and start doing pilates. Whatever.
If you like what you’ve been doing, though, and you don’t want to make a radical change because you’d rather just improve, then I recommend first taking a couple of days off to give your body a full rest. Then, you can try a number of things. One simple technique is to just inject some variety in the order in which you do your exercises, the number of sets, the number of repetitions. As long as you’re working out to exhaustion, then the order and mix of sets-and-reps shouldn’t matter too much, anyway (within reason).
Another thing you can do is gamify it: Turn your workouts into a sport. Rather than trying for a gain every week, or ever couple of weeks, set a goal and attempt to meet it, gradually.
I wrote about this the other day. I’m trying to perform certain exercises that I cannot currently do. I felt for a while that I was reaching a plateau, but really I needed to pause, re-group, and concentrate on what it will take to achieve my goals. Attempting to do a muscle-up every time I attempt a pull-up would be overkill, but setting aside some time every week to attempt something new and previously impossible is an important way to keep yourself on track. Concentrate on what you want to achieve, and dedicate time to achieving it.
It’s no different than any other aspect of life, really. You’ll never be happy if you expect to get a little happier every day; but if you set aside a little time every now and then to make yourself happy, before you know it, you’ll feel very content. That’s what it’s all about.