When it comes to achieving fitness goals, nothing is more frustrating than hitting a wall in your progress. One minute you’re hitting PRs left and right in the gym and seeing positive changes in your body, and then on a dime, it stops. Welcome to the dreaded plateau.
We’ve all been there. The question is, what do you do about it? According to fitness experts, one way is to freshen up your workouts in order to avoid a mental and physical stalemate. And one surefire way to keep your body and metabolism guessing is with high-intensity interval training.
Here, find out how to recognize when you’ve hit a plateau and how HIIT can help you blast through it.
What Is a Plateau?
A plateau is a state of little change following a period of progress. “The body is only adapting to the stimulus placed on it and many forget that they have to do a bit more work over time,” says Mike T. Nelson, PhD Exercise Physiology. “This can be in the form of volume (work done), intensity (faster speed or a heavier weight), or density (work and time).”
In some cases, the root cause of your stagnant progress can be mental. “Sometimes in the absence of intention you can lose motivation and plateau,” says Eva Redpath, founding trainer of Barry's Bootcamp Canada and host of [Re]set series.
Signs You’ve Hit a Plateau
So how do you know you’ve plateaued? Here are the most obvious signs and signals:
1. It’s more difficult to increase your heart rate.
2. You don’t feel motivated to work out.
3. You’re not balanced, meaning you can run for miles but after two minutes of jump rope you’re spent.
4. You’re no longer getting stronger.
5. You’re no longer seeing physical changes, such as a different number on the scale or in the way your clothing fits.
Bust Your Plateau with HIIT
One of the best plateau-busting qualities of HIIT may also be the aspect you dislike the most—it’s uncomfortable! “[HIIT] can be helpful to get used to more ‘pain’ when working at higher intensities,” says Nelson. “That does not mean training needs to be painful per say, but it has to be uncomfortable at times to maximize results.”
We often underestimate what our bodies are capable of. As creatures of habit, it is easy to simply go through the motions in our fitness routines, such as loading the bar with the same weight plates each week or jogging at the same pace on the same incline every time you jump on the treadmill.
By getting out of your comfort zone and throwing in a few HIIT sessions each week, you’re waking up the muscles (and your mind) that have adapted to the same ol’, same ol’. And that means increased calorie burning, fat torching, and chances that you’ll start seeing results again.
If your plateau falls more on the mental side, HIIT may help you get your mojo back and stay consistent with your workouts. One study published in PLoS ONE found people enjoyed HIIT over forms of continuous cardio and were therefore more likely to stick with it. What’s more, you can increase your calorie burn just as effectively as continuous or endurance exercise but in half the time.
How to HIIT It
HIIT workouts can involve circuit training, sprinting, cardio equipment, kettlebells, even weight lifting, but the common key to success is to aim for above 85 percent of your maximum heart rate during work intervals (wearing a fitness tracker or heart rate monitor is recommended). HIIT training creates an oxygen shortage for your muscles which translates into the coveted “afterburn,” otherwise known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC).
Along with heightened calorie burning that can last for up to 36 hours post-workout, HIIT also improves your V02 max which can help both in endurance and strength training.
“Plateaus aren't necessarily a negative thing, they can be a great opportunity to hit pause,” says Redpath. “Take a step back to assess what’s working and what’s not, hit reset, and come back stronger than ever.”
Remember, when attacking your HIIT workout, work to rest ratios can range anywhere from 1:2 and 1:0.5 but should always feel challenging. Aim to reduce your rest periods as you improve to avoid hitting another plateau.
To learn how you can improve your HIIT workouts, check out Get More From Your HIIT.