Breaking Through an Exercise Plateau

Do you find that no matter how hard or how often you work out, you just can’t seem to make any progress? You may have hit the dreaded exercise plateau – and it’s sapping your motivation to continue. What you need to break through that plateau is a change in how you train – something called periodization. Periodization is the smart way to train in any exercise discipline.

Periodization and Set Point

What’s happening when you’re stuck in a plateau is that your body has become very good at doing exactly what you’re asking of it, and no more. It’s operating under what’s known as the SAID Principle, which stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand.  So you’ve been imposing the same demand on your body month after month, and now it’s settled in quite nicely to just how things are.  The body is a system – and like most systems, it seeks out a set point, or balance point, called homeostasis.  In order to see improvement, you need to bring your body to a new, better set point.

“Periodizing” your training program is the key to stimulating your body to establish a new set point. Essentially, periodization is a methodical way of changing the demand imposed on your body to keep it working harder, but without overstressing it. Instead of doing the same routine week after week and month after month, you change your training program at regular intervals or “periods” to encourage your body to adapt to these changes, while still giving it adequate rest. For more details on how your body reacts to new challenges, read my article The Body’s Response to Stress – Understanding the General Adaptation Syndrome.

Periodization for Strength Training

You can implement periodization training for your strength-training program by adjusting the variables that affect the total intensity of the exercise, such as:

  • Number of reps per set
  • Number of sets per exercise
  • Weight/resistance
  • Rest period between sets and exercises
  • The order of the exercises
  • The types of exercises
  • The speed of each rep (slow/controlled or rapid)

What’s important to remember when periodizing a strength training program is that you should only change one variable at a time. Traditionally, periodized strength training programs move from low weight and high repetitions to high weight and low repetitions.  This will allow your muscles to strengthen gradually, and is appropriate for general fitness. However, it’s critical that you consider your own overall fitness goals when determining how you will periodize your program. Muscle endurance, power, and stability are also goals that can be achieved through a periodized strength training program.

Research Shows Better Results

A frequently cited study conducted at the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University(1) demonstrated that a periodized strength-training program can produce better results than a non-periodized program. The study’s objective was to determine the long-term training adaptations associated with low-volume, circuit-type training vs. periodized, high-volume strength training in women. (“Volume” represents the total amount of weight lifted during each session).

The study took place over a 12-week period. The test subjects were 34 women divided into two groups (along with a non-exercising control group). Group 1 performed one set of 8 to 12 reps to muscle failure three days per week for 12 weeks – essentially doing the same workout routine, week after week. Group 2 performed two to four sets of 3 to 15 reps, with periodized volume and intensity, four days per week.

The group following the periodized plan had more substantial gains in lean muscle, greater reductions in body fat and more significant strength gains than the non-periodized group after 12 weeks.

Periodization for Cardiovascular Workouts

It’s also very important to periodize your cardiovascular training for the same reasons – to continue challenging your body, combined with adequate recovery time.

For example, if you run for fitness, fun and the occasional short race, you’ll want to include flat and easy runs, as well runs that incorporate hills, and others that focus on speed and strength.

What you don’t want to do is the same run, at the same place, for the same distance, every time. Your body will become quite good at this same run, and you won’t progress. Conversely, running every time at all-out speed and high-intensity will lead to injury or burnout. If you’re serious about improving your time in a 10K or completing a half marathon or even a full marathon, you’ll need a periodized program geared to each type of race.

The same holds true for other forms of cardio workouts. If you do the same high-intensity group exercise class week after week, you may be overstressing your body to the point where it’s going to hold on to every fat cell it’s got. [Read: The Great Debate: Cardio or Weights? for more on this phenomenon.] Instead, switch up your routine with lower intensity classes like yoga or Pilates, treadmill or water walking, swimming, etc. and you’ll start to see results again.

Periodized training will ensure that you continue to make measurable progress, which will keep you energized and interested in reaching your goals. Contact me and let’s talk about establishing an effective periodized program for your personal goal!

Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES is a Fitness and Nutrition Coach who works with clients virtually to help them transform their health and fitness. She takes a holistic approach to her clients’ wellness through strength training, cardiovascular exercise, real life/behavior-based nutrition strategies and recovery techniques. She’ll work with you one-on-one to help you live a healthy and active life and achieve your unique fitness goals. Contact her here or follow her blog at


(1) Marx, J.O et al. (2001). Low-Volume Circuit Versus High-Volume Periodized Resistance Training In Women. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 33, 635–643.

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