Top 5 Reasons You Plateau

by Dr. Jacob Wilson, Ph.D., CSCS*D

November 6, 2017


Have you reached a training plateau? There is a great saying that states, “when you feel like quitting, remember why you started.” Stop and think about when you first began your lifting experience. You achieved beginner gains and then progress began to slow. Research shows that the number one reason people quit is that they stop making measurable progress. Let’s face it, it sucks to stop making progress and if it continues, you lose your motivation to train and diet. Your mind starts telling you, “what’s the point?” There are very specific reasons for why we plateau. This article may be the most important one you have ever read because we will discuss the primary reasons why you plateau and how to overcome these challenges. We will discuss recovery, sleep, stress, nutrition, and variation in your training.

Reason You Plateau 1: Lack of Recovery


Often times when we plateau, we use the concept of progressive overload. This simply means that you increase either the weight, the sets, or the number of times you train a week. At first, this works great! However, soon it stops working because your body can only adapt so much to the same training stimulus. The solution here can take many forms. One of my favorite ways to assess my fatigue is to monitor your recovery on a scale of 1-10. If you are an 8-10, you can certainly do an overload workout. However, if you wake up a 5-6 you need to back off and train light that day. By doing this, you will continue to make phenomenal gains and not be held back by recovery. Another approach is to step load. Step loading is three steps up, two steps back approach. In essence, you increase intensity or volume for two to three weeks and then you lower it drastically for one week to recover, then repeat.

Reason You Plateau 2: Lack of Sleep

Most people do not realize the importance of sleep. However, research shows that a lack of sleep decreases insulin sensitivity and actually makes us fatter and less muscular! The program is that athletes who plateau tend to train longer and sleep less. So how can you overcome this? Here are a few tips I have to optimize your sleep:

1. Have a consistent sleep schedule
2. Wear orange blue light blocking glasses at night
3. Use blackout curtains in your room
4. Avoid checking your cell phone in the middle of the night
5. If you still have problems then shift your night workouts to earlier in the day

Reason You Plateau 3: Life Stress

I will tell you a story but I do not want you to spread it around, okay? When I played junior hockey in Canada I was a kid. It was then that I got my first girlfriend. I can remember, I was head over heels for this girl! Literally, head over heels. She was the one! One day she called me and said, “I can’t do this anymore.” I said, “what do you mean?” She responded: “the only thing you care about is training and hockey.” She decided to break up with me. I could remember being crushed. My training suffered, I got very sick, and became extremely overtrained. The thing is, my exercise did not increase. It was life stress that did it to me. The next time I had a girlfriend it was as if you hit repeat on what happened before. I just spent too much time working out and focusing on hockey. This time I said, “it’s ok, it’s not the end of the world.” Guess what happened? This time I did not get sick and my training improved. Why? It was a totally different mental approach. Of course, I was sad, but I learned to more effectively deal with my stress. The take-home message is that life stress can negatively impact you like training too much can. Here’s my advice. Learn to think differently about stress. Not everything is the end of the world. Try comparing your stressors to the “glass is half full” approach and you will bust through your plateaus like there is no tomorrow!

You Plateau 4: Poor Nutrition


This is likely the most obvious one of them all. Research clearly shows that nutrition drives gains in training. Many people train hard and wonder why they are gaining little muscle. Often times it is because they are eating low nutrient dense food or their protein is too low. Stop and reevaluate your diet. Ensure that you are not only consuming optimal protein, but also carbohydrates and fats if on a traditional bodybuilding diet or a ketogenic diet. It is a misconception that fat makes you fat. Diets higher in fat (at least 25%) may optimize not only hormones, but training. The The CEO of Quest Nutrition once told me, “food is an amazing thing. It can make you really awesome or it can make you really shitty.”

Some key tips for breaking plateaus are:
1) Make sure you get adequate high-quality protein in your diet
2) Keep yourself insulin sensitive by either cycling your carbs or doing a low carb diet
3) Drink plenty of water
4) Use a balanced approach with many vegetables, healthy fats and meats
5) Do not bulk or cut too long; I suggest calorie cycling to avoid plateaus in both weight gain and loss

You Plateau 5: Lack of Variety


I don’t know about you all but I am a creature of habit. In fact, here’s a quick story. I have known my best friend, Ryan Lowery, since college for the better part of a decade. Ryan knows my habits and can predict exactly what I am going to do. Well, Halloween was last week. Everyone in the facility bet that I would paint my face. Ryan said there was no way I would and that I would dress up as Clark Kent. Guess what! Everyone lost the bet and Ryan won. Why? Because Ryan knows my habits. What most of us do not realize is that our workouts are as predictable as I am on Halloween. If we do chest, we do the same three exercises each time. If we do squats, it is with the same stance and bar placement. However, our lab has done research showing that the most important aspect to variation is changing exercise selection. So, the key take home here is, STOP DOING WHAT YOU HAVE ALWAYS DONE! Try doing exercises that you have not done in at least 6 months or maybe, ever. I guarantee you’ll make huge progress by doing so.


In summary, we plateau for several reasons. This can include lack of recovery & sleep, excess stress, poor nutrition, and little variation in your training. The key is to take a step back and assess your training, lifestyle, and diet. This will equip you with the tools to properly bust through your plateau! Also, remember to check out The Muscle PhD Academy Live on Facebook or Instagram every week and tune in for the live lesson every Wednesday at 3:00pm EST!