When it comes to fitness and nutrition, it’s easy to get stuck in a static routine when we find something we like and are comfortable doing. Whether that’s attending the same studio or yoga class week after week, running that favorite neighborhood route, or blending up the usual post-workout protein shake, over time, our bodies have an incredible capacity to adapt and improve their efficiency.
But it’s also a bit unfortunate, as it means we could see fewer results over time, even if we’re doing the same exercises that once helped us make progress early on in our training days.
While our favorite activities can have a place in our routines, our bodies and brains benefit from switching things up. When we consistently push them with different activities or intensities, they have to work harder to adjust. And when we accompany those challenges with better nutrition and appropriate recovery activities, we usually see improvements in muscle tone, strength, and metabolism as our bodies work to adapt.
We talked with four Life Time experts in strength and endurance training, recovery, and nutrition to learn how adding more in each of these areas can help us break through training plateaus and jumpstart progress.
1. Challenge your muscles by adding more weight or reps into your strength training.
Brooke Van Paris, assistant Personal Training manager, master trainer, and nutrition coach at Life Time in Deerfield Township in Ohio.
Strength training has many foundational health benefits, including protecting bone health and maintaining muscle mass. Whether you want to improve absolute strength (lifting heavier weight with fewer repetitions) or strength endurance (lower weight with higher reps), it’s important to progress and keep your muscles challenged.
Van Paris suggests starting with a defined goal. Is it building muscle size, increasing strength endurance over a sustained period of time, or improving functionally during daily activities, such as carrying groceries or lifting your child.
“If you’re looking for a way to simply challenge yourself in your current routine, try switching up your repetition range or load — the amount you’re lifting,” Van Paris says. “For muscle building, we recommend staying in a rep range of eight to 12 reps. For strength endurance, we look for working rep ranges between 12 and 15 reps. A good rule of thumb is if you reach the high end of the rep range for two consecutive workouts, it’s probably time to increase load.”
When you’re increasing load, Van Paris recommends an increase of about five percent for your upper-body exercises and 10 percent for the lower body — but no more than that amount week over week. “Keep working with that weight until you get back up between 12 and 15 repetitions, then increase again,” she says.
Van Paris continues, “Regardless of the number of rep increases or additional load, pay extra attention to your form, especially as you become more fatigued. Good form is necessary for quality function, muscle memory, and avoiding injury. Listen to your body, and if your workout becomes painful, talk to a personal trainer who can make sure your movement patterns are maintaining the correct form.”
If you’re wondering if you’re ready for more of a challenge, Van Paris encourages simply giving it a try. “A great way to begin is to start small. Test yourself with an extra pound or two in weight or by adding even a single rep at the end of your set.”
Van Paris advises being patient with yourself and taking time to appreciate your body. “Don’t be defeated by reaching a plateau,” she says. “It means you’re working hard, your body is responding to what you’re doing, and now you have the opportunity to make more progress toward your end goal. Try to value the journey and embrace the body you’re creating.”
2. Increase your endurance by adding more distance or speed.
Jennifer Walter-Mobley, personal trainer, GTX MultiSport Team coach and Master Swim coach at Life Time in St. Louis Park, Minn.
Endurance activities like running and cycling require stamina and determination, and it can be incredibly rewarding to set goals that increase your distance or speed. Walter-Mobley suggests those who are just getting started with progressions set an intention to mark their progress against.
“Depending on where you’re starting from, you can choose an event like a 5K, 10K or even an Ironman, or simply find a group to join to keep you accountable, such as a social run or ride with friends,” she says. “These group activities will help you learn about how you move, where you are strong, where you compensate, and what holds your interest.”
Walter-Mobley suggests working toward a 10-percent weekly gain for adding more distance. “Training takes time. Although your brain might be ready to go out and hammer out a 10K, your connective tissue might be ready for only 10 minutes,” she says.
“Plan three days per week to run or ride, and break those workouts into speed, power and/or strength, and distance. On your distance days, increase by 10 percent from week to week. If you have to walk or take a break — that’s OK! This workout is all about time on your legs, and the goal is to build up the supporting muscles, tendons, and ligaments as you progress.”
To increase your speed, focus on pace during your workouts. Walter-Mobley recommends alternating 30 seconds of hard-sprinting effort with 90 seconds of easy-level effort. “The sprints help you build up your speed and power threshold, but they also keep your workouts interesting,” Walter-Mobley says. “Your brain thrives when it stays interested, and with these intervals you’re less likely to get bored and discouraged.”
Try working on your speed and pace on a treadmill by setting it to a higher incline, or while biking or running up a hill. “Rather than sprinting up the hill, consider settling into a pace you can sustain the entire way,” Walter-Mobley says.
As part of your progression, Walter-Mobley recommends adding squats and lunges with a full range of motion to your training routine as well as core activation through planking, sit-ups, and pushups to help build strength in supporting large-muscle groups. “These strengthening activities will help you avoid injury,” she says.
If you’re looking for more targeted training, such as running gait analysis, pedal stroke efficiency on the bike, or metabolic conditioning, Walter-Mobley advises talking to a Life Time triathlon coach or personal trainer to get a personalized assessment.
3. Improve your progress with more intentional rest and recovery.
Danny King, national team member development manager for Life Time Training at Life Time in Chanhassen, Minn.
Building in more recovery time to replenish your body’s energy reserve — a crucial component of training — is often overlooked in our workout routines. “Almost no one spends enough time on recovery,” King says. “Good workouts create a certain balance of fitness and fatigue, and the more progress you want to make, the more you need to focus on recovery. You should wake up refreshed and excited to work out every day. If you aren’t, you probably need more recovery.”
King uses running as an example. “Those training to increase their distance may take three days off to rest from their long-run training day. That’s three lost days of training,” he says. “If you’re smart with your recovery strategy, and you can cut that time down to two days, that’s an extra day of training each week. Over 12 weeks, that’s 12 sessions you could spend making progress instead of resting because you prioritized recovery.”
King advises thinking about recovery as refilling your bucket back to a baseline level of energy — and reinforces that it does involve some type of action, not simply taking time off. There are two critical time periods for recovery. The first occurs directly after your workout.
“The quicker you can start the recovery process, the faster you can get back to your baseline, get back to training, and make progress,” says King. “The second critical time period is late in the evening, when your body needs to calm down, decompress from the day’s activities, and get quality sleep,” he says.
King’s recovery rule of thumb is 15 minutes of recovery for every 60 minutes of intense exercise. He recommends prioritizing as many recovery actions as possible during both of those critical time periods, suggesting the following activities for each:
- Drink a shake with protein (such as high-quality protein powder) and potentially carbs (such as berries) depending on your training load and/or dietary needs
- Stretch and foam roll for improved blood flow and tissue quality
- Take deep breaths to calm your nervous system and ease your body into “rest and digest” mode
- Do some low-intensity exercise to calm the body and help it flush out waste
Evening recovery time before sleep:
- Take deep breaths from the diaphragm for five to 10 minutes
- Take an Epsom salt bath to promote muscle recovery, de-stress, and relieve soreness (King recommends 2 cups in a hot bath for 20 to 30 minutes)
- Stretch using long, slow-held poses
King encourages everyone to keep in mind that progress is a slow journey over time. “By not doing too much it will keep you going long-term,” he says. “Even the fittest people in the world need periods of lower training load to give the body and brain a rest and make fitness a habit, not a short-term burnout.”
4. Support your training and recovery efforts with focused nutrition and hydration.
Paul Kriegler, RD, director of nutritional product development and personal trainer at Life Time in Chanhassen, Minn.
When you’re training consistently, your nutrition habits can assist your progress and support your recovery between sessions. This includes what and when you eat, as well as hydration and supplements, which play a key role in your body’s ability to produce energy, build muscle, burn fat, and recover.
Kriegler advises paying special attention to what you’re feeding your body pre- and post-workout. “No matter what type of training you’re doing, strategically choosing solid foods or liquids around your workout schedule is a simple way to help improve your gastrointestinal tolerance.”
Kriegler’s food intake and training schedule recommendations are as follows:
- Two or more hours before your workout: nutritious meal comprised of solid foods
- Within two hours of your workout: soft foods that are easily digestible and low in fiber foods or liquids
- During your workout: liquids only
- Immediately following your workout: liquids only, such as a protein shake
- 60-plus minutes post-workout: solid foods
When choosing your pre- and post-workout foods, Kriegler advises quality, whole foods over processed foods or sugar.
“For workouts fewer than 90 minutes, you may not need to overcomplicate your nutrition plan,” Kriegler says. “If you can consume easily digestible, high-quality protein soon after completing your tougher workouts, that’s great. If not, just be sure to get enough total protein for the day however you can.”
The dietary reference intake (DRI) for protein consumption is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight, amounting to around 56 grams per day for the average male and 46 grams per day for the average female.
People who are actively exercising may require double the amount of protein for best results. Kriegler says, “Consuming enough protein helps provide a rich pool of amino acids for your body to use during exercise to help delay fatigue, preserve lean muscle tissue, and support immune function in the context of intense training,” Kriegler explains. “After exercise, it can aid in recovery and promote muscle repair and growth.”
Staying hydrated throughout the day is also an important habit to add to your routine. “Throughout the day, aim to consume a half-ounce of water for each pound of body weight,” Kriegler says. “For example, if you weigh 160 pounds, you would try to consume 80 ounces of water.”
Hydration helps your body regulate its temperature, affects your metabolism, and helps reduce fatigue and the oxidative stress that occurs during high-intensity exercise.”
Lastly, Kriegler recommends what Life Time bundles as the “Foundational Five” supplements that support optimal health. They include (in order of importance):
- A high-quality multivitamin to dramatically improve your nutrient intake
- Fish oil to add more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet, which are critical for body composition, inflammatory response, healthy cholesterol metabolism and brain function
- Magnesium for muscle health, improved sleep, and proper cardiovascular function
- Vitamin D, which influences more than 200 genes and helps prevent against osteoporosis, bone fractures, and some cancers
- Digestive enzymes to help your body properly break down protein, fat, and carbohydrates
While consistency is key to helping your body master specific movements and techniques as well as to develop overall healthy habits, consistent variety is the goal. You don’t need to do something different every single day, but strive for a routine that’s varied, and as you start to feel comfortable in it, switch it up by using one or more of these technique so that you continue to challenge yourself — and continue to see progress.