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When the Road Gets Stagnant

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all been brutally confronted by that overwhelming feeling that we’ve failed, that we’re going to fail, or that we are destined to perpetually fail. It is in that pivotal moment where many, in an attempt to avoid that unsettling feeling, give up. Because somehow in our complex minds giving up seems to “save” us from the pain of failure. But, in all actuality, it is in the essence of giving up that failure has its roots.

As humans we are not accustomed to being uncomfortable, unsettled, or challenged. We thrive on success, unwavering paths, convenience and simplicity. Unfortunately, unwavering paths, convenience and simplicity do not define the road to success nor the road to achieving your greatest goals and dreams. Along the road to achievement there will be roadblocks, obstacles, plateaus in progress, and unquestionably difficult sacrifices. It is at these bumps in the road where that overwhelming fear of failure often begins to haunt us. It is at these twists and turns where people begin to panic.

Think about all of the “New Years Resolution-ers” as they have been coined. Sadly, by mid-February and March many of these resolutions have already been tossed by the wayside. But why? Why so soon? It goes back to the convenience and simplicity factors I mentioned earlier. Humans are creatures who desire results and desire them quickly. But any goal worth achieving takes time and patience– time to build yourself up, time to progress yourself forward, time to change.

In some cases early success precedes a period of time where progress may be slowed, a plateau period, if you will. Some people experience rapid results at first which energizes them to continue on along their journey. This rapid progress, in some peoples’ minds, makes their goals seem all the more obtainable. This fuels their motivation. A great example of this in the fitness world, and especially with respect to common New Years Resolutions, is in the case of weight loss. People may go from doing nothing to working out several days a week. That, in combination with adjusting their diet, may be just enough change in their habits to experience weight loss right away. Then, out of nowhere, these people who are seeking weight loss hit a plateau. No weight loss day in, day out. They start to question their program, their motivation, their self-efficacy, and even if their goal is worth it. In addition, they begin to reevaluate how much work they are putting in towards their goal and debating on if their commitment is sustainable. Many of these situations result in people throwing in the towel before they make marked progress on their weight loss goal.

However, this negative cascade of questioning and thoughts can be avoided if we start to transform the way we characterize a plateau in our heads. Reaching a plateau in fitness is NOT a failure. It is NOT a sign you are going to fail. We need to start acknowledging a plateau as an indication that our body is ready to handle more. It is an indication that our body has progressed to a point in which our current exercise program is something well within our realm of capabilities and our body is ready to be challenged by a different or more advanced exercise program.

In training, we abide by several principles to inspire change within the body. One of these principles is overload. We must be providing our bodies with a stimulus (in this case, a strength or endurance exercise routine) that forces the body to adapt. What does this mean? Our bodies are very well tuned for adaptation – the human body is excellent at figuring out exactly what needs to be done to handle any given stimulus. Over time, this means that the muscles do not have to exert nearly as much force to run the same distance or lift the same weight that they may have had to do on day one of a training program. It is the same notion as the common idea that if you do the same thing day in, day out, week in, week out, you will see the same results. You can only expect different results (i.e., progress and change) if you do something different. If you are reaching a plateau in your progress (i.e., weight loss, strength gains, mass gains, etc) your body could very well be telling you that your training program is no longer providing overload because your body has learned to handle the exercise stressors you are currently using in your program. This means you have PROGRESSED FORWARD in your training from when you started. So take this as a sign, a positive one. It is providing you the opportunity to see even larger improvements in the future by alerting you your body can handle more. At the onset of a plateau, talk with your trainer, and make changes to your program to inspire change in the body and your performance once again. Once overload has been re-implemented into the program, progress can begin to occur again.

But, plateaus are not the only reason that people give up on their fitness goals. I referenced another reason why people give up on their goals earlier – self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is someone’s belief in their own ability to accomplish something. What I have found in my 5 years of training is that my clients’ self-efficacy is one of the most important determining factors on whether they will reach their goals or not. When someone steps foot in a gym, whether it is their first time or they are still a beginner, it can be overwhelming and intimidating. There is often doubt ingrained within them that they will ever be able to achieve the nearly acrobat-esque exercises they see some gym-goers doing. People shy away from lifting heavier, trying new exercises, and setting lofty goals all because they are scared if they can do it. Following another principle of training – progression – this fear can be alleviated. Starting slow, starting with the basics and easing your way up through progressions helps to build confidence as you train. Another way to develop self-efficacy is to document how far you have come. Some people use pictures (before and after), log books to record weights lifted, or videos of the form and technique. These are a few ways to document progress. Then, in those moments of being on the verge of giving up because goals begin to seem unreachable, there is documentation to show just how far they have come. The documentation shows them they have indeed changed, despite any potential plateaus and tells them they can begin to change again. It becomes the mantra, “You got yourself that far, so who is to say you cannot go the rest of the way.” Self-efficacy is the quality that makes a person unfazed by a roadblock or daunting obstacle put in their way. It is the quality that tells a person that no matter the circumstances, that goal can and will be achieved.

At the end of the day, YOU have that power within you to achieve your most daring goals, it is a matter of fighting long enough to witness the work you put in pay off. Develop your confidence. Embrace a plateau, then create overload in your training to break it. Welcome a challenge. Progress safely. Fight for your dream, I promise you the journey is worth it.

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