Finding Motivation When You Reach a Plateau - Brandon Santo

No matter how hard you strive, there will come a time when you inevitably hit a plateau or suffer a setback or two. This cessation of progress can involve fat loss, muscular gains, strength gains, aerobic capacity, or even recovery between workouts.

Assuming you are training properly and you are not suffering from any significant injuries or burnout, there are strategies one can implement to help alleviate these setbacks and aid in becoming a more resilient health and fitness enthusiast.

1) Strategy - Try Again:

  • During the first onset of a setback, obstacle, or plateau, such as when learning a new skill, it may be prudent just to keep trying. New skills and tasks take a while to learn. Give it time, be patient, and soon your mastery of the tasks will culminate in impressive results in your health and fitness.

2) Strategy - Review Progress Indicators

  • When reflecting on your progress indicators, ask yourself, "Are they still meaningful to you?" Do you still have intrinsic (deep) motivation to complete your goal? For example, do you still want to be able to back squat your bodyweight, run your half-marathon in under 2 hours, or reduce body fat to 15%?

  • If the answer is 'yes', then determine how and where the expected outcome is different from your measured outcome. Also, it is important to measure the difference (if any) between your current outcome and your baseline. If there is a positive difference, then there is STILL progress.

  • If the answer is 'no', identify new goals and challenges you wish to conquer. Ensure that these 'new' goals align with your values and that they will bring deep meaning into your life.

3) Strategy - Keep Everything In Perspective:

  • This strategy piggybacks the previous one. If you are indeed in a bit of a stale phase in your training, it would be beneficial to keep the bigger picture in mind. To do this, try comparing your current status to your past status. You might not have lost 20 pounds yet, but how much have you lost since you started? Aim for progress; not perfection. You will never be perfect. Progress is better than perfect. Appreciate how much progress you have made already and that the journey has really only begun.

 4) Strategy - What Part of Your Journey Is Already Working?

  • Rather than focusing on the issues/problems and trying to fix all of them, direct your attention to the skills you already possess.  Put another way, look for the 'small wins' or 'bright spots' in your journey.  Ask yourself, "what do I really excel at doing?"

  • For example, when does the setback or issue not occur; or when exactly are you at your best?  For instance, suppose you tend to eat very healthily on days you achieve 7-9 hours of sleep.  A viable strategy could then involve enhancing recovery behaviours to ensure that you receive adequate sleep - which leads to better eating patterns.  If you usually obtain more movement and exercise when you are around other people, work on increasing the number of hours you spend around other people (classes, spin groups, outdoor bootcamps, walking your dog with a friend, etc).

  • What can you already do very well consistently and confidently?  Identify those tasks and skills and expand on those.

  • What excites you and keeps you going?  What do you look forward to everyday?  Is it deadlifts, pull-ups, trying to beat your 10K running time, or trying 1 or 2 new types of fruits and veggies every week?

5) Strategy - Focus on What You Can Control - Behaviours:

  • Look for positive behaviours and consistency.  Work on the quality of the process and strive hard to control only the variables that are actually within your control - your behaviours.  If you consistently satisfy appropriate behaviours, your desired outcome will eventually be a reality.

  • Look for small incremental progress on a continuum - no matter how small or how 'easy'.  Celebrate the small victories! Through this practice, you are repeatedly confronted with evidence that you are being successful.  This allows you to feel empowered and inspired and that you possess the ability to make meaningful decisions in your daily life (Precision Nutrition).

  • If consistency is lacking, perhaps look for ways to make the tasks easier.  Sometimes, to take a step forward, a regression of two steps backward (or more) is warranted.  For example, if you are finding it difficult to eat vegetables at all meals in your day, aim for vegetables at dinner time everyday instead and progress from there.

6) Strategy - Ensure That Expectations Are Reasonable:

  • Many people innocently anticipate changes to occur rapidly and that the transformations will be sudden and dramatic.

  • However, often times, outcomes may not have initially been feasible due to a person's age, genetics, current health status, injuries, life stage (menopause, for example), or natural body fat distribution.  For example, older clients may realize that their original 8-pack in their mid-section that was so easily maintained through high-school and early university is no longer a feasible feature, at least for now and not without extreme dedication and hard work.

  • It is imperative to ensure that expectations are reasonable from the onset.  Understand the types of changes that are likely to occur and that these changes may take a little longer to manifest than you originally hope.  Understand the amount of time, focus, and energy needed to achieve the desired results and be aware of the possible trade-offs where applicable.  For instance, are you willing to give up your daily box of smarties to obtain that desirable, lean mid-section you so badly want?

  • Also, determine if the results are even possible before you start your fitness journey.  Consider your age, health status, genetics, and other valuable factors at play.

7) Strategy - Reframe Plateaus & Refine Variables:

  • Rather than seeing a plateau as a failure and the end of everything, think of it as a learning opportunity.  Ask yourself the following questions?

  • Can something in your practice be refined or improved?  For instance, are you staying well-hydrated during and around your workouts?  Could your deadlifting technique improve?

  • Is there any task or skill you would like to learn (eg. box jump, battle ropes, cooking stir fries, etc)?

  • Do you feel the need to take the pressure off yourself for a bit, appreciate what you have accomplished so far, and understand that this plateau will not last forever?

  • Are there any training parameters or variables that can be manipulated?  For example, could you experiment with tempo training for a while (focus on slow eccentric movement during your main lifts)?  Could you take shorter or fewer breaks between exercises and sets?  Could you try changing the order of your exercises such that you create a different workout stimulus (eg. Perform a set of pushups immediately after a set of bench presses for an extra pec burn!)?  Have you experimented with de-load weeks?  For example, if you train intensely with heavy loads for 2-3 consecutive weeks, perhaps try going at 40-60% of your max during the proceeding week to allow for strength adaptations to occur.

Ultimately, plateaus, setbacks, obstacles, and other sticky difficulties are all constant soundtracks of every health and fitness journey you embark. However, sometimes it is easy to forget that it is actually during these difficult times when we learn and grow the most.  

They help us reflect on our journey and force us into becoming students (and teachers) of our own bodies and of the intricacies of the health and fitness sector of life.  We become scientists and experiment with new processes, and if these new processes 'work', we stick with them for a while; if they do not work, we experiment with something else. We become smarter, stronger (mentally and physically), and more resilient people.  

These important traits show tremendous transference into our everyday lives as they help us problem solve and work through life's most challenging difficulties when it matters most.  Here's to learning opportunities!


With contributions and inspiration from long-time dedicated personal training client, Allison Coutts (Store Director, Louis Vuitton, Hotel Vancouver)

Other Inspirations:

  • Precision Nutrition

  • Dr. John Berardi, Founder of Precision Nutrition

  • Brad Schoenfeld,

  • American Council on Exercise

  • Alan Aragon

  • Brad Dieter