You're Not Stepping Up Your Training
One of the biggest and most common causes for fitness plateaus is the lack of progression. It doesn't matter where you started from, doing something new is always going to deliver promising results, but due to our natural biological and physiological adaptations, the human body is extremely good at responding to new stimuli but it's also really good at reserving energy too. What we mean by this is, your body doesn't want to run at a high metabolism all the time, it will sometimes, but only when it needs to.
The more you work your muscles the more 'active' they become and 'active' muscles are expensive and cost a lot of energy to maintain (high metabolic demand). Think of having a really high maintenance girlfriend (or boyfriend), who needs a lot of time, attention and money! Now, a person with a larger amount of active muscle would generally expend or burn a larger amount of energy (calories) per day, when compared to someone who lives more of a sedentary lifestyle or has a lower amount of active muscle. You may have experienced your muscles 'shrinking' if you've stopped training for a period of time, this is your body's way of creating cost-effective methods to reserve energy expenditure.
In the beginning, when you started training, it may have been something as simple as walking for 20 minutes per day or lifting teenie, tiny weights and that most likely would have created stimuli on the muscles that was large enough for the muscles to grow, tone, tighten or change. Now, after a period of time, this muscle stimuli has become the norm and is no longer challenging for your body. You'll start to notice that the next-day muscle soreness (DOMS) doesn't occur much, you don't run out of breath anymore and you may not even sweat much anymore. These are all signs that your body is no longer being challenged and there is not enough stimulation to initiate muscle growth and development (hypertrophy).
It's always important to start at the basic level, especially if you're just starting out but it's also highly imperative to try new exercises, pick the next weight up, move a little faster, push a litter hard or go a litter further. These are all ways you can keep your progression going and avoid experiencing any fitness plateaus.
You're Not Creating Enough Muscle Tension
As we mentioned above, the purpose of physical exercise is to expose the muscles to stimuli, generally in the form of resistance. This can be achieved by using weights, resistance bands or even your own body weight. Whether you're pushing a barbell away from your body or pushing your body away from the ground, this is all resistance training and the muscles are exposed to a force they must push against. The greater the resistance, the greater the number of muscle fibers that get activated.
You may have heard the term 'time under tension'? This simply means the amount of time that your muscles are exposed to tension or are undergoing a muscle contraction. Whilst there are benefits to short or fast muscle contractions, such as a box jump, it's also important to ensure that you have adequate training time for your muscles to be exposed to longer contraction times.
An example of cheating or shortening a muscle contraction is when someone swings their whole body to bicep curl a pair of dumbbells. Whilst this may make you look like you can lift a much larger weight, the contraction time of the bicep muscles is greatly shortened and you might just be missing out on some gains here! Another example is when people lean their body back and forth for a lat pull-down. This is an exercise that should be performed mostly upright with great muscle control and tension.
Ensure you know when and where to separate strength exercises from power exercises. Some movements like a clean and press or a snatch are performed as power exercises where the body generates momentum and movement to complete the lift. Other exercises such as a bench press, shoulder press or bicep curl, should be performed without generating momentum or 'swing'.
Do yourself a favour and put down the big beefy weights and focus on your form, technique and your ability to complete a full-rep range of motion (ROM), as well as taking time to create 'longer reps'. When you perform a good strong, stable rep, you also include a lot of abdominal and other stabilising muscles, which will improve your overall strength and muscle tone.
You're Not Resting Enough
Your body has only one currency and that's energy. The body's main job is to keep you alive and that means tending to the ever-demanding needs of your organs and muscles. Unfortunately, your body will prioritise important tasks over non-important tasks and a perfect example of this is when you consume alcohol. After you've just downed a few bottles of alcohol, the ethanol in the alcohol is metabolised to a metabolite called acetaldehyde, which is a highly toxic substance. This becomes an immediate priority to the body and all other things become second priority. This is also one of the reasons why you feel hung-over, groggy and really tired the next day. Your body didn't spend any time resting, restoring or replenishing necessary cells.
Not getting enough rest is a common issue but so is overtraining. Without adequate rest, just like with alcohol intake, your body will prioritise which areas need more energy demand. If you're training day after day, hour after hour, you are going to feel tired and sluggish and future training sessions will be performed at a lower capacity. After a big training session, it is so important to eat enough nutrients so that your muscles have enough vitamins, minerals, protein and yes carbs too, to do the work they need to replenish muscle cells (and other cells) and to restock your glycogen stores. You also need adequate rest to ensure your body has enough downtime to perform other necessary functions to get you back stronger and sharper than ever.
Not enough rest time can also affect your cognitive function, mood and motivation and when you're physically drained, you're most likely going to be mentally drained too.
The key to improving your strength training is balance! Finding the right amount of muscle tension combined with adequate rest and nutrition.
When it's time to put the hard yards in, make it a big session full of muscle control and tension. Make sure your session is worthwhile! Don't cheat your reps by adding swing so you can lift bigger and also don't be scared to try the next weight up if you're someone who likes to stay within your comfort zone.
Time under tension is important in weight training. Practice finding ways to create more 'muscle tension time' and less rest time - you may even be able to complete shorter and more effective training sessions!
Head Trainer & Nutritionist
BcS Nutrition & Human Physiology