Vail Daily column: Breaking through fitness plateaus |

Vail Daily column: Breaking through fitness plateaus

Ryan W. Richards
Make It Count

The early weeks and months when you first began an exercise program were accompanied with increased strength, weight loss and a really good feeling. After a year and feeling pleased that your New Year’s resolution stuck, you became discouraged because the results weren’t what you experienced during the onset. Maybe you realized how difficult it was to match the early gains during the novice phase. Basically what happened was that your body adapted to the physical stresses that you placed on it (otherwise known as the General Adaptation Syndrome). This can be a really upsetting phenomenon.

General Adaptation Syndrome

The late Austrian physician Hans Selye first hypothesized the General Adaptation Syndrome in 1926. His assertion was that any biological organism will adapt to external stressors to better prepare the organism to handle those stressors in the future. Whether it is your hands becoming callused to manual labor or becoming more prepared to endure on a bicycle from daily cycling, our organism demands these changes for survival.

Specific to exercise, any external overload that is placed on our musculoskeletal structure is a stressor that creates a unique stimulus to create changes for higher levels of “fitness.” These changes include thicker bones, muscle growth, hormone increases and other cellular and mechanical adaptations that over time create these heightened levels of fitness.

Most mainstream exercise programs lack any real progressions and recovery practices that will continue to alter your body. Most people exercise for exercise’s sake without any direction for progressions to higher fitness; initially this works very well.

Continued adaptation requires increased workload

During the onset of training for the unconditioned, any exercise will yield results because the unconditioned adult doesn’t have any fitness to begin with. For the novice, through recovery processes of sleep, hydration and nutrition, heightened fitness occurs. To drive continued adaptation, over time the novice has to place much higher demands on her body and more attention to recovery becomes critical.

Continued adaptations and increased strength require increased loads, sets, repetitions, decreased rest intervals, more time that your muscles are under tension, more mileage, etc. Paradoxically, for the intermediate athlete to progress, she actually has to exercise less frequently and more efficiently, because the demand the load places on their system requires more recovery time. Training becomes more difficult psychologically because the workouts become increasingly harder, only to yield very modest progress as the trainee approaches her genetic limit (i.e. diminishing returns). Commonly, intermediate to advanced alpha trainees push past the “safe zone” for adaptation and the downfall is the inability to recover from pushing so hard; overtraining takes over and crashes the system.


To continue progressing at intermediate stages of fitness, follow these general guidelines:

• Spread out the volume. Instead of lifting 350 pounds times five repetitions (weight times repetitions, 1750 pounds lifted) during one session, lift 175 pounds times five repetitions (875 pounds lifted) over five sessions. The former example will put such a demand on your system it will likely take weeks to recover. Yet the latter example is using much lighter weights at 50 percent of the former, but used over five days, will yield 4375 pounds lifted. The latter example more than doubles the workload, yet places very low stress on your system. Over time, the volume is doing the work, not the intensity of the load lifted. This keeps you fresh physically and mentally, so when you need to really push it, you will be ready for it.

• Incorporate light weeks every five to seven weeks. Cut the workload by 20 percent and go through the motions. For example, if you are riding 200 miles per week at an average intensity of 70 percent maximum heart rate, perform the same mileage at 55 percent of maximum heart rate.

The real crux of the situation is that I have seen too many individuals at an intermediate stage of fitness burn out from overuse injuries because the stakes become so much higher for this type of exerciser. The irony of exercise at intermediate to advanced stages is that while it is good for you on one hand, it places heightened levels of stress on the body. These stresses can ultimately lead to overtraining and injury. As described above, by spreading out the intensity of your workouts and incorporating rest into your routine you will avoid injury and overtraining. This will help you sustain the good feelings associated with looking and feeling fit!

Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at or 970-401-0720.

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