Avoiding Plateaus – 4 Ways to Change Up your Workouts

Do you follow the same gym routine every week?

If so, you may very well be maintaining your current physical fitness, but most likely you will not be experiencing any positive gains. The body needs to experience new or additional training stress to force it to positively adapt. In fitness industry lingo, we refer to this as periodization or “the manipulation of training stress over a period to produce a desired outcome” (Sue Falsone, Bridging the Gap from Rehab to Performance). The general premise of periodization is that your workouts should follow several cycles for a certain training period to maximize performance (or results). For example, a recreational runner wanting to achieve a personal best in a 10km road race in six-month’s time would follow a strategic plan of loading and unloading specific variables such as aerobic capacity, anaerobic capacity, speed, strength and power. The proper mixture of these variables will maximize performance and ensure adequate recovery throughout the process – with race day as the focus, and ultimate goal. The principles of periodization can be applied to each and every individual wishing to improve their performance in any athletic endeavour.

A well-structured periodization plan will facilitate improvement of performance over both the short- and long-term. There are multiple training variables that can be manipulated to elicit positive adaptations from each workout.

Here are four key variables you can integrate to ensure you are creating a novel training stimulus. Modifying these factors as your performance steadily improves will ensure you avoid hitting the proverbial wall, and plateauing or burning out.

1. Training volume – is the total amount of training or work completed, such as distance or time. Keeping with the running example, a 5km run performed continuously for 30-minutes, or an interval run of 5 x 1000m with active rest between reps.

2. Training intensity – this is related to how much effort is required for a given workout. For example, a runner may gauge their intensity relative to their maximum heart rate (HR) (e.g. 80% of max HR) or subjectively by rating their perceived rate of exertion (PRE) (https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/measuring/exertion.htm).

3. Training frequency – is the rate of occurrence, or how often the training stress is applied. For example, a runner may run four times per week; however, the intensity and volume for each run will vary both within a training week, or from week-to-week during a training phase of 3- or 6-weeks, for example.

4. Training density – refers to the amount of work being performed in a certain period. For example, a novice runner may be able to complete 5 x 1000 m set in an hour while an experienced runner may complete the 5 x 1000 m set in 30-minutes; therefore, completing the same amount of workload in half the amount of time.

If we want to imagine an example in a strength training program, the training volume would be the number of exercises, repetitions, and sets completed. A novice trainee may only perform 8 exercises for two sets in a given workout while an experienced trainee could perform the same 8 exercises for three or four sets. For frequency, a novice trainee might only workout 2 times per week while an experienced trainee could workout 4 to 5 times per week. The training density might also be more for an experienced trainee, for example, completing more exercises and sets at a greater intensity in less time.

Determining which variables to manipulate, and by what amounts, definitely takes time to learn. Adding too much volume, intensity, frequency or density too quickly can lead to injury or over-training; Not changing these variables enough may result in a stagnant outcome. This is where a professional may be able to help guide your training with a periodized program to ensure an appropriate amount of overload (increasing the volume, intensity, frequency, and duration) is prescribed at the correct time, and doled out in a safe and manageable, yet effective doses.


Flasone, S. (2018). Bridging the Gap from Rehab to Performance. Aptos, California: On Target Publications.

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