Pushing past plateaus: What to do when you feel stuck

Bruce Lee said that ‘If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there. You must go beyond them.’

Well that’s easy for Bruce Lee to say. Fighting past plateaus seems easy when you have world renowned Kung-Fu skills. But for us regular people plateauing can be frustrating, devastating and certainly swear-word inducing. You make steady progress for months and suddenly… nothing. No improvement despite putting in the same, or even more, effort. Sometimes we even regress and get worse.

We feel stuck while everyone around us is still making gains.

Plateaus affect all areas of our lives. From the weight you can lift in the gym, to weight loss. From learning a language, to improving your listening skills. From stagnating in the skills of your sport to your ability to negotiate a sale.

Before we get into some of the causes of, and ways to get past plateaus, first you ask yourself ‘is it really a plateau?


Two reasons you might not actually be in a plateau:

Reason – Diminishing returns

Fix – Adjust expectations

The human brain likes things linear. In our minds, if we lose 1 kilogram this week, we expect to lose one kilo next week, and the week after, and the week after that. Obviously if this trend continued within a year or two you wouldn’t exist. If you’ve ever seen the show ‘The Biggest Loser’ the contestants are losing a ridiculous 10 kilos or more the first week, and by the finale they are excited to have lost just two or three kilos throughout the week.

Instead of progress being linear, humans are subject to a law called ‘diminishing returns’, or in more academic circles ‘marginal utility’. Essentially the law states that the more you improve, the smaller the return on investment becomes.

Diminishing returns

So the more overweight you are, the easier it is to lose a kilo. The closer you are to your ideal weight, greater and greater effort is required to shed each kilo. A newbie in the gym will PB their squat every day for a month, whilst a seasoned CrossFitter will take months to add just a couple of pounds to their PB. An elite soccer player will train for years to make the smallest refinements to the accuracy of their kicks, but kids will learn how to get the ball in the goal in just a few days.

Basically beginners improve faster than experts. Have you really hit a plateau, or has your rate of improvement slowed down as you move towards mastery?

If your plateau is actually an issue of diminishing returns, then the fix is pretty easy. Pat yourself on the back for getting pretty good at something, and adjust your improvement expectations to match the path of an expert.

You can compare your rate of progress to someone that has already moved through the level you are now at for a more accurate idea of how fast you should be getting better.


Reason – Mis-diagnosis

Fix – Measure different things until your breakthrough arrives

It might be that you’ve jumped to the conclusion you’re at a plateau, when in actual fact you are still making progress. For almost a year my snatch was stuck at 145 pounds (64 kilos). I simply couldn’t lift even a single pound more than this. In the sport of CrossFit, where everyone always asks ‘how much can you snatch’ I felt humiliated that I couldn’t improve.

What my coach had to remind me of was that I was improving in other ways. My consistency was increasing – I could hit 145 pounds almost every time. My sub-maximal lifting improved – I could do multiple reps at 140 pounds without a problem. My technique was getting better. And the amount of warm-up and mental preparation I needed to hit my PB of 145 decreased significantly.Snatch

Eventually, I broke my PB. And not just by a little bit – in less than two weeks I increased it by 15 pounds up to 160.

That year that felt like a plateau, actually wasn’t.

The reason that this situation can feel like a plateau is that you are very narrow in the scope of how you measure improvement. So the fix is to broaden the range of what you measure.

As a volleyball player I can’t only look at my competition results as my yardstick of improvement. I should look at all my stats – number of aces, ability to make certain difficult shots, jump height, speed, points scored against certain opponents, accuracy of shots, mental focus. I may feel like I’m plateauing if my ranking doesn’t improve immediately, but gradual improvements in my abilities across many elements will lead to a breakthrough in results over time.


6 causes and fixes for real plateaus:

If you have hit a real plateau – your progress has firmly stalled or even regressed – it could be due to one of several reasons. Let’s look at the six most common causes, and the solution to each one.

Cause – weak foundations

Fix – backtrack to basics

You may have stalled because back-in-the-day you didn’t get the basics right. You skipped over some of the boring essentials thinking they weren’t important and now (sometimes years later) that’s come around to bite you in the butt.

Chinese weightlifters spend years not actually lifting any weights! They work on perfecting flexibility and movement patterns instead. In contrast, you see many Westerners in a hurry to make gains and they add more and more weight to the bar. Sure they make gains and their results in the short run beat the competition, but there is a reason the Chinese have so many Olympic champions. They didn’t skip over the basics.

Unfortunately, the fix for this type of plateau is not fun. You need to backtrack all the way to the beginning and start over. Tiger Woods did it with his golf swing, swimmers have done it with their strokes, gymnasts have reverted all the way back to the technique of the forward roll in order to fix multiple somersaults with twists.

Sometimes it’s not even our fault that we missed some essentially basic element. Our coaches might not have known better, or our parents pushed too hard for results. What matters now is if you are willing to go back and rectify the holes in your skill foundations. It feels like a major step backward, but it’s required in order to take the next major step forward.


Cause – Need more knowledge

Fix – Find the right teacher

The second type of plateau is caused by a lack of knowledge, or resources. In this situation you are stuck because you don’t know what the next step is.

This can often occur in business. A classic example is the sole business owner who doesn’t know how to shift from working in the business to working on the business as his company expands. In sport you may get to a level where your skill is comparable to the competition, but you need to know more about strategy and tactics to win.

The answer is to find a coach or a teacher that knows what to do next. Listen to them, absorb their knowledge and do what they say. You’ll be racing across that plateau and onto the next hill in no time.


Cause – Routine

Fix – Variety

Humans adapt. It is one of our most amazing capabilities as a species and the reason we’ve come to dominate the planet. Just look at how pre-historic humans managed to spread across the entire Earth and thrive in all the different climates and landscapes.

In a more modern day setting, our ability to adapt can lead to plateaus. If you train in the same way, study the same materials, or practice using the same methodologies, eventually your progress will stagnate. What worked for you initially will stop working because your brain and your body adjust to the activity.

Adaptation occurs when we encounter something outside our current experience and are forced to evolve in order to deal with it.

For example, let’s take a recreational runner who wants to improve their 5k time. Initially they trained by simply going and running 5k a few times a week – and they improved! But using the same type of training, even if they are trying their hardest to run faster each time, will not continue giving improvements for long. Their body has become too accustomed to the training.

The plateau is caused by routine. Doing the same thing over and over will lead to smaller and smaller gains.

The fix is variety. Change things up in order to move past the plateau. Our runner could do hill sprints to build leg strength, or interval training to build speed and recovery time, or technique work to improve efficiency. Variety will force the body to adapt and lead to much greater improvements than routine.

A quick note of caution – habits and routine are still the backbone of performance. Whilst you should incorporate some variety into your regular training schedule, you don’t want to be making drastic changes every session. Save the big changes for when you hit a plateau.


Cause – Passive practice

Fix – Deliberate practice

Plateaus deliberate practiceThere has been plenty of publicity around the 10,000 hours rule – the idea that after this many hours of practice you will reach mastery of something.

However, Joshua Foer (author of moonwalking with Einstein) found that ‘when you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. In fact, in every domain of expertise that’s been rigorously examined, from chess to violin to basketball, studies have found that the number of years one has been doing something correlates only weakly with level of performance

If you are simply going through the motions during practice time then you’ve probably plateaued.

For some skills that’s perfectly ok. For instance, I believe my driving skills are good enough (my mum might disagree)! So each time I get in my car to drive I don’t focus intensely on the exact arc of the corners I turn, or the perfect acceleration speed from a stop light. Professional racers do need to focus on and continue to perfect these skills. But I’m happy for my skills to plateau and to let my practice become thoughtless.

If you’ve plateaued because your practice is passive, and it’s an area where you want to keep improving, then the fix is to move back towards deliberate practice. Dr. Ericsson (a expert on expertise and a professor at Florida State University) suggests three components of deliberate practice:

  • Focusing on technique
  • Remaining goal orientated
  • Constantly getting immediate feedback on performance


Cause – Boredom

Fix – Get a bigger goal and find enjoyment in the little things

Sometimes we plateau simply because we get bored. Nobody ever said that putting in thousands of hours of practice to master a skill was always going to be engaging. I know teachers who stagnate because they simply get bored with covering the same material over and over again each year, athletes who get tired of doing the same drills week in and week out and pubic speakers who come to hate the sound of their own voice.

Improvement follows enjoyment.

It’s simplistic to say that if you are following your passion you should always be engaged and inspired to go to work on it. It’s simply not true. There are aspects of anyone’s passion that they will dislike. Swimmers who aren’t morning people still have to get up early. Business people who are passionate about their product might hate bookkeeping. Tennis players who love the high of tournaments can get drained from repeating thousands of the same backhand shot in practice.

Those things are still required in order to achieve your goal. But if you get to a point where you are bored, or actively dislike them, then your progress may plateau.

There are two fixes. The first is to get a bigger goal. John Gardiner has a beautiful quote that illustrates this. He said ‘most of us plateau when we lose the tension between where we are and where we ought to be’. Find something so scary and exciting to aim for that the little things that were boring you become insignificant. Your boredom, and your plateau with it, is swept away in the momentum you have towards your new goal.

The second fix is find enjoyment in the little things. If you are bored with going to the gym bring a friend along and enjoy their company. If you are bored with basic skill repetitions in your sport make it into a challenge or competition and celebrate the little wins. If you are bored with eating salad on your diet make your food into a creative art form and post the pictures on Instagram for some positive social reinforcement


Cause – Burn out

Fix – Periodization and planned plateaus

IMG_9337The last cause of plateaus is a fairly serious one – burn out. Burn out is mental and physical exhaustion arising from long periods of exposure to stressors such as training. An employee who is mentally burnt out from months of high pressure deadlines will lose their enthusiasm for work, suffer low energy and have lower levels of performance. The same is true for athletes who subject their bodies to long periods of intense training.

Eventually your body and mind send the message that ‘enough is enough’ by forcing a plateau in performance along with the other symptoms.

You can’t push through a burn out plateau by training harder or longer. Or working more hours. If you find yourself suffering this type of plateau the fix is rest. You won’t want to take it – when your performance is poor the last thing you feel like doing is stopping training – but you have to do it. Take a break, go on holidays, try a different activity for a couple of weeks. Your body needs a respite and your mind needs a refresh.

Over the longer term, you can avoid this type of plateau completely with periodization, and planned plateaus. Build into your training or work schedule both periods of rest, and de-loading periods where the intensity and volume are drastically reduced from normal levels. Not only do these times allow you to refresh, but they allow your body and mind time to embed your previous improvements to make them your new ‘normal’.

Personally I force myself to take a 2 week break from training twice a year to give my body a complete rest. I come back far more energised, motived and physically fresh than I would had I continued training through those periods. Each week I also have at least one full rest day, and one day of lighter training. After tournaments I’ll have de-load weeks where I go back to basics and drop the intensity way down.

I’ve learnt that more is not always better.


Pushing past plateaus like Bruce Lee

Plateaus are normal. Frustrating certainly. Challenging definitely. But as Bruce Lee reminds us – there are no limits on your performance. Thus plateaus and all their challenges are temporary, and hopefully they will become even more temporary with the techniques you have learned above.

July 30, 2016