It seems that the sole aim for most people in life is to avoid the dreaded 'plateau', whether in their career, their relationship, or their fitness and health. However, is a plateau actually all that bad? Can it actually be a good thing?
A plateau, in geological terms, describes a flat area of highland that is raised significantly above the surrounding area. Put in a fitness context: Client 'X' has the goal of losing 10kgs body weight. 12 weeks later, and 8kgs lighter, the weight just won't seem to budge. A frustrating plateau has been reached. The sad fact about training is that the most progress is made very early on (the first 6-12 months). After this point the law of diminishing returns comes into effect in that the longer one trains for, the smaller, and slower the progress made. This is why, at certain points, we must be satisfied with standing still, and maintaining the current level we are at. And my point here is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.
Here are some scenarios in which I believe that a plateau can be beneficial: -
1) Finding maintenance calories: Oftentimes, when starting with a client, fat loss/weight loss isn't the initial goal (even if this is the overall goal). The goal of the first couple of weeks is to establish where the client's baseline calories are. So the goal is to find the level of calorie intake that keeps the client's weight stable. Having found this baseline, it is then easier to create a deficit, and to know how many calories to set to induce fat loss. However, in order to reach this point we have to endure a 'plateau' where no weight is lost.
2) Diet Breaks: I have spoken about diet breaks before - more on them here. A diet break is essentially a planned break from a diet. They typically last from 7-14 days. The objective is to bring calories up to maintenance levels (essentially creating plateau), to allow the body to psychologically and physiologically recover from a diet.
3) De-Load Weeks: A de-load week is a little bit similar to a diet break in that it is a planned period of easier training to allow the body to recover and adapt to the stresses placed on it from training. A 'de-load' week typically sees volume cut by around 1/3. This creates a scenario where a plateau is created - one week of training where the objective is to maintain current levels, rather than strive for progress.
4) Main goal achieved: Some people come to me with very clear and distinct goals. Common goals revolve around weight loss. 'I would like to lose X amount of weight by (DATE)". People often want to lose weight for a specific occasion (anniversary, birthday, wedding, holiday etc) and so the goal is to get to the predetermined end point, and maintain it. So, when this initial goal has been accomplished, the maintenance of this weight loss becomes the focus. This can be viewed as a bad thing i.e. you aren't making any further progress. However, in a world where yo-yo dieting is common, maintaining your new body weight, and thus 'plateauing', should be seen as a positive.
So as you can see, plateaus are common when training & dieting. And not only are they common, but they are also NECESSARY for continued progress. So rather than viewing a plateau as a bad thing, see them as periods when you are allowing the body to adapt, recover and then make more progress in the long-term. It is time to stop viewing plateaus as a negative thing.