(the article below was originally written for a course I ran for figure competitors… But this is actually the same advice I give anyone who has reached a plateau in their weight loss efforts. it’s simple advice but it comes from training hundreds of women)
One of the most frustrating things about getting ready for a figure competition is when you encounter a fat loss plateau. As a competitor you understand that there is no buffer for not getting in shape – you either hit your mark on contest day… or you don’t (then you kick yourself for training and dieting for 12 weeks and not getting in your best condition). So when you get to a point that fat loss slows or stops, it’s easy to go into panic mode. Slashing calories in half is what some competitors do. For those who decide to do that, they are going to have a miserable time mentally and physically as their body tries to adjust to 50% less calories. This is something you definitely want to avoid at all costs.
When overcoming a fat loss plateau you must attack it from 3 sides:
Diet: First you must tighten up your diet. This may mean cutting your diet by as few as 100 calories a day. You want to avoid cutting too many calories because this may cause your metabolism to slow down and go into ‘starvation’ mode. Once this happens, it’s hard to fire the metabolism up again.
Workout: You must increase the intensity of your workouts. Basically train harder: (1) lift heavier weights, (2) perform your normal workouts (same reps and sets) in less time, (3) add on an extra 15-20 minutes to your normal workout time, (4) take less time between sets so that the workout is more cardio-like etc. There are many ways to increase workout intensity. The important thing is not to ‘coast’ but make sure each workout is at a high intensity level.
Cardio: Step up your cardio intensity. This may mean just going harder for the same amount of time, for example, you may be able to run 3 miles in 30 minutes. What you want to do is try and run 3.2 miles in the same 30 minutes, then eventually 3.5 miles in that 30 minutes.
– Or you may change from a less effective form of cardio cardio workout (ex elliptical machine) to a more effective form of cardio (treadmill or outside running). This is a very effective way to increase the amount of calories you burn in a workout.
One mistake I see is when competitors try to do it all by slashing calories… DON’T do that! You will lose weight initially but your metabolism will slow down too much and all progress will stop. This will make it very difficult to lose further body fat. It’s much wiser to attack it a little from all 3 factors instead of just one.
Another Mistake I see is competitors who decide to double their cardio in order to lose body fat. This will work initially but it may take a toll on your body and mind… this can lead to burnout (mental and physical exhaustion).
So, If you do experience a plateau, don’t panic and do something drastic that will cause your metabolism to shut down or that will cause you to burnout… Just use moderation in adjusting your diet and training. This is the one ‘secret’ behind my success in training fitness and physique competitors over the past 10 years.
When someone tells me that they’re eating good but are not seeing the results they want (usually fat loss), the first thing I do is watch them workout… because when it comes to results, what matters most is effort and the amount of work that is actually done during a workout. Many times a competitor may think they are training hard, they talk about how hard they are training, how many hours they spend in the gym… and even tell others how to train… but in reality they should be working out much harder themselves.
Take a look at the video below. The first few reps of the squat rows look ok… but in reality Laurie could lift heavier weight, which would give her a much better workout.
When Laurie increases the weight from 55lbs. to 140lbs for the last 12 reps, this greatly increases the amount of work she is doing.
Let’s compare the two:
- 12 reps with 55 lbs = 660 lbs
- 12 reps with 140 lbs = 1,680 lbs
Imagine the difference in someone’s physique if they used the heavier weight for 3 months, instead of the lighter weights. This is why I always tell figure competitors to put their work in early in competition prep because there is no making up for lost time …. you can’t catch-up if you slack (at the lower weight) for 11 weeks and think that there is some magical trick that will ‘bring it all together’ the last week before a show – sorry but it’s not going to happen! So train hard everyday so you get the results you want …and so that you don’t have to spend all day in the gym.
As a figure coach I see women who have varying degrees of difficulty losing body fat, therefore it is important that I continue to try and develop new techniques to burn even the toughest body fat off figure competitor’s bodies. Here is one of my favorite techniques – Progressive Intensity
Progressive Intensity is a technique I use to raise the workout intensity level for figure competitors during precontest fat loss training. There are a few ways to do this, the video shows my favorite version of Progressive Intensity…. increasing the reps with each successive set. The goal is to make your body do more work as your level of exhaustion increases.
Basically what happens is that as you go through your circuit of exercises (usually only 2 or 3 exercises) the reps will increase as you progress through the set. In the video, Laurie (who holds several figure pro cards) begins set #1 with 5 reps of Db Duck Squats followed immediately by 5 Jump Squats. Set # 2 is: 10 reps of each (duck squats and jump squats). Set #3 is: 15 reps of each exercise etc etc…. You can see how exhausted Laurie gets as she progresses through the set. The idea is to do this continously until the required number of sets are completed. Try to get to 30 reps of each NON-STOP. You can do this with practically any 2 or 3 exercises as long as you can switch quickly from one to the other. This particular example is tough because both exercises focus on the legs…. give it a try.
One round of this, at the end of your workout, is enough when first trying this out. Eventually you will be able to do an entire 60 minute workout in this manner
(CAUTION: a burning sensation in the legs, exhaustion and heavy breathing are side effects of this workout… ha ha).
Here is another example below. This is a hard one:
Besides not using enough weight (my last blog post) another big reason figure competitors (this applies to anyone actually) don’t get the results is that they don’t train with enough conviction… they just ‘go through the motions’… Whether it’s lackadaisical movements, half movements… or just wasting time tying sneakers, talking etc., It all adds up to lack of progress over time. Everyone is entitled to a crappy workout occasionally… but competitors need to consistently train at a different level. If you’re a competitor training in a gym, but your workout looks like everyone else’s in the gym… then you will probably not the get results you seek – a competitor’s workout/energy level should stand out from the average person, in the gym, who is just trying to stay in shape.
In the video, the first few reps are done at about 50% effort… which is ok if you’re just looking to get a little exercise, tone up a little bit… but definitely not for someone looking to compete in a figure competition or lose significant body fat. The remaining reps are done with good energy… this is the type of energy you need in the beginning (of competition training) so that you don’t fall behind schedule… and even moreso close to competition time, when fat loss becomes much more difficult and your energy level is low.
It’s hard sometimes to take an honest look at your diet and workouts when not getting results… everyone wants to feel that they are giving 100%… but in order to succeed you must be able to look at yourself and take responsibility for lack of results and then do what’s necessary to reach your goals.
Like I said in a recent blog post… figure competitors must keep their shoulders healthy because of the volume of exericse they must do to get ready for a show. First off, many competitors love dips… so my goal is not to say the exercise is totally bad… but that you should understand how to do it properly – because you can hurt the front capsule of the shoulder joint, which can prevent you from doing pushups, bench presses, overhead presses etc., for a long time.
Safest way to perform bench dips:
- keep your body close to the bench
- don’t go down too far
In the first video the first few reps are done correctly. The last reps are done with the body further away from the bench. Besides being less effective, this position puts strain on the anterior capsule of the shoulder. The second video shows the pressure the anterior capsule of the shoulder joint is under even when doing a ‘safe’ dip.
Video #1 – Video showing the correct and incorrect way to perform bench dips:
Video #2 – The video below shows the anterior capsule of the shoulder under a lot of pressure during dips:
One of the most beneficial but most hated exercises is the pushup. For anyone looking to put on more muscle and/or increase their upper body strength… pushups are excellent. Most of my figure competitors can do between 25 – 40 pushups. Most started out just being able to do a few.
What often happens is that women will get stuck on a particular number of pushups and have a problem increasing the number of reps they can do. What most trainers would do is to try and make the exercise easier (ex. by having you do them on an incline). If you are struggling to increase the number of reps you can do, the secret is to make the pushups harder… not easier!
In the video above you see me placing a 18lb medicine ball on Melanie’s (by the way, Melanie is my new figure pro as of 2 days ago! Congratulations…) back for added resistance. She is more advanced than most women so I wouldn’t start out using this much weight… a 5lb weight will do just fine. You won’t be able to do as many reps (you may actually surprise yourself and squeeze out your normal maximum reps)… but you are forcing your muscles to work harder during the pushup – this will translate into you pushing harder when there is no extra weight on your back, which will lead to you doing more reps. I would suggest doing this for 3 consecutive workouts before you try to do pushups without any resistance…. you will be surprised at the results when you try regular pushups again.
“What if I’m alone and don’t have anyone to place a weight on my back?”
In that case you could do negatives. Without going into detail as to why they work, just trust me… they work better than anything else for building strength.
- from the top of the pushup position, lower yourself SLOWLY to the ground (or as far down as you can go without doing a face-plant… splatt!)
- use your knees to get back into the top position (don’t use your arms to get up), you are trying to save all of your energy for the lowering portion of the pushup
- lower yourself again toward the floor… all the way, if you are strong enough
- continue these ‘negative’ pushups until you can no longer control yourself as lower yourself toward the floor (remember, no face-plants)
- the most important points to remember are Not to use your arms to push upward back into position and that you MUST lower yourself slowly… this is essential to getting stronger… lowering yourself down too quickly will be ineffective.
- do 3 or 4 good sets each workout, for three consecutive workouts without doing regular pushups and you will see results when you try the pushups the regular way during your 4th workout.