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"Exploring the Upsides of Stagnation: When is it a Positive Force?"

Stagnation is the dreaded state of every gym goer. Whether you train CrossFit®️, bodybuild, powerlift, weightlift, run, HYROX, or train in pretty much any fashion, you likely want to see progress, and regular progress at that. If you've been at this training thing for a while, you'll know that those first few months of dedicated training yielded the greatest returns on your invested time and energy, and that progress somewhat slowed down from there. But there's still progress. Right? Well, what if there isn't? Periods of stagnation can destroy motivation, take the fun out of training, and make you question whether or not you're doing everything wrong. Before you throw the towel in, let's consider firstly what might be causing the stagnation.

A man taking a break between exercises in a workout.

  1. You've had a period of rapid progress Progress can't, and won't, continue at the same rate forever. Every now and then you'll make a leap forward, which is great, but this is often followed by a period of little progress. This is a self-preservation mechanism of sorts; your body protecting itself from progressing too quickly, beyond what you're ready for, but moreover, it's a period of consolidation - you're adapting to your new found speed, strength or ability, and your body needs to recalibrate. It won't last forever, although it might feel like it for a while, and it is both normal, and necessary!

  2. You've been in the game a long time The longer you train, the harder it is to improve. It takes increasingly intense workouts, greater stimuli, and more attention to detail. For many, there's just no more juice to be squeezed from the lemon. If you're not a full time athlete, not in the physical prime of your life, and not in a financial position to invest in all the areas of recovery, nutrition, coaching and equipment necessary, there will be limits. Sure, this still doesn't have to be a permanent plateau, but like it or not, one day you will lift your heaviest weight, run your fastest time, jump your highest height, or reach your leanest bodyfat percentage, and it likely won't be on a day you decide! At some point, you will stop improving!

  3. You're now slowing the ageing process, rather than chasing records Very much linked to point 2, but worthy of a separate mention. Although we now know that ageing, at least with regards to fitness, can be a much slower process than was previously considered normal, it is still an inevitable decline. The body ages, but so too does the mind, and with it the competitive spirit and priorities surrounding training and competing goals, and broader life interests. Make no mistake, you can still remain competitive, challenge yourself and work towards goals, but not everything can get better forever!

  4. External factors are affecting your training We all have lives, and we all have roles outside of the gym. We are partners, parents, employers or employees, friends and so much more. As fulfilling and rewarding as these roles in our lives can all be, they also place demands on our time, and create stress of varying intensities. Depending on our priorities, and even irrespective of them at times, these time pressures and stresses can and will impact our training. It may be direct, such as a parent's evening stopping us making the only available class that day, or it may be indirect, such as our requirement to travel a lot for work affecting our ability to shop for, prepare and cook fresh, nutritious meals in support of our target bodyfat percentage. Either way, this will happen to everyone at some point, and to some for extended periods of time.

  5. You have physical issues that reduce your ability to perform at your best Whether it's an illness, an injury, or even a required change to your technique, sometimes our capacity to train and perform as required is reduced. The timescale of the impact can vary wildly from a day or two in the event of soreness from a previous training session, to months or years for a chronic illness, or ongoing injury. It may even, in the worst cases, become permanent. Either way, your physical condition will not always be the same, and will decline for reasons that have nothing to do with your training, or supporting efforts.

  6. Your focus is elsewhere If you train multiple disciplines, especially ones with conflicting demands on the body, it may be necessary to allow a quality, or qualities, to stagnate or even decline slightly, while focus is given to another, or others. A good example of this might be a CrossFit®️ athlete who is biasing their squat strength for a period of time. This quality may need to be prioritised at certain times of the season, or because it appears to be lagging behind the athlete's other abilities. For a period of time it might be necessary, while focusing on the squat, to accept a stagnation or even a backwards step in aerobic capacity. This will likely be deliberately planned ny the athlete's coach, usually in collaboration with the athlete, or ny the athlete themselves where they control their own training. It could also be accidental, where a certain quality is programmed more heavily without planning, and this impacts other qualities for a period of time.

A man with a dumbbell on one shoulder, in the midst of a workout.

Some of this sounds pretty serious. Maybe you're now considering throwing in the towel altogether? Well, before you do, let's look at how to deal with periods of stagnation, and some simple reframing that might help you through those flat spots; both inside the gym, and out!

  1. Stagnation is actually required for progress! Given that we can't get infinitely better, we quite literally need times where we grow into our new abilities, build consistency at new weights, times and distances, put in the volume and physically and mentally prepare ourselves for the next step forward. Think less about stagnation, and more about preparation for further progress!

  2. Sure, age can suck, but not everything declines! We gain more experience, more friendships and more wisdom with age! Not everything is about aesthetics and physical performance! That said, you're here to read about the fitness stuff, so, although you may be fighting decline instead of seeking progress, just remember, firstly that stopping means the decline will leave you much, much further from your previous best and, secondly, you've not trained everything to its full potential. That means you may find new physical challenges that you can still improve at after other abilities begin to decline.

  3. Having other priorities, interests, or even illnesses and injuries is natural! Your training can definitely afford to take a back seat for a while. It might even be better for long term development to have a period of enforced lower volume and intensity. But in the shorter, more tangible term, it can be a great chance to refocus on basics and foundations to enable you to surpass your previous standards when you can get fully back into it. I'm 21 (ish) months into this exact process with my squat. I've revisited and rebuilt my mechanics, and I'm working my way back up. I'm still not back where I once was, BUT, I believe I both can and will be at some point!

Whatever you believe the reason for your particular period of stagnation to be, lean into it! Keep in the front of your mind that no matter how stagnant things appear to be, they would be a whole lot worse if you were to stop altogether!

If you've overcome one of these periods and learned from it, or if you're period right now, then pop your experiences in the comments, and be sure to share this article with someone you think it could help.


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