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If you've peaked, it's OK to plateau

A maintenance program is the next step once you've reached your goals. You don't have it to kick it up; just mix it up.

March 08, 2004|Marnell Jameson | Special to The Times

Anyone who's started a fitness program knows that most programs are designed to get tougher just when the going gets easier.

Once that 15-minute jog becomes a cake walk, you're supposed to up the time to 20 minutes and pick up the pace. When you can do 20 repetitions with a weight and not feel tired, it's time to increase the load. But when is enough enough?

Gradually increasing the intensity and duration of your exercise program is necessary when you're conditioning and building strength, but many people think they should keep adding time, speed and weight even after they've achieved their fitness goals. When their regimen stops producing measurable gains -- when they plateau -- they think they'd better work harder.

But the word "plateau" has gotten a bad rap, experts say. Although people might view it as something to "break through," some trainers point out that -- once you're fit -- a plateau is OK.

Getting in shape is supposed to feel harder than staying in shape, they add. But after you're in shape, workouts just need to be different, not harder.

"Plateau means the same as maintenance, except plateau implies you're stuck, and maintenance implies you've attained," says Len Kravitz, senior exercise physiologist for the International Dance and Exercise Assn. "It all depends on your goals. When a person reaches his or her fitness and physical goals, a maintenance program is precisely the correct step."

As someone who has found his plateau, Erik Joule of Venice, agrees. Two years ago, the 33-year-old merchandising executive realized he had gotten out of shape. In college he had been trim, fit and active. But as he got more involved with his career, he stopped exercising. Nine years after graduating, he weighed 185 pounds, 10 pounds over his college weight, and he wasn't fit.

He sought help from Dana Vatanpour, a personal trainer at Gold's Gym in Venice. He told Vatanpour his goals: "I didn't want to get huge. I just wanted to lose fat, build lean muscle, have more energy and release the stress from work." He also wanted to balance his work schedule with an exercise routine that he could stick to.

The trainer put Joule on a cardio and weight-training program. At first he could do only 15 minutes on the treadmill and bench press 185 pounds. In six months he was running 30 minutes at a faster pace and lifting 245 pounds. A year after he started, he weighed 170 pounds. He had added lean body mass and was in better shape than he had been in college.

That was a year ago -- and his routine hasn't changed since. Five days a week he goes to the gym, where he does 30 minutes of cardio exercise, plus weight training. Today Joule is still right where he wants to be. "My energy level is really high. I look good in a swimsuit, and I have more confidence."

Like Joule, not everyone is out to win an Ironman competition or become a weightlifting champion. Some just want to lose fat, gain lean body mass, increase strength and aerobic capacity, have more energy and sleep better. Once their exercise program has helped them meet those goals, they can -- almost -- hit cruise control.

"One of the unique aspects of humans is their ability to adapt to stress over time," says Kravitz, also a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. "As bodies become more efficient, they actually expend less energy doing the same work." But that doesn't mean you have to continue going faster or farther, he adds. Just mixing up your workout can be enough. Adding hills or intervals will break up the routine and keep your body from getting too comfortable.

"I like to tell athletes that once they hit their goals, they can back off on the amount they do and work on the quality," says Richard Kreider, professor and chairman of the Department of Health, Human Performance and Recreation and director of exercise and sport nutrition at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

In other words, as you adapt, or as the effort becomes easy, add to the load (increase weight or speed) and cut the frequency and duration. "I'm a big believer that it's not how much you do, but how smart you do it. Go for higher quality and less total volume," Kreider says.

Kreider also likes to see people who've reached their goals swap a day of working out with some recreational exercise to break up the rut. Maybe they do their cardio and weight workout three days a week, and play racquetball or basketball twice.

"Once you achieve a certain level of strength and endurance," he says, "it's not hard to maintain. The payoff is you can get away with doing less work and add more enjoyable variety."

Athletes also have to respect the limits of their bodies, says Dr. Chris Cooper, professor of medicine and physiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Most endurance athletes work hard to increase the amount of oxygen their bodies can consume (known as VO2 max) and the point at which lactic acid will produce muscle fatigue (lactic acid threshold). Lactic acid is a byproduct of exercise; a higher VO2 max and a higher lactic acid threshold allow you to do more work without tiring. The only way to increase those levels is by working harder. However, "every body has a point at which the levels can't get any better," Cooper says. "Genetics, muscle type, body size, age and gender dictate the cap." Athletes who aren't realistic about what they can achieve often overtrain, which diminishes their performance.

So if your routine is working for you, just keep doing what you're doing and don't worry about making it harder. But do feel free to mix it up a little.

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