As published in Breaking Muscle

By Patrick McCarty
CrossFit, Masters Athletes

The Plateau

For most people, the plateau phase is inevitable. It tends to happen around eighteen months in. There are many reasons for this, but mostly it’s due to the fact that, as Mark Rippetoe stated, you’ve picked the low-hanging fruit of your new fitness orchard. You’ve lost the weight, you’ve settled into a groove with your training routine, and you’ve gotten stronger, but your numbers have leveled off.

If you think about it, what occurred in the honeymoon phase is magical. You went from almost no stimulus to 100% stimulus overnight. Coupled with your new paleo or clean eating, anyone who gives a solid effort will undergo a tremendous response.

Now you’ve stalled. And where the plateau becomes a problem is when the gym at which you train does not have a real, progressive, periodized training protocol. If you are at a “heroes and girls” box that does daily fifteen to twenty minute metcons the majority of the time, then this plateau is going to hit you hard. If your CrossFit experience to date has been ass-whooping, puke-inducing WODS, and every day you expect to be crushed, you may begin to notice that your progress has come to a halt. You come in every day for a WOD, but you are never really getting anywhere. This, my friends, is post-adaptation mode.

At this point, one of two things may be happening. You either find that you are beginning to get soft, physically, or, you may start to notice injuries occurring. Where you could once hop up on the bar and rep out pull ups with abandon, you are now noticingsome shoulder pain. Or pain in your elbow joint, or your forearms, or your knees.

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If the injury phenomenon is occurring, you slow down and start modifying everything – overhead work, pull ups, and others all give way to substitute movements. Ring rows for pull ups, clean for snatches. Overhead squats are out of the question. Kettlebell swings set you back two days with a jacked up back.

However, if you have noticed that it is a general softness or that you are losing the edge you once felt you had, here’s what you may be tempted to do: double up on the metcons. You start doing two-a-days or supplementing the WOD with a couple of miles of running. Strength days are your enemy, and you feel you need the “Filthy 50” and “Fight Gone Bad” to make a dent in the ever-creeping softness that seems to be invading the results you once enjoyed. If CrossFit was good, then more CrossFit must be better.

The Outcome Is Certain

It’s very unlikely – not impossible, mind you, but unlikely – to continue to maintain and continue to improve your overall fitness if you continue a daily grind of fifteen to twenty minute metcons. If you are at a CrossFit box where that seems to be the programming, you may want to consider your options. To know if this is where you are, all you need to do is answer the following questions:

  • Do you do a “heroes” or “girls” WOD at least once a week?
  • Do you end up on your back nearly every workout, having been crushed?
  • Are most of the conditioning workouts fifteen minutes or longer?

If you answered “yes” to any of those, you may well be at a box that is going to program you into a hard plateau. The very thing you fell in love with is the thing that is going to be your undoing.

Make no mistake, many people fall victim to chasing a bigger and bigger fix to try to recapture that honeymoon magic. Newsflash: you won’t find it. But if (and likely when) you hit the plateau, there are three things you can do.

  1. Continue to maintain, or perhaps even continue to lose the gains you have made
  2. Become injured
  3. Begin training

Numbers two and three will be discussed in Part 2: Moving Into Real Fitness.

Photos provided by CrossFit LA.

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