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What is a Fitness Plateau and Fitness Overload? Q&A with Dr. Bobby Charlu

What is a Fitness Plateau and Fitness Overload? Q&A with Dr. Bobby Charlu

What is a Fitness Plateau and Fitness Overload?
Q&A with Dr. Bobby Charlu

We recently interviewed Dr. Bobby Charlu, an Interventional Physiatrist with Hoag Orthopedic Institute, to learn more about some common fitness and exercise topics.

How does a person's current level of fitness affect their workout?

A person’s ability to work out for a specified duration and intensity is based primarily on three interwoven energy systems:

  • Our cardiovascular fitness
  • Our metabolic fuel expenditure (also known as lactic acid build up), and
  • Our muscle physiology (different muscle types for different activities)

Each one of these systems changes with training to become more efficient, able to increase reservepower, and prevent injury when pushed to the next level. For example, regularly training in spin cycling may increase your VO2max (your bodies maximal oxygen consumption); over time that will allow you to perform any aerobic workout with far less fatigue than would otherwise have occurred. In contrast, regular weight lifting and sprint training will increase our muscle mass and recruitment patterns, and affect over time muscle fatigue. In essence, your workout will only be as good as the building blocks you've built into it. Slowly build up endurance and intensity to get the most out of a workout without putting yourself at risk for injury.

Why does the body plateau after doing a particular regimen?

A person's muscular strength and cardiovascular fitness will adapt to the intensity, resistance, and duration of the workout that is consistently performed. In order to push one's muscular and cardiovascular system to the next level, you have to "OVERLOAD" the system whereby you increase the intensity and endurance of the activity beyond what is normally experienced. Switching the routine to recruit different muscles, increasing the cardio demands, and even changing the way you may train muscle groups (free weights versus pull ups) will stop the body from becoming too comfortable in its level of fitness.

Any advice for someone getting discouraged by lack of results?

Don't quit. Results that you want to see when you look in the mirror, will come long after the myriad of improvements it has made to your cholesterol, blood pressure, bone density, weight reduction, joint pain and mental focus. Working out will help you to feel better, be healthier, and in conjunction with healthy nutrition will get you the results want to see at the end of the road. My advice is to find a sport, class, or regimen you actually enjoy doing, rather than focusing only on a regimen that you think will get you certain results. Having a consistent exercise partner, consistent time of exercise, and switching up the routine to work out all muscle types (the so-called interval training regimen) will diminish fatigue and promote perseverance.

Is it harder for a fit person to get in better shape?

Not at all – "overload" as discussed above applies to all individuals, regardless of their pre-existing physical fitness. Certainly a fit person's training intensity and muscle recruitment patterns may need to be sufficiently increased from his already high performing status in order to get the desired results, and this may be where the difficulty lies. This is why competitive swimmers will often train on land with weight training and running to improve their stroke function, rather than simply putting more laps in the pool. Look on the bright side, the more cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength you bring to the table, the less chance of your regimen causing muscle injury, cardiovascular injury, and even stress fracture.

What kind of results can be expected if you’re already fit?
Do not sit on your royally fit laurels. All the changes made to your muscular and cardiovascular system as a result of your hard work can be lost in as little as one to two months of being stationary (also known as detraining). You can expect that if you maintain your current training regimen that your long term cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, and more importantly "specificity" (the entirety of the bodies' structural and functional adaptations it has made to perform at this level) should also remain at the same level. On the other hand, if you want to progress beyond your current state of affairs, you will have to work even harder to get those higher results. Generally, interval training, switching muscle groups, switching sports, and changing conditioning programs will get the already fit even fitter.

Do people sometimes just get as fit as they should be, healthily?Dr.Bobby_Charlu

I think there is always a balance in physical fitness to be healthy and fit. Nutrition, mental focus, healthy weight, and aerobic conditioning are equally as important as pursuing a certain "fit" picture one has in mind. Being a marathon runner, while healthy for some, may be far too much for one with cardiovascular injury, severe joint ailments, or tendencies towards muscle injury. The trick is to find several sports, or work out regimens that will continue to challenge you mentally and physically. When you feel complacent it may be time to try something else.

Bobby Charlu, MD, Sports Medicine and Pain Management Specialist, Hoag Orthopedic Institute