Trainers professionally direct training loads for their clients to enable both physical/mental adaptations for fitness gains over time. It is a near-certainty that our clients will face temporary or long-term progression gaps, also known as “plateaus”  due to unique temporal mismatches between training and recovery, exercise effort versus exercise capacity, and/or their stress level vis-a-vis stress tolerance. We must be mindful that a thirty-something’s periodization may be too ambitious for a 60-year-old client.

If a client has not experienced a performance plateau; perhaps training has not generated a suitable “chronic training load” or CTL. One source reinforces, “Manipulating training variables to facilitate maximum gains—including sets, repetitions, load, and rest periods—can be daunting.”

Producing a bespoke training plan for a client’s gains is far from simple. Each client’s training history, health, and current fitness level is unique; so our adjustment of training variables over a training periodization is also unique.

Note: A client can only “peak” in her or his athletic performance two times a year. Should a client strive to consistently perform at a peak or try for three or more peak performances per year, disappointment or injury are probable outcomes. Long-term overloads (LTO) might lead to awful after-effects.

Training Overloads

Intended Chronic Training Loads (CTLs) can lead to physical and mental fatigue.

Tired From Sports Exercises Guy Sits Floor At Home

Are training overloads at a specific point in an athlete’s periodization ever “right?”

A trainer should ask “why?” at least five times to evaluate, then potentially, adapt a client periodization if a training overload is sensed. These five queries are examples of root cause analyses to help maximize client’s gains over time:

  1. Is the quality and quantity of restful, restorative sleep and taper days appropriate for Short Term Overload (STO) scenarios?
  2. Are there stress indicators in a client’s lifestyle which might impede performance?
  3. Is absorption of ley macro-nutrients, micro-nutrients, or water adequate to replenish a client?
  4.  Was volume, intensity, or tempo of either resistance or endurance training too much at that time?
  5. If possible to monitor on a wearable device, was a client’s Heart Rate Variability (HRV) trend favorable for more loading?

Note: This is by no means an exhaustive list of queries for root causes. A #6 question could be: What adverse, counterproductive non-training effects were stimulated by this global pandemic?

Short-term 0verloads (STOs) may associate with performance plateaus of up to a few weeks’ duration.  A trainer and/or client may observe:

a. fatigue
b. reduced or flattened aerobic capacity
c. an inability to increase resistance loads
d. temporal frustrations or anxieties about current training or performance

A trainer should be prepared to mitigate a client’s frustrations or anxieties with proof that short-term bodily or mental reactions are proof-positive that adaptations are underway for performance gains. That is, unless, short-term performance stalls evolve to “central” long-term overloads (LTOs) from some combination of training and non-training (lifestyle) loads.


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Central Long Term Overload (LTO) effects from too much/too hard or too fast training, and unfortunately may last for up to six months’ duration.  Trainers or health professionals may be needed to address these central, parasympathetic imbalances for poor “resting and digesting” functions. Self-care supersedes athletic performance climbs in these unfortunate LTO cases. If left untreated, LTOs can prove to be detrimental.

Key Indicators of Performance Plateaus

As alluded, a trainer/client tandem may measure indicators of current training loads that merit adaptation or alteration.

  • Resistance or stamina benchmarks are not improving, as intended by the original periodization.
  • Resting heart rate (RHR) may be notably higher for a specific time period.
  • Heart rate variability (HRV) may be noticeably lower.
  • Unintended weight gain or loss may be noted.
  • The client’s mental outlook may be subjectively different – irritability, moodiness, anxiety, questioning.

Prudent Recovery Checklists

General steps to enable advances from performance plateaus and STO are similar. Rest and optimal diets are paramount for recovery and progression. Counter-acting the plateaued root causes: fatigue, stress, reduced performance capacity, mental state is essential.

A professional trainer might consider a “VITA” checklist to adapt or alter a periodization to resume performance gains over the client’s mid-to-long-term journey:

V – Volume of resistance or stamina loading
Consider Rest or taper days in a periodization.
Evaluate deloading as a viable option to mitigate a client’s training and non-training stress loads.

I – Intensity
REHIIT as an alternative to HIIT?
Higher intensity load sessions or micro-periodizations should be followed by longer rest periods

T – Tempo / Timing
Could total training volume and/or time under tension be addressed differently?
Could some workouts be staged at different times of day, or adjusted for weekday/weekend timing?

A – Adapt or Alter
Consider active recovery days or total rest periods to help restore balance to central parasympathetic “rest and digest” functions.
A shift from powerlifting to strength and hypertrophy “micro-periods” be appropriate for a strength resistance project.

Takeaways For Overcoming Plateaus

Hiking Athlete Woman Ask For Help At Summit

Performance plateaus are inevitable during appropriate client periodizations for training load. Overloading may occur before, during or after such plateaus. Climbing beyond such plateaus, and managing Training overload is possible.

  1. Trainers should help clients celebrate the goodness of predictable performance plateaus after adaptation came from “right” CTL for gains.
  2. Trainers must recognize client STOs, and be prepared to accommodate their physical and mental states for these short periods.
  3. Trainers must be aware of the awful-afters of Long Term Overloads (LTOs) and know how to counsel clients for the long-haul.

Having pre-planned responses to address predictable STO, and unhealthy LTO overload scenarios is prudent.


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Dave Frost

Dave Frost

Dave Frost has served the fitness community as a NFPT-certified CPT since 2013, and a Master Fitness Trainer since 2019.
As a Medicare-aged baby boomer, he specializes in training those clients who intend to stay “well past forty”.
He is a former world champion in Masters Rowing and National Indoor Rowing champion for his age group. He is also a group fitness instructor for The Row House. His website is Dave recently published his work: KABOOMER: Thriving and Striving into your Nineties to promote stamininety for those intending to add years to their lives and life to their years.