Everything You Know about the Plateau is Wrong
Written by Kirsten Ahrendt

“I haven’t hit a squat PR in forever.”

“I’ve been trying to get ring muscle ups for months.”

“the # on the scale has stopped moving.”

“My snatch #s have plateaued.” 

When was the last time you said something along these lines? And how did you feel when you said it? In the health & performance industry, being on a “plateau” is generally stigmatized as BAD. 

Performance Plateaus

People, coaches, athletes perceive it as an indicator of stagnation, which runs quite antithetical to our modern western cultural infatuation with constant, unyielding progress; the unspoken mantra that we’re either getting better or getting worse. But what if I told you that an integral element of “getting better” actually involves (seemingly) “going nowhere”?! Plateaus can be frustrating, for certain, but let’s rewrite the narrative that they are a temporary inconvenience to be solved for as quickly as possible with the least amount of effort – a la the quick fix.

Coaching Through a Plateau

More reps, more practice, better coaching WILL help you past a plateau. But they will NEVER vanquish them. Imagine that was the case…what would the process of learning or growing look like If there was never a plateau? It would mean a linear path of upward progression. Or, in case you’re a glass half-empty person…a linear path of REGRESSION after meeting an initial point of success. And we can all agree, this is rarely the case in anything we’ve ever tried to learn, do, accomplish, or change.

In the health & performance space particularly (and maybe society) our fundamental relationship with plateaus is tragically flawed. If we can better understand the role of plateaus and when and why they occur, we can shift our perspective to use plateaus to motivate us onward, rather than frustrate us. This will lead to greater fulfillment and correlate to higher levels of achievement. 

Concepts of Mastery

I’ll be exploring the concepts of mastery & plateaus inspired by one of my favorite books of 2021 – Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment by George Leonard. It’s a short read and you can nab it used on Amazon for $3. Put down that Starbuck’s mocha-frappa-buncha-crappa-latte and grab this instead.

Mastery is for Everyone

Regardless of whether you come with the conscious desire to learn or improve a specific skill or not, everyone who walks through the doors is exposed to opportunities to learn and change. I know NO ONE who wants to be exactly the same level of strong, fit, or healthy from year to year. Everyone wants to improve in some way that is meaningful to them. Maybe you’ve expressed a similar sentiment to one of these…

  • I want to learn bar muscle-ups
  • I want to compete with team Invictus.
  • I want to lose 15 pounds.
  • I want to gain 15 pounds.
  • I want to get fit enough to climb a mountain.
  • I want to PR my clean & jerk.

The moment we identify something that we want to learn, change, or accomplish (a skill, a behavior, a professional advancement, a talent, etc.) we have a path of learning laid out in front of us. The path will involve progress, regression, and plateaus. It will be non-linear. (2 facts that are unfortunately the first to be forgotten). Comprehension of this road map and insight into how we react to aspects of this learning curve will greatly impact our success, timeline, and level of fulfillment in pursuit of said skill.

Archetypes of Learning Behavior

Author George Leonard describes 4 archetypes of learning behavior – The Dabbler, Obsessive, Hacker, & Master. See if you can recognize yourself in any of these:

The Dabbler

The dabbler approaches new activities (sport, hobby, relationships, jobs) with enormous enthusiasm. They make initial progress, as most beginners do, but the first obstacle or plateau of progress is unacceptable. Instead of working through it, they often pivot to something else, rationalizing to themselves and others why it wasn’t the right fit for them. “The Dabbler might think of himself as an adventurer, a connoisseur of novelty, but he’s closer to being what Carl Jung calls the eternal kid.”

An example dabbler in the gym:

Someone who makes initial progress, which is thrilling! But struggles when they inevitably encounter difficulty or the slowing of measurable progress – whether it be weight loss, strength gain (PR’s), or skill development. Frustration ensues and they jump ship when their expectation of progress doesn’t match with reality.

The Dabbler’s path of progress looks like this:

The Obsessive

A bottom line, results-oriented persona. They want unrelenting progress and will push themselves mercilessly to achieve it, whether with work, relationships, or a skill. They are determined to get results and see immediate improvement. When they hit a plateau of progress, they redouble their efforts, unlike the dabbler who jumps ship. While this sounds like a dedicated and productive persona, the obsessive has no balance or understanding of playing the long-game to create future sustainable results that yield greater results than anything that can be achieved in the short-term.

An example obsessive in the gym:

Extremely high work ethic, but lack of overall patience with the process of growth. They expect PR’s and proficiency now, and are not afraid to work hard to get them. But it may accompany injuries, burnout, or poor movement patterning that they are unwilling to go back and re-learn. Without patience, they’re willing to sacrifice long term sustainable success for short-term gains in the moment, like a PR.

The obsessive’s path of progress:

The Hacker

Possibly, the lesser of 3 evils. The hacker gets the hang of things and after reaching an adequate capability, is willing to stay on a plateau indefinitely. They do not seek out opportunities to improve, learn or develop the holes in their craft, job, or personal behavior. The hacker is willing to skip stages of development (practice) if they can hack-around with fellow hackers on a path of non-progress.

An example hacker in the gym:

Someone that is pretty solid at many things, but never addresses the imbalance or skill deficiency that coach talks to them about. The weak spot in their game is something they just avoid or make excuses for. Maybe it’s mobility, technique, nutrition, or strength. Whatever it is, they don’t go back to address it, they just keep marching on, avoiding it.

The hacker’s path of progress:

In truth, we each have aspects of the obsessive, the hacker and the dabbler within us. Perhaps you are the obsessive at the gym, the dabbler in your hobbies, and the hacker in your relationships. Recognizing these patterns of behavior is useful in helping us to see when we’re NOT on the path of mastery. So what does the 4th archetype look like? It is the path of mastery.

The Master

Mastery is not perfection. It is not excellence. Mastery is not the achievement of 30, 60 or 90-day goals. Mastery is practice, and in that sense, mastery is the act of staying on the path (not jumping ship, not looking for unsustainable shortcuts, and not settling). 

George Leonard defines mastery as:

“Mastery is the path of patient, dedicated effort without attachment to immediate results.”

Repeat after me…

Patient. Dedicated. Effort.

Without. Attachment. to.

Immediate. Results.

The Master’s Curve:

While Leonard admits that this is an oversimplification of what learning and growth looks like, it aligns with many principles of neuroscience. Leonard describes the mastery curve: 

“Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it.” 

I particularly love this definition of mastery because it gives us the recipe and roadmap to create joy and fulfillment in our pursuits – regardless of whether they are personal developments, athletic endeavors, or professional advancements. 

The Roadmap of Mastery

Our mindset will be: Patient. Dedicated (vs short-sighted, expectant)

Our actions will be: Effort-driven (vs achievement-focused)

Our timeline will honor: that short-term goal attainment does not equate to linear, long term optimal growth. 

Someone striving to be a black belt in jiu jitsu, should have little concern with how quickly they progress from white belt to blue belt, or whether they won or lost a single match. The same goes for learning your muscle-up, PR’ing your snatch, or seeing the # on the scale change. Now that we know what the path of mastery looks like, we have unlocked my FAVORITE perspective-shift of the entire book…and that is our relationship to plateaus! 

Love the Plateau!

Social media is a powerful tool. We’re all so connected – to each other, to ideas, to products. But the great interconnectedness of our global society and highlight-reel culture has compressed and skewed our sense of, and timeline for, achievement and change, particularly in the health-wellness and performance industry where the modus operandi is often sold as a quick fix:

  • 6-minute 6-pack
  • 30-day body transformations
  • Take this pill to fix your health, not those vegetables.
  • Solve your back pain, social awkwardness and libido with this ONE single exercise
    (Cue Jeopardy music: What is…nasal breathing. Duh! You knew I’d sneak that in!)

Because of this culture, plateaus have a serious negative stigma about them. We avoid them like the plague. But George Leonard wants us to understand that plateaus are actually the magic sauce! He defines it:

“The plateau is the long stretch of diligent effort with no seeming progress.”

Plateaus are not an indicator of regression…but rather a requirement to progression! When we switch our perspective like that, our relationship to being on a plateau can transform. The plateau is the time between PR’s, the time with failed reps and the time when the scale doesn’t move regardless of all the things you’re doing right. Which can be disappointing if we assumed the path of progress would be linear progression, or worse, our efforts were always about the outcome not the daily act of practice itself.

Disappointment and suffering are often a result of misalignment of expectations to experienced reality. Don’t let the “seeming non-progress” of plateaus throw you off course. When you think “Geez, I haven’t improved in a while…I’m on a plateau…” *Alarms should ring!* Reminding you that it’s an indicator of being on the path of mastery. Don’t jump ship now! Recalibrate and remind yourself that the act of practicing is what creates (eventual) change and growth. It is not promised on your 1-day Amazon Prime delivery timeline.

Practicing vs Accomplishing

Learn to practice rather than accomplish. A mindset of “practicing” vs “accomplishing” can create so much incremental growth! How does that apply in the gym and to my health?

Practicing your healthy eating habits…without regard for the daily # on the scale.

Practicing your mobility for the snatch receiving position… without regard for a daily PR.

Practicing your hollow hold on the path to T2B…without regard for winning the workout.

Practicing your bounce out of the hole…without regard for lifting more than your neighbor or even more than yesterday.

According to Leonard, “If our life is a good one, a life of mastery, most of it will be spent on the plateau. If not, a large part of it may well be spent in restless, distracted, ultimately self-destructive attempts to escape the plateau.”

This feels like zen buddhism and stoicism have entered the conversation… 

We’ve all heard that…The obstacle is the way….maybe they meant to add “Plateaus are the path”.

Still not bought in on plateaus? Want to blow past them or avoid them altogether? I like to view plateaus similar to a computer downloading a software update in the background. Once the download has finished, you get the new shiny operating system (in the gym – you get the new strength, the new skill, the PR), but you have no idea how long the download will take and there is no progress bar to tell you how close you are to the install completing. All you can do is continue to PRACTICE and create your work in the meantime. All this to say, you can still set goals. PR’s can still bring you joy. You can still want to compete and win. But don’t mistake the accomplishment for the practice. 

TLDR

Enjoy your training (practice).

Love the plateau.

Make progress. 

The beautiful trick is to realize that these are “AND statements” not mutually exclusive “OR statements”

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