Plateaus and the Novice Effect

Updated: Nov 11, 2019

A few years ago, when I was still training martial arts, I used to go for a run once a week on a closed road in Hong Kong called Bowen Road. I remember one day running at what I thought was a good pace for 5km and having someone that I would call ‘overweight’ nail it right past me. I figured that I would catch them up around the next bend, but the reality was that I never saw them again. This turned out to be a regular occurrence that people who were not at all in the fit to look at category were really pretty good at running. It got me to thinking about the reasons for this. And here is my take on it:

In an effort to lose weight after recognizing that they were heading for an early grave, these people embarked on a running program, probably starting one day a week running and walking the 8km stretch of Bowen Road. After a month, they were down several lbs in bodyweight and feeling good about themselves until… they were victims of the inevitable law of diminishing returns. They adapted to the stimulus that the run provided and weight loss stalled. So they did what any reasonable person would do: added more running! Surely if running made me lose weight, the more running I do, the more weight I will lose. Wrong. In fact now the adaptation is even more pronounced. This is why I was outpaced by someone who, whilst being fit for the task of running, was getting further and further from their true goal of recomposition.

Over the past several years, I have seen EXACTLY the same type of progress stagnation in CrossFit enthusiasts, but for different reasons. The runners I observed were victim of adaptation to a single modality and not progressively overloading (they just repeated the same stimulus over and over), whilst CrossFitters plateau because of lack of adaptation due to EXCESSIVE modalities and movements to try and accumulate experience of.

The mindset of the two groups, however, is identical. This thing I was doing was working (the novice effect) and now its not, but that doesn’t mean it has stopped working or wasn’t an optimal training methodology, I just need to do more of it! Thus the volume increases, three on and one off becomes 6 on with an ‘active recovery’ day. Then more lifting/ technique work is added, all the toys are bought to aid recovery: foam rollers, lacrosse balls and compex or tens units. It can be hard to change your thinking when you have a recent memory of success, but everyone has to realise the power of the novice trainee period and once this is over a plateauing sets in, basic foundational strength work must become the paramount method of training. Once you have stopped progressing, only getting stronger structurally will help. Strength, without question, is the basis of the other physical skills, given that it allows an increase in force production. If force production doesn’t increase, how can speed, power or agility possibly increase? It can’t. How can technique work help you to PR your Grace time when technique is the first thing to be compromised when fatigue sets in, or time based tasks are introduced? Full range of motion is always compromised when striving for speed and when orthopaedic position is compromised due to fatigue or short cutting the movements, strength is all that will save you. Fact.

In addition to strength training being the thing that will overcome lack of athletic progress, working out must be banished to room 101 and replaced with training. If you aren’t sure what the difference is, its this: training has a defined end point and everything you do in the gym is working towards that end goal. Working out is something you do on a particular day for how it makes you feel. Its instantaneous…sweaty, nauseous, sore etc are all things that working out will give you that training wont, in addition to the fact that you aren’t really achieving anything beyond the aforementioned novice period. Stimulus must be repeated regularly enough to provide linear progression, but not often enough to decrease baseline strength by training whilst still recovering. You can't do heavy squats today and then 200 air squats tomorrow, cleans and thruster's the next day 150 wall balls and then expect that your type IIb muscle fibres (those responsible for strength, speed, power) will be recovered sufficiently in order for any type of progressive overload to occur. If you can, then either you are still a novice lifter or are using chemical assistance.

Training is difficult for many people who do sports such as CrossFit, because one of the main draws of these sports is lack of boredom. I guess you have to ask yourself if you would rather pay $250 a month to workout randomly and ensure every potential progression is non optimal, or if you would be okay to swap that out for a few months and focus on a real program that will provide real results. If the answer is the latter, then find someone to help you to develop a basic program based on the accumulation of experience (adaptation). Everytime you feel bored and want to throw a ‘wod’ in there, don’t do it! Bear in mind that getting better at anything is about exposure and random movements in random rep schemes in random time frames cannot possibly ever result in any significant measurable athletic improvement - once the novice effect has worn off.