Breaking Through: Getting Past a Cardio Plateau

by Stephanie Sharpe

Traditional cardiovascular exercise has given way to more “entertaining” methods for keeping participants interested and engaged.  Where once the daily morning run was the norm, a variety of machines (steppers, ellipticals…) and high level aerobic classes have provided options to workout enthusiasts to keep their fitness programs on track.  But even the new traditional cardiovascular options have become routine to the point of boredom for some, or the rut of the same class or routine has resulted in a diminished sense of accomplishment in the gym.


Though not new, two alternatives can reinvigorate a workout and even assist in bumping you up to a new level of exercise intensity and health. As indicated by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), for trainers, “If the goal is to help clients improve stamina and muscular endurance, then overloading is necessary. The body must be presented with a workload that challenges its current fitness state.”



High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a type of exercise that includes brief bursts of vigorous activity followed by a period of rest or low-intensity exercise. HIIT is an effective alternative to traditional endurance training with similar or even superior physiological, performance, and health-related changes (Gibala, Little, MacDonald, & Hawley, 2012). The time commitment necessary for HIIT is much less than moderate-intensity continuous training which is important since lack of time is a big factor for many individuals. No boredom factor should come into play with this type of training because of the wide variety of exercises that can be incorporated into each cycle. Do a simple Google search for “HIIT” and you’ll get a lot of great resources for getting starting.



Weight training does not have to mean dumbbells and heavy lifting. Running a circuit of weight resistance machines (or in combination with other cardio exercises) can provide an excellent cardiovascular workout.  Circuit training is becoming more popular because of its efficiency and practicality. Circuit training consists of a series of exercises that are performed one after the other with little rest between each exercise (Clark, Sutton, & Lucett, 2014). The circuit usually consists of a combination of aerobic and resistance training. One complete circuit may take five or more minutes and repeated 2-3 times depending on time restraints (Klika and Jordan, 2013). Body weight can be used as resistance, enabling circuit training to be done virtually anywhere.


Both HIIT and circuit/weight training can be applied to multiple populations because they can be so easily adapted to fit each individual based on his or her needs.

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Stage Training

Stage training is a way to ensure that cardiorespiratory training progresses in an organized way to maintain continual adaption as well as reducing the risk of injury or overtraining (Clark, Sutton, & Lucett, 2014). Stage training can be used in HIIT and circuit training routines.


Stage I is “entry level” where anyone new to these types of routines should develop “a baseline level of aerobic fitness” to both determine the platform from which training can be increased and to avoid exhaustion. A safe intensity level is 65% to 75% of the maximum heart rate for healthy adults.  Start slowly, eventually working up to 30 to 60 minutes of continuous aerobic exercise.  As you get more and more comfortable with the exercise routine, gradually increase the intensity of the workout. According to NASM, “Clients who can maintain a stage I intensity for at least 30 minutes two to three times per week will be ready for more intense cardiorespiratory exercise such as interval training.”


It is important to build a strong base in Stage I before starting Stage II to ensure your cardiorespiratory system is ready for more intensive work.  However, as utilizing a “staged” fitness routine requires knowledge about achieving levels of fitness to ensure higher levels (Stage II and Stage III), we won’t go further into explanation.  Breaking through plateaus at a high level of fitness requires more than a 700 word article to explain. Find a good personal trainer or do your homework online!

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