Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Fit for Duty: January 2014

Sherry Dean   

Features Fitness Health and Wellness

Have you ever felt like you are never going to be able to reach that next level?

Have you ever felt like you are never going to be able to reach that next level? It may be a target number of pushups, a higher weight for squats, or a longer or faster run. No matter what your goal, it may be easier to achieve than you think. Sometimes pushing past a plateau is a matter of taking a different approach to your workout or using a different method. Let’s take a look at a few options for better success.

Change it up
Whether you are aware of it or not, your brain will always try to find the least strenuous way to achieve work. You have to learn to be smarter than your body.

One way to achieve this is to change the way you challenge yourself. As creatures of habit, we often follow the same routines when it comes to our workouts. Constantly grouping the same body parts together, performing the same exercises and executing the same number of repetitions or the same weight every workout can make it easier to work with less effort. 

  • Link different muscle groups. For instance, if you work pushing muscles together, such as chest and triceps, attempt a push/pull group, such as chest and back, instead.
  • Attempt a full-body workout rather than splitting your muscle groups.
  • Completely change your exercises. If you have been squatting for a long time, try lunges or split squats.
  • Alter the number of repetitions from eight to 12 to 15 to 20 (or higher). You will likely have to reduce your weight, but you will work harder as your body adapts to the endurance.
  • Adjust your type of lifting. Dumbbells can be exchanged for barbells, put your hands close together instead of wide apart on a bar, or use an underhand grip instead of an overhand one.

I don’t want to imply that you should change your workout for the sake of change. If you are happy with your results or they suit your lifestyle or goal, then keep doing what you are doing. Often times we get bored, we change our goals or we are at a standstill for extended periods. These are all good reasons to throw something new into your routine. Simply changing your mindset, actively working harder and pushing yourself mentally can help to increase your intensity and results.


Find a partner
Competition and support are great for results. Find someone to help with a forced rep or someone to encourage you to work harder and not give up. Partnerships can be a huge motivator. I’m certainly guilty of being competitive and love the edge that comes with trying to be as good as or better than my partner. It works both ways: remember to be equally motivating for your workmates.

Negative reps
This technique uses the stretch phase of your movement to push your body beyond its capability. The majority of our effort is often during the squeeze phase of our movements. For example, during a pushup the concentric – or squeeze – effort occurs when we raise our body from the floor to arm’s length. When you find yourself unable to complete the next pushup, cheat a little to get up from the floor and then resist the negative, eccentric (stretch) contraction, lowering your body back down to the ground. Repeat it a few times. Your pectorals, delts and triceps should feel the workload because they are already fatigued. You are pushing your muscles beyond the usual workload and should benefit from the extra effort. You will find that this technique will affect subsequent exercises in your routine.

Quality over quantity
I know you have seen the folks in your gym who cheat or whose form is incorrect. There is a time to cheat a rep or use momentum to push through, but I’m talking about bad form leading to bad results. Alter your movements, ensure full range of motion and link your brain to your activity. Mentally picturing your muscle moving through an exercise increases the muscle activity. This could be an easy fix to increase intensity.

Get some rest
Rest and recovery are imperative. Over-training and not listening to what your body is saying can lead to lasting injury and demotivation. I’m not aware of the magic alternative to a good night’s sleep, but resting to repair the cells you have worked hard to break down has a big impact on being able to keep working hard without injury.

Take a day or a few days off every once in a while if you find you are too sore. Don’t feel guilty about it, especially if you work hard regularly. There is a tendency for people to think missing a workout sets you back. Missing many workouts sets you back, but not one or two. Let your body fully recover every once in a while and you may be very surprised at your next workout.

All in all, there are a number of ways you can improve the quality and results of your workouts; these are only a few of them. I welcome your feedback and would love to hear how you get past your plateaus. Work hard and stay safe.

Sherry Dean is a career firefighter/engineer with Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency Service. She is an NFPA level 1 instructor with hazmat technician and special rescue certifications. Sherry has more than 20 years of experience in fitness and training including the Scott FireFit Challenge, competitive bodybuilding, team sports and personal training. Contact her at

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