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Asking yourself “How do I get out of a weight loss plateau?” Try these ten tricks to jumpstart your fat loss and get back on track.
The weight loss plateau.
It happens to everyone, regardless of their level of physical fitness or trainingexperience. For weeks or even months, the fat and pounds just seem to be melting off. You’re riding high and seeing the fruits of your labor. Maybe you’ve lost a couple inches in your waist or dropped a dress size or two. The gym doesn’t seem like such a chore anymore. Life is good.
And then suddenly, everything stops.
The scale is no longer your friend, but instead transforms itself into a daily source of frustration.
As far as you can tell, nothing has changed. You’ve still been eating healthy, exercising frequently (maybe even following your regular routine to the “T”) and keeping your portions under control. Yet something has changed: You’ve stopped progressing. And it’s driving you crazy. Even worse, it’s de-motivating you.
Welcome to the dreaded plateau: The bane of everyone from athletes, to fitness models to average people who are just trying to lose their gut, get ready for a holiday cruise or fit into that pair of skinny jeans.
The plateau doesn’t discriminate: Everyone has to deal with it eventually, and it doesn’t just apply to weight loss, but all kinds of other things, including how much you can lift during resistance or weight training, the amount of muscle you are able to add to your frame — or if you are a runner or biker — your distance or speed.
And what makes the plateau particularly vexing is that it usually hits when you when you feel most unstoppable.
Weight Loss Plateaus: What’s the Cause?
Weight loss plateaus are typically caused by one of two things (and sometimes, a combination of the two):
- A metabolic adaptation to your current diet and exercise regimen
- Accumulated changes in your existing exercise and eating routine that are causing you to eat more or burn less calories with exercise, even though you aren’t aware of it.
Let’s take a look a each of these causes in detail.
Metabolic Adaptation: It’s in Your Genes and It Wants You To Stay the Same!
So what is this metabolic adaptation all about?
All biological systems have a preference for “equilibrium.” In biology, this is called “homeostasis.” Homeostasis is really just a fancy scientific word that describes the body’s preference for “staying the same.”
Like most people, the body doesn’t really want to change, and once it’s figured out that it has “changed”, it doesn’t want to do any more of it. It prefers to keep everything nice, even and the same. This is more efficient — and in the case of things like your blood pressure, breathing and heart rate (which are also subject to homeostasis) — safer.
There are some very good evolutionary reasons for the body to not want to change.
Change, first of all, takes energy … and the body wants to conserve energy, not expend it. It likes to stock up that energy (in the form of body fat from excess calories) for a rainy day — or more specifically, for a famine (which was very common throughout human history.)
For a while it will let that stored energy be burned for fuel, but eventually it gets “skeptical” and then decides that maybe you don’t really need to be burning all that fuel after all and it starts to conserve it.
The result is that the body releases signals to slow down your metabolism (or the rate at which energy or calories are consumed) and you find yourself standing on the scale and not getting the same results you were before.
But that’s your body’s adaptation to your condition and environment.
Remember, if you are consuming less calories than you need to maintain your weight (which is a state of homeostasis), your body will eventually figure this out and determine that something is out-of-whack. Its response is to trigger a complex cascade of chemical processes intended to blunt further weight loss, since if that weight loss continues unchecked, you’ll eventually wither away and die. Understand that the body always puts self-preservation first. It will do anything and everything in its power to not let you die from starvation — including slowing the rate at which you burn your reserve energy stores (body fat.)
In other words, you can fool your body some of the time, but you can’t fool it all of the time — and rarely can you fool it for long periods of time. And when it catches you (and it always does eventually), you’ll run smack dab into homeostasis … and a plateau.
Diet and Exercise-Induced Weight Loss Plateaus
The other type of plateau is caused by small changes to your diet and exercise routine that accumulate naturally over time. For example, it’s not unusual for even the most disciplined trainees to begin to over-estimate portions or believe that they are exercising at an intensity that is higher than what they actually are.
What this means is that over a period of weeks or months, you may be consuming more calories than you are actually burning, and burning fewer calories with exercise than is required to offset this. Either of these factors alone can cause fat and weight-loss to ground to a halt, but when you combine them, it can cause a “double-whammy.”
Consider, for example, if you were eating 100 calories more each day than your target for fat loss, and exercising at a level that burned 100 calories less during each session (assuming a three day training schedule). Over seven days, that’s an additional 1000 calories in excess of your goal, which over a month would add up to about 1 lb of body fat. This is how plateaus get built.
A Real World Example of a Weight Loss Plateau
So let’s try to make this concept of “homeostasis” and weight loss plateaus real and concrete for everyone.
Meet ”Sarah.” Sarah currently eats a 2300 calorie diet, despite only needing 2000 calories to maintain her weight (that’s her point of “homeostasis” or equilibrium.) As part of a fat loss diet plan, Sarah drops her calorie intake to 1500 calories a day. Within a week, she’s lost a pound of fat.
Sarah’s body is confused. It says to itself that “I normally eat 2300 calories … this must be a temporary situation.” So it starts to let long-term energy stores in the form of body fat be “released” for energy until this ”temporary” condition is fixed and Sarah resumes eating 2000 calories.
So for a few weeks, Sarah keeps watching her body fat percentages drop as the brain tells her body to give up this stored energy. But then it starts to figure out that this is the “norm” and it pulls back on tapping body fat for energy. It will still burn fat as fuel, but not as much. Since Sarah is still eating less energy than you burn, she doesn’t necessarily add body fat, but she may stop losing it.
Is It Really A Plateau? Understanding Scale Weight Versus Body Fat Percentage
There are some instances where you might believe you’ve hit a plateau, when you actually haven’t. It’s important recognize these situations before you start reacting to a perceived weight loss plateau.
It’s not unusual for people to see scale weight remain stable or actually go up, despite becoming leaner. This is especially common when a person first starts training with resistance or weights, since they’ll typically put on some additional muscle (sometimes faster than they are able to initially strip off body fat) as a result of their new routine.
In these cases, you’ll see your scale weight stay the same even though you are working your butt off in the gym, or in some cases, you’ll be horrified to watch it go up.
Remember, at the end of the day, your goal shouldn’t be to become lighter, but leaner. Leaner means that you’ve increased your ratio of lean tissue (muscle) to body fat. So even if you didn’t lose a single pound of body fat, but gained five lbs of muscle, you would still be considered “leaner” than when you started. This is because as a total percentage of your body mass, your fat percentage has gone down.
It’s very important to understand this concept, because you don’t want to jump to the conclusion that you’ve hit a weight loss plateau, when you’re actually progressing just fine. In fact, this is actually an ideal situation to be in. If you are, keep doing what you’re doing.
How To Get Past a Weight Loss Plateau: Ten Proven Plateau Busters
So let’s assume you really have hit a weight plateau. How do you get past it?
Plateau Buster #1: Start Monitoring Body Fat, Not Just Scale Weight
Remember, it’s not really about weight loss, but fat loss. The key to recognizing true fat loss plateaus is to carefully track both scale weight and body fat percentages.
Start measuring and tracking body fat percentages, as well as weight, and monitor the change in muscle to body fat ratios, not just scale weight. A pair of Accu-Measure Body Fat Calipers are very inexpensive (under $10) and once you get the hang of them, easy to use at home. Take your body fat percentage measurements every two weeks. As long as your body fat percentage is decreasing, you can be pretty sure that you haven’t hit a weight loss plateau.
If you haven’t lost any additional body fat in 2-3 weeks, then try one of the other weight loss plateau busters below.
Plateau Buster #2: Recalculate Your Calorie Requirements
If you haven’t recalculated your calorie requirements recently, do it.
As people lose weight or fat or gain muscle, their daily calorie needs changes as well. This is especially important if you’ve lost a significant amount of body fat or weight since the last time you did this calculation. As your weight decreases, so can your daily calorie requirements. This could mean that you’re eating more food than you need for your new weight. This can lead to your fat and weight loss progress stalling.
Likewise, if you’ve added substantial muscle since your last calorie requirement calculation, you might actually be under-eating, which can cause you to lose hard-earned muscle.
In either case, it’s a good practice to recalculate your calorie requirements at least once a month (and try to use a formula that calculates those requirements based on lean body mass, not total body mass.) Use this new number to adjust your daily calorie intake based on your goals. If you continue to experience a plateau, keep reading.
Plateau Buster #3 Get Scientific With Your Diet
Whenever someone says they’ve hit a “weight loss plateau”, one of the first things I suggest is to take a very close look at diet and portions.
We’re a Super-Size-Me nation and it’s hard for even the most disciplined person to get a true sense of portions — and more importantly — to sustain this over the long haul. You may think your diet and portions are the same as two months ago when you were shedding body fat like crazy, but is this really the case now? If your sense of servings has gradually increased, the extra calories will add up … and that can mean you will lose body fat more slowly.
So get really meticulous about your diet for a few weeks. Here’s how you do that:
- Sign up for one of the free food, calorie and exercise tracking websites like The Daily Plate.com; Fitday, DietTV, Calorie King or Spark People.
- Buy an inexpensive Digital Food Scale, and for two weeks, weigh out all of your food portions so you can accurately see what you are actually consuming each meal in calories. Enter this information in the food tracking tool.
- Adjust your portions and eating habits based on what you are learning from your food log
This generally won’t need to be a permanent practice (although I know plenty of athletes, fitness models and serious fitness junkies who do — myself included); it’s really just intended to help you get a bead on your actual food consumption to determine whether you are actually eating more than you thought, and thus not losing body fat or weight.
After tracking your calories for a few weeks, you may discover that you are eating more food than you should for a fat-loss or weight-loss goal. If this is the case, adjust your calories down to bring it in-line with your goal. If it turns out you are eating exactly what you should be, but not losing fat, then go on to the next tactic.
Plateau Buster #4: Check Your Exercise Routine and Activity Levels
Just like your diet, your exercise and activity habits can degrade as well. Intensity can drop, you get pressed for time and start cutting your workouts short; it gets cold outside and you become a little less active. Over time, these reductions in activity can start to chip away at how many calories you are actually burning each day.
Even a reduction of 50-100 extra calories burned from activity can have long term fat-loss and weight loss consequences. Over a period of 30 days, ending the day up 50 calories from working out with less duration or intensity can result in a gain of a half-pound of fat in a month.
The trick here is to use the same approach to your exercise and activity that we discussed earlier around diet. Track your activity and exercise by:
- Carefully recording your weight and resistance training exercise, as well cardio, using an exercise log
- Consider an pedometer or digital pedometer like the FitBit or Bodybugg to keep better track of your actual activity levels across the day
- Transfer this data into your food and exercise tracking website (i.e. The Daily Plate, Fitday, etc.)
- Check to see if you are still coming in at or around your goal targets for fat/weight loss.
While keeping track of your exercise and daily activity is a best practice that I’d always recommend doing every day, if this is a bit too meticulous for your tastes, just do it for 2 weeks as a reality check and recalibrate your exercise routines based on what you find.
Plateau Buster #5: Change Up Your Cardio Exercise and Intensity
Changing up the type of cardio you are performing can also help break through a weight loss plateau.
If you’ve been used to performing longer-duration, distance or solid-state cardio, you may want to consider changing your routine to include shorter-duration,higher-intensity interval training, or HIIT. HIIT can help jump start your metabolism, increase fat loss while discouraging lean tissue catabolism and even improve your overall Vo2Max.
On the other hand, if you’re already a hit devotee, try switching out some of your HIIT training for lower-intensity, longer-duration cardio, which also has it’s benefits.
Also, changing the type of cardio exercise you perform can also jump start fat loss and help break a plateau. For instance, if you typically run, try switching to biking, swimming or even inline skating, which emphasizes different muscles and can help break a plateau. Or, if you are used to certain cardio equipment at the gym, try some new machines for a change, including rowing machines, stair steppers or elliptical instead of the usual treadmill or stationary bike.
Plateau Buster #6: Add In Resistance/Weight Training
If you’re not already performing regular weight or resistance training, you’re missing the boat.
Simply adding in 2-3 days of resistance or weight training in addition to your regular cardio training can not only help break a fat loss plateau, but it will also add muscle, which is metabolically more active than body fat. Over time, this can help you burn more calories (even while at rest) and keep your body fat levels in check.
It also has a wide range of proven health benefits, including improved bone density, reduced risk of injury as you age, and improved insulin sensitivity. Not to mention you’ll look leaner and feel stronger.
Plateau Buster #7: Kick Start Your Metabolism: Eat More
Okay, now that we’ve basically knocked all of the non-adaptive causes of a weight loss plateau, let’s get down to business on fixing what we call the “adaptive” or “metabolic” causes of fat and weight loss plateaus.
The first tactic is to eat more.
Yes, that’s right, if you’ve stopped losing body fat, then I want you to eat more. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but remember that the body wants equilibrium. If all the things in your diet and exercise routine have truly remained the same, the reason your fat loss has stalled is that your body doesn’t want you to lose any more fat.
So it’s time to throw the body a curve ball and let it know it’s okay to tap into those fat reserves.
The way you do this is by eating more calories for a short period of time. We’re not talking about huge amounts of additional food consumed over days or weeks. Instead, gradually increase your calories to a level that is just above your maintenance level (by 100-150 calories) for approximately 1-2 weeks. Take body fat measurements and weigh yourself and see if you’ve lost any additional body fat.
To illustrate this, let’s go back to the real world example of “Sarah” that we talked about earlier.
Sarah’s been eating a 1500 calorie a day diet, which has been resulting in about a pound of fat lost per week. However, she’s stalled. So for a week, Sarah increases her food intake to 2100 calories a day. Remember, her maintenance calorie level (the amount of food she needs to eat just to maintain her current weight) is 2000. So she’s taken her food intake into the surplus range by about 100 calories a day.
Even though Sarah is eating slightly more food than her body needs, she’s surprised when she steps on the scale and takes body fat measurements that she’s actually lost some weight, despite eating more food.
Amazing? Well, yeah, sort of. Except once you think back to the whole homeostasis things, it starts making sense. Keep the body guessing, and it won’t be able to stay in plateau mode for long.
Plateau Buster # 8: Eat More Frequently
If you are still stuck on the idea that you should eat three “square meals” a day, you might want to reconsider the traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner eating schedule.
People who eat smaller, more frequent meals every 2-3 hours have less propensity to over-eat, and they typically use their calories more efficiently as energy and for muscle recovery, versus storing the excess as body fat. Consider spreading your meals out over the day to see if it helps shock your system out of a plateau.
Plateau Buster # 9: Cycle Your Calories
Calorie-cycling is a method of eating that alternates higher-calorie days with lower-calorie days in order to keep the body guessing and prevent weight loss plateaus from developing in the first place. This type of calorie-cycling is also known as “zig-zagging” or “calorie periodization.”
Calorie-cycling works because on average across the week you’ll come in at an energy deficit that is adequate to produce the fat-loss you are looking for. For example, if you need to create a weekly calorie deficit of 3500 calories to lose one pound of fat a week, you’ll spread that out unequally across seven days.
Let’s say you are on a 2000 calorie diet (this is how many calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight). Here’s what your calories might look like day-to-day on a calorie periodization or zig-zag program:
- Monday: 1800 calories
- Tuesday: 1500 calories
- Wednesday: 2000 calories
- Thursday: 1300 calories
- Friday: 1700 calories
- Saturday: 1600 calories
- Sunday: 2000 calories
This equals a 2100 calorie deficit for the week. We’re still short 1400 calories, so rather than taking these out of food, we’ll increase our exercise to burn an additional 200 calories a day.
You get the idea. Sometimes it’s not even necessary to make large swings in calories — small adjustments in the 100-200 calorie range up or down are often sufficient to keep the body guessing and you out of a weight loss plateau.
Plateau Buster #10: Change Your Macro-Nutrient Ratios
Sometimes breaking a weight loss plateau is as easy as changing your daily macro-nutrient ratios (protein, fats and carbs.)
Some people, for instance, find that they lose more body fat with a higher protein, higher (healthy) fat diet that is lower in carbohydrates, while others seem to do fine with a higher-carbohydrate, moderate protein and lower-fat eating plan.
Each person’s body can respond differently to macro-nutrients, so when you’re butting up against a weight loss plateau, shifting around your ratios of fats, carbs and proteins can sometimes be helpful.
Also, you can experiment with how you time the consumption of the those macro-nutrients (for example, limiting non-fiberous carbs in the evening.) Again, the key here is to carefully track your food and nutrients daily, so that when you start to see that body fat drop again, you know what worked.
Coping With Weight Loss Plateaus Long-Term: Check Your Head
Whether this is your first weight or fat loss plateau, or your fifteenth, you can expect to run into more of them in the future – especially as you get closer to your body’s “ideal” weight. The leaner you get, the more your body wants to hold on to those last few body fat energy reserves, so pulling off those final few pounds of body fat can be challenging even for highly fit people.
The key here is to not let yourself become too obsessed. You are probably your own worst critic, and at some point the difference between having 9 percent body fat and 11 percent just isn’t worth the mental anguish, unless of course you are involved in competitive bodybuilding or figure or fitness modeling. Even then, maintaining very low body fat levels for extended periods of time is extremely difficult.
At some point, you’ll want to reach a fat-loss plateau, because to loose additional body fat or weight would be unhealthy. When you get close to that point, check your head and go into maintenance mode and congratulate yourself for a job well done.