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Categories: Fitness Motivation

How to Break a Weight Loss Plateau (Fast & Safely)

By Marc Perry / July 1, 2017

You are making awesome changes in your body when suddenly your progress grinds to a screeching halt. Those pounds of fat that were once falling off effortlessly are now clinging to your body for dear life.

No matter what you do, nothing is working. Maybe it’s been a week, or two, or even a few months, but your weight is not budging. You are ready to shrug your shoulders, throw your hands in the air and say “I quit”.

Why can’t you lose any more weight? What are some solutions to break through your stubborn weight loss plateau?

This article will delve into the dynamics of a weight loss plateau and offer you solutions to overcome it.

Weight Loss Plateau Vs. Fat Loss Plateau

A weight loss plateau is a period of time during which your body weight remains at the same level. So if your weight doesn’t change for 2 weeks, does that mean your results have stalled?

Absolutely not!

The phrase “weight loss” does not differentiate between changes in fat, muscle, and water.

The primary purpose of tracking your body weight is (1) for accountability and (2) as a proxy for measuring fat loss. When you get on the scale and the reading goes down 1lb, the hope is that 1lb represents pure fat – not muscle, or water.

If you are weighing yourself every day, or multiple times per day, you probably notice your weight can fluctuate substantially by 3-5lb. Most of this weight fluctuation is due to changes in water retention.

For example, if you eat a lot of sodium, carbohydrates, and drink little water, you will retain a ton of water, which will increase your body weight. If on the other hand you drink plenty of water, moderate carbs and low sodium and just finished an intense workout where you sweat buckets, your weight can decrease by several pounds. It may seem counterintuitive, but the more water your drink, the less you retain it.

The unpredictability of water retention is one reason to weigh yourself only once per week with Monday Morning Weigh-Ins, unless you find weigh ins every morning keeps you more accountable. Weighing yourself multiple times per day, or at different times each day is the fastest way to kill your confidence and mess with your head.

A weight loss plateau and more specifically a fat loss plateau should be defined as no change in body weight for 3 weeks. The first week may be because of water retention, along with the second week, but the third week indicates that maybe your body is not changing as you have hoped despite your best efforts.

Weight Loss Plateau Facts To Keep In Mind

Before delving into some solutions to help you break your weight loss plateau, here are some important facts that you should know:

1) Weight Loss Plateaus are VERY common

If you do not experience a weight loss plateau as you approach your ideal body weight, consider yourself very, very lucky. Weight loss plateaus are to be expected as you are losing weight. Our bodies are resistant to change. A large chunk of people who reach their ideal weight have experienced as many as 2-3 plateaus lasting several weeks. Remember that if changing our bodies was easy, then everyone would be walking around with a six-pack.

2) The More Weight You Lose, The More Weight Loss Slows

This comes down to simple mathematics. Take a guy Mike who is at 230lb and loses 1% of his body weight in fat per week (0.5%-1% is a solid pace of fat loss). Mike would then lose roughly 2.3lb of fat per week. Now if he gets down to 200lb, losing 1% of fat is now 2lb, or 15% less than 2.3lb. As Mike’s weight decreases further, less weight would be lost as a percentage of his total bodyweight so weight loss inherently slows down the leaner you become.

3) Losing Weight Becomes Harder The Closer You Get To Your Ideal Weight

Not only does the pace of weight loss slow down, but your body will work harder to hold on to your fat stores the leaner you become. We are left with a sobering fact – the ability to lose more fat decreases and it becomes even harder to do so. The most common plateaus I see for guys is first around 20-22% body fat, then around 12% body fat (for those guys looking to break into single digits).

3 Steps To Break Your Weight Loss Plateau

Now that you understand the difference between weight loss plateaus and fat loss plateaus along with the basic dynamics of weight loss, here are some tips to follow to help break through the toughest plateau.

Step #1: Re-evaluate Your Calorie Intake

As you lose weight, not only does it become harder to lose, but your metabolism decreases. Now don’t go searching for those “how to boost your metabolism” articles – your metabolism is supposed to decrease as you lose weight.

Going back to our friend Mike, if he continues the same workout regimen at 200lb as he did when he weighed 230lb, his metabolism will be roughly 15% lower at 200lb vs. 230lb. Why you ask? He has less body mass, which means his body does not require as much energy to support a smaller frame.

That’s why every 10-15lb you lose (if you have a lot of weight to lose), you can reevaluate your calorie intake to ensure you are eating less calories than you are burning. For more, check out How Many Calories Should You Eat to Lose Weight?

Step #2: Control the “Calorie Creep”

My estimate is 90% of all weight loss plateaus are related to “calorie creep”, or more generally, eating more calories than you think you are eating. Combined with a decrease in metabolism from weight loss, plateaus are almost a certainty.

The calorie creep can come from mindless eating, eating out at restaurants that serve huge portions, or simply condiments like dressings, spreads, and sauces. Maybe you don’t realize that small 100 calorie bag of “healthy” chips is really 400 calories because there are 4 servings in each bag. Alcohol also goes on the calorie creep list.

The best place to start is to track your food intake if you are not already doing so. There are many great reasons to keep a food journal, so tracking your nutrition intake (even for a few days) is possibly the smartest and most important step you take to improve your nutrition.

Step #3: Progress Your Body, Don’t Confuse it

While nutrition is likely the culprit for the stall in your weight, making sure you are progressing the intensity of your workouts can only help improve your results.

There is a lot of hype about “muscle confusion” because it’s an easy sell; most people want to be entertained with constantly changing workouts. In the extreme case, choosing a different workout every time you hit the gym is not confusing your body as much as you think, but it’s definitely curtailing your results. If you want to maintain the results you have, changing things up is awesome, but not if you want to maximize your results in a muscle building, or fat loss program.

Continuity in your exercise program is more important than switching things up all the time. Without continuity, you will not be able to track improvements and make the workouts harder, which is the goal. In our BuiltLean Programs, some workouts may change slightly from week to week, but the exercises and structure of the workouts are the same so that you can track changes in your strength and fitness levels.

What happens if I still can’t break my weight loss plateau?

The chances are very likely if you follow the preceding 3 steps, you will be able to break your plateau. Again, 90% of the time it’s a matter of not balancing calorie intake with calorie burn. But for those in the 10% category, here are some issues/solutions to consider:

1) Starvation Mode – The opposite of the calorie creep is not eating enough calories to help sustain your body. While your metabolism will not drop if you skip a meal, or even a few, it will drop with chronic calorie deprivation. If you are a 180lb guy eating less than 1,000 calories per day for let’s say 3 weeks, you can bet your bank account your metabolism will take a nose dive. There are a host of other negative issues with extreme starvation diets (lack of proper nutrients being one of them). If you are chronically in starvation mode, it’s advisable to up your calorie intake.

2) Calorie Cycling – If you are in starvation mode, or have just been dieting for more than a month, or two, your metabolism can and will likely slow down above and beyond the range if you were eating more calories. There is no scientific evidence supporting calorie cycling as a superior way to lose fat, but I must mention it given the large number of respected experts who support it. Furthermore, science is not exactly ahead of the curve. Alternating low calorie with high calorie days MAY prevent this starvation response from occurring (i.e. 3 days low, 1 day high). Strategically placed cheat meals may also be helpful.

3) Hormones – There is a vocal contingent of nutrition experts who describe a stall in fat loss not as a calorie in/out issue, but as a “defect in fat metabolism”. The total amount of calories burned and how those calories are burned (fat loss vs. muscle loss) can be affected by hormonal imbalances. What’s the solution? Unfortunately, a simple answer is not possible, other than to seek medical assistance and test your hormone levels such as adrenal, testosterone etc. If you are taking medications, you may want to check to see if that medication can prevent weight loss because some do.

As you continue on your journey to reach your ideal weight, keep in mind that changing your body is a marathon, not a sprint (See: body change vs. maintenance). The sooner you can appreciate this, the better off you will be in the short and long term.

I hope this was a helpful overview of the true dynamics of weight loss and how to break a stubborn weight loss plateau.

Have you ever experienced a weight loss plateau? What did you do to break it?

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105 Comments

  • jason says:

    This is where i am right now. i'll report back in 3 weeks to let you know if your steps helped.

  • Gabe says:

    @ Marc-I just wanted to follow up with an update. From the day after I posted my comments I utilized a mix of multiple tips from your article. I increased my water intake to a proper level. I re-evaluated my workout which I have to say was a little difficult cause I felt like it was adequate for my needs. I'm not working out for a longer period of time. It's just different. Also I took into account my caloric intake. I actually upped it by a few hundred calories with more protein and changed my consumption schedule throughout the day besides pre and post workout. As of this morning I've dropped 10.5 lbs. Which I know isn't typical for such a short period but after stale mating for such a long time I'm sure that weights just been waiting to come off. Thanks Marc!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Gabe - That's HUGE! Congrats!

  • Jessica says:

    Hi Marc,

    I am 22 years old. I weigh 50kg, and I am 162cm. My ideal weight goal is 45kg. I lost 4kg in the past 4 months, which isnt very much. I workout at the gym 5-7 times per week with moderate activity level. I use the treadmill, ellipitcal, and stair machine for 30min, and I do floor exercies for 30min to complete my day workout. I follow the food pyramid, and I eat three small meals per day. I eat a big meal for breakfast, moderate amount for luch, and a light dinner. I try not to eat past 6pm; otherwise, I will end up gaining weight. After reading your article, I can say I have reached my weight loss plateau. Do you have any suggestions?

    Thanks,

    Jessica

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Jessica - It sounds like you are already pretty lean, not sure how you figured out your "ideal" weight is 100lb (45kg). I have an article about ideal weight you can check out here: Ideal Body Weight Formula. Also, regarding not losing more weight, it's ultimately about calorie balance. If sounds like you are exercising a lot, but you may need to take your calories down lower from where they are right now. On average, people overestimate the calories they eat. Good luck!

  • Kristin says:

    HI Marc, article is a 5 for me. Quick question. I started at 272 pounds and I am now at 206, I have been stuck there for 3 weeks, I do weight watchers and I am at 30 points, we get an extra 49 points per week but I never use them. I work out 4 times a week, and keep to my points, I tried the calorie cycling but doesnt seem to shift anything. Am I eating too few calories or eating too much fat/ I eat nuts and mackeral and salmon so maybe I am eating too much of those? I let myself have a small chocolate treat 3 times a week and I only eat oatmeal, wheat free pasta and wholewheat pitta breads and brown rice. What can I do to get myself losing again?

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Kristin - As I told @donna, my guess is you are eating more calories than you think. In the cast majority of cases, taking down your calories lower will help you lose more weight as long as you continue working out, which can help you keep your metabolism humming. Eating fatty foods makes it quite difficult in my opinion to keep calories lower, but a handful of almonds can certainly work. Congrats on your success so far!

  • Kristin says:

    Oh and Marc, 30 weight watchers points are about 1200 calories

  • Donna says:

    Hi Marc!
    I am going to get right to the point. I was 258 pounds when i started my weight loss 3 yrs ago. I was 183 but gained 4 pounds back to 187. Lost this weight mainly from counting calories, averaging in the 1400's. I had started walking on my treadmill last September 2011 when 2 months later it crapped out on me. So for the last year i didnt have one to excersize on. I stuck to calorie counting just the same and continued to lose but at a slower pace. This September 2012 i was finally able to buy a new treadmill. I started walking again twice a day, 30 mins each, 5 days a week (Mon thru Fri). Id walk in the morning and then again in the evening. After the first 4-5 days of doing this, i gained 4 pounds. 3 weeks later it hadnt come off. I then cut back to 3 days a week only walking 30 mins instead, hoping that that would make the 4 pounds come back off. Im not seeing much of a result right now but i just started the 3 days a week program. I am 42 yrs old at 5' 5". My goal weight is 140. I am now 185 as of this morning. My fear with adding the walking along with counting calories, my body is now holding onto fat and fluid?? I eat anywhere from 1200 to 1500 calories, averaging in the 1400's. I dont know if i should wait it out and see what happens or change my routine somehow. Am i doing something wrong? I would appreciate any advice you can give me! Thanks so much :o)

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Donna - The chances are you are likely eating more calories than you think. There is a law of thermodynamics, where if you eat less calories than you burn, you lose weight. It's literally a law of nature. The problem is that sometimes the amount of calories you burn can drop a lot. I would consider doing circuit training in addition to the walking and be vigilant with your calories. Without any resistance training, your metabolism will likely slow down and you will lose muscle. Not a good situation!

  • Adam says:

    I was 230 Lbs and 6 months later im at 180. i would like to get to 160 but can not seem to break the 180. i go to the gym 4 days a week and I work in a warehouse lifting stuff all day. I ride my bike 3 days a week and always out doing something to get my heart rate up. Any helpful tips. I dont over eat and try to stick to a protein diet. ie low carb.

    Thanks,

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Adam - My best tip would be to add more precision to your nutrition regimen. This is how bodybuilders and athletes get very low body fat percentages. I wrote more about it here - How to Get Ripped.

  • jeannett says:

    Hey Mark - great article. I started my weight loss in March at 241 and 5'7.5" and am now down to 195. I started Couch to 5K running program then also and run 3 times a week (can now run 5 miles) and do strength training 2-3 times a week. I have hit a plateau at 195 for the past two month. I track my food. My macros are at 40/30/30 carbs/fat/protein and log my food diligently on myfitnesspal.com. I have been going by my TDEE at 2210 then taking off 500 calories as a deficit so my starting calories for the day is around 1710. I eat my exercise calories back because I've already taken into consideration that I'm at a deficit of 500/day anyway.

    Should I be eating more? I'm trying to lift heavier and I'm fitting a lot better into my clothes (from a 20W to a 12/14) but this plateau is frustrating me. Hope you can help!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Jeannett - In my opinion, I generally recommend eating less. Given you have some more fat to lose, going down to 1500, or even lower can do the trick. The idea is you don't want to be too hungry though. At the end of the day, as I've said many times in this thread, if you eat less calories than you burn, it's a law of nature that you will lose weight. The challenge for some people is the metabolism slows down as you eat less food and there are other reasons like medications etc. that may slow down metabolism, but generally speaking, consistently eating less calories should help you start losing weight again.

  • Lamiaa Rifaat Ismail says:

    I started my diet on the 16th of July 2016. l am eating lean protein and vegetables, l do not eat any sugar or rice or pastas or cakes or fat or oil or drink any feezy drinks, or juice. I lost 25kg in three months then I hit a plateau. I would to lose more kilos.

    • Kristin Rooke, CPT says:

      It sounds like you've done a lot of work to change your nutrition habits and eat healthier. That's awesome, so keep up the good work! As far as overcoming your plateau, if you're not currently exercising, I would recommend adding at least 3 full body strength workouts to your routine. Performing strength circuits is a highly effective way to maintain lean muscle while losing body fat. Give that a try! If you have more questions, feel free to reach out to support@builtlean.com and one of our elite BuiltLean coaches will be able to provide you with more individualized advice. Hope that helps!

      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

  • Jeffrey T2D says:

    I ran across this article today as I have hit a Stubborn stall. I am a T2D and follow Dr Bernstein's philosophy of eating. I also utilize Dr Jason Fung's intermittent fasting as I eat on a 17:7 time period. Many things in your article are just so wrong and so out-dated. For example, the CICO method (Calories In, Calories Out) which has been debunked time and time again, starting with Gary Taube's "Good Calories, Bad Calories" and "Why We Get Fat".
    In reading Dr Fung, the Diet Doctor and Dr Kraft, it appears the main culprit for a stall, or plateau, is the amount of insulin your body has floating around.
    What think ye about this?
    I think you should rewrite this post to bring it current with today's knowledge and science.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Hey Jeff, calories in calories out is still accurate and up to date. The quality of the calories AND how many calories both matter. The idea that calories don't matter is factually incorrect. If you have a study that shows participants not losing weight with a calorie deficit, please do share. Calorie deficit = weight loss.

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