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