Have you hit a weight loss plateau? It’s time to learn why, and what you can do about it.
Fat was practically falling off your body just a few weeks ago, and now you’re wondering if your scale is broken because no matter what you do, your weight won’t budge.
Why did your routine suddenly stop working, and what can you do to push through this weight loss plateau?
Understanding Weight Loss Vs. Fat Loss
“Weight loss” is a tricky little devil because it doesn’t differentiate between changes in fat, muscle, and water.
The goal, of course, is to lose maximum fat and minimum muscle, and to keep water retention at a healthy minimum. When you step on the scale and register a pound lighter than the day or week before, you probably assume that you’ve lost a pound of fat; if you weigh the same or more, you probably assume that you’ve lost no fat, or gained. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Nothing swings weight up or down as easily as water retention, for example. If you eat a lot of sodium and carbs, and drink little water, you will retain quite a bit of water, giving you that puffy, smooth look. This can easily add 3-5 pounds in a day, which can be quite disturbing if you happen to hit the scale in this state. On the flip side, you eat little sodium and carbs and drink plenty of water, your body will flush water out, giving you a harder, more defined look, which might lead you to think that it was a great day of fat loss.
The unpredictability of water retention is one reason why I only weigh myself once per week, on the same day, in the morning, naked. Weighing yourself multiple times per week, or worse, per day, will quickly kill your confidence and mess with your head.
I also recommend that you choose a “weigh day” that doesn’t contain a cheat meal, as this can often add a pound or two of water that will come out by the end of the following day (my experience, at least).
What is a True Weight Loss Plateau?
A true weight loss plateau is a situation where you’re no longer losing fat.
I consider that I’ve hit a plateau if my weight hasn’t changed in two weeks. As I’m only going for one pound of actual fat loss per week, no change on the scale after one week of dieting isn’t necessarily a reason for concern-I could’ve lost that pound of fat but happen to be retaining a bit of water, or maybe my bowel movements weren’t as regular in the prior day or two. No change in weight after two weeks of dieting tells me that I’m definitely stuck.
Some Fat-Loss Facts to Keep in Mind
Before I cover how to break these plateaus, I want you to know a few things about losing fat.
1. Weight Loss Plateaus Are to Be Expected
Just about everyone experiences weight loss plateaus. If you have no idea what I’m talking about and are able to reach single-digit body fat percentages with complete ease, count yourself lucky. It’s very common for people to hit several plateaus on their journeys to a six pack because, well, the human body is just stubborn when it comes to shedding fat.
I’ve found that I can’t get below 9-10% body fat on diet alone (you can only reduce your calories so much, or you begin to eat up muscle)-I have to add in cardio if I want to continue losing. When I bulk, I usually end off around 14-15% body fat, and I can diet off the first 5% or so, but then I hit a plateau that only 3-4 days per week of cardio can cure (20-25 minutes per session). Then, the next plateau for me comes around 8%. If I want to go lower, I have to up my cardio to 4 days per week, for 30-40 minutes per session.
Everyone I’ve trained and otherwise helped has experienced the same phenomenon, but the thresholds vary. I’ve known a few rare people that can diet lower than 10% without adding cardio, but most people can’t break double-digit body fat percentages without a very strict diet and regular cardio routine.
2. The More You Lose, the Harder It Gets
The leaner you become, the longer it takes to lose fat healthily (the key, as you want to preserve as much muscle and strength as possible while losing fat). If you’re at 25% body fat, it’s very possible to lose 2-3 pounds of fat per week for the first several weeks. If you’re at 10% body fat and are making a run for single digits, however, 2-3 pounds of fat per week would be impossible without dangerous drugs.
For me, once I get below 12% or so, I’m very happy to see just one pound of fat loss per week, and I have to work for it.
3. Your Body Has a “Comfort Zone”
Although it might sound a bit broscientific, it’s the best way I can describe a phenomenon experienced by me and millions of other athletes around the world. The body seems to have a weight (and, accordingly, a body fat percentage) that it is most comfortable at. Your natural appetite tends to maintain this weight and if you eat less than this, you feel hungry. If you eat more than this, you feel quite full.
For some, this “comfort zone” is relatively fat, while others settle into a weight that is quite lean. For me, for example, I find that my body is most comfortable around 11% body fat (which would currently put me at about 200 lbs). I don’t have to watch my calories too closely and I can cheat several times per week, and I’ll just stay around 11%.
Now, maintaining a weight under this comfort zone requires constant work in the form of restricting calories and doing cardio. Getting fatter than this requires regular overeating, and if this continues for too long, the comfort zone creeps higher and higher.
5 Ways to Break Your Weight Loss Plateaus
Alright, now that you know the difference between weight loss plateaus and fat loss plateaus, here are three surefire ways to stoke your body’s furnace again to keep the fat coming off.
1. Re-Calculate Your Daily Caloric Target
Your metabolism slows down as you lose weight because your body doesn’t need to exert as much energy to maintain its now-slimmer physique.
If you don’t adjust your calories to account for this, you may hit a plateau. The easy way to avoid this is to re-calculate your daily caloric target after every 15 pounds of weight loss. As you’ll see, the target creeps lower and lower.
There are many formulas out there for determining how much you should eat to lose weight, but here’s a simple one based on the Katch McArdle:
1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight
1 gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight
1 gram of fat per 5 pounds of body weight
That simple macronutrient formula will put you in a moderate caloric deficit and allow for steady, healthy weight loss. To turn it into calories, simply multiply the protein and carbs by 4, and the fats by 9.
2. Control the “Hidden Calories”
Most weight loss plateaus are caused by nothing more than “calorie creep”-that is, eating more calories than you think. This, combined with an ever-slowing metabolism, is a guaranteed formula for stagnation.
Calories can creep in from many places. Purposeless snacking, eating out at restaurants (they load calories into meals with butter, oil, sauces, etc.), overdoing it with condiments, and drinking alcohol are all common ways to add enough calories to stall your weight loss without making you feel like you’re completely “off your diet.”
The sad truth is a mere 200-300 calories too many per day can completely halt fat loss. To put this into perspective, that’s only a couple handfuls of nuts, a few tablespoons of fatty salad dressing, or a small bag of chips. Yup, fat loss is that finicky. It’s not very complicated, but it requires absolute precision.
So, to overcome the “calorie creep,” you simply have to know exactly what’s going into your body every day. You can keep a food journal, or you can do what I do: calculate what you need each day, break it down into daily meals, and eat the same thing every day, every meal. I don’t have the time or patience to work a bunch of variety into my diet, so I embrace the simplicity of choosing nutritious foods that I like, and eating them over and over.
3. Increase Your Cardio
If you know that your daily caloric target is good and you have absolutely no calorie creep, then you should increase your cardio.
You can add another day if possible (I don’t recommend more than 4 days per week if you’re also weight training), or add time to each day (I like to add 10 minutes to each session and see how my body responds).
The idea is to just tip the scales a little bit more in the direction of fat loss and observe the results. If the first round of extra cardio doesn’t do it, add more (another 10 minutes to each session, for instance), and you’ll get there.
Oh and do HIIT cardio, please.
4. Embrace the Cheat Meal
Yup, believe it or not, the cheat meal actually helps you lose fat.
Well, first there’s the psychological boost, which keeps you happy and motivated, which ultimately makes sticking to your diet easier.
But there’s also a physiological boost.
Studies on overfeeding (the scientific term for binging on food) show that doing so can boost your metabolic rate by anywhere from 3-10%. While this sounds good, it actually doesn’t mean much when you consider that you would need to eat a anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand extra calories in a day to achieve this effect.
More important are the effects cheating has on a hormone called leptin, which regulates hunger, your metabolic rate, appetite, motivation, and libido, as well as serving other functions in your body.
When you’re in a caloric deficit and lose body fat, your leptin levels drop. This, in turn, causes your metabolic rate to slow down, your appetite to increase, your motivation to wane, and your mood to sour.
On the other hand, when you give your body more energy (calories) than it needs, leptin levels are boosted, which can then have positive effects on fat oxidation, thyroid activity, mood, and even testosterone levels.
So if it’s an increase in leptin levels that you really want, how do you best achieve it?
Eating carbohydrates is the most effective way. Second to that is eating protein (high-protein meals also raise your metabolic rate). Dietary fats aren’t very effective at increasing leptin levels, and alcohol actually inhibits it.
So, if your weight is stuck and you’re irritable and demotivated, a nice kick of leptin might be all you need to get the scales moving again.
Have a nice cheat meal full of protein and carbs, and enjoy the boost in your leptin levels. It can help your weight loss!