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5 Ways to Break Through Weight Loss Plateaus
Have you hit the weight loss plateau? It’s time to learn why, and what you can do about it.
Just a few weeks ago your body fat was practically falling off, and now you’re wondering if your scale is broken because no matter what you do, you just won’t lose weight.
Why did your routine suddenly stop working, and what can you do to push this weight loss plateau?
Understanding weight loss vs. Fat loss
“Weight loss” is a tricky little devil because it doesn’t distinguish between changes in fat, muscle, and water.
The goal, of course, is to lose maximum fat and minimum muscle, and keep water retention to a healthy minimum. When you step on the scale and register a pound lighter over the day or week, you probably assume you’ve lost a pound of fat; If you weigh the same or more, you can probably assume you haven’t lost, or gained, any fat. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
For example, nothing causes weight gain or loss as much as water retention. If you eat too much sodium and carbs, and drink too little water, you’ll retain more water, giving you that puffy, greasy look. This can easily add 3-5 pounds a day, which can be very disturbing if you hit the scale in this state. On the flip side, as you eat less sodium and carbs and drink plenty of water, your body will expel water, giving you a tighter, more defined look, which may make you think it was a big fat loss day.
The unpredictability of water retention is one reason I only weigh myself once a week, on the same day, in the morning, naked. Weighing yourself several 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 include a cheat meal, as this can often add a pound or two of water that will come off at the end of the next day (in my experience, at least).
What is a true weight loss plateau?
A true weight loss plateau is a situation where you are no longer losing fat.
If my weight doesn’t change in two weeks I think I’ve hit a plateau. I’m only going to lose one pound of actual fat per week, no change in the scale after a week of dieting is necessarily a cause for concern – I may lose that pound of fat but keep it off. A little watery, or maybe my bowel movements weren’t regular the previous day or two. No change in weight after two weeks of dieting tells me I’m definitely stuck.
A few fat-loss facts to keep in mind
Before I cover how to break through these plateaus, I want you to know a few things about fat loss.
1. Weight loss plateaus are expected
Almost everyone experiences weight loss plateaus. If you have no idea what I’m talking about and are able to reach a single-digit body fat percentage with absolute ease, consider yourself lucky. It’s common for people to hit several plateaus on their six pack journey because, the human body is just stubborn when it comes to fat loss.
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 start eating muscle) – I have to add cardio if I want to keep losing. When I bulk, I usually end up at 14-15% body fat, and I can diet for the first 5% or so, but then I hit a plateau of only doing cardio 3-4 days per week (20- 25 minutes per session). Then, another plateau for me comes around 8%. If I want to go down, I need to increase my cardio to 4 days per week, 30-40 minutes per session.
Everyone I’ve coached and otherwise helped has experienced the same phenomenon, but the thresholds are different. I’ve known a few rare people who can diet below 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 is
The leaner you become, the longer it takes to lose fat healthily (key, you want to preserve as much muscle and strength as possible while losing fat). If you are at 25% body fat, it is very possible to lose 2-3 pounds of fat per week for the first week. If you’re at 10% body fat and racing for a point, however, losing 2-3 pounds of fat per week without dangerous drugs will be impossible.
For me, once I get down to 12% or so, I’m very happy to see a pound of fat loss per week, and I have to work for it.
3. Your body has a “comfort zone.”
While this may sound a bit broscientific, it’s the best way to describe a phenomenon that I and millions of other players around the world have experienced. The body weight (and accordingly, body fat percentage) seems to be at which it is most comfortable. Your natural appetite maintains this weight and if you eat less than this, you feel hungry. If you eat more than this, you feel very full.
For some, this “comfort zone” is relatively fat, while others settle at a much leaner weight. For me, for example, I find that my body is most comfortable around 11% body fat (which currently puts me at 200 pounds). I don’t have to watch my calories very closely and I can cheat several times per week, and I’ll stay around 11%.
Now, maintaining weight under this comfort zone requires constant work in the form of limiting calories and doing cardio. To get fatter than this requires regular overeating, and if this continues for too long, the comfort zone gets higher and higher.
5 ways to break your weight loss plateau
Well, now that you know the difference between a weight loss plateau and a fat loss plateau, here are three surefire ways to re-stock your body’s furnace for fat loss.
1. Recalculate your daily caloric goal
As you lose weight, your metabolism slows down because your body doesn’t need to use as much energy to maintain its current lean body mass.
If you don’t adjust your calories for this, you may hit a plateau. An easy way to avoid this is to recalculate your daily calorie goal after every 15 pounds of weight loss. As you will see, the target gets lower and lower.
There are many formulas for determining how much you should eat to lose weight, but here’s a simple one based on Catch 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 puts you in a moderate caloric deficit and allows for steady, healthy weight loss. To convert this to calories, simply multiply protein and carbohydrates by 4, and fat by 9.
2. Control “hidden calories”.
Most weight loss plateaus are caused by nothing more than “calorie creep”—that is, you eat more calories than you think you should. This, combined with the ever-slow metabolism, is a guaranteed formula for stability.
Calories can come from many places. Aimless snacking, eating out at restaurants (they load calories on food with butter, oil, sauces, etc.), using condiments, and drinking alcohol are all common ways to add enough calories to lose weight without you feeling like it. You are completely “off your diet.”
The sad truth is that eating just 200-300 calories per day can completely prevent fat loss. To put that in perspective, that’s just a couple of handfuls of nuts, a few tablespoons of fatty salad dressing, or a small bag of chips. Yes, fat loss is finicky. It is not very complicated, but it is necessary Absolute precision.
So, in order to overcome the “calorie creep”, you need to know what is 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 at each meal, every day. 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 often.
3. Increase your cardio
If you know that your daily calorie goal is good and you don’t have a calorie creep at all, then you should increase your cardio.
You can add another day if possible (if you are also weight training I don’t recommend more than 4 days per week), or add time for each day (I like to add 10 minutes to each session and see how my body reacts. ).
The idea is to tip the scales slightly in the direction of fat loss and observe the results. If the first round of extra cardio doesn’t do it, add more (for example another 10 minutes each session), and you’ll get there.
Oh and do HIIT cardio, please.
4. Embrace cheat meals
Yes, believe it or not, cheat meals actually help you lose fat.
Well, first there’s the psychological boost, which keeps you happy and motivated, which ultimately makes it easier to stick to your diet.
But there is also a physical growth.
Studies of overfeeding (the scientific term for bingeing on food) show that doing so increases your metabolic rate by 3-10%. Although this sounds good, it doesn’t really mean much when you consider that you need to eat anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand. extra calories a day to achieve this effect.
More important are the effects cheating has on a hormone called leptin, which controls appetite, your metabolic rate, hunger, motivation and libido, as well as other functions in your body.
When you are in a calorie deficit and lose body fat, your leptin levels drop. This, in turn, slows your metabolic rate, increases your appetite, decreases your motivation, and sours your mood.
On the other hand, when you give your body more energy (calories) than it needs, leptin levels are increased, which can have a positive effect 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 get it?
The most efficient way to eat carbohydrates. The second is to eat protein (high-protein foods also increase your metabolic rate). Dietary fat is not very effective at raising leptin levels, and alcohol actually inhibits it.
So, if your weight is stuck and you’re irritable and demotivated, a good kick of leptin may be all you need to get the scales moving again.
Eat a good cheat meal full of protein and carbohydrates, and enjoy the increase in your leptin levels. It can help you lose weight!
5. Lift heavy weights
If you’re familiar with any of my work, you know I’m a big fan of lifting heavy weights. Well, among the many benefits of lifting heavy is the fact that it aids in fat loss.
A study published by Greek sports scientists found that men who trained with heavy weights (80-85% of their one-rep maximum, or “1RM”) increased their metabolic rate over the following three days, burning hundreds of calories more than men. Train with light weights (45-65% of their 1RM).
So hit the weights and hit them hard if you want to jack up your metabolic rate and, in turn, speed up your fat loss.
And if you want to score extra points, focus on compound lifts like squats and deadlifts, because these are the types that burn the most post-workout calories.
I hope you found this article helpful and remember that the journey to a lean, muscular body is a marathon, not a sprint.
Have you ever experienced a weight loss plateau? Were you able to break through? If so, what did you do? If not, why did this article give you a good idea? I’d love to hear from you on my blog, Muscle for Life!
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