There’s no denying it. Plateaus suck. Yet they are an inevitable occurrence when you’re in pursuit of a health or fitness goal. Whether you’re building muscle, burning fat, or building a fitness skill set, at some point, you’re going to plateau. Pounds of body fat that once seemed to fall off on a weekly basis are now stuck to you like a facehugger.
Identifying when you’ve hit a plateau is important, but being aware of this is half the battle. And plateaus can take you by surprise, potentially derailing your progress for good.
The mental barriers.
You begin to question yourself: Is it my thyroid? Is something wrong with me? Maybe it’s my metabolism. Or perhaps abs just aren’t in the cards for me.
There are various reasons for the dreaded plateau. They come at different times for each of us, and the fix for one person might not be the fix for the other. We’re going to explain why a plateau happens and what to do about it when it does happen. Because like it or not, it is going to happen to you eventually.
Before we address the plateau, let’s make sure you actually have an issue.
Did You Even Plateau?
What are your goals? What metrics are you using to track them? Scale weight? Body measurements? Body fat calipers?
You should be tracking more than just a number on the scale. Let’s say you’re only going by what the scale says. Two weeks pass and the number has not gone down. You think you “plateaued.”
What if you had been tracking body measurements and saw your waist was down an inch? You wouldn’t have noticed this visible change by simply looking in the mirror, and the scale doesn’t show it. But a body tape measurement would have.
You might jump to conclusions and take some unnecessarily drastic measure, or you may quit altogether.
Are you consistently tracking your progress? Meaning, do you weigh yourself and take your measurements under the same conditions each week? If you check these markers haphazardly, you have no real way of knowing if you are even in a plateau.
Pro Tip: I like to assess my progress on Friday mornings, immediately upon waking up. Before eating, drinking anything or showering. You are probably most lean at this point in the week. And you won’t have the leftover weekend side effects you might get on a Monday morning weigh-in.
Factoring in foods eaten in a particular day, water weight, sodium, or a good bowel movement, your weight might fluctuate up or down 5 pounds on a given day. Your first step should be to make sure you are being as consistent as possible with your tracking.
If you’re consistently tracking and know it’s an actual plateau and not just a discrepancy between measurements, then move on to the next step.
Before we address why plateaus occur, we first need to look at when they occur.
When Do Plateaus Occur?
1-2 Months In
Let’s say your goal is to lean out. You want your abs to pop when the summer vacation rolls around.
You start to hit the gym and track your macros. You got immediate results, but after the first month you start to plateau. You dropped the first few pounds, now nothing.
The biggest reason for this first-month to two-month plateau is behavioral or a lack of compliance. Are you honestly doing what you need to? Look at your previous week and rate yourself on adherence to the plan.
Are you weighing your foods? Measuring? Tracking everything? Or are you just guessing? If you’re just guessing, figure out where you are missing.
Understand the difference between healthy eating and fat loss eating. Are you eating too many “clean” foods? Calories out have to be less than calories in, regardless of the source.
Rule out these common causes before you make other assumptions about thyroid and metabolism. We often misreport.
It’s easy to overestimate calorie expenditure and underestimate calorie intake.
In “Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle,” Tom Venuto talks about the “5:2:0 Weekend Binge.” Five days of perfect eating and a two-day binge will equal zero results. This is where I see so. many. people get themselves into trouble. 100% compliance Monday morning through Friday afternoon. Then Friday night they decide they deserve to go out and have dinner and drinks with friends.
You can also get yourself in trouble with your weekend “reward” meal or “refeed” day. If you’re at a 300-calorie deficit Monday through Friday (-1500 calories total) and on Saturday you splurge and eat +1500 calories, then you have negated your deficit for the week. Remember energy balance. Calories out have to be less than calories in. You’re not going to get abs without this.
3-4 Months In
The first reason for a plateau is behavioral. Now we’ve ruled that out. We are several months into our program. Results have been coming like clockwork each week at weigh in and measurements. Now we begin to stall. This time we know it’s not related to adherence issues.
The second reason for a plateau is physiological. The more dieted down you get, the more severe the deficit. The longer you have been dieting, the leaner you get — and the more your body resists.
This is referred to as metabolic adaptation. This is unavoidable. This occurs when there is a loss in total body weight. Smaller people burn fewer calories than larger people. And there is now physically less of you than there was before.
The more weight you lose, the harder it becomes to lose.
A person with a set point weight of 150 pounds is going to have a more efficient metabolism than someone who was once 180 pounds and dieted down to 150, at least in the short-term. Once the person who dieted down has maintained their progress for an extended period, their lower weight becomes their new set point.
The good news is that there are ways to circumvent this metabolic adaptation. A good strategy here is to implement calorie or carbohydrate cycling. This is a strategic way of increasing your calories while still putting yourself in an overall deficit for the week. There are several ways of doing this. One option is to eat fewer (2-3) high-calorie days of the week and more (4-5) low-calorie days of the week. The goal here is to make sure you’re still putting yourself in an overall deficit for the week.
Or you could carb cycle, meaning you eat more carbohydrates and less fat on workout days and less carbohydrates with more fat on rest days. This method requires high protein every day, while also maintaining an overall deficit for the week.
Pro Tip: ALWAYS keep protein high when dieting. This helps you maintain well-earned lean muscle tissue in a deficit, thus helping prevent the metabolic adaptation that occurs. As a bonus, protein helps with satiety. You’re going to experience hunger on a diet. Keeping protein high helps minimize this.
These cycling techniques can also have psychological benefits. If you’re getting bored eating the same thing every day, week after week, they can be a fun way to jump start your results. It may also help clean up some areas that have gotten sloppy after doing the same repetitive thing for so long.
A third option is to implement the “reward” meal or “refeed” day mentioned above. This alone could be all someone needs, so long as they stay within their overall weekly caloric needs. This does not work if you out-eat your weekly deficit in a single meal/day.
The benefits of the “reward” meal (also referred to as “cheat” meal) are two-fold:
One, it serves as a reset for the hormone leptin. Leptin is our day-to-day hunger homone. It is derived from fat cells and one of leptin’s jobs is to send signals about levels of fat mass to the hypothalamus, which in turn regulates energy intake and expenditure. If someone diets too hard for too long, they can develop hormone-resistance. This means that signal is no longer being sent. When you implement the higher calorie (typically, higher carbohydrate) day, you prevent this leptin-resistance from happening.
The second benefit is to give you mental relief. Instead of thinking spinach and egg whites, you think nachos and pizza. Again, the important thing is to stay within your calorie limits and not put yourself into a caloric surplus for the week from a single meal.
4+ Months In
If you’ve been dieting for this long, some form of metabolic adaptation has occurred. Your hormones are no longer optimized. What’s the best way to break this?
Take a break. Rest, recover, replenish.
This doesn’t mean eat your heart out. Don’t go into a caloric surplus. Eat at maintenance. Take a psychological break. Do this and your body will start responding again.
When Less is More
Before you train harder or diet stricter, consider the condition your body is in. Sometimes you need to push harder, sometimes you need to rest. A depleted body doesn’t respond as well as a well-rested, well-fed body.
This approach may seem counter-intuitive, but if you have spent months in an eat less/exercise more phase, your body will likely respond very well to a period of eat less/exercise less.
Take a look at this guy’s comments, just weeks into our coaching program:
“It’s really amazing to adapt to this and see a plateau of 18 months jarred loose by a conceptual reconfiguration and the acceptance of the idea that getting/remaining generally fit does not mean 20 hours of intense training and very restrictive dieting.”
After spending 18 months in eat less/exercise more, we temporarily moved him into an eat less/exercise less phase and broke his plateau in a matter of weeks.
“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.” – Anthony Robbins
It’s important to recognize everything you’ve been doing right. At some point you were getting results each week. This should be celebrated. Continue to do the right things and the plateau won’t last long. If it sticks for more than a few weeks, re-assess.
Are you being compliant? Check your food log. Do you need to increase the food quality?
In Fat Loss Happens on Monday, Josh Hillis says “scale weight comes from quantity of food (calories), leanness comes from quality of food“. Is it time to increase quality? Or do you need to experiment with more advanced food strategies?
FitPro Bryan Krahn says “I tolerate gluten. But I get leaner, faster when I drop wheat/gluten/oats. And yes, I control for calories. Sometimes it just is what it is.”
You should expect plateaus. Maintain a positive attitude. Don’t get discouraged and give up. Fat loss is not linear, it happens in a zig zag line. Take this client, for instance:
The week-by-week results have ebbs and flows. Yet the overall trend over time is downward. This is what you should expect for your progress.
Remember the amount of calories you need is constantly changing. You have to change your approach as your body changes. If you stopped losing fat, you’re no longer in a deficit.
Rapid Fire Action Steps
1 — If you’re not already, start resistance training. See the lean muscle tissue point above. Building or maintaining muscle is going to help prevent the metabolic adaptation that occurs when getting lean. This is the most important piece of the puzzle.
1b — Do not over-exercise. If you add in strength training workouts, this should come at the expense of other types of cardio workouts you may already be doing. Both might put you into eat less, exercise more. Put an emphasis on building muscle. Fat loss will happen as a by-product.
2 — Move more. Start walking. Not power walking with ankle weights and head bands. Okay, hand bands are fine, but not ankle weights. This should be leisurely. It’s not exercise. It’s movement. Do this as often as possible. Find a good podcast or audio book and hit the road. 30-60 minutes daily, if not more.
3 — Make what you do sustainable. It must be something you can do over a long period of time so you don’t yo-yo back. The amount of exercise you do to lose weight is the amount of exercise you will have to continue to do, plus more, to keep the weight off. Which brings us to the final point…
4 — Use diet, not exercise, to set your caloric deficit. Hitting the gym six days a week for an hour a day might work for a 12 week program. But it’s not sustainable long term. Choose your workout program wisely.
Here’s to overcoming your plateau!
Originally published at JMax Fitness.