May 29th, 2016
Fat Loss Plateaus: 4 Reasons Why Your Progress Stopped
Today’s Burn the Fat Blog post answers a reader question about why his fat loss stopped and explains the real reasons why people hit fat loss plateaus. It happens especially when you get down to that “last 10 lbs” or when you drop a lot of weight, and you reach good “lean” category, but you’re an overachiever and you still want to get even leaner… all the way to “ripped”, or at least lean enough to see your abs. It’s a challenge, but there is something you can do about it – more than one thing! Read on to find out.
Q: Tom, I know you often say that to get to the point to be able to see your abs, you need to get to single-digit body fat. What if I hit a plateau at about 12% body fat? What do I need to do to break the plateau and get my fat% down to single digits? Should I do more cardio, more weight-training, manipulate my diet somehow?”
A: There’s more than one way to break a plateau. You could use any of the strategies you mentioned; you could reduce your calories, increase your cardio or bump up your weight training volume. You shouldn’t limit yourself to just one way or even a few ways. My own plateau-breaking checklist has 21 strategies on it.
One of the problems I see with quite a few programs is that they’re too rigid about what you are and aren’t allowed to do. It should be the other way around – the person with the greatest number of strategies and the most flexibility is the person most likely to get through a plateau.
You should also keep in mind that the ideal plateau-breaking method may depend on how long you’ve been dieting and what kind of condition your body is in now. A dieted-down person trying to get even leaner and crack single digit body fat (to have ripped abs) is very different from someone who just started dieting and is still carrying a lot of body fat.
But before you choose any plateau-breaking strategy, the very first thing you need to do is get very clear in your head what a plateau really is. This is important, because plateaus are highly misunderstood and if you don’t know the cause of a problem, it’s nearly impossible to fix it. The cause of plateaus is actually very simple and all boils down to one thing:
If you were losing weight, but not losing weight now, there’s only one thing that that could mean; you were in a calorie deficit before, but you’ve lost your calorie deficit.
There are four primary reasons you lose your calorie deficit and hit a plateau:
The first reason you hit a plateau is because your metabolism decreases while dieting and losing weight. While this does not completely stop fat loss, it does slow down fat loss. If you’ve been cutting calories, especially if you cut them severely, your body adapts by decreasing the metabolic rate. That’s sometimes known as the “starvation response” or “adaptive thermogenesis.”
The second reason is that you need fewer calories after you lose weight. Calorie needs are directly tied into your body weight. One problem is that after people lose a lot of weight, they tend to keep eating the same way they did when they were heavier. But when you’re a smaller person, you don’t need as many calories as before, even at rest (your basal metabolic rate is lower).
The third reason is that when you move that smaller body, you’re not burning as many calories. If you strap on a weighted vest or heavy backpack and go out and hike up a hill, you can tell, obviously, that if you’re lugging around extra weight, it’s a lot more work, and you’re burning more calories.
The fourth reason is that most people don’t stick closely enough to their nutrition plan and they forget to record part of their food intake. This one requires a lot of self-honesty. Even if you don’t do it intentionally and you don’t “cheat” per se, (a lot of eating behavior is directed unconsciously), we’re not very good at estimating how much food we eat when we simply try to guess. Some studies have exposed under-reporting calorie intake as much as 50%. You say, “I’m only eating 1,200 calories a day, but I’m stuck at a fat loss plateau!” But you’re really eating 1,800 calories a day which doesn’t give you much of a deficit.
All of these reasons for plateaus get amplified in the later stages of a diet, because biologically speaking, your body is doing everything it possibly can to get you to go off your diet and to get weight to stabilize.
After a long period of dieting and after a large weight loss, your body cranks up the appetite, stimulates cravings and tries to trick you into moving less and eating more.
The leaner you get, the longer you’ve been dieting and the more aggressively you cut calories, the more your body tends to defend its weight, and hold on to remaining body fat.
So it’s really common to hit a plateau when you’re dieted down and leaner. Usually it’s nowhere near as difficult for the overweight person to start losing weight as it is for the lean person to get even leaner. The last 10 pounds is usually a lot harder than the first 10.
If you think about it, it’s pretty unnatural from a biological perspective to walk around with really low single-digit body fat. It’s not beneficial from a survival-of-the-species point of view to have low body fat. So this metabolic adaptation becomes more pronounced the leaner you get and you have to be prepared for some hard work and strict discipline to achieve it.
When you’re dieted down, you’re also at a higher risk of losing muscle, because extra muscle is not economical when there’s a calorie shortage. Carrying extra muscle is like having an engine that’s bigger than you need – it’s a gas guzzler.
The ultimate answer to why you plateau, why that last 10 pounds is so hard to lose and why it’s hard to break into those single digits is that you were in a calorie deficit before, but for all the reasons mentioned above, you’re no longer in a deficit.
The way to break the plateau then is to:
1. Re-stimulate metabolism and re-set fat-burning and starvation hormones (if necessary)
2. Re-establish the deficit.
3. Keep after it! (persistence, persistence, persistence)
Before you think about what strategies you’ll use to re-establish the calorie deficit, there’s one thing you might want to do first. If you’ve been dieting a long time, give your body a short break from all the calorie restriction. Raise your calories to maintenance level for at least one week and up as long as two weeks if you were seriously depleted.
During this diet break, you’re obviously not going to lose fat, and you might even gain a little scale weight from water and glycogen. You have to be okay with that and think of it as one step back for two steps forward.
A week or two at maintenance calories has mental and physical benefits. It gives your body a physiological break from the stress of dieting, which makes it easier to stick with your nutrition plan when you go back to it. The diet break also resets the “starvation hormones” and stimulates your metabolism.
Then, when you go back to the calorie deficit, your body starts responding again like it’s supposed to and you can make that final push to a six-pack abs level of leanness.
Another strategy you could use is carb cycling, where you take one or two higher calorie “reseed” days every week. The refeeds only last one day, but they can make dieting more tolerable, help improve muscle retention and help reduce the odds of hitting another plateau.
Because so many people underestimate how much they eat, if you hit a plateau, you should start tracking your food intake. Work off a meal plan on paper, with the calories and macronutrients subtotaled for each meal and totaled for the day. Then weigh or measure your food portions to be sure you are hitting your daily calorie and macro goals.
You may have been told many times by a lot of different experts that you don’t have to count calories to lose weight and you may even know people who lost weight simply by estimating portion sizes. That’s fine if you’re successfully losing fat, but if you’re stuck at a plateau, I consider it mandatory to stop guessing and start getting serious about doing your nutrition by the numbers.
The Best Ways To Re-establish Your Calorie Deficit
Once you’re tracking everything you’re eating, so you’re sure about your compliance to the correct calorie intake, then if you’re still stuck or you hit a plateau again later on, what you need to do is re-establish you calorie deficit. In other words, you need to eat less, burn more or a little bit of both.
You can work on the nutrition side (calories in) by reducing your food portion sizes and choosing less calorie-dense food types. Or you can use the exercise side (calories out) by increasing training volume. You have many choices on the training side.
You can increase your cardio duration (burn more calories by working out longer) or increase your cardio frequency (burn more calories by working out more often). You can also increase the intensity of your cardio so you burn more calories in the same time you’re already spending (a good strategy for busy people). That’s three different strategies for cardio alone (duration, frequency and intensity).
If your weight training has been low in volume or frequency, you can do more weight training as well. A three day a week program can be expanded to four or five, sets and exercises can be added, more metabolically-demanding exercises can be used and intensification techniques can be added.
The whole idea is simply to expend more calories (and stimulate your metabolism) or pull back your calorie intake, which re-establishes or increases your calorie deficit.
You could make one change at a time like adding an extra day of cardio, or make multiple changes all at once, like increasing both cardio frequency and intensity, plus reducing portion sizes at the same time.
Which strategies you choose depends on what makes the most sense given your current situation. And always remember that there are two sides to the energy balance equation, not one. There’s more than one way to break a fat loss plateau.
Want to Learn More?
If you’d like to learn more plateau breaking strategies, and get more details on which strategies are ideal to use at certain times, then check out my newest program, 21 Ways to Break a Fat Loss Plateau.
If you’re a current member, simply log in to the Burn the Fat Inner Circle members area with your current username and password, and click on “audio coaching” to download the program.
Until next time,
Train hard and expect success,
Fat loss coach
PS. If you’re not a member of Burn the Fat inner circle yet, you can get the 21 Ways to Break a Fat Loss Plateau program by joining our community (audio coaching “essentials series” is included with membership), or you can purchase the program separately in the Inner Circle Store here: www.burnthefatinnercircle.com/products/item44.cfm
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural (steroid-free) bodybuilder, fitness writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle: Fat Burning Secrets of Bodybuilders and Fitness Models and the national bestseller, The Body Fat Solution, which was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Oprah Magazine, Muscle and Fitness Magazine, Ironman Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine, as well as on dozens of radio shows including Sirius Satellite Radio, ESPN-1250 and WCBS. Tom is also the founder and CEO of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community for inspiration and transformation