How to Break a Weight Loss Plateau

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Break through a weight loss plateau with the right training and nutrition.

It happens to practically everyone at some point. You’re training regularly, eating the right amount and type of food, and getting great results. Maybe you’re dropping a pound or two and week and your pants are looser around the waist. Nice!

Then the improvements stop. You’re still working out and are watching what you eat, but you’re not seeing any drop in the scale. You know that the numbers on the scale aren’t the whole story, and fat loss can mean that you’ve gained muscle and lose fat without any change in weight, but you’re not getting any leaner either. You’re stuck, and you can’t figure out what to do to keep moving towards your target weight.

Let’s take a look at what a plateau is and what you can do to overcome yours.

Defining a Plateau

Just because you haven’t seen any weight loss changes in a week or two doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve plateaued. Sometimes your body needs time to adjust and your muscles need to recover in order to grow. I encourage my clients to weight themselves NO MORE than once a week because so many things can affect your weight from day to day. You may see no changes for a couple of weeks and then your body recovers and responds again.

Now, if you’ve been training and eating consistently for three or four weeks and you don’t see any improvements in your physique, you may indeed have hit a plateau.

Weight Loss Facts You Need to Remember

The closer you get to your ideal weight, the harder it is to lose more weight. It’s actually relatively easy to lose weight if you’re overweight or obese. Minor changes like cutting down on crappy foods or adding more vegetables can make a big difference. When you’re sustaining a healthy weight, but want to get leaner, you’re in for more of a challenge.

Your body resists, not only because it’s used to being at a certain weight, but your body wants to hold on to a certain amount of body fat in case you’re ever in a situation where you’re starving. As you shrink in size, your metabolism naturally slows down (a 200lb person needs more calories to sustain that size than a 150lb person) and you need to get accustomed to eating less.

Building more muscle is one way of reducing that need, because muscle needs more energy to sustain itself than fat. The more muscle you have the more metabolically active you’ll be. When you’re looking to break a plateau, focusing on building muscle and protecting your existing muscle from breakdown is the goal.

Ways to Break a Plateau

1) Keep a closer eye on your calories

Initially you might have lost weight just from eating a “cleaner” diet and avoiding the obviously-detrimental foods. If you’ve been doing this a while, it’s easy to throw some extra food in there once in a while that you barely notice (an extra beer here, a few bites of pizza there).

I don’t normally recommend calorie counting, but if you need to make finer tweaks you need to know exactly what you’re consuming. You might just find that you’ve been eating more without noticing. Even if you haven’t, the change from your previous body size to your current smaller one will probably need less food.

2) Check Your Protein Intake

Protein is needed to build and repair muscle, and many athletic people aren’t getting enough. If you’ve hit a weight loss plateau, you might want to check how much protein you’re consuming on a daily basis. I normally recommend about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (i.e. If you’re 180lbs you take in 180 grams of protein) per day.

A higher protein intake can help regulate your appetite and make it easier for you to eat less food. That’s one of the reasons that low-carb diets work, especially at the beginning.

When you reduce your calories, it’s important to maintain a higher protein intake because this helps preserve your muscle mass.

3) Overload your muscles

Forget everything you’ve heard about “muscle confusion”, your muscles need something consistent to make changes with.¬†Hopefully the majority of the training you’re doing is with weights (if not, you may need to read THIS) and you have some sort of program that you’re doing consistently. If you’re just going to the gym and randomly picking up weights and pushing them around…we may have already found the reason that you’re not progressing.

Your body responds best to progressive overload, meaning that you need to stimulate the muscles to grow by challenging them with more weight a little bit at a time. You need to design a program that you do regularly and change it slightly as your body adapts to keep getting results. If you’ve been doing the same weights for several weeks, you won’t build more muscle and you’ll probably hit a weight loss plateau. Make sure you push your muscles to work harder to get results.

4) Change Your Workout Routine

Changing your weight training exercise or increasing the weights you’re using isn’t the only way to modify your program. You can also change:

  • Number of sets per exercise – you may initially get results with only 2-3 sets, but as you get more experienced you may need 4 or even 5 sets of the same exercise to see improvements
  • Number of reps – most people looking for muscle growth should stick to the 6-12 rep range for maximum hypertrophy. If you’ve been doing 3 sets of 10-12 reps (what most people do), it may be time to try 4 or 5 sets of 6-8 reps (with a corresponding increase in sets) – or vice versa. You may also see improvement by working outside of the traditional hypertrophy ranges. Try 3 sets of 15 or 5X5. Some people respond well to these other rep ranges.
  • Rest Period – Normally you’ll want to be in the 60-90 second range to achieve more muscle, but maybe you need to change it up to break through your weight loss plateau. Try circuit training with very little rest between exercises, or extend your rest periods to two minutes and push heavier weights.
  • Time under Tension (TUT)¬†– TUT refers to the amount of time that your muscle is working for ONE SET of an exercise. Optimal muscle growth seems to happen when TUT is about 40-70 secs. Many people do their reps too quickly and don’t fall into that zone. Try slowing down your each rep of an exercise to make the muscles work harder…and stimulate them to grow.

How Often to Change

A beginner to weight training can do the same workout for two or three months and still see progress. The more experienced you are, the more regularly you need to change your program because your body adapts more quickly. Most of my clients have several years experience and I change their workouts every 4-8 weeks, depending on how consistent they are and how they respond to the program.

There’s some individual variation too, both physiologically and psychologically. Some people respond best to frequent change and others need more time to get the most benefit. If you’re constantly running into weight loss plateaus, it may be because you’re not changing your workout routine frequently enough. Don’t get carried away though, even the most experienced athlete will need about 4 to 6 exposures to a workout to get the full benefit and need to change.

5) Look at Lifestyle Factors that could be Stopping Your Progress

If you think that your workouts and nutrition are in check, it might be time to have a closer look at other potential sources of your weight loss plateau.

Sleep could be a factor slowing down your weight loss. Most people need 7-9 hours of sleep a night – and aren’t getting it. When you don’t sleep enough, your muscles don’t have time to repair and grow. As you know already, muscle is going to get you lean and help you keep getting lean. If you’re tired, you’re also less likely to make good decisions with food.

Many people want to ignore it, but stress can also be holding back your weight loss. Chronic stress can cause high levels of cortisol, “the stress hormone”. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands near your kidneys and is catabolic (breaks things down). The last thing you want is for your muscle to break down! Chronically high levels of cortisol preferentially lay fat in the abdominal area. Not something you want when you’re trying to get lean.

The Main Point

If you’ve been stuck at the same weight for three weeks or more, without any apparent decrease in body fat, you may be at a weight loss plateau. Breaking through requires that you take a closer look at your diet, especially your protein intake. Overload your muscles with heavier weights and change your workout (a little!) to stimulate a muscular response. If all else fails, look at lifestyle factors, like sleep and stress, that could be affecting your ability to lose weight. You’ll have that scale moving again in no time.

Ivana Chapman

P.S. Want help changing your relationship with food and getting a sensible nutrition plan together? My Lean365 Online Membership Program can help! Check out the details HERE.

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Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman BSc BA CSCS is a Canadian fitness and nutrition coach, happy wife, and mom to an energetic 5-year-old boy. She is a writer, published fitness model, speaker, 3rd Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, former World Cup Karate Champion, one-time marathoner, and CBBF National level Natural Bikini competitor. She loves weight training and chocolate, not always in that order of preference.
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