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I’m coaching one of my 20lb Challenge groups right now and we’re just starting our 3rd week. One guy is already down 17lbs! The average of the group is about 7lbs right now…
I just emailed them that this is about the time that weight loss can slow down or even plateau.
I wanted them to understand what it is that’s going on and I thought that you could benefit from this information too!
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 (I do it at the gym so naked isn’t an option ;). Weighing yourself multiple times per week, or worse, per day, can 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 at least 10 days, but I may give it up to 2 weeks.
No change on the scale after one week of dieting isn’t necessarily a reason for concern–you could’ve lost that pound of fat but happen to be retaining a bit of water, or it could be you’re a bit “stuffed up” if you know what I mean.
No change in weight after two weeks of dieting tells me that I’m probably 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 8% 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 13-14% body fat, and I can diet off the first 8% or so, but then I hit a plateau that only 3 days per week of cardio can cure (30-60 minutes per session).
Then, the next plateau for me comes around 6%. If I want to go lower, I have to up my cardio and get really precise with the diet. This is about where I was last year when I competed in a Physique show.
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)..
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 12% body fat (which would currently put me at about 170 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 12%.
Now, maintaining a weight under this comfort zone requires watching your calories, and often including some cardio in your routine. Getting fatter than this requires regular overeating, and if this continues for too long, the comfort zone creeps higher and higher.
4 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. 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, which I normally do through the MyFitnessPal app, or you can calculate what you need each day, break it down into daily meals, and eat the same thing every day, every meal.
If you don’t have the time or patience to work a bunch of variety into my diet then just embrace the simplicity of choosing nutritious foods that you like, and eating them over and over.
2. 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 5 days per week if you’re also weight training)
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 5-10 minutes to each session, for instance), and you’ll get there.
3. 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!
4. Lift Heavier Weights
If you’re familiar with any of my work, you know I’m a big fan of lifting heavier weights. Well, among the many benefits of lifting heavy is the fact that it helps speed up fat loss.
A study published by Greek sports scientists found that men that trained with heavy weights (80-85% of their one-rep max, or “1RM”) increased their metabolic rates over the following three days, burning hundreds more calories than the men that trained with lighter 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 typically reccomend that members do this before a Team Session if they are mixing it into a Team Training program since the reps are kept low and the rest periods are long enough. This way you are fresh to deal with the heavier loads and not too tired to do the Team Session afterwards.
I hope you found this article helpful and remember that the journey to a lean, muscular body is a marathon, not a sprint. It is possible to have great spurts of fat loss when you get everything dialed in, but you can’t keep it going forever!
One way to get some fat loss going is through one of our Challenge programs (like my group I mentioned in the beginning). We are getting geared up to do our 28 Day Transformation Challenge in the next couple weeks and committing to 4 weeks of focused effort with a Team Captain is always a recipe for success! I’ll have more information about that coming out very soon.
Have a great day!