Anyone in the history of the world who’s ever tried to lose weight knows the struggle that is hitting a plateau. At first, the pounds practically fall off and you feel great (like motivational speaker-level great)—but then your progress starts to slow and suddenly you find yourself completely stalled. It’s the worst.
Plateaus are a total bummer, but before you swear off the veggies and running sneakers, know this: What you’re experiencing is completely normal—if not expected. Why? The leaner you get, the fewer calories your body needs, explains certified weight management specialist Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. Fail to adjust accordingly (and most of us do), and your fat loss peters out. Plus, as our bodies get fitter and adapt to our go-to workouts, the same routine won’t continue to do the trick.
Fire up your fat-burning engines and bust straight through that plateau by addressing these weight-loss saboteurs.
1. You Hit The Gym Without A Plan
When you walk aimlessly into the gym, you pretty much set yourself up for a ‘meh’ workout. “It’s hard to stay motivated when you don’t know what you’re supposed to be focusing on,” says Lisa Niren C.P.T., head trainer of CITYROW in New York City. “Having a plan ensures that you will be spending your workout time in the most strategic way.”
To get started, plan your workouts by the week. Aim for two to three days of strength training and two days of aerobic training (cardio) like a HIIT or kickboxing class, run through town, or interval workout on the rowing machine or stair-stepper. From there, use a notebook or an app to track the specifics, like how much weight you used for strength-training exercises or how fast you sprinted on the rower, she suggests. Tracking your progress will help you continue to push yourself—and know when it’s time to mix things up.
2. You Focus Too Much On Cardio
If you’re forcing yourself through endless miles on the treadmill or flights of stairs on the stair-master, chances are you’re sabotaging both your results and your sanity. While traditional cardio (in conjunction with a healthy diet) can help create the daily calorie deficit that’s essential to weight loss, it won’t keep you seeing progress long-term, says Danielle Bogarty, C.P.T.
The more lean muscle mass you have, the more calories your body burns at rest—and the only way to build significant muscle is strength training. If weight loss is priority number-one, those two to three strength-training sessions a week are essential, she says.
3. You Don’t Do HIIT
As nice as it is to zone out on the elliptical and watch TV for an hour, it’s not the most fat-loss-friendly cardio approach. To rev your results, switch out that steady-state cardio for high-intensity interval training (HIIT). By alternating between intervals of all-out effort and recovery, you push your body to its metabolic limits, meaning you burn more calories in less time and keep on burning for up to 24 hours afterward as your body repairs, Niren explains. For maximum plateau-busting effect, limit your rest periods as much as possible: “They should be just enough time for you to recover so you can go all-out in your next work interval,” she explains.
You can still have elliptical dates with your favorite Netflix show, just save them for recovery day. Speaking of which…
4. You’re Not Recovering Properly
As much as you may think that losing weight means never missing a workout, more exercise isn’t necessarily what you need when you hit a plateau. In fact, the muscle recovery that occurs between workouts is when the magic really happens. Without ample time to repair and grow back stronger, your muscles continue to break down and over time your total muscle mass may decrease. That’s bad news for both your performance and your baseline calorie-burning potential. Remember: Recovery means more muscle and more muscle means more fat loss.
That’s why Barry’s Bootcamp trainer Ashley Rutkowski, C.P.T, recommends her clients incorporate two active recovery days into their weekly routines.
If you’re stuck in Plateau City and feeling extra burnt out, consider taking a full recovery week to catch up on sleep, try a yoga class, or just relax, Rutkowski says. That week off will also slightly decondition your body, so you’ll burn more calories when you get back on your workout grind.
5. You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep
Sleep and weight are so closely tied that research suggests missing out on just 30 minutes can increase your risk of obesity and diabetes and that just one night of severe sleep deprivation can reduce your insulin sensitivity by as much as 25 percent, making it harder for your body to process sugar.
To power through your workouts, resist avoid cravings, and keep your hormones as balanced as possible, aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night, suggests Taub-Dix.
6. Your Portions Are Generous
Even when you eat healthy, disregarding portion sizes can push you into calorie overload and undercut your fat-burning potential—especially when you’re trying to lose those last few pounds. For example: Topping your pre-workout toast with jumbo spoonfuls of PB alone can add 700 extra calories to your diet per week.
For optimal weight loss, make sure you’re following proper portion sizes to a ‘T.’ Three big ones to remember: a serving of protein (like chicken or steak) is three ounces, or about the size of a deck of cards; a serving of cooked carbs like pasta or quinoa is half a cup, or about the size of a tennis ball; and a serving of fats like nuts is just one ounce, or about a palm-full, Cording explains. If necessary, measure out and weigh your food until you’ve got your portion sizes down enough to eyeball them.
7. You’re Not Eating Enough Calories
When we want to lose weight, calories often become the enemy. The thing is, our bodies need the energy they get from calories, so when we deprive ourselves, we often feel sluggish and cranky—making everything from sitting through meetings to hitting the gym more difficult and less enjoyable, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N, author of Read It Before You Eat It.
The fat-loss sabotage doesn’t end there: According to a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, women who followed a 1,200 (or less) calorie diet produced more of the stress hormone cortisol, which has been linked to issues like trouble sleeping and fat storage around the middle.
Not to mention, your body reacts to calorie deprivation by slowing your metabolism, so you can function off the few calories you do consume, meaning you burn fewer throughout the day, Taub-Dix adds.
If your weight won’t budge and you feel sloth-like or just plain hangry all the time, it’s probably a sign of too few calories, says Taub-Dix. Instead of focusing on calories, just concentrate on eating more quality foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
8. You’ve Been Drinking A Lot
Alcohol’s ‘empty calories’ provide zero nutrition or health benefits, so it’s no surprise that it’s not a worthy part of a weight-loss plan. Your average bottle of beer packs close to 150 calories, a glass of wine comes in around 120, and a small rum and coke contains a whopping 155. Those liquid calories add up—and mess with your fat-loss efforts—real quick.
“If you’re going to drink, drink what you’ll be satisfied with the least of,” recommends Cording. For example, if you want a margarita, but opt for a vodka soda because it has fewer calories, you’re more likely to drink four of them to quash your cravings and end up consuming far more calories than you would have with a single marg.
9. You Eat Well 90% Of The Time… But Completely Lose Control The Other 10%
Indulging is part of life—and there’s nothing wrong with it! If you rarely allow yourself to indulge, you eventually hit a breaking point and spiral into a cookie binge instead of savoring one or two.
While one out-of-control eating fest won’t automatically derail your progress, it can damage your relationship with food and make living a consistently healthy, balanced lifestyle more difficult, says Taub-Dix.
To manage cravings productively, keep track of what you crave long-term by keeping a food journal, suggests Cording. If you notice you’ve been craving bacon, make yourself a serving of bacon instead of continuing to feel deprived or going overboard on turkey bacon, or whatever ‘healthier’ food you eat instead. Stick to proper portion sizes and these treats will keep you sane without derailing your progress.