Let’s get one thing out there right away: Plateaus are a totally normal part of any weight-loss journey. They happen to even the most arduous and motivated health warriors. So don’t beat yourself up if the scale is no longer budging, ya hear? You’re not doomed!
In order to turn things around, your weight-loss strategy most likely needs a few tweaks. Read on to find out the most common exercise and diet traps, and what you can do to bust out of them.
On the fitness side of the equation, there are two main reasons your results may be tapering off. The first: You’re doing the same thing day after day. The second: You’re doing too many different things each week, according to Craig Ballantyne, C.S.C.S., professional trainer, and author of The Great Cardio Myth.
Here’s the issue with too much consistency: “If you do the same exercise program over and over again without increasing your weight, reps, or intensity, you’re no longer stimulating your body to adapt and change,” he says.
On the other hand, if you’re doing too many different types of workouts—for example, lifting weights on Monday, going to spin class on Tuesday, taking a bootcamp class on Wednesday, running intervals on Thursday, and then hitting up CrossFit on Friday, your body can’t make sense of everything that’s happening, says Ballantyne. “You need to give your body time to recover and adapt to what you’re doing,” he says. “It’s not about doing more, more, more; it’s about doing the right things and then letting your body recover.”
To avoid both of these potential pitfalls, Ballantyne recommends picking a lane and making it your primary focus. Since building muscle is the best way to ramp up your fat burn, lifting weights is your most advantageous option, he says.
If you’re going to make strength-training your go-to grind, it should make up the majority of your week’s workouts. But that doesn’t mean you’re bound for boredom. You can switch up what you’re doing by adding days of muscle-building-friendly activities like bootcamp classes between straight lifting days, Ballantyne suggests.
The key: “Don’t let more than three weeks go by without ramping up your intensity,” he says. Whether that means picking up more weight, adding more reps, or performing exercises faster for a bigger heart-rate boost, you have to keep challenging yourself. “As soon as your workout starts to feel easy, make a change,” he says.
If you’re watching what you eat to lose weight, you’ll have to adjust your approach as your body adapts over time, especially when it comes to cutting calories, says Mike Israetel, Ph.D., sports physiologist and co-founder of Renaissance Periodization.
You want to aim to lose around one percent of your bodyweight per week (three pounds for someone who weighs 300 pounds, and a pound and a half for someone who weighs 150 pounds), so the number of calories you may need to cut varies depending on your starting point. In that first month of dieting, a smaller person (say somewhere around 150 pounds) should start by reducing their caloric intake by 250 calories. A larger person (say somewhere around 300 pounds) should start by cutting 500.
You’ll notice that after a few months, though, this approach will stop working. “As you diet successfully, your body starts to shrink in size,” explains Israetel. “And because fewer calories are required to maintain a lower body weight, your metabolism slows down.” After you make that initial progress, your body needs fewer calories than it did when you started, so your initial nutrition plan becomes less effective.
Why does this happen? Since our more primitive ancestors’ primary struggle was finding food, not over-consuming it, we’re wired with natural coping mechanisms that kick in when our bodies think food is scarce (a.k.a. when we’re cutting calories).
You may start to feel fatigued as your body starts to subconsciously conserve energy, burn fewer calories at the gym and throughout the day, and even start to feel hungrier, says Israetel. So unfortunately, your success has brought about the exact one-two punch that will push you straight onto a plateau.
“No amount of willpower and motivation will help you overcome this,” says Israetel. It’s just not realistic. Your body is physically reacting to what you’re doing, so you have to treat the problem physically. And in order to do this, you need to shift your diet into a ‘maintenance phase.’
During a ‘maintenance phase,’ you gradually increase your caloric intake to reengage your metabolism, explains Israetel. Here’s what you do: Add back either the 250 or 500 calories you cut from your diet slowly over the course of about two months. As long as you’re diligent and patient, this should help your metabolism speed back up without you gaining much weight back, says Israetel. If you gain more than a few pounds in that window, you’re adding too many calories too quickly.
Israetel recommends reevaluating after a few months of this approach. If you’re still feeling fatigued or super-hungry, you’re best off continuing to slowly add calories to your daily intake. Otherwise, you may be ready to switch back into that ‘cutting’ phase.
“Everyone thinks they’re the exception to the rule,” Israetel says. Pacing yourself and finding your rhythm between about two months of maintenance for every three months of calorie-cutting should help ward off that dreaded plateau.
Related: Exactly What To Eat To Build Muscle
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