Editor’s Note: This post was updated on September 8, 2018 for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on September 22, 2016.
For almost everyone working to improve their body composition and achieve their fitness goals, eventually, that dread “enemy” known as your plateau will rear its ugly head. As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”
So, if you want to push past your plateau, you must know your “enemy” so you can overcome it. The best way to start is to first understand what a plateau is, what it isn’t, and how to understand the changes in your body when they occur, and different tactics you can use to break through.
Your Scale Might Be Lying To You
Before we dive into some techniques you can use to break through your plateau, you need to consider how you first recognized it. If you only use your bathroom scale to measure success, you’re not getting the full picture.
Most people recognize a “plateau” because they haven’t seen the number on the scale change for a few weeks. While that is definitely a frustrating experience, it also points a bigger problem: you’re thinking about your progress in terms of weight loss, not fat loss.
What’s the problem with weight loss? What you think of as “body weight” is really the sum of everything that’s in your body, and not all of that weight is “bad”. Muscle growth, for example, is positive weight gain.
What you really are trying to do when you are losing weight is lose extra body fat. What does this have to do with plateaus?
Potentially, a lot: if you’re starting to gain muscle because you added more weight training to your exercise routine, your weight may appear the same. That’s because you may be experiencing muscle gain at the same rate as fat loss.
Here’s what that can look like in a 117-pound woman.
How might you know that this is happening? If you’ve ever hired a personal trainer or joined a gym one of the first things they will do is take your height, weight and body measurements. They might even sit you down to take your blood pressure and ask you about why you want to start exercising more. (And yes, your why comes into play as a way to break through your plateau. More on that in a bit.)
The reason all this information is recorded during your first visit is so that your progress can be properly evaluated over time. For example, the number of inches around your waist becomes one of many data points that makes up your new baseline. You may discover one day that the scale hasn’t budged since the last time you stepped on it, but you’ve lost inches around your waist and your pants are fitting more comfortably (or maybe even getting too loose!). That’s positive change!
Don’t be discouraged by the number on your bathroom scale. However, if the scale isn’t budging and neither are the numbers on your tape measure/changes in body composition (very important), here’s what you need to know about plateaus.
Weight loss plateaus are normal
Let’s look at some research behind when you can expect a weight loss plateau to strike. In a weight loss review published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers identified plateaus occurring across the board at the 6-month mark.
The clinical trials assessed eight different types of weight-loss programs including, “diet alone, diet and exercise, exercise alone, meal replacements, very-low-energy diets, weight-loss medications, and advice alone.” No matter what strategy you are using, its clear that you will hit a plateau. What can you do with this information? Prepare to work through it.
Big milestones are the fun ones to concentrate on, but it’s the smaller, achievable goals along the way that get us to the finish line. This is very much the case for weight loss. It’s easy to be fixated on the end result, the 20, 30, maybe 100 pounds of weight you want to lose. What you need to do is first focus on the journey between start and finish. Here are 5 tips to keep you motivated on track to success.
How To Overcome a Plateau
1) Keep a food journal
Start by re-examining your food choices and your calorie intake. You can keep yourself accountable by logging your food intake using a food diary. One study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that the more diligently participants tracked their food and calorie intake, the greater amount of weight loss they experienced.
It’s not uncommon to think your diet is better than it really is, or that you’re consuming less calories than you really are. This is very important because generally speaking, if you want to lose body fat, you need to be in a caloric deficit – that is, consuming less calories than you burn.
After a week of logging your meals, snacks and drinks you’ll be in a better position to correct your weight loss plan. For example:
- Commit to making smart food choices. One look at the My Plate diagram (yes, the food pyramid has been retired) and you’ll be reminded that you should be eating more fruits and vegetables.
- Monitor your portion sizes.
- Make logging your calories fun by using an app
Remember the dreaded 6-month plateau? A separate study conducted on weight loss plateaus also observed participants experiencing a plateau after 6 months and found the most significant factor leading to a plateau was poor dietary habits
They concluded that “An intermittent lack of diet adherence, not metabolic adaptation, is a major contributor to the frequently observed early weight-loss plateau.” This data lends credence to the commonly repeated motivational fitness quote, “Abs are made in the kitchen.”
One more thing before we move on to another technique for overcoming your weight loss plateau: reward yourself for tracking your food and calorie intake. It’s a tedious process, which thankfully apps have made less taxing, but it’s still a task well deserving of your positive recognition. Buy a book, get a massage for those sore muscles, or invest in some other non-food related incentive.
2) Log your workouts
Similar to how you log your food, keep yourself accountable by logging your workouts. In a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, researchers reported, “Current users of exercise apps were 27% more likely to self-report being active compared to participants who have either never used an exercise app or stopped using their apps.”
Here are some helpful ways to make exercising and tracking your workouts part of your day-to-day routine:
- Start a fitness journal (start with paper and pen, or find an app online)
- Hire a personal trainer
- Track your steps using a pedometer
- Join an athletic social networking community, like Strava
Remember to mix up your exercise routine with low intensity and high intensity training so you don’t hit a workout plateau. Interval training is a great way to introduce new exercises and overcome boredom from doing the same workout.
3) Limit stress
Hitting a plateau can be stressful. Stress can cause you to lose sleep, tense your muscles, and have a negative effect on your quality of life.
Consider using one, or all, of these techniques to manage your stress levels.
Yoga: If you’re struggling to fall asleep, try yoga.
Meditation: Need help managing your anxiety, look into meditation.
Stretch: It’s surprising how powerful standing up after an hour at work and performing a simple neck, shoulder or lower back stretch can refresh you.
4) Remember your “why”
Think about why you wanted to start being more active in the first place. Maybe you wanted to be able to carry more than one bag of groceries from the car to your kitchen – that’s your why.
Maybe you have a high school reunion coming up and want to wear the same outfit you sported at prom – that’s your why.
The next time you don’t want to log another food entry into your app or get in a workout at the gym – think about your why. Your why can drive you to follow through on your commitment to better health and help push you past your weight loss plateau.
5) Use visualization techniques
When you hit a weight loss plateau, you have to remind yourself of the reason you started your weight loss journey in the first place. You had, in your mind, an idea of what you would look like at the end. Visualizing yourself as that fitter version of you may be all the motivation you need to stick to your new exercise and nutrition plan.
Don’t Fear Your Plateau; Beat It
There is no shortage of advice on how to lose weight, not to mention how to break through a weight loss plateau.
If you’ve ever gone camping in the wilderness where bears are known to roam about, no doubt you’ve heard plenty of advice on how to behave should you encounter one. Park rangers will instruct you to play dead. Locals will insist that you should shout and make lots of noise. Your camping buddy will joke that all they have to do is outrun you and they’ll be fine.
If the bear is your weight loss plateau, instead of getting 3 different pieces of advice from 3 different people, the best weapon you can bring against it is knowledge, so that when the time comes, your moment of panic or boredom or stagnant weight loss is finite.
Plateaus are frustrating, but they can also be motivating, and most importantly, they can be overcome. They force us to remember why we are trying to accomplish our goal in the first place. With what you know about plateaus now, make your plan today and be prepared when you hit your plateau so you can break through to the next level.
Hilary Fosdal is an ACE certified personal trainer. She also does a lot of heavy lifting at redphonestudio.com, a web design and digital marketing company that helps health practitioners improve their professional identity.
Ryan Walters is a digital marketing specialist at InBody USA