This is a guest post by Vic Magary of FatLossForFree.com, my co-conspirator on Impossible Abs.
So you’ve been watching what you eat and working out…
Your clothes fit a little better, you can start to see the faint outline of what you think is an “ab” in the mirror, and the cute girl (or guy) at the office even smiled at you. So you keep watching what you eat and working out. But things stall. After another month your clothes still fit only a “little” better, that ab outline is still faint, and now you’re wondering if the cutie was just smiling at the lack of a line at the copy machine behind you. You’ve hit the dreaded fat loss plateau.
This situation of stagnated fat loss progress is common. But breaking through the plateau? That requires the uncommon…
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” ~ Albert Einstein
Yes, the classic Einstein quote applies to fat loss. When you keep doing what you’ve been doing (the common) but are no longer seeing results, it’s time to do something different (the uncommon). Perhaps a better way to think of the uncommon is the uncomfortable.
My favorite exercise for embracing the uncomfortable is cold shower therapy. And although there is some evidence that cold exposure may help with fat loss, I prefer to go for the big wins. Anytime I need to help a client break a fat loss plateau, I ease them outside of their comfort zone on diet, recovery, or exercise – in that order.
But before we get to the diet, recovery, and exercise, we have to ensure that we have one crucial habit in place. And this habit makes some people more uncomfortable than 100 burpees with a kale smoothie chaser. This crucial habit is keeping a food and training journal.
Without a written record of what you are eating and how you are training (bonus points for also tracking sleep), there is no way to make an accurate prediction of what adjustment to your regimen will yield results. And beyond the data collected, there is the awareness gained from deliberately tracking. One study found that keeping a food diary doubles weight loss results. My personal experience is similar – every single client that I have ever had who was not happy with their results also failed to keep a food journal.
So if you’ve hit a fat loss plateau and you are not keeping a food and training journal, step one is to start keeping a food and training journal. Now that step one is out of the way, let’s get to what people normally think about when it comes to breaking fat loss plateaus: diet, recovery, and training.
It’s Your Diet… No Really, It’s Your Diet.
There is no facet of your fat loss program more important than diet. And that’s why diet is always the first place I look when trying to solve a fat loss riddle. The simplest adjustment to make with diet is to eliminate a certain type of food that you have been eating. Below are the foods that I recommend removing one-by-one if you are not losing fat:
Wheat, other grains, and legumes. Ok that’s not really one-by-one, but let’s scrap this junk all at once. Bread, pasta, cereal, and other wheat products should not be part of your diet when trying to lose fat (and maybe not ever, but gluten is a topic for a blog post in itself). Other grains such as oats, corn, and buckwheat should also be avoided when striving for fat loss. Some people will consider legumes a bit more controversial to take out of the diet (namely slow-carb fans) but if you’ve hit a plateau, try eliminating the beans.
Liquid calories. If you are still consuming liquid calories during your fat loss quest, stop. Obviously soda (including diet soda even though it’s calorie free) and alcohol should go. But also fruit juice, even fresh squeezed, should be eliminated due to the high sugar content. And if you’re still drinking milk, consider letting go of dairy.
Dairy. Milk, cheese, and yogurt should all be taken out of the diet. Yes, dairy can have some great nutritional value especially when derived from the “rawest” sources available. But remember we are talking about breaking a plateau here… so if you’re still consuming dairy, try giving it up and seeing if your fat loss resumes. An exception to this is butter (ideally derived from grass fed cows), which is nearly pure fat and great for cooking or blending with your coffee.
Potatoes and rice. Wait a minute, isn’t rice a grain? Yes, rice is a grain but I’ve found that small servings for those with high training volumes can work. But if the fat loss stops, consider forgoing the rice. Same thing with potatoes. Potatoes are a carbohydrate dense food that can benefit someone doing high intensity work, but I put them on the chopping block if fat loss stalls.
Fruit. Fruits can have good micronutrient content but they are also high in sugar. If you have hit a fat loss plateau, I recommend avoiding fruit especially the “sweeter” fruits such as mango, pineapple, melon, and even bananas.
Another factor to consider experimenting with is the quantity of food you are eating. Even if you are sticking to a diet of lots of vegetables, some meat, and small amounts of fruit, nuts, and seeds (commonly called the paleo diet), it is still possible to eat in an amount that can hinder fat loss. If your fat loss has hit the wall, consider using the following portion guidelines:
Vegetables. For the most part, eat all of the vegetables that you like! This goes especially for the green vegetables such as spinach, kale, broccoli, and asparagus. Some of the root vegetables, such as carrots and parsnips, might hinder fat loss if eaten in large quantity. So if you are trying to break a plateau, you might want to consider abandoning the Bugs Bunny impersonation.
Meat. Beef, chicken, pork, fish, or anything else that has contributed muscle or organs to your dinner plate should be kept to the size of the palm of your hand. That’s about 3 – 5 ounces for most people.
Nuts and seeds. Keep the quantity to no more than fits in the center of your palm without overlapping. As an example, this is about 6 – 8 almonds for most people.
The timing of meals can also be a factor for fat loss. Intermittent fasting is worth experimenting with when trying to break a fat loss plateau. Popular intermittent fasting methods include 16 hours of fasting followed by 8 hours of feeding and 24 hour fasts once or twice per week. Intermittent fasting is not as much about calorie restriction as it is about hormone regulation. And as we’ll see in the next section on recovery, hormones can play a key role in fat loss.
Recovery: The Sneaky Culprit.
The tag-team of “diet and exercise” gets drilled into our brains from every glossy fitness magazine and purveyor of six pack abs when it comes to losing fat. But there is a third component that can sneak up and derail your fat loss when it gets neglected… recovery. Recovery can include a variety of modalities from myofascial release to ice baths, but as usual we are going to focus on the big wins: sleep and stress reduction.
Sleep is kind of weird when you think about it. We become unconscious, our nervous system powers down to the point that we are essentially paralyzed, yet the body is hard at “work” doing repairs and maintenance that help us function optimally during our waking hours. Disruption of sleep can lead to hormonal imbalances that can make fat loss feel like a losing battle.
One study found that losing sleep can cut fat loss by as much as 55% and elevate levels of the hormone ghrelin. Higher ghrelin levels have been shown to reduce energy expenditure, stimulate hunger and food intake, and promote retention of fat. Lack of sleep has also been shown to significantly lower testosterone levels in men. Testosterone is crucial for strength, muscle building, and bone density – all important aspects of body composition and looking and feeling your best.
So if your fat loss has floundered, try getting more quality sleep. Go to bed an hour earlier. Stop looking at computers, tablets, and televisions a few hours before bed. Ensure your sleeping space is cool, dark, and quiet. Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evenings. Basically, follow a bedtime ritual that sets yourself up for sleep success.
Another factor of hormone imbalance is stress. Specifically, stress can lead to elevated levels of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol which causes fat to be stored centrally. Yep, stress reduction is one tip that may actually reduce the often hyped “belly fat”. So if your pants aren’t any looser despite your best efforts with diet and exercise, reduce the stress in your life. Meditate, play with your dog, take a walk in nature, or just stop watching the damned news every night. Unplugging from our modern always-connected lifestyle and enjoying the simple things may be one of the best things your can do to break your fat loss plateau.
Training: Where Most People Look, But Few People Find.
Finally we get to where most people immediately turn to when they are frustrated with their fat loss – exercise. I love fitness training and firmly believe that it is essential for overall health and well being. But when it comes to fat loss specifically, training pales when compared to diet. After helping people lose fat and get fit since 2001 I am convinced that nearly any exercise protocol will work as long as the diet is dialed in. And that is why training is the last place that I look when someone hits a fat loss plateau.
That’s not to say that I don’t have my preferred training methods when it comes to fat loss. If possible, I favor a combination of heavy strength training with barbells and high intensity interval training such as sprinting or skipping rope. But barbells are not always accessible and some people prefer a no equipment “no excuses” approach. In that case, I prefer using body weight circuit training as we did with Impossible Abs.
But the strength training and intervals or body weight circuits are just the foundation. If you’re looking for an exercise “hack” to try to get you over a fat loss hurdle, below are a few methods that I’ve used with success:
Morning wake up call. As soon as you roll out of bed, do five minutes of high intensity bodyweight exercise. Sure you can hit the bathroom first and wipe the sleep from your eyes, but before you do anything else in your morning routine grind out your five minutes. Burpees are my favorite morning wake up call drill. But other movements such as squats and lunge jumps can also work. And if you want to venture outside of bodyweight exercises, kettlebell swings are a great option. The key is that this morning wake up call is in addition to your regularly scheduled training that you do later in the day.
Evening stroll. This is a great option for people who already have their regularly scheduled training first thing in the morning. Simply get outside and walk for an hour or more. Notice I said to get outside… sure we’re burning a few extra calories with this evening stroll but we are also reducing stress as mentioned earlier. So leave the iPod and cell phone at home, get out into the real world, and enjoy a leisurely walk.
Sprints. If you are not already sprinting as part of your training, I can think of no better exercise to add for fat loss. Whether up a steep hill or at your local high school track, sprints are the ultimate high intensity short duration exercise for breaking your plateau.
So I’ve run down several different options for breaking a fat loss plateau. By no means am I suggesting that you should try all of these options at once. Breaking a fat loss plateau comes down to self experimentation. You have to test and track – but if you test too many variables at once, you never know which one was the key to your results. So here is the simple process for breaking your fat loss plateau:
1. Weigh-in once per week. The number on the scale is the best indicator of whether your fat loss efforts are going in the right direction. Sure we can get into the whole “muscle is denser than fat” issue and there may be a point in your transformation where the number on the scale either doesn’t budge or actually goes up a pound or two due to an increase in muscle mass. But that intersection will be fleeting. By and large if you are trying to lose fat that scale should be headed south. So weigh-in once per week on the same day and time wearing the same attire or lack there of (always wearing shorts and a t-shirt with no shoes, or naked before you step into the shower as examples).
2. Keep your diet and training journal for a week. For the food journal write down what you eat, when you eat it, and an approximate quantity. Calorie counting is not necessary, but if that’s your thing, knock yourself out. For the training journal write down the exercises used, sets and reps performed, and amount of weight lifted if any. Other factors such as the amount of rest between sets, total time of the workout, and even the weather can be tracked if you desire but are not essential.
3. Weigh in at the end of the week. Did you lose weight? If yes, keep doing what you’re doing. If no, select ONE of the adjustments listed above in this post, make the adjustment for a week, track it in your food and training journals, and evaluate your results.
4. Rinse and repeat until goal is achieved.
When it comes to fat loss, there is no one-size-fits-all formula. The big picture of eat real food in appropriate quantity, train in a manner that is continually challenging, and allow for adequate rest and recovery applies to everyone. But the finer details, especially when trying to break a plateau, will vary from person to person.
If you are experiencing fat loss frustration, start with diet. Consider eliminating a specific food, adjusting your quantity, or trying intermittent fasting. Next, look at your recovery. Do what you can to optimize your sleep and reduce stress. Lastly, examine your training. If your foundational training is solid, try adding the morning wake up call, evening stroll, or sprints.
And remember that self experimentation is key. Weigh-in weekly, track your diet and training, and focus on one adjustment at a time. Before you know it, your clothes will fit much better, your abs will be clearly defined, and the cutie at the office will be smiling at you even when there is a long line at the copy machine.
Vic Magary is a U.S. Army Infantry veteran and has been helping people lose weight and get fit since 2001. Get his complete fat loss program for free – including four different 12-week training programs, a 12-week sample menu, 20-minute jump start audio, and 68 instructional videos – by clicking here.