How To Break Through A Weight Loss Plateau

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.

Get 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.

Now What?

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.

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Comments

  1. says

    Great tips. I have trouble with getting enough sleep. I’d much rather be doing something other than sleeping. But it is important so I really need to nail that down.

  2. Ankita says

    Hi Joel, I am suffering from PCOS. Polycystic ovaries syndrome. It is next to impossible to lose weight. Do you think any kind of medicines will help along with the workouts? I go to the gym everyday. Yes – My diet control is not that great.

    • says

      Track your food for a week and become aware of what you’re eating. Then clean up your diet according to the suggestions laid out here.

      After you do that, track your results and then talk about medications.

    • Jeanie says

      Ankita-

      When you have PCOS, this is a true signal that your hormones are messed up. Focus intensely on blood sugar stabilization and proper recovery time from the gym.

      Make sure you’re getting plenty of cooked cruciferous veggies to mop up excess estrogen & cooked to neutralize goitergenic compounds that may be affecting your thyroid levels.

      Also, I would aim for a gradual reduction in carbohydrates rather than a fast drop, as going too quickly can easily throw your thyroid out of whack. Dr Cate of “Deep Nutrition” talks about it here:

      http://drcate.com/going-low-carb-too-fast-may-trigger-thyroid-troubles-and-hormone-imbalance/

      Insulin, thyroid, and sex hormone difficulties tend to go hand in hand.

      Stick with it strictly for at least 30 days or perhaps 60 to see what happens for you. Let your doctor know what you’re trying to do, and if possible, get a good Paleo doc. Good luck!

      *Joel/Vic, I hope you don’t mind that I jumped in w/ advice & links.

      • says

        Nope – totally fine :).

        That said, my preference is to almost always start with cleaning up your diet (simply eating real food first) before embarking on a cocktail of medicines. In my opinion, it’s best to get your body to “ground zero” and be operating at the best you possibly can by eating right (and then considering medications) rather than by using medications to substitute or compensate for poor eating habits & discipline right off the bat.

    • Tiffany says

      I too have PCOS and thought it was impossible to lose weight. DONT GIVE UP! I think we tell ourselves “Oh, I have PCOS so I cant really lose weight.” So not true. We just have to work harder at it. It will take time but stay strong. It is SO possible!

      • Debbie says

        I also have PCOS and I have been large all my life. I recently cut out all starchy white processed foods, and the weight came off rather quickly for the first time. I recently had a blood test, and my insulin levels, which are usually 3 to 4 times higher than they should be, we’re in the normal range. I eat flax meal every morning, and it keeps me full and gives me energy. I wouldn’t say I’m doing the Atkins diet, because I don’t worry about stages or phases, but I do use the Atkins rules as far as what foods are acceptable. I had accepted the fact that I would always be large, but am now hopeful that isn’t the case.

  3. says

    FINALLY!!!! A common sense overview that I actually agreed with all the way from top to bottom. I could split hairs but that’s just me. FANTASTIC Summary article.

    Food diary? Check. Exercize log? Check. Santa Claus brought me a Fitbit so that activity log just got a whole lot more detailed. 126 pounds melted off in 18 months. Food choice is easily 80% of winning the battle. Not quantity – QUALITY.

    I’ll be going over to look at Vic’s website in the next minute.

    Thank you!
    Meghann

  4. Linda Long says

    Thanx for the expert advice. I do eat squeeky clean and have since the ’60s but now that I’m almost 70yrs.old I have been working to get these 20pounds off with no success even with a trainer twice a wk along with yoga classes twice a wk and cardio class once a week. I am going back to square one of food and exercise journal and turning it over to a coach. Thanx for bringing me back to basics.

  5. Beverly says

    Help !!!. I’m a 63 yr old female. I have always had weight problems. I’m doing everything you suggested. I keep a journal on food and exercise. I lost 20 lbs and then I hit a wall for the last month. I have had several surgeries 6 months ago. So I have to be very careful with the exercise. No weights. But I can do the treadmill and bike. I stared with 1200 calories diet, then 1100 and now 1000. Nothing works. Got to be metabolism. So I’m taking 1200 mil. fish oil and 1200 mil. vitamin D. Nothing is working.

  6. Isabel says

    I lost 42 lbs last year and have hit a wall. I love to workout and challenge myself trying new things. I log my food and workouts everyday, every single day since Nov 2012. Been in this plateau 3 almost 4 months, fluctuating between the same 4 lbs.

    I’m hoping changing my diet the way you suggested will do the trick. I have looked at my food log and did notice I’ve been eating the same foods for months now, lol. I will start to remove some if not all the foods you described.

    I’m excited to FINALLY have a plan!!!

    Thank you,
    Isabel :)

  7. Zack says

    Hey Joel

    I am going to try out your suggestions but my concern is when I reach my goal and continue eating normally, I’m I going to gain the weight back?

  8. BDL says

    Dumb advice. I eat everything he says to leave out and I am still losing weight 3 months later. Just exercise and keep your calorie count low and you will be fine.
    BTW if you follow his list of things to leave out,… the only thing left is sand.

  9. Sarah says

    Hi!

    Really good advice, thanks. I think I can work with this.
    So I need to lose around 14 pounds (7 kg) but in these last couple of months I’m not losing anything. I’m eating low carb (30 gram carbs a day) but to be very honest I’m not really working out and I know I know, I should be doing that so I think I will start tomorrow ;).

    Anyway, I think I just need to start eating a little more carbs. Often I just don’t know what to snack so I just decide to wait until the next ‘big’ meal which is not very smart. Maybe I can start losing weight again by eating more (of the good stuff) and starting to do some work outs.

    Thanks or your advice. Real eye opener.

    Love,
    S.

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