So you've made the decision to take charge of your body. You're eating right, hitting the gym, and the pounds start falling off. And then you hit a wall. Even though you're putting in the same effort, you just aren't getting the returns you enjoyed early on.
Time to overcome your weight loss plateau.
What Causes a Plateau
It's extremely common for people to make great progress toward their weight loss goals right out of the gate. Then, all of a sudden, the diet and exercise regimens that were once so effective just stop working.
So, if you'd like to take yourself from reasonably lean to ripped, you'll have to change your game plan. Unfortunately, the same tools that took you from 30% body fat down to 15% often won't work for cutting the last 5%.
Here's why: To become overweight, your diet and activity level had to be out of balance. A sedentary lifestyle and/or consuming massive empty calories isn't a natural state for human beings, and results in an unnatural body composition.
To correct this, you simply have to right those imbalances. If you're already trying to lose weight, you've likely tackled the major hurdles of cutting out the junk, replacing it with real food (greatly decreasing your calorie intake), and adding 3 to 5 days of gym time per week.
In your fitness toolbox, these are your big hammers – making these changes will get most of the job done.
But after you've used your hammers, you'll need employ more delicate tools to refine your results.
Slashing calories further will only lead to loss of muscle mass and hangry (hungry and angry) behavior. Doubling your gym time will leave you exhausted and probably burn more muscle than fat.
So what do you do?
It's time to fine tune the process. Here's how:
Assess your hunger
If you felt satisfied with the amount of food you were consuming that led to earlier weight loss, great. You have a little wiggle room to cut more calories. Head on down to the next section on evaluating your intake.
However, if you're constantly hungry, you may have a little more work to do.
In the process of losing weight, a lot of people get a little too ambitious and start slashing calories drastically. As a result, protein intake also suffers. Super restricted calories and inadequate protein intake lead to a loss of muscle mass and a decreased metabolic rate.
So if you're constantly hungry, cutting food intake further isn't a good idea. In this case, a mini-bulk may be in order to bring back some of the lost muscle mass.
Evaluate your intake
To jump start new fat loss, you need to know how much you currently eat to determine what you can cut out.
Certain diets, such as low fat, low carb, or paleo, are touted as the cure-all weight loss system and claim to eliminate the need to count calories. While it would be wonderful if that was the case, it simply isn't true. It's still possible to gain fat on any of those diets if you overeat.
To track your food intake, you don't have to put all of your food on a scale. But you do need to have a good idea of what you eat consistently to help figure out where adjustments can be made.
I use the myfitnesspal app. It's free and easy to use.
Don't worry, you won't have to track your meals like this forever. Once you're a pro at monitoring your food, you'll be able to ballpark things with sufficient accuracy.
Reboot your fat loss
Once you've got a handle on your intake, it's time to make adjustments and reboot your fat loss.
(1) Cut about 200-300 calories per day – As your food intake gets closer to maintenance levels, taking big bites out of your daily calories will just lead to muscle loss and overpowering hunger.
To find your maintenance calories, monitor your intake for a week or two and then find the average (use an app for this, trust me). Slowly reduce your caloric intake from there.
(2) Protein is #1 – Metabolic rate is largely determined by the amount of muscle mass you have. Preserving as much as possible, or even gaining, is your number one priority when you want to lose fat.
(3) Fat is #2 – Dietary fat provides satiety and is necessary for proper hormone production. A good starting point for daily fat intake would be about half your bodyweight in grams.
(4) Carbs are #3 – After you figure out your protein and fat requirements, add in enough carbs to make up the remainder of your calorie needs.
Tweak your workouts
(1) Focus on steady improvement in the gym – Now that you have the quantity of activity dialed in, and you know that adding more workouts won't necessarily speed results, it's time to focus on quality. Try to stick to an established program and focus on progress by doing more reps, more weight, or taking shorter breaks.
(2) Weightlifting is #1 – The biggest mistake people make when losing weight is neglecting the iron. Cardio alone will not produce a great physique, but weightlifting alone can. Preserving and gaining muscle mass are more important than lowering the numbers on the scale. Weightlifting is your best tool for this task.
(3) Activity is #2 – You should aim to live an active lifestyle. Try running errands by walking or riding a bike. Spend some time playing basketball, hiking a trail, building a tree house with the kids, or anything else that gets you off the couch.
(4) Cardio is #3 – After you've nailed everything else, you can go ahead and add some cardio into your routine. Just don't treat it as the end goal. For optimal body composition, resist the urge to constantly improve your mileage or pace. You should put all of your available focus into progressing in the weight room and getting a solid amount of protein at every single meal.
I'm a big fan of low carb diets for fast weight loss, but they can be expensive, inconvenient, and I often l lose too much weight on them.
When you're trying to overcome a weight loss plateau, I like to look at things from a practical perspective (i.e., how the diet will fit into your lifestyle), so I recommend starting with macronutrients somewhere around 30% Protein, 20% Fat, and 50% Carbs.
If you opt for these macro ratios, you'll find that they fit pretty nicely into normal eating habits, provided you make an effort to get in some extra protein with each meal.
Further, you don't have to stick to these ratios exactly. Some people might not feel comfortable consuming so many carbs, so you can just decrease carbs and increase fat.
Whether you're bulking or cutting, fat and protein can remain fairly constant. These are essential nutrients and contribute most to feeling full. When calories need to be cut, it's generally best to cut out some carbs (not to zero though).
My current weight loss diet
I'm coming off a winter bulking cycle at the moment and looking to lean out a bit for summer. Since I started out skinny-fat, my body favors fat storage while bulking, and muscle loss during cutting phases, so I like to keep protein on the high side.
My previous macros were built up over the winter to around 110g fat, 230g protein, and 450g carbs for a total of 3,710 calories.
Currently, I'm consuming about 80g fat, 250g protein, and 400g carbs for a total of 3,320 calories daily.
As you can see, I decreased carbs and fat to cut some overall calories. I've also increased protein a little so I don't lose too much of my hard-earned muscle in the presence of a caloric deficit.
Assess your hunger levels. If you're ravenous, you likely can't cut additional calories. Spend a couple months regaining some muscle. Once you're feeling good, you can continue trying to lose fat.
Evaluate your current intake. Setting arbitrary numbers, such as 2,000 calories, is silly at best, detrimental at worst.
Cut calories slowly. Cut 200-300 calories from your daily intake. When weigh loss stops, cut another 200. Repeat until shredded.
Keep protein intake high. You want to lose fat, not weight. Severely restricted calories along with inadequate protein is a recipe for muscle loss.
Focus on making progress in the weight room. Weightlifting builds and maintains muscle, burns calories, and increases your metabolism long term.
Apply these tips and you'll be smashing through your plateau before beach season!
All the best,