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5 Ways to Break Through Weight Loss Plateaus

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5 Ways to Break Through Weight Loss Plateaus

Have you hit a weight loss plateau? It’s time to learn why, and what you can do about it.

 

Fat was practically falling off your body just a few weeks ago, and now you’re wondering if your scale is broken because no matter what you do, your weight won’t budge.

What gives?

Why did your routine suddenly stop working, and what can you do to push through this weight loss plateau?

Understanding Weight Loss Vs. Fat Loss

“Weight loss” is a tricky little devil because it doesn’t differentiate between changes in fat, muscle, and water.

The goal, of course, is to lose maximum fat and minimum muscle, and to keep water retention at a healthy minimum. When you step on the scale and register a pound lighter than the day or week before, you probably assume that you’ve lost a pound of fat; if you weigh the same or more, you probably assume that you’ve lost no fat, or gained.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Nothing swings weight up or down as easily as water retention, for example.

If you eat a lot of sodium and carbs, and drink little water, you will retain quite a bit of water, giving you that puffy, smooth look. This can easily add 3–5 pounds in a day, which can be quite disturbing if you happen to hit the scale in this state.

On the flip side, you eat little sodium and carbs and drink plenty of water, your body will flush water out, giving you a harder, more defined look, which might lead you to think that it was a great day of fat loss.

The unpredictability of water retention is one reason why I only weigh myself once per week, on the same day, in the morning, naked. Weighing yourself multiple times per week, or worse, per day, can quickly kill your confidence and mess with your head.

I also recommend that you choose a “weigh day” that doesn’t contain a cheat meal, as this can often add a pound or two of water that will come out by the end of the following day (my experience, at least).

What is a True Weight Loss Plateau?

A true weight loss plateau is a situation where you’re no longer losing fat.

I consider that I’ve hit a plateau if my weight hasn’t changed in two weeks.

As I’m only going for .5 – 1 pound of actual fat loss per week, no change on the scale after one week of dieting isn’t necessarily a reason for concern–I could’ve lost that pound of fat but happen to be retaining a bit of water, or maybe my bowel movements weren’t as regular in the prior day or two.

No change in weight after two weeks of dieting tells me that I’m probably stuck.

Some Fat-Loss Facts to Keep in Mind

Before I cover how to break these plateaus, I want you to know a few things about losing fat.

1. Weight Loss Plateaus Are to Be Expected

Just about everyone experiences weight loss plateaus. If you have no idea what I’m talking about and are able to reach single-digit body fat percentages with complete ease, count yourself lucky.

It’s very common for people to hit several plateaus on their journeys to a six pack because, well, the human body is just stubborn when it comes to shedding fat.

I’ve found that I can’t get below 9-10% body fat on diet alone (you can only reduce your calories so much, or you begin to eat up muscle)–I have to add in cardio if I want to continue losing. When I bulk, I usually end off around 14-15% body fat, and I can diet off the first 5% or so, but then I hit a plateau that only 2-3 days per week of HIIT cardio can cure (20-25 minutes per session).

Then, the next plateau for me comes around 8%. If I want to go lower, I have to up my cardio to 3-4 days per week.

Everyone I’ve trained and otherwise helped has experienced the same phenomenon, but the thresholds vary. I’ve known a few rare people that can diet lower than 10% without adding cardio, but most people can’t break double-digit body fat percentages without a very strict diet and regular cardio routine.

2. The More You Lose, the Harder It Gets

The leaner you become, the longer it takes to lose fat healthily (the key, as you want to preserve as much muscle and strength as possible while losing fat).

If you’re at 25% body fat, it’s very possible to lose 2-3 pounds of fat per week for the first several weeks. If you’re at 10% body fat and are making a run for single digits, however, 2-3 pounds of fat per week would be impossible without dangerous drugs.

For me, once I get below 12% or so, I’m very happy to see just one pound of fat loss per week, and I have to work for it.

3. Your Body Has a “Comfort Zone”

Although it might sound a bit broscientific, it’s the best way I can describe a phenomenon experienced by me and millions of other athletes around the world.

The body seems to have a weight (and, accordingly, a body fat percentage) that it is most comfortable at. Your natural appetite tends to maintain this weight and if you eat less than this, you feel hungry. If you eat more than this, you feel quite full.

For some, this “comfort zone” is relatively fat, while others settle into a weight that is quite lean.

For me, for example, I find that my body is most comfortable around 10% body fat (which would currently put me at about 200 lbs). I don’t have to watch my calories too closely and I can cheat several times per week, and I’ll just stay around 10%.

Now, maintaining a weight under this comfort zone requires watching your calories, and often including some cardio in your routine. Getting fatter than this requires regular overeating, and if this continues for too long, the comfort zone creeps higher and higher.

5 Ways to Break Your Weight Loss Plateaus

Alright, now that you know the difference between weight loss plateaus and fat loss plateaus, here are three surefire ways to stoke your body’s furnace again to keep the fat coming off.

1. Re-Calculate Your Daily Caloric Target

Your metabolism slows down as you lose weight because your body doesn’t need to exert as much energy to maintain its now-slimmer physique.

If you don’t adjust your calories to account for this, you may hit a plateau. The easy way to avoid this is to re-calculate your daily caloric target after every 15 pounds of weight loss.As you’ll see, the target creeps lower and lower.

There are many formulas out there for determining how much you should eat to lose weight, but here’s a simple one based on the Katch McArdle:

1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight

1 gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight

.2 grams of fat per pound of body weight

That simple macronutrient formula will put you in a moderate caloric deficit and allow for steady, healthy weight loss. To turn it into calories, simply multiply the protein and carbs by 4, and the fats by 9.

2. Control the “Hidden Calories”

Most weight loss plateaus are caused by nothing more than “calorie creep”–that is, eating more calories than you think. This, combined with an ever-slowing metabolism, is a guaranteed formula for stagnation.

Calories can creep in from many places. Purposeless snacking, eating out at restaurants (they load calories into meals with butter, oil, sauces, etc.), overdoing it with condiments, and drinking alcohol are all common ways to add enough calories to stall your weight loss without making you feel like you’re completely “off your diet.”

The sad truth is a mere 200-300 calories too many per day can completely halt fat loss. To put this into perspective, that’s only a couple handfuls of nuts, a few tablespoons of fatty salad dressing, or a small bag of chips. Yup, fat loss is that finicky. It’s not very complicated, but it requires absolute precision.

So, to overcome the “calorie creep,” you simply have to know exactly what’s going into your body every day. You can keep a food journal, or you can do what I do: calculate what you need each day, break it down into daily meals, and eat the same thing every day, every meal.

I don’t have the time or patience to work a bunch of variety into my diet, so I embrace the simplicity of choosing nutritious foods that I like, and eating them over and over.

3. Increase Your Cardio

If you know that your daily caloric target is good and you have absolutely no calorie creep, then you should increase your cardio.

You can add another day if possible (I don’t recommend more than 4 days per week if you’re also weight training), or add time to each day (I like to add 10 minutes to each session and see how my body responds).

The idea is to just tip the scales a little bit more in the direction of fat loss and observe the results. If the first round of extra cardio doesn’t do it, add more (another 10 minutes to each session, for instance), and you’ll get there.

Oh and do HIIT cardio, please.

4. Embrace the Cheat Meal

Yup, believe it or not, the cheat meal actually helps you lose fat.

How?

Well, first there’s the psychological boost, which keeps you happy and motivated, which ultimately makes sticking to your diet easier.

But there’s also a physiological boost.

Studies on overfeeding (the scientific term for binging on food) show that doing so can boost your metabolic rate by anywhere from 3-10%. While this sounds good, it actually doesn’t mean much when you consider that you would need to eat a anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand extra calories in a day to achieve this effect.

More important are the effects cheating has on a hormone called leptin, which regulates hunger, your metabolic rate, appetite, motivation, and libido, as well as serving other functions in your body.

When you’re in a caloric deficit and lose body fat, your leptin levels drop. This, in turn, causes your metabolic rate to slow down, your appetite to increase, your motivation to wane, and your mood to sour.

On the other hand, when you give your body more energy (calories) than it needs, leptin levels are boosted, which can then have positive effects on fat oxidation, thyroid activity, mood, and even testosterone levels.

So if it’s an increase in leptin levels that you really want, how do you best achieve it?

Eating carbohydrates is the most effective way. Second to that is eating protein (high-protein meals also raise your metabolic rate). Dietary fats aren’t very effective at increasing leptin levels, and alcohol actually inhibits it.

So, if your weight is stuck and you’re irritable and demotivated, a nice kick of leptin might be all you need to get the scales moving again.

Have a nice cheat meal full of protein and carbs, and enjoy the boost in your leptin levels. It can help your weight loss!

5. Lift Heavy Weights

If you’re familiar with any of my work, you know I’m a big fan of lifting heavy weights. Well, among the many benefits of lifting heavy is the fact that it helps speed up fat loss.

A study published by Greek sports scientists found that men that trained with heavy weights (80-85% of their one-rep max, or “1RM”) increased their metabolic rates over the following three days, burning hundreds more calories than the men that trained with lighter weights (45-65% of their 1RM).

So hit the weights and hit them hard if you want to jack up your metabolic rate and in turn, speed up your fat loss.

And if you want to score extra points, focus on compound lifts like squats and deadlifts, because these are the types that burn the most post-workout calories.

Summary

I hope you found this article helpful and remember that the journey to a lean, muscular body is a marathon, not a sprint.

Have you ever experienced a weight loss plateau? Have anything else you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below!

How to get lean and build serious muscle and strength, faster than you ever thought possible…

Depending on how you eat, train, and rest, building muscle and losing fat can be incredibly easy or incredibly hard. Unfortunately, most people make many different mistakes that leave them stuck in a rut.

The truth is if you know how to train, eat, and rest properly, then you can build muscle and lose fat every week…and actually see the changes in the mirror.

And that’s why I wrote Bigger Leaner Stronger for men, and Thinner Leaner Stronger for women: they lay out EVERYTHING you need to know about diet and training to build muscle and lose fat effectively…

The Book Bigger Leaner Stronger by Michael Matthews.

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admin I’m Mike Matthews and I’ve been training for nearly a decade now. I believe that every person can achieve the body of his or her dreams, and I work hard to give everyone that chance by providing workable, proven advice grounded in science, not a desire to sell phony magazines, workout products, or supplements. More about me.

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54 Comments
  • Joe Lucchese

    Great article Mike! Thanks for posting it and keep up the good work!

    • http://www.muscleforlife.com//about-me/ Michael Matthews

      Thanks Joe! I’m glad you enjoyed it. :)

      Mike

  • Martin smith

    Another excellent no BS article. I’m making steady but sure progress and find your articles extremely motivational. Thanks for the help

    • http://www.muscleforlife.com//about-me/ Michael Matthews

      Awesome Martin, I’m glad to hear you’re doing well! Keep up the good work!

      Mike

  • John Blubaugh

    Great article. Just received my 4 Killer Workouts report and can’t wait to put these to good use.

    • http://www.muscleforlife.com//about-me/ Michael Matthews

      Thanks John! Let me know how it goes!

      Mike

  • Alex

    This is a very encouraging article! I started dieting February 19 th of this year at 240lbs with very little muscle; by the end of may I was weighing in at 186 with not a lot, but some muscle growth. Since then I have only dropped to 180, and felt like I was “broken” since I couldn’t lose anymore weight. After reading this I noticed some of the errors I was making, hindering my true potential.

    I recently purchased all your books and am making sme major changes to my diet and exercise, I’ll let you know the results.

    • http://www.muscleforlife.com//about-me/ Michael Matthews

      Thanks Alex! Nice job on the weight loss and I’m glad you found the article helpful!

      Awesome on the books! Shoot me an email any time if you have any questions.

      Mike

  • Richard Marshall

    Hi Mike, i am a 42 year old male who has been working out for years but have been putting on fat recently, i have been pushing myself more but to no avail! I have purchased your books which are great but would you be able to advise me of work out routine that will work best for someone of my age? Thanks Richard

    • http://twitter.com/MikeBLS Michael Matthews

      Hey Richard,

      Thanks for writing! You can absolutely follow the routine laid out in Bigger Leaner Stronger. Have you ever lifted weighted before?

      Mike

      • Richard Marshall

        Hi Mike,
        Thanks for the reply. I have lifted weights before but only just started again in the last few months.
        Richard

        • http://twitter.com/MikeBLS Michael Matthews

          Okay cool. I think you’re going to be really happy with how your body responds to the BLS program. You’re going to have muscle memory on your side.

          What type of program are you currently doing?

          Mike

          • Richard Marshall

            I have been doing full body work out three times a week with not to heavy weights, will i be able to handle the BLS program?

          • http://twitter.com/MikeBLS Michael Matthews

            That’s a good start. Yeah, you should have no problem transitioning into the BLS program. It’s going to be tougher, but your body will adapt quickly.

          • Richard Marshall

            Thanks Mike! I have started the BLS program, i will let you know how i go.
            Cheers,
            Richard

          • http://twitter.com/MikeBLS Michael Matthews

            Awesome! Definitely keep me posted on how it goes!

  • David Tripp

    Hey Mike,

    Great article! I just received my Bigger Leaner Stronger and The Shredded Chef. Looking forward to reading both and reaping the benefits. I’m 49 and in the midst of off-season training after my first year of sprint distance triathlons. I’ve dropped 38lbs in the past year, mostly through swimming, treadmill, and stationary bike training – and, of course, paying attention to what I eat/drink – but virtually no weight training.

    Since Dec 1, I’ve been focused on weight-training following 30 minutes of HIIT cardio (3-5 sessions a week). I’ve been right at 220-225lbs since then, but noticing during this plateau that my I’m losing fat and gaining muscle on my arms, chest, shoulders and upper back. I’m looking to lose another 15lbs to get to about 205, while continuing to build muscle. I plan on doing my lunch-time cardio/weight training 5 days a week, and adding my morning swim training back into the mix – meaning 2-a-days at least 3 days a week. Is it realistic to expect continued muscle growth AND fat/weight loss on this kind of schedule (with proper nutrition)? Any advice to ensure I continue to gain muscle as I ramp up to triathlon training?

    Thanks, Dave

    • http://twitter.com/MikeBLS Michael Matthews

      Hey Dave,

      Thanks for picking up my books! Definitely let me know what you think of them once you’ve given them a read.

      Great job on your weight loss so far! That’s totally awesome on your body composition changes.

      Traditional bodybuilding wisdom is that it isn’t possible to both build muscle and lose fat, but i’ve emailed with TOO many readers that accomplish it to agree. That said, it does stop at some point. In my experience, I’ve yet to see someone enjoy it after their first year of regular, intense training.

      If you’re new to the heavy style of training I recommend in BLS, chances are you will continue to build muscle while losing weight. Cardio twice per day might get in the way of this though. Hard to say really as genetics play a big role in this. There aren’t really any supplements or special things you can do beyond what I cover in BLS.

      I would love to hear how it goes for you! Definitely shoot me an email with updates.

      I hope this helps!

      Mike

  • Jia

    Hey Mike, will birth control pills that contain both estrogen and progesterone effect my muscle gain and fat loss?

    • http://twitter.com/MikeBLS Michael Matthews

      Hey Jia,

      Great question! I don’t have any studies I can link you, but I’ve heard that birth control pills can definitely interfere with weight loss. I’ve also spoken to women that ran into these issues.

      Are you having trouble losing weight?

      Mike

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  • Carlos M de León

    What kind of foods would you recommend as a cheat meal that are good carb boosters?

    • Michael Matthews

      Good question. You have quite a few options but my faves are whole-grain pasta and bread, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and oatmeal.

  • rafat

    hey man i , i like ur articles , heres my deal i am 39 been a fitness competitor all my life , i hit platue and i have been on a good diet for a month and didnt lose nothing !!! i tried all u talked about already from before but nothing is working .. i take test , i left 4 days a week and just increased my cardio to 4 times a week two cardios r done in the morning on empty stomach ,, any suggestions ?

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks!

      Hmm what’s your weight and how many calories are you eating every day?

  • Rosie369

    I just came across your site today and I could cry from relief over how useful and helpful this information is! I got serious about losing weight and being healthier in general this year. I lost 40lbs pretty quickly and easily enough (just worked out a couple of hrs every week, kept track of what I ate and had a lower calorie budget). Once I hit about 35lbs though it didn’t work like that anymore, I hit a plateau and it’s been a struggle since then to drop the pounds. I’m glad to have a better understanding of the reasons why and what I can do from this site. I will definitely be purchasing your book for women soon! Thanks again!

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks so much Rosie! Great job on the weight loss. That’s awesome.

      My guess is a) you’re simply eating too much or moving too little or b) your metab has just slowed down a bit and needs a boost. I can help you either way.

      What’s your current weight, exercise routine, and daily calorie/macro intake like?

  • Jenna

    I am so frustrated and disheartened! I have lost 24.5 kg and I have now plateaued. The scale has not moved in the last 5ish weeks. I track my food and drink intake on MFP. It has me on 1300 calories per day. I walk 5 km every day and I am now starting to run – by starting, I mean running a few lamposts, walking, then running again. I hope this will build up my endurance. At the moment, I almost die lol. I have carefully weighed and measured all my food and tried to hit the macros that MFP sets for me. I don’t know what to do! Any help would be gratefully received. I’m about ready to give up. I have gone out an bought some resistance bands. Would they help? Any particular way to use them that would be helpful?

  • Enriq

    Hi Mike! I was reading your article (actually another perfect article congrats) and I didn’t understood very well the cheat meal. When we cheat, we should cheat with carbs and proteins, but how much quantity should we cheat? Should we pass the caloric deficit in that day with the cheat meal to boost our metabolism without worrying so much about the caloric deficit and eat till we feel ok? Or must we cheat, with a hamburguer for example, but calculating not to pass the caloric deficit in which we are at? Also, if we cheat in dinner, is it worst than cheating at lunch? Probably if I cheat it will be at night and I don’t know if its worst since in a couple of hours I’ll be in the bed. Thankkss!!!! :D

    • Michael Matthews

      When I’m cutting I like to end the day I cheat on in a bit of a surplus, but not too crazy. 300-500 cals over my TDEE for the day. It’s a nice boost. You don’t have to worry too much about calculating your cheat meal but try to keep it under control–don’t gorge yourself on fatty foods until you want to throw up, lol.

      • Enriq

        Perfect! Very good tip!! Thanks Michael! :D

        • Michael Matthews

          YW!

  • AustinDayacap

    Hey, Mike. I can’t seem to get down from 16%-19% BF. I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t count my calories religiously or I’m not exercising enough but I roughly estimate my calories and am doing strength training & HIIT cardio on schedule. Doing the Katch-McArdle and multiplying it to 1.35 (4-6 hours of exercise) and then multiplying the product to .8, I got about 1,735 cals to eat to lose fat. I’m pretty sure I don’t eat more than that, tho. My breakfast is like 300-400 cals, my lunch the same, if not less (I’m living in an Asian country so there’s ALWAYS rice, so I’m sure I get more than 200 calories every meal). So should I resort to taking in supplements like Yohimbine, GTE & BCAA (for fasted training) or is my BF still okay to not resort to take them and just do some changes? I have Yohimbine & GTE, just in case I do /need/ to turn to these supplements. I’m on my 6th/7th month of training and I’ve been doing the wrong sh** for half the time because of misinformation. So that’s a lot of wasted time for some newbie gains. Thanks!

    • Michael Matthews

      Standard Katch multipliers are just too high. 1.35 might be too high, or you’re just eating more than you think.

      Check out this article on how to create a proper meal plan and stick 100% to it:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/healthy-meal-planning-tips/

      That should do it. Let me know.

  • jb18

    Hi Mike, I have lost 30kgs so far on my weight loss journey and ideally would like to loose another 25kgs. I have recently taken up intermittent fasting as due to a persistent back injury I have been advised to not do any heavy physical activity for the next 6 weeks. I have lost 2.5kgs in the last 3 weeks but I am mostly concerned that it is muscle and water loss more than fat loss. Are there any light workouts I can do that will still be effective in my weight loss and how can I ensure that I am not loosing muscle?

  • anima71

    Hi Mike, I’m cutting right now and I’m down from 19% BF to 15% but now the scale doesn’t show any loss anymore. I’m 170cm and 60-61kg’s so pretty short. Now I’m consuming 1600kcal with the ratio of 50%carbs, 30% protein and 20%fats. My diet is 90% clean for about 3-4 months now. I’m in the gym 4 times per week doing split (mon:back, tuesday:bi, tri, thursday:chest and shoulders, friday: legs). After every strength session I do cardio of approx 40min on the eliptical and the fat just doesn’t come off. I tried refeed day, chead day etc. What is going on? Should I cut the calories more? That would be sadistic :)

    • Michael Matthews

      Great job on what you’ve done so far!

      You’re a girl, right?

      • anima71

        No, I’m a guy:) I just started to add calories and decided to bulk up because I’m not able to continue the cut on 1500 kcal.

  • dan_gallo

    Hey, great article. I’m 18 and have been trying to get down my body fat % to about 10-13. Im around 20 right now. Ive been eating clean for a while now and tracking all my calories. I think my metabolism has slowed down a little because some weeks ill loose 1-1.5 pound which is normal. But then it goes back up, and then goes down. I think I’m gonna start doing the calorie surplus every 3 days.

  • Steve

    Hi Mike, please can you elaborate on ‘cheat meal’? Would you keep the rest of the diet the same but up the protein and carbs? A normal day for me at the min is:
    40g fat
    240g protein
    200g carbs (calculated from BLS).

    How much protein and carb should I up to on this day? For example should I have an extra 50g of each? I know I want to increase my calories overall to increase leptin.

    Do you think a cheat day whilst cutting is the worst thing? Ie if I’m gonna do it I should still lose weight? I really think the pshchological aspect of having a bar of chocolate or pizza to look forward to can really keep me on track! Sorry if this makes me seem weak but I do love food and don’t want to obliterate it from my life! Can’t really think of anything worse lol.

    I did lose a lot of weight – 36 lbs – in the past by having a cheat day. It being strict the other 6

    • Michael Matthews

      I’ll be writing an article on this soon. But basically I like to “save up” cals for a cheat when I get leaner. That is, I just eat protein all day and save all carbs/fat for the cheat meal.

      Cheat day is bad. One meal per week.

  • Steve

    Hi Mike,
    Can I just ask about refeeding? Should I keep the rest of the calories the same through the day and just end up with higher carbs and protein? Can you advise how much I should up them by? I’ll make sure I consume the same amount of fat as usual. I’m currently having:
    Fat 40g
    Carbs 200g
    Protein 240g

    How much should I up carbs by on reefer day in order to spike leptin levels? Thanks

    • Michael Matthews

      Drop fat to as low as you can get it and I keep protein around 1g/lb.

  • David L

    Mike, I’ve been on a plateau for 6 weeks. I’m 23, 5’9″, 180 lbs., about 20-21% bf. I’ve been eating 42g fat, 189g carbs, 180g protein. I weight lift 4x week and do cardio 4x a week and have lost 15lbs so far. However, I have made strength gain during the plateau and have increased the weight I am able to lift. What should I do to keep losing weight/fat?

    • Michael Matthews

      Great job on the weight loss so far.

      How often are you eating over those numbers and what are you eating when you do? Alcohol as well?

      • David L

        About once a week. I usually eat burgers, tacos, and/or chicken strips. No Alcohol though.

        • Michael Matthews

          Okay and is your weight/body fat percentage continuing to go down?

          • David L

            No. They have stayed the same.

          • Michael Matthews

            Okay well before we change anything major, let’s have you stick 100% to your numbers for the next 10 days with no cheating and see what happens.

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