“I’m down 15 pounds but the scale hasn’t budged in weeks!” For anyone who’s ever had success with dropping some lbs. this statement probably resonates as the dreaded fat loss plateau is something many dieters encounter. When the plateau is reached and frustration climbs to an all-time high, the question of “how the hell do I break through this plateau and continue to make progress?” inevitably arises. We’ll get to that, but first, let’s understand why the plateau ever occurred in the first place.
Weight loss is a relatively simple process: consume fewer calories than you burn consistently over days, weeks, months, etc. and you will lose weight. So, if you start seeing the number on the scale consistently drop thus indicating you are in a calorie deficit (consuming fewer calories than you are burning) why doesn’t it just continue forever? The answer is something called metabolic adaptation.
When you enter into a calorie deficit, what you are doing as the dieter is sending a signal to your body that you will not be giving it the energy it needs to operate and in turn your body will have to find a way to provide the energy needed for function by way of using energy that is already available (i.e. by using the fat and/or muscle already on your body which is technically stored energy).
In response to you sending your body a signal that you will not be providing it with enough external energy, as a defense mechanism, it will use the stored energy on your body as mentioned before and it will also begin to act much more efficiently. What will begin to happen is your body will slow your metabolism meaning that you will begin to be able to survive/function on fewer calories daily. This is known as metabolic adaptation and this is why weight loss plateaus occur.
Here is a practical real-world example to further help you understand metabolic adaptation:
- Joe Smith wants to lose weight.
- Joe Smith finds that he maintains his 200-pound bodyweight with 2,500 calories per day.
- Joe Smith begins eating 1,700-1,800 calories a day and increases the amount of exercise he is doing to create a calorie deficit and drive weight loss.
- Joe Smith loses 10lbs. in his first 5 weeks of dieting.
- Joe Smith loses 5lbs. in his next 5 weeks of dieting as his body has now realized he is not going to provide it with the necessary energy to function daily and is beginning to operate much more efficiently.
- Joe Smith loses 2 pounds in his next 5 weeks of dieting. His weight loss eventually comes to a complete standstill as a result of his metabolism slowing and his energy consumed and burned now being the same as a result of this slowing.
Beating The Dreaded Plateau
Now that we fully understand weight loss and why plateaus occur, how do we beat them? The answer is very simple and can be split up into 3 choices.
Choice 1: Further decrease the number of calories you are eating. (Generally dropping between 300-500 calories at a time, milking all potential weight loss at that calorie threshold, and then repeating this step is ideal.)
Choice 2: Increase the amount of exercise you are doing. No form of exercise is necessarily “better” than another but for body composition purposes, having a structured resistance training program that focuses on getting better over time in conjunction with cardio (treadmill, stepper, bike, etc.) will lead to the best results. (Generally, keep resistance-training volume fairly consistent and add more and more cardio as needed to increase calories burned.)
Choice 3: A combination of Choice’s 1 and 2 (i.e. both decreasing calories consumed and increasing exercise activity).
Kick That Plateau’s A**
While weight loss plateaus can often seem insurmountable they certainly don’t have to be. Just continue with your original plan of action and make some adjustments on your intake and/or the amount of exercise activity you are doing and you will kick that plateau’s a**!