Every Sunday I post a question box on my instagram story. I collect health, fitness, and nutrition questions from you all and create content (podcast episodes, articles, etc.) on them. Yes, I’m going to start this article off with a shameless plug. Follow me on instagram (adam_poehlmannfit) to get answers to all of your health and fitness questions.
Ok, shameless plug is over.
The topic of this article comes from a question submitted on my instagram story. The question is:
“What do you do when you hit a weight loss plateau and can’t lose the last 10-15 pounds?”
This is a question that is difficult to answer in a brief instagram story post, but I thoroughly enjoy getting into the details in long form whether it’s on the podcast or here in an article. So, the details are what we shall dive into.
Typically, when someone is in the middle of a plateau, there are a few things that can be contributing. The three solutions that I will offer below should help you get past that sticking point, no matter what your goal is.
TIP #1: GET A BIRDS-EYE-VIEW
Note that this tip will address the issue for almost anyone in any situation.
In the beginning stages of a fitness journey, most of us start somewhere relatively simple, focusing on behavior and choices more than anything else. This is exactly where one should start, as positive changes in behavior and choices will yield quite a significant change. However, as you probably know, the more you progress, the harder it gets to see results at the same rate as you did once before. For example, it is much easier for someone to go from 35% body fat to 30% body fat than it is for someone to get from 10% body fat to 5% body fat.
As you get further and further in your progress, your method may need to become more meticulous in order to identify the thing that needs to be addressed whether it’s your activity, nutrition, sleep, etc. You see, when you have a problem, and you fully understand the problem, it is far easier to both figure out and execute the solution. Let’s put this into financial terms. Let’s say that you have no clue where your money is going, but you know that you find yourself living paycheck to paycheck. Yet, you’re just not sure how that’s possible, given that you make a comfortable salary and don’t feel you are much of a spender. In order to figure out what’s going on, you begin looking at your bank statements, and track your spending. After a couple weeks, you realize that eating out is costing you $200/week because you are not only eating out frequently, but you are choosing places that require a tip, spending an additional 15-20% each meal. Woah. That will add up.
The same thing applies to you and your fitness, especially in your nutrition.
Over the many years I have been training and coaching people towards their goals, I’ve learned many things. One of those things is that we (including myself) are horrible at accurately describing what we consume on a daily basis. We either grossly overestimate our intake, or grossly underestimate our intake. We are never accurate when describing our intake without tracking it beforehand. Even after years of tracking food, whenever I take a break from tracking and jump back into it, I am at least 500 calories off from what I originally guessed. And that’s after years of tracking!
Since calories in vs. calories out is ultimately what determines fat loss, it is extremely important to understand exactly what, and how much of it we are eating. I recommend that you track your intake for 7-14 days, eating as you normally would. I have all of my coaching clients do this, and it is one of the many reasons they have so much success. Using a tool/app like MyFitnessPal or FatSecret, eat as you normally would, and accurately track what you eat. This means that you are not eyeballing, but rather measuring with accuracy. Since you don’t have specific calorie and nutrient targets to hit at the moment, it will be fairly easy. You can still graze, grabbing a handful of nuts here and there, but after you grab the food, you need to measure/weigh it. If your diet is relatively consistent this will be a breeze. If your eating is sporadic, this will be more challenging.
There are a couple of reasons I recommend everyone tracks their normal intake. The most important thing is that it is going to tell you exactly what is going on nutritionally. For example, if you’re at a plateau and you discover you’re eating 2,600 calories, you will be able to figure out if that’s too much for you, your lifestyle, and your goals, and make an adjustment to break the plateau. Another reason I recommend that people track their food is because it can be a piece of the puzzle, or a clue so to speak. Let’s say you do make that caloric adjustment, and you discover that the fix hasn’t gotten you past your plateau. That’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing because you now know that your nutrition is on the right track, and something else may be going on. It’s a process of elimination, slowly and accurately making your way closer and closer to identifying the underlying issue that is keeping you from the results you’re working so hard for.
When that happens, you can look at things like your activity level, sleep, stress, and more. Your activity level is another major determinant of progress as it allows you to burn calories. Not only do most individuals neglect to track their food intake, but they also have no clue how little they are moving in the day. The first thing that I recommend for people in regards to activity is simply getting a wearable that allows you to track your steps. NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis is a big contributor to calorie burn and fat loss. Studies show that moving often, spread out throughout the day, contributes to greater improvements in calorie burn. There are many forms of movement that contribute to NEAT like walking, fidgeting, folding laundry, cleaning, and more. Basically, any form of movement that is not exercise is a form of NEAT. As I type on my keyboard, I am working on my NEAT. One of the best ways to increase your NEAT is by simply increasing your steps. I remember when I first started training, I used to scoff at people that thought walking did anything impactful for their health and weight loss. Turns out I was wrong, and here I am several years later telling you how important it is to walk.
The takeaway here is getting a wearable to track your steps, and gradually increase them every so often. I recommend people add steps after the previous goal has become a habit. Let’s say you get a wearable and track your steps. You average 5,000 steps per day. Work on making 5,500 a habit, and then jump to 6,000, then 7,000 and so forth. Track your movement to identify the problem so you can find the solution.
For those of you that move plenty, are very healthy, and workout often, tracking your movement is still important, especially in the gym. A large majority of the people I know do not track their workouts. By no means am I saying that you always have to track your workouts. I believe it’s great to just go in the gym and have fun. If you’re trying to reach a goal and break past a plateau, however, it’s important that you track your workouts to see what can be improved. As muscle is one of the main contributors of automatic (at rest) calorie burn, it’s important to prioritize continual strength and muscle gains in the gym regardless of your goal. Volume is one of the ways we can measure strength and muscle improvements over time. Your training volume is made of weights x sets x reps. When your training volume increases, your strength and muscle, improves, therefore aiding your metabolism. I recommend that individuals work to increase volume each week, while progressing sets and reps every 3-4 weeks. Simply put, have a new phase with different set and rep ranges every 3-4 weeks to keep your body progressing. A simple phasing that I usually prescribe consists of a strength focus (2-5 reps) in month one, a strength and muscle growth focus (6-8 reps) in month two, and a muscle and definition focus (10-15 reps) in month three.
The takeaway here is simply logging the weights you lift given your current prescribed sets and reps. You can do this in a journal, on your phone, or in a spreadsheet.
I could keep going for days and days about getting a birds-eye-view, but I’m guessing that you’re getting the gist. Once you’ve taken a look at your food and activity, begin paying attention to your sleep, stress, and more. You can even go get some bloodwork done to learn a lot more about yourself!
TIP 2: TAKE YOUR FOOT OFF THE GAS
More is not always better, especially when it comes to breaking through a plateau. Don’t get me wrong, there are most certainly times where more work and/or dedication is required. But in my experience, more than half of the individuals I work with that are struggling with a weight plateau are working far too hard. Most of them are training at least 5 days per week, eating clean, and are moving plenty throughout the day. If they’re doing so much and eating well, how could they be stuck?
There are many mechanisms in the body that determine how our body handles, utilizes, and stores nutrients. Some of the most important things that drive a sound and healthy body are hormones. Hormones regulate so many systems in our bodies, especially how we utilize nutrients. Unfortunately, there are things that we do in our every day lives that can negatively impact the way our hormones function, like going all out with the pedal to the meal.
When we push ourselves too hard, our bodies become desensitized, so to speak. Cortisol is our stress hormone that is actually very vital to sound health. You may have heard the term “adrenal fatigue” lately, describing what happens to our body when we are called to release cortisol too much and and too often. Although “adrenal fatigue” isn’t quite scientifically accurate, the holistic docs that coined that term were on the right track. The HPA (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal) axis in our body is essentially our stress response system. Through this axis, cortisol is released in response to stress. Although cortisol is good and beneficial for our well-being, negative effects come to play when we chronically expose ourselves to stressors. When cortisol is constantly elevated and has a hard time coming back down, we expose ourselves to several negative side-effects such as weight gain, and/or difficulty managing weight. This is a very common issue for professionals, busy parents, or those exposed to a stressful life. This is also very common for those that are working out far too hard, far too often.
No matter where you’re at, the takeaway is to reduce stress, eat a well-balanced diet full of healthy fats, and to get 7-9 hours of high quality, restful sleep every single night. I’ve also found that cycling off caffeine intake will help as well. If you’re an individual that is doing high intensity exercise 5 days per week, take your training down to 3 days per week, primarily focusing on moderate-intensity strength training sessions as you take longer rest periods, slowly begin to eat more and more nutritious food, while managing/decreasing your stress, and capping it off with a deep sleep every single night.
TIP #3: CHANGE YOUR FOCUS
For some of you out there, this tip may seem a little woo woo, and that’s ok. Go into this section with an open mind and heart. And I will tell you that I have seen first hand the extreme reality of the power of the mind in relation to our external health and fitness goals.
Most of us that are stuck at a weight loss plateau are extremely focused on numbers. Whether it’s the scale weight or our body fat percentage, we are looking at numbers and numbers and numbers. Our workouts serve to improve those numbers, our food serves to improve those numbers, heck, everything we do in our day is set up to improve those numbers. Although using numbers as a tool to measure progress is something I am a big fan of, I do understand very clearly that it can lead to a very unhealthy obsession that breeds negativity and stress.
I recently posted about this the other day, but here is the short: it is far too easy to notice and dwell on the negative things in life. Unfortunately it takes a surprising amount of effort to acknowledge and soak up all of the good in our lives. Somehow they just slip by without us even noticing their existence. This is not good, especially if you are trying to reach a health and fitness goal.
All goals are reached because the individual decided they were going to make a positive behavior change. Without a doubt, all goals come from this. In fact, I am sure to give every single one of my coaching clients at least one behavior goal that they can focus on. What this does is it takes the focus off of the numbers and onto the positive behavior. No longer is Sally upset that she still weighs 200 pounds. She squatted 150 pounds today! No longer is John upset that he hasn’t gained any muscle in the past 30 days. He has deadlifted more weight than ever before. You see, focusing on something behavioral or performance-based takes all of the focus off of the potential negatives that come with obsession over weight like unnecessary stress, and shifts positive energy to be usefully utilized for the things that actually contribute to the number-based goal the person was after in the first place.
After working with a sports psychologist while going through a very difficult stint in my baseball career, I quickly realized that we are who we believe we are, and we become who we’ve taught ourselves to become. Here’s the takeaway. When you focus on the fact that you’re “stuck”, tons of negative energy is transferred to yourself that causes stress, and a lack of confidence in who you are and what you’re capable of. This energy ends up keeping you from what you want to be. Take your mind off the numbers and the negativity, and celebrate the behaviors and performance your body is capable of achieving.
There are several ways to get past a weight-loss plateau, but in my experience as a trainer and coach, I’ve found that these three tips address the most common reasons for a plateau and offer effective solutions. Begin with getting a birds-eye-view on everything that is going on from your food to your stress. Track it, track it, and track it some more. That should help you tremendously. Then, spread it all out in front of you to identify potential problems. If you realize that you’re going 24/7 and your life is full of stress, take things a step or two backwards. Train less, focusing on your strength, eat more nutritious food to fuel your body and your brain, and eliminate all stressors. While doing all of the above, consistently keep track of wins that are occurring outside of your weight-based goal.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adam is a fitness professional, baseball fan, and cookie fanatic based in Fort Collins, Colorado. After hanging up the cleats, he found a strong interest in the human body and how it performs. Since then, Adam has been transforming lives through fitness in a fun and encouraging atmosphere. As an ACE CPT and Fitness Nutrition Specialist, he is constantly moved to help people improve in all walks of life. If you’re interested in hiring Adam as your coach, fill out an application here.