OVERCOMING A PLATEAU
After dieting for a certain amount of time, our bodies will most likely get to a point where it will plateau: this means it will get to a point where your weight loss will stall or you will struggle to progress in your training. Why does this happen and how can we overcome it?
Losing weight is tough, and it can be extremely frustrating when you feel as though you are doing everything right, but the weight on the scale just won’t move. Unfortunately, whilst this may not be what you want to hear, this is actually a very common occurrence during weight loss.
As you lose weight, your metabolism will decrease (as you weigh less), causing you to burn fewer calories than you did at your heavier weight. Your slower metabolism will affect weight loss, even if you eat the same number of calories that helped you initially lose that weight. Essentially your metabolic rate slows down because your body is now burning the same amount of calories that they are consuming. It’s perfectly normal that the leaner you get the harder it is to lose those last few pounds.
The same goes for your gym performance. If you have been continually progressing for months, but now the numbers in your lifts have stalled or your endurance performance has stalled: the odds are that you have hit a plateau.
So what can you do to either avoid plateaus or overcome a plateau if you are currently in one?
1. DECREASE CALORIES OR INCREASE CALORIE EXPENDITURE.
Eventually, our bodies adapt and we need to either reduce our calories or increase our expenditure. We recommend reducing calorie intake by either decreasing the amount of fat, or of carbohydrates, that you are eating. We recommend this over reducing protein intake instead of protein, as it’s important to maintain high levels of protein intake when dieting to preserve lean mass.
You can also increase your daily expenditure by increasing your ‘NEAT’ (which is your daily expenditure through non-exercise activities). This means walking more or even just standing up more: simply moving more throughout the day. You could alternatively increase the length of your training sessions or incorporate a little more cardio into your exercise routine.
However, if you have been dieting for a significant period of time, if your energy expenditure already quite high, or if you’ve already decreased your calorie intake multiple times – then you might be in need of a diet break.
2. DIET BREAKS
If you have been dieting consistently from anywhere from two to four months, it may be time to consider a diet break. This is very common in bodybuilders who are cutting for a show. A diet break is exactly what it sounds like: a break from your diet or in other words, a break from being in a calorie deficit.
A diet break however, is not a free for all. It is a structured increase in calories (usually up to around maintenance), with a possible decrease in activity level that lasts anything between 7 to 21 days. It is designed to reduce the stress on your body, reset your system, and give you the mental break from rigorous dieting. This is where diet breaks become useful and, to a certain degree, essential.
You can follow a more controlled diet break (which involves still counting calories) or you can follow a full diet break - which is eating more intuitively and until you are full. The latter allows for more of a mental break as well as a physical break. However, if you are worried about going too far off the rails, we would 100% suggest still tracking overall energy intake.
Everyone wants to lose weight, and lose that weight as quickly as possible. However, what is not always appreciated is that not only does losing weight take time, effort and consistency, but sometimes you need to take one step backwards in order to take two steps forwards.
Why do we take diet breaks? Two reasons: Physiological and Psychological reasons.
Physiologically speaking, a short period of eating at your maintenance calories has the ability to reverse some of the metabolic adaptations to a caloric deficit, and give your hormone levels a chance to recover. Psychologically, diet breaks are great as they provide you with the mental break as well as the physical. Diet breaks will make you feel less hungry, improve your mood, increase your energy, diminish some food cravings and hopefully help you avoid dropping calories too low during your diet.
3. ADDING A CARDIO SESSION INTO YOUR ROUTINE.
A simple way to increase your energy output over the week is to add in two to three cardio sessions. It could be a short, 10-minute HIIT (high intensity interval training) session or a 20-30 minute LISS (low intensity steady state) session. Doing this can increase your calorie burn by a few hundred calories over the course of a week.
4. MAKE SURE YOU ARE EATING ENOUGH PROTEIN
Protein is essential for sustained fat loss. Firstly, it maintains your muscle mass during a caloric deficit. Secondly, it keeps you satiated, which prevents overeating and snacking on junk food. Thirdly, it takes more energy to digest compared to carbs or fats, which means your body is working harder to burn it off. Eat at least one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight everyday and get your protein from whole sources like lean meats and fish, eggs, yogurts or dairy, and quality protein powders.
5. MIS-REPORTING CALORIE INTAKE
When it comes to weight loss, the most important factor is always going to be Energy Balance - Calories in Vs Calories out. If we get that equation right, we will lose weight. Everything else excluded, we know that to be the case: if you want to lose weight you need to eat less calories than you burn on a consistent, daily basis. It sounds so simple when you say it or write it down; “Eat less calories… lose weight. Burn more calories… lose weight.” It almost sounds easy. While the concept is very straightforward, the practicality is anything but. Affecting our energy balance and creating a caloric deficit can be an extremely challenging thing to do, for a multitude of reasons.
One of these reasons is the tendency most of us have to severely misreport our calorie intake. It’s more common than you might think – whether you are closely tracking your food intake or not, it is still possible (and remarkably easy) to underestimate how many calories you are consuming, or simply report your intake inaccurately.
It’s ok not to be 100% accurate all of the time, but you also need to be aware and understand the implications of that. The unreported calories still count, the ignored snacks and nibbles do add up, and can make a significant difference to us. They can be the difference between losing weight, and not. Between progressing and stagnating - between achieving our goals or not.
Until we are truly honest with ourselves, and accept that most of us are rubbish at estimating or even tracking our calorie intake, we are going to continue to have these issues, and it will prove to be a barrier to weight loss and progression.
So, what I want is for you to be really honest with yourself:
- How often do you pick at food without really accounting for (or even realising) it?
- Do you ever say or think to yourself “oh it was just a tiny piece / taste, it doesn’t really count?
- Do you estimate portion size and round it (down) to be in your favour?
- Do you under-estimate the caloric value of what you are eating (do you ever read the label carefully)?
Now, I don’t want to make anyone obsessive about what they are eating, to encourage everyone to count calories, or force you to be restrictive about what you are eating! Please don’t do any of these things.
However, if you are struggling to lose weight, or even gaining unwanted weight, then it is something to think about and address.
(If you want to read more about misreporting of calorie intake, here is a link to some research on the subject:
Lichtman et al. (1992) - Obese subjects were found to underreport calorie intake by 47% (+-16%), and over report physical activity by 51% (+-75%):
6. INCREASE YOUR WORKOUT INTENSITY
Incorporating more compound exercises will be more demanding and lead to an increased calorie burn through exercise. However, another great way is to increase the amount of supersets and trisets. The more you keep your heart rate elevated, the more calories you will be burning.
Another great way to get your heart rate elevated is to add little finisher circuits that can use lighter weights, bands or incorporate more bodyweight and plyometric exercises. These will be great ways to burn out the muscles you were working and get your heart rate elevated.
7. MAKE SURE YOU ARE NOT UNDER-RECOVERING
If you are no longer progressing in your workouts, or toward your goals for an extended period of time, then make sure that your body is able to recover adequately. This may include adding in a deload week (a week where volume and/or intensity is reduced to allow the body to recover). You may also feel better for taking a few extra rest days than usual to allow the body to recover more quickly and completely.
Overall, the best way to avoid plateaus is to change your goals throughout the year. Go from being in a deficit to maintaining or being in a surplus. This will help your body avoid adjusting to deficit calories and allow you to progress more frequently. This also goes for your training: make sure you are changing it up throughout the year so that you can continually progress.. Finally, don’t forget rest and breaks from more rigid regimes are encouraged if not for the physical benefits, then for the mental benefits.