December 10, 2009

When A Plateau Is More Than Just A Topographical Feature

"Hey, how the heck do I get out of this thing?!"

(Photo: Mecookie)

You've been working out and eating right for some time now and are gratified that the scale has been showing the desired weight loss. This time will be different from all the other weight loss escapades, you tell yourself - you're well on your way to reaching your ideal weight and nothing's going to get in your way. Onward and downward!!

And then comes a period of time when the scale just won't budge no matter how disciplined you are about following the regimen that's gotten you this far. It's that unmistakable feeling of having one foot on the gas and the other foot on the brake. You're going nowhere fast. What gives? So you stay strong and really put your nose to the grindstone - and still nothing. Two weeks turn into a month and you're really getting frustrated. All this work and nothing to show for it? Even a rat gets a pellet at the end of his maze.

You, my friend, have reached what is commonly referred to as a plateau. And before you let those feelings of frustration and failure send you to your favorite carton of ice cream with a shovel and a "what the hell was I thinking?" defeatist attitude, read ahead for some ideas on how to break through that barrier and finally achieve your goal.

We all fall into routines that eventually turn into unproductive ruts: our jobs, our social lives, our wardrobes, our way of thinking. And we've found that the best way to bust out of those doldrums is to change things up. Same with your fitness regimen. Change, it appears, really is good.

Hitting a plateau is completely normal in any weight loss effort. It is just code for "Time to change things up" - just like when someone says, "It's not about the money" is really code for "It's way too expensive for me." Or my perennial favorite from living in the Boston area - "I went to school in Cambridge" is really code for "Ask me about my incredibly impressive Harvard education which I'm pretending to be really modest about."

I've sifted through many articles about breaking through a weight loss plateau and have selected the most common threads in many of them. There are four suggestions that received more mention than any others.

Change your workout. Your body has probably become too accustomed to your present exercise regimen and is used to the same caloric burn after doing it for so long. "Ho-hum," your body says, "nothing new here. I'll just phone it in today." Imagine your body working at the same level of your typical Motor Vehicle Department clerk. It has become complacent. You should change your workout routine every 4 to 6 weeks to keep your body guessing. If you started out exercising with walking, then try switching to swimming or pilates to challenge your body and make it call on different muscle groups. Also, make sure that the intensity of your workout is challenging enough. You should be working hard enough to feel it - kind of like your payroll taxes.

Strength training is something else that should be worked into the mix. It strengthens your bone tissue, increases lean mass and boosts your metabolic rate.

Change your diet. Your body also gets too used to the same thing if that's what you've been feeding it every day. To keep your metabolism revved, make some changes in what and when you're eating. If you've been doing low carb, try switching it up to more protein or low fat. If you're eating 3 to 5 meals, increase that to 6 or 7 meals (I'm talking small meals here, of course. Drive-thrus and holiday chow downs excluded.). Increased eating frequency stabilizes blood sugar, controls appetite and maintains your energy level.

Another suggestion in this category was to zig-zag your calorie intake. By keeping your weekly intake of calories the same, try mixing up the amount you consume each day. If you've been eating 1800 calories a day (3600 for two days), try eating 1500 one day and 2100 the next (totals the same 3600 for two days) - anything to keep your body guessing.

There was also an article that encouraged eating more to break through a plateau. Gak! What?! I'm trying to lose weight, not gain it! Relax. This just means that you should make sure you're getting enough fuel so that your body doesn't go into survival mode and start storing fat - even if you're still working out. If you're taking in less than 1200 calories, you may not be eating enough and your metabolism will slow.

Keep a food journal. By keeping track of everything you eat, you can pick up patterns that you might not have been aware of. Most people underestimate their food intake by 20%. That's pretty significant. Journaling is also a good method of accountability. If you're about to eat something, you're going to think twice if you have to record it. Too much work. This is where being a slacker actually turns out to be a good thing!

Stay motivated and positive. It's easy to lose momentum when the scale has stopped showing you any results. You've got to stick with it to push through these plateaus. And really, consider the alternative of not sticking with it. Remind yourself of the progress you've already made. Start your own blog. Get a workout buddy. Just keep your head in the game and your body will follow.

Have any of you hit a plateau at some point in reaching your fitness goals? And what did you do to break through it?


  1. Some really great advice!

    If you track your weight over time it will tell you whether you have a calorie surplus (weight going up) a calorie deficit (weight going down) or calorie balance (weight plateau). Calorie balance only occurs when Energy In (the calories you eat) is equal to Energy Out (the calories you burn). Want to break that plateau? Find new ways to reduce Energy In or increase Energy Out! This may sound simple, but it is a tried and tested formula. Mix up your workouts, increase the intensity / duration, add new exercises, cross train. Shake up your macronutrient ratio, ziz zag your cals, reduce your portion sizes. Just don't do what you've always done because you'll get what you've always got!

  2. Great post!
    I shake everything up without changing a thing :)
    I dont exercise MORE(sometimes less but thats a rant for a different day :)) but I entirely shift it if I can.

    If Id been doing 30 minutes on the bike I will try 10 of jumprope 10 of treadmill 10 of elliptical.

    ANYTHING to shock my bod back into shedding fat and gaining muscle.

    if Im in a weights rut (who me? never :)) I will STOP doing dumbbells, for example, and ONLY do resistance bands or a body pump class for 4 weeks.

    ahhh and the food :)
    I really try to always keep this changing but if I get in a rut/accidentally dont I TOTALLY DO what you said!

    I am a big believer in calorie cycling and tend to do so now intuitively. It STOPS the bod from plateauing or growing too "used to" a certain way of eating.

    when Im cal cycling and eating LOTS on a given day it is, however, typically clean clean food.

    I also (waitforit) add in a day of JUNK FOOD.
    Im not a nutritionist (nor do I play one on the 'net) but for my bod Ive found a day of treats after a long time of eating clean sparks the body to reignite the metabolism.


    Ive rambled with excitement :)
    feel free to trim this or delete!


  3. YES! I am all about change! I change it up all the time and I also have changed my food along the way too. We change, our bodies change, our hormones change so you have to learn to "listen" to the bod & make changes as needed.. both food & exercise wise. And as we age, even more important.

    As I said, I always change things up but with age & hormones craziness, the change in exercise & food is even more. You just have to keep at it & keep trying things to find what works for you!

    I am with Miz too.. I follow much of what she wrote!!!!

    You can get thru this but you have to put some effort into it! I have written many a ranting post on this!

  4. Once again, Great post Gigi!
    I read an article once about postal workers hitting plateaus. They use the same muscles so their muscles get use to the routine so they don;t burn as much.

    My suggestion is to become focused on something else. If we are trying to build a healthy lifestyle, you wouldn't be focused on the scale. Focus on losing inches or for me, hitting a new level on the Wii, or learn a new skill. Pay attention to your food and exercise choices but FOCUS on other areas of your life.

    What you think about the most is what you bring into your life. If you only think about the lack of movement on the scale or in your measurements, that's what you get the lack of movement.

  5. I found in my WWatchers decline that when my plateau hit the only thing that worked for me is an ice cream sundae. I know that sounds absolutely insane, but I had done cross training and new exercises and weights and those didnt pull me out of the plateau but the one week I had a ice cream sundae..

    boom,, I lost 3 more lbs and continued on my downward trek.

  6. Hmmm.... that famous plateau. Can't tell you how many times I hit one of those. Nowadays though I'm pleased to say that being at a weight plateau finally has good connotations because it means I've stopped my wildly swinging yo-yo dieting. I've also found that changing and mixing things up helped though as did sometimes just reminding myself that my body needed to 'rest' and sort of solidify the weight I'd lost before moving down again. At last that helped me mentally!

  7. this has always been a trouble spot for me. i hit a certain weight, and try to intensify my workouts, change my diet, and i just get frustrated from the lack of change. thanks for the tips!

  8. Change? Change??!! But I hate change!

    There's a part of me that's suspicious of the idea that making random changes to our routines would really burn more calories or cause the body to function in a different way--as though our metabolisms have personalities, and when they get bored and stubborn we have to entertain them with something new or they get all vindictive.

    Isn't a calorie still a calorie? Doesn't it still require a certain amount of energy to move a body of a particular mass a particular distance? I mean sure, there are training effects, but it SEEMS like that should actually enable us to perform more during a given period of time, and burn more calories, even if we're doing it slightly more efficiently.

    And yet over and over I hear that this advice to change things up seems to work for so many people!

    So I'm coming around to believing it, even though I still don't entirely understand it!

  9. "as though our metabolisms have personalities, and when they get bored and stubborn we have to entertain them with something new or they get all vindictive"

    HAHAHA this cracked me up. I love the personification of our metabolisms. :)

  10. "as though our metabolisms have personalities, and when they get bored and stubborn we have to entertain them with something new or they get all vindictive."

    Close but not quite! The body adapts to the stress we put on it. Those adapatations cause our body to utilise energy more efficiently (i.e. our metabolism slows down!). Changes to our training and diet means the body is taken out of it's comfort zone (made less efficient), which means it burns more calories and breaks through the plateau.

    The body is lazy, it doesn't like change!!

  11. If our metabolisms indeed have personalities, I believe mine is named Sybil - one name, multiple personalities - and none of them any too pretty.

  12. I reached a couple plateaus throughout my journey to better health that has resulted in about 100lbs lost. Changing things up both in respects to eating and working out helped me get past those moments. Everything you wrote about here were strategies I used except the food journal...just feel too obsessed with food when I start tying to record it but that's a personal thing for me. I know it works for many others.

    Great post!

  13. Great post - and everything you wrote has been spot on for me! I hit a plateau and what finally got me out of it was going on vacation, eating coconut gelato to my heart's content, having the scale show a few pounds gain when we came back, and then going back to normal eating and dropping a bunch of weight in a couple of weeks - cannot say enough for mixing up the food!!!

  14. This is also good advice for when you have been at a stable, good weight a while, and suddenly find those pants have become just a bit snug again.

    It may be that your body needs you to change things up in order to not slow the metabolism and start regaining. At least, that's what I have found.

  15. Great advice! This is my first time posting, although I've been reading for a good while! I love this blog. It always gives me a giggle and helps me stay motivated.

    Anyway, I recently started keeping a food journal at the Daily Plate ( I was definitely drinking way too many calories, and you're right about it making you accountable. I think twice about that afternoon soda now, and try to find healthier more filling stuff for snacks. Now I just need to work on changing up my workout!

  16. Thanks so much for this article, very useful tips, much appreciated!!! I just, like TODAY broke through my plateau with more intense exercise (went from running 3 miles to 5 or 6), and just ate really clean!!

  17. Hmph. Now I've got to worry about my metabolism's personality? I'm already dealing with my inner child, my inner babysitter, my inner slug... dang it's getting crowded in here...

  18. I am the queen of plateaus. My body loves them and no matter how much I intensify the exercise or change exercise routines, the scale just mocks me.

    I probably do need to shake up the menu though because I'm a creature of habit with the food more so than with anything else.

  19. When I was losing weight I hit plateaus every 6 weeks. Lose weight, steadily. Stop. Change something (anything) up and keep losing.

    Was steady weight for about a year, and then gained a bunch back. Now I can't budge the weight off again for love nor money.

    However, I've been unable to do the HIIT at the intensity I was doing before. As I work my endurance up, I'm hoping...

  20. Great post! I must admit, I fear the "P" word!

  21. My mom hit a plateau recently during her weight loss and she decided to buy a weight vest to wear while walking. She swears it helped her break through her plateau!

  22. Great post! Ahhh, the ever sneaky Plateau, they seem to come out of no where... your getting great results then all of a sudden nothing, know 1st hand how that feels. :P

    I like your tips and do agree that once you've been doing the same work out for a while it's time to mix things up because out bodies are sooooo good at adapting to the stress we put on them, so they adapts and finds the path of leasts resistance and our workouts become less effective when it comes to burning calories...

    but its FUN to mix things up so I don't mind so much. lol :D

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