What To Do When Weight Loss Stalls (Plateau Advice)
Posted by Michael Vacanti
It used to be easy.
Every week, the scale dropped 1-2 pounds.
This continued for months.
Energy is low. Strength is dwindling. And the scale is stuck.
But you still want to be leaner.
Weight Loss Stalls: What Should You Do?
First, we need to establish if weight loss has actually stalled.
The scale is an imperfect measure of fat loss. It fluctuates violently without changes in muscle mass or body fat: water intake, carb storage, monthly cycles – not to mention the fun stuff – salt, booze and a colon full of poopless days all cause this unpredictability.
So, when the scale has been stuck at 142 pounds for seemingly forever, we cannot always assume fat loss has stalled.
This video will help, but as a general rule, 14-18 days with no scale movement AND no decrease in waist measurements signifies a plateau (assuming no adherence issues, changes in supplementation, etc).
So, if you have stalled, here are four actions you can take to restart fat loss.
First: Decrease Calories
This is the most obvious option. It is the least time intensive and most effective for immediate continued progress.
Note: the less time you have been in a deficit, the easier it will be to cut calories.
Now, assuming you have set your macros similar to the equations in my app — adequate protein, adequate fat, carbs to fill remaining calories — it makes sense for a calorie reduction to come via carbohydrates.
How many fewer calories should you eat?
Let’s apply strict logic for a moment. If you want lose one pound per week and you are currently losing zero pounds per week, it would follow that we need to drop calories by 500 for an additional 3500 calories/week deficit.
However, because you are already in a deficit, this will be nearly impossible. It would force total intake unrealistically and detrimentally low.
Lucky for us, it isn’t necessary to jump progress.
Through working with thousands of coaching clients, I have found that a decrease of ~100-125 calories is generally the minimum effective amount to break through a plateau.
For women, I would stay near the bottom of that range. Men stay closer to the top.
This comes out to a decrease in carbohydrates of ~25g for women and ~30g for men.
How low can I take calories?
This is tough to answer in absolute terms, and it will vary widely from person to person. A deficit up to 50% of maintenance calories can be effective for certain people over a short period of time.
On the other hand, a deficit too moderate (15-20% range) will take a toll on you mentally if you spend too many months there.
For this reason, I would rather you focus on a few qualitative factors to determine whether or not you should take calories lower:
- Are you dreading your workouts?
- Are you waking up several times during the night?
- Are you constantly irritable?
- Is your sex drive much lower than normal?
If you answered yes to a few of these, I would not adjust your intake but rather jump to another option listed below.
What if I just don’t feel comfortable taking calories lower?
Maybe you are already starving.
Maybe you have psychological issues with lower calories, like an eating disorder.
Or maybe you just really really like food.
Whatever the reason, if you have already taken calories as low as you are comfortable, we have more options.
Second: Increase Cardio
The majority of your exercise regimen is made up of strength training. You may be doing a bit of cardio as supplementary work.
Increasing cardio to create a larger deficit and promote further fat loss probably isn’t revolutionary to you.
But there are two important questions we need to address: How much cardio is too much? What kind of cardio should you do?
How much cardio is too much?
First, if you enjoy cardio, you can do as much as you’d like!
But let’s assume you are using cardio as a tool for fat loss, rather than a leisure hobby. Our goal is to do as little cardio as possible and still make progress.
- Creating a deficit via cardio takes more time than doing so via diet
- Cardio increases stress, hurting your training progress and making everyone in your life hate you a little bit
- The more cardio you do, the fewer calories you burn per session
- When you inevitably plateau, you want to have the capacity to add more cardio
So how much is too much? As a general rule, 1.5 – 2 hours/week of HIIT (high intensity interval training) or 4 – 5 hours/week of LISS (low intensity steady state) are good maximums.
Note: that’s the high end. Most of us can make progress doing less cardio. But, if you would rather add cardio than reduce calories, this should give you a good idea of how far you can take it.
Additionally, and as always, listen to your body.
Are you more stressed or getting sick more often than normal? Are you unable to recover from your training sessions and losing strength? You might be doing too much cardio.
What kind of cardio should you do?
We just mentioned HIIT vs LISS. Which is better? Which burns more calories?
And there actually isn’t conclusive evidence to support the common claim that HIIT places more stress on the body than LISS.
That being said, if you have time and if you prefer low intensity cardio, both forms of cardio will help you break through your fat loss plateau.
I suggest doing whichever you prefer. Personally, going from zero cardio to 2-3 hours of LISS per week (with an audiobook!) will break me through a plateau.
Now, if you would rather not drop calories or increase cardio, we have another option.
Third: Eat More Food
Okay, so you don’t want to take calories any lower.
And you don’t want to add more cardio either because (1) it would be placing too much stress on your body or (2) you hate cardio more than you like fat loss. Which would make you and I homies, like, Crabbe and Goyle. We probably have things in common like how much we love for Foodora. Let’s not get into that too much, shall we?
You and I are much more like Gretzky and Messier.
What’s that…? You would prefer to be Jari Kurri? Cool, then we’re Gretzky and Kurri.
Where was I… Yes, eat more food.
We have a few options that all focus on generating more long-term progress by increasing calories in the short-term: Refeeds, reverse dieting, or changing your goal to muscle gain.
Let’s see which makes the most sense for you.
Known as a cheat day to us normal people, a refeed is a single day of higher calorie intake which can be beneficial after spending some time in a deficit.
As frequently as once every five days, or as infrequently as once every three weeks, a cheat day serves one obvious benefit: you get to eat all of the In-N-Out.
In addition to this mental break and the ability to be more socially normal for a day, there are also physiological benefits to a high calorie day.
Mainly, those surrounding the hormone Leptin.
Without boring you with the details, we will quickly review Leptin’s highlights:
- Leptin regulates other hormones important for fat loss, controls hunger and impacts metabolic rate.
- Leptin is produced in fat cells. So as you get leaner, Leptin levels decrease.
- A cheat day provides a temporary boost in Leptin levels.
Now, if you have consistently been in a deficit for weeks or months, your Leptin levels are low.
It probably makes sense to add a cheat day. Once every two weeks is a good place to start. Aim for 500-800 calories more than your estimated maintenance. Be sure to keep protein intake adequate (1g per pound of lean body mass) and have a little fun.
If you are already taking regular cheat days and you have still stalled out, a diet break might make more sense.
Generally, a diet break entails 2-3 weeks of eating around your caloric maintenance, which can have a more lasting effect on the up-regulation of your metabolism than sporadic days of overfeeding.
If you have tried both of these options to no avail, it might make sense to spend a longer period of time at maintenance or in a surplus.
Reverse Diet: Slowly increasing calories with the intention of increasing your total daily energy expenditure while gaining little to no body fat.
Further Reading: What Is Reverse Dieting (A Comprehensive Guide)
By choosing this option, you are sacrificing short term progress for long term process. It’s caring about future you.
You probably won’t lose much body fat during your reverse diet. You are increasing calories, thus reducing your deficit week over week.
I know you may have seen crazy Instagram progress photos of girls who went from 50g of carbs to 300g of carbs and lost 20 pounds in the process. Sadly, that isn’t how the real world works.
The purpose of a reverse diet is to improve your hormone profile, boost your total daily energy expenditure, decrease stress, and have you feeling better mentally – and do it all without adding body fat.
You should increase your calories by 30-150 per week depending on how patient you are and how high a priority not gaining a single ounce of body fat is for you.
Understand that the scale might climb faster than you expect during this period. That’s because your additional calorie intake is causing more carbohydrate storage in your lean tissue. It’s normal. It does not mean you are gaining body fat 🙂
After 4-8 weeks of reverse dieting, you can reduce calories for another fat loss phase and expect to make progress immediately.
If this sounds tedious to you, or if you are just ready for something new, we have another option.
It might be time to make gains
You know by now, as you get leaner each additional pound of fat loss becomes increasingly difficult.
There are a few reasons building muscle might make sense for you.
First, and most relevant, having more lean tissue will increase your TDEE allowing you to eat more calories during future fat loss phases.
Further, muscle looks good. A lot of us want to be a bit bigger and stronger.
How lean do I have to be to choose muscle gain?
There isn’t a cut and dry answer to this question. The leaner you are at the beginning of a muscle gain phase, the better.
Ideally, you should be less than 12-13% for men and 19-20% for women.
There are physiological reasons for this: for example, a leaner body partitions calories more effectively.
But in my experience, what matters most is your psychological comfort with adding body fat. Because during your surplus you will add both fat and muscle.
You need to be mentally ready to add a few pounds of fluff over without bailing on your bulk early because you feel bloated or fat.
That 12-16 week muscle gain phase will give you a psychological break from dieting, increase your total daily energy expenditure, and have the long term benefit of more strength and lean body mass.
Fat loss can be a long and tedious process, especially if you have been at it for a while.
When the scale stops moving, implement one of these strategies to keep moving in the direction of your goals.
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