What To Do When Weight Loss Stalls (Plateau Advice)

It used to be easy.

Every week, the scale dropped 1-2 pounds.

This continued for months.

Until now.

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.

Here’s why:

  • 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?

Research favors HIIT. You burn more calories in a shorter period of time (which is our most valuable asset). It is also more effective in reducing stubborn body fat.

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?

Just kidding!

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.

 

Refeeds

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

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.

 

Conclusion 

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.

 

I am appalled that you are not on my email list yet. I forbid you from reading my site until you subscribe



Comments for This Entry

  • Anneri

    Hi! I see you have you energy back for a looooong post :) There is a lot of info here and I will reread it a couple of times. My weightloss hasn't quite stalled as actually not begun yet... I have been training and dieting for the last 3 months and haven't lost any weight yet...3 pounds doesn't count! I have lost cm's though, so the rearranging of fat vs muscle is definitely happening. I am sorting through all possible reasons by process of elimination, similar to what you are suggesting, so hopefully something will happen in the near future. Thanks for all the good advice and I especially like your youtube vid about 'gaining momentum'. It is a different way to look at life when I feel demotivated - much more positive!

    March 6, 2016 at 11:05 am | Reply to this comment

  • Jean

    I'm leaving a comment because you asked us (*with a smile) to leave you a comment. - snapchat follower.

    March 7, 2016 at 10:42 am | Reply to this comment

  • Dave T

    Awesome post man! I like the amount of options you gave depending on where people are at and what their goals are. This is applicable info to nearly anyone. Thanks as always!

    March 7, 2016 at 10:48 am | Reply to this comment

  • Noelle

    PERFECT timing on this one, Mike! I've been struggling with a "maybe-not-a-plateau-because-scale-weight-is-BS"-type plateau for a month, and I was just mulling over whether to drop calories (no, thank you) increase cardio (meh), or just take a little break. I've been doing a higher-calorie day each week which feels AMAZING, especially if I take a ballet class that day too. Thanks in large part to your blog, I'm FINALLY thinking of my goals long-term. More food is probably just the thing for my hard-working (stressed-out?) body. You put it perfectly: "sacrificing short-term progress for long-term progress." My future self and I thank you!

    March 7, 2016 at 10:51 am | Reply to this comment

  • Joe Boyd

    Mike, really enjoyed this article. Glad I read it! Lot's of great tips in here. You always bring loads of value to the table. Joe

    March 7, 2016 at 10:55 am | Reply to this comment

  • Lindsay

    Mike - Just started OTR two weeks ago. Trying to hit my macros, working a deficit, and burning via LISS 3-4 days a week. Down 4.5 so far. I just turned 40 and have four kids and trying to get back in shape now that my youngest is almost two. I'm 5'4" and currently 165.5 with a goal of 130 but really I just want to feel good again. Love your blog and following you on snapchat. Thanks for all the great info and support! ~Lindsay

    March 7, 2016 at 11:08 am | Reply to this comment

  • Nelson

    I'm hoping I won't need to refer to this simple, but informative article as I continue the journey.

    March 7, 2016 at 11:24 am | Reply to this comment

  • Jan W

    Ohhhhh this was exactly what I needed to read. It affirmed my recent decision to take a break from counting for a week. I feel better after having a break actually- and lifted a lot more shit in the gym. Alas - I'm **almost** to my body fat percentage goal and have returned to counting. As always, excellent information.

    March 7, 2016 at 3:12 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Michelle

    Great post! I have reverse dieted out of my show last November and I'm maintaining now for the last several weeks at 1700 or 170p/106c/66f but my strength seems to have stalled and reversed somewhat. I do have a cheat meal once per week. I don't eat a lot of carbs in general because they increase my cravings, but I'm guessing I may need to increase prior to workouts and see if this helps. I count all carb grams including from veggies.

    March 7, 2016 at 3:54 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Tarah G

    Love this article! So super helpful. It's crazy how much harder it is to lose fat when you get very lean. I also love the way you write. It's so easy and enjoyable to read (not like in a remedial kind of way, but an entertaining way). :)

    March 7, 2016 at 9:01 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Julie Scalli

    Hi Mike! Love your snaps btw! Anyways, so I've been shrinking inch-wise and have totally hit a plateau for longer than I'd like to admit. Currently I'm doing a workout program, 30 minutes a day of HIIT ands heavy cardio workouts. My nutrition needs to tighten up, but for the MOST part I'm 80/20 with my eating. Still learning how to calculate macros without getting overwhelmed. My question is, have you ever worked with anyone with sluggish thyroid? I have hypothyroidism and although I lost 40 plus lbs myself with hard work, I'm legit STUCK at this number and I really don't go by the scale, but this year I got the balls to enter my first fitness competition this fall (Holy F*ckin shit!) And I'm really trying to hone in and buckle down on everything. I definitely want to incorporating lifting soon, but do you think it's possible for me to go past that threshold? Hypothyroidism makes it tough and to be honest, my body loves staying in the 160s. So frustrating! Even when I get smaller! I'm only 5'2 and took my Fat%today 33%......Is it unrealistic I wasn't too be at 20-21% by the end of October this year? Thanks in advance!

    March 7, 2016 at 10:57 pm | Reply to this comment

    • Isabel

      I'm in the same boat as Julie Scalia. In 2014 I lost 30#s - at 53 it took me the entire year to do so. I was working with a trainer in the gym and started running with a friend. I have been stuck at 142#s and the scale won't budge. MyFitnessPal app is set for 1200 calories...and I try to stay under that...I'm working out almost every day...cardio, and weights two to three times/wk. I have a hypothyroid. I peri-menopausal. I'm frustrated. I don't feel like I can go any lower on the calories. I would like to get to 130#s...how do I do it?

      April 6, 2016 at 12:31 am | Reply to this comment

  • Sara Watson

    This is the best article I've ever read on this subject! Just two weeks ago I was stuck on a plateau. It sucked!!! I scoured the Internet for advice. There are some really horrible articles out there, some really freekin boring ones and some really stupid ones.... This one is good! Also, love your snapchat stuff. ???

    March 8, 2016 at 3:02 am | Reply to this comment

  • Hayley

    Your awesome!!! Luv your snap chats addicted to watching so much great advise and knowledge thank you!!! X

    March 8, 2016 at 9:38 am | Reply to this comment

  • Mitch Calvert

    I blacked out after the Gretzky/Messier reference. Canadian.

    March 8, 2016 at 9:56 am | Reply to this comment

  • Angela

    Great article! Feels as you are talking to me. This is one reason that you are such a great coach. You have so much great knowledge!

    March 8, 2016 at 8:07 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Erin

    Well good post but I'm still lost. Before Christmas I was dropping weight pretty well. Lost 30lbs but then it's just stopped. I started going to the gym to get more intense workouts three times a week. Nothing after 6 weeks. Tried adding more workouts in with more cardio. Nothing. Tried macros. Nothing.

    March 10, 2016 at 11:06 am | Reply to this comment

  • Kelly

    Awesome article! Super helpful ?? leaving a comment because you asked us to on snap and also because I'm going to totally call you out on not looking at my snap I sent you like a week ago. Good stuff in there - check it out ?

    March 10, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Reply to this comment

  • George Pfeiffer

    Tough call. On the one hand Mess had the killer off wing, on-the-fly, inside skate, outside the defenseman,wide angle wrist shot of all wrist shots, but on the other hand Kurri had the by far most devastating off wing one timer in the history of the earth. I say Kurri

    March 10, 2016 at 3:39 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Marisol

    Excellent post, very helpful. Is it the opposite principals for muscle gain stalls? Decrease cardio, increase carbohydrates?

    March 10, 2016 at 4:07 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Nick B

    Great info here Mike. I've definitely had to implement a few of this tricks myself and when giving advice to others. Keep up the good work bro!??

    March 10, 2016 at 5:56 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Richard Gomez

    Really enjoy reading your blog Mike. It is always a nice little refresher and gives me ideas. Thanks for everything@

    March 11, 2016 at 10:27 am | Reply to this comment

  • Danielle Gostanian

    Great article, really helped me understand some things to try!

    March 11, 2016 at 11:26 am | Reply to this comment

  • Katie

    Always grateful for your willingness to share your wealth of knowledge!! Plus, it's always an interesting read! Thanks!

    March 11, 2016 at 11:35 am | Reply to this comment

  • Alicia

    Great post! Keep snapping!

    March 11, 2016 at 11:39 am | Reply to this comment

  • Jeff Bytomski

    Awesome article. This is probably one of the most important articles you have written after the macros guide. This will help people the most long term so they don't give up after seeing those early gains. Will be sharing this everywhere!

    March 11, 2016 at 11:39 am | Reply to this comment

  • Kristin C.

    Extremely helpful! Thank you for explaining cardio. I've noticed that I started putting the pounds on after I cut back cardio sessions and intake. I didn't realize how much of a deficit cardio helped. I'll have to start incorporating it again! I just love lifting more haha!

    March 11, 2016 at 12:20 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Avalon

    Love it! Super helpful, especially because I am cutting right now for a show! I totally had a week where the scale didn't budge. I think all these tips are super helpful & I always reccomend your blog to anyone who is looking for easy to read information!

    March 11, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Rebecca Wright

    great read. I've been upping my cardio for about 30 minutes per workout, somedays without any and some with 15 minutes...and one long cardio a week of either an hour run or a 2 hour hike. My weight loss might be finally moving down some mixing this with your calculator's marco/cal count although I am worried I am losing more muscle then I'd like this way. We shall see! Being a previous cardio junkie (a ran a marathon a couple years ago before jumping the gainz-train) it was nice to totally stop for awhile but now I'm trying my best for the balance of both...if there really is a balance of both lol. This post definitely has me thinking. I've read doing cardio AFTER weights is best, is that true? I usually now do cardio first to get it over-with (watch my anime) and mainly to get a machine before the crowd arrives.

    March 11, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Nerdy Dani

    Just had a swoosh at my last weigh in. Celebrated with ice-cream!

    March 11, 2016 at 11:43 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Stacy

    Great article. My friend was just asking me what she can do because she can't lose any more weight and needed some ideas. I will be forwarding this to her. Thanks!

    March 12, 2016 at 9:41 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Kristi

    Great read, hitting a wealth of valuable points. Individual goals do not necessarily fit any one method. Goals also change, with time. Thank you for the time you've put into so many aspects of the workout spectrum. You are certainly helping me.

    March 13, 2016 at 8:22 am | Reply to this comment

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