What’s the most common gripe among dieters everywhere?
Easy: not losing weight.
They feel like they’re doing everything right and following all the rules, yet the scale flashes the same scowling, mocking number at them every morning.
You’ve probably experienced this yourself.
In fact, you can count on this happening.
Fortunately, while the human metabolism is incredibly complex, breaking through weight and fat loss plateaus isn’t.
At bottom, you need to widen the gap between energy in and energy out, but there’s an art and a science to doing this properly.
Mess it up and you can run into all kinds of trouble, including hunger and cravings, lethargy, and muscle loss, and even worse, you’ll also run the risk of gaining back all the weight you lost.
Get it right, however, and you’ll get the needle moving again quickly and painlessly.
And that’s what you’re going to learn in this article.
Let’s start at square one.
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What Is a Weight Loss Plateau?
You’ve hit a true weight loss plateau when you haven’t lost weight in at least two weeks, which confirms that you’re no longer losing fat.
For example, if I’m going for 0.5 to 1 pounds of fat loss per week, no change on the scale after one week of dieting isn’t necessarily a reason for concern—I could’ve lost that pound of fat but happen to be retaining a bit of water, or maybe my bowel movements weren’t as regular for a couple days.
No change in body weight after two weeks of dieting, though, tells me I’m probably stuck and fat loss has either slowed to a crawl or stopped altogether.
Many people don’t know that this is perfectly normal when cutting. Weight loss plateaus are to be expected even when you know what you’re doing.
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been dieting, how careful you are about tracking your calories, or how consistent you are with working out—almost everyone gets stuck at least once or twice during their cuts.
Also, the more fat you lose and leaner you get, the more likely you are to encounter a plateau.
For example, I can’t get below 9 to 10% body fat with diet and weightlifting alone—I have to add a couple cardio sessions into my regimen to get leaner. Then, the next plateau for me comes around 8%. If I want to go lower, I have to up my cardio to 4 days per week.
I also have to consistently reduce my calorie intake throughout the entire process.
Everyone I’ve trained and otherwise helped has experienced the same phenomenon, but the details vary.
I’ve known a few rare guys who can get lower than 10% body fat (and women who can get below 20%) without cardio, but most people can’t break through those barriers without a very strict diet and regular cardio routine.
Summary: A weight loss plateau is when you haven’t lost any weight for at least two weeks. The more fat you lose and leaner you get, the more likely you are to encounter a plateau.
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How to Break Through a Weight Loss Plateau
Now for the fun part.
The first step in breaking through a weight loss plateau is ensuring you’re accurately measuring and recording the calories you’re eating and drinking.
(And if you’d like specific advice about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to lose weight, take the Legion Diet Quiz.)
Check out this article to learn how:
How to Count Calories Correctly for Effortless Weight Loss
You also need to ensure you’re not “cheating” too much on your diet, which you can learn more about in this article:
Do You Make These 5 Cheat Meal Mistakes?
Chances are if you’re new to dieting, you’re only stuck because you’re counting your calories incorrectly or “cheating” too much, and by fixing those mistakes, you can start losing weight again.
If that’s not the case, however, then it’s time to do one of two things:
- Eat less
- Move more
Many people immediately go for #1 because it’s “easier” to just eat less than exercise more, but I don’t recommend further calorie restriction as the default choice.
Instead, I recommend “maxing out” on exercise first because this allows you to kickstart your fat loss while staving off the negative side effects associated with dieting.
In short, I’d rather you move more before eating less because it produces better long-term results.
There isn’t a clear scientific answer as to how much exercise you can do while dieting before it becomes unhealthy and counterproductive, but it’s more than many people think.
I’ve worked and spoken with many thousands of people, and here’s what I’ve learned:
You can do 4 to 5 hours of weightlifting and 1.5 to 2 hours of cardio per week to maximize fat loss while minimizing unwanted side effects.
And so that’s what I recommend you work up to as your exercise “ceiling” when you’re cutting before you cut your calories further.
What happens when you exceed those numbers and exercise even more?
Some people’s bodies are particularly resilient and do fine with more exercise, but in my experience, many don’t. If you take it much further, you’re more likely to struggle with hunger and cravings, poor sleep quality, low energy levels, and soured mood.
Now, what should you do when you’re exercising as much as you can and not losing weight?
Well, this usually occurs for one of two reasons:
1. Fat loss is being obscured by fluctuations in water weight or bowel movements.
Water retention can vary wildly when you’re cutting. Sometimes you can go for two or even three weeks without losing weight and suddenly, overnight, drop several pounds through frequent urination (the “whoosh effect” bodybuilders often talk about).
This overnight “flush” often occurs after a “cheat meal” or diet break because increasing calories (and carbs in particular) can significantly decrease cortisol levels, which in turn reduces water retention.
Stool retention can also play tricks on you, obscuring both weight and fat loss by increasing body weight and bloating.
All this is why it’s smart to wait two or three weeks before reducing your calories when you’ve hit your exercise ceiling and your weight or fat loss has stalled.
The best way I’ve found to handle the unpredictability of water retention is to weigh yourself every day, in the morning, naked, then average the results every two weeks.
Although short-term spikes in water, carbs, or sodium can make it seem like you aren’t losing fat on a day-to-day or even weekly basis, if you aren’t losing weight on average every two weeks, then you need to adjust your diet or exercise plan.
2. Fat loss has slowed to a crawl due to the natural metabolic adaptations that occur while cutting.
As time goes on, what started out as a 20 or 25 percent calorie deficit can shrink to a much smaller one that no longer results in appreciable fat loss.
You can learn more about why this occurs and how to deal with it in this article:
“Metabolic Damage” and “Starvation Mode,” Debunked by Science
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So, assuming you’re not facing the first scenario (water retention or bowel movement irregularity), the only way to start losing weight again is to eat less.
The key, however, is to do this gradually, not drastically.
Specifically, you should cut your daily calorie intake by 100 calories every 14 days by reducing your carbohydrate intake (don’t reduce your protein or fat). In most cases, this is enough to keep the fat coming off without any severe side effects.
How long you can continue this (and how low you can drop your calorie intake) will depend on your body, but a good rule of thumb is to stop cutting calories when you’ve reached about 90 percent of your basal metabolic rate (BMR).
And then, don’t remain there for more than a couple of weeks before calling it quits on the cut.
Now, what should you do if you’ve been slightly below your BMR for a couple of weeks but still haven’t reached your desired body fat percentage?
Bring your calories back to your approximate total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) for four to six weeks to give your body a break from dieting, and then start cutting anew.
And just to be clear: during this period of “reverse dieting,” you not only want to see no further weight loss but a slight bit of weight gain due to increased water and glycogen retention.
Summary: To break through weight loss plateaus, do 4 to 5 hours of weightlifting and 1.5 to 2 hours of cardio per week, and once that stops producing results, decrease your daily calorie intake by 100 calories every two weeks by reducing your carbs.
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The Bottom Line on Weight Loss Plateaus
Weight loss plateaus are nothing to be afraid of or worried about.
They’re an inevitable consequence of proper dieting, and they’re easily conquered by making minor adjustments to your meal and exercise plans and staying the course.
It boils down to this:
- First ensure you’re actually in a weight loss plateau by weighing yourself daily and averaging your weight every two weeks.
- Next, you need to ensure you’re accurately measuring and recording everything you’re eating and drinking and not making any major cheating mistakes.
- Next, “max out” on exercise until you’re doing 4 to 5 hours of weightlifting and 1.5 to 2 hours of cardio per week.
- Once that stops producing results, cut your daily calorie intake by 100 calories every 14 days by reducing your carbohydrate intake (don’t reduce your protein or fat).
- Stop cutting calories when you’ve reached about 90 percent of your BMR.
- If you’ve been eating slightly below your BMR for more than two weeks and still haven’t reached your desired body fat percentage, bring your calories back to your total daily energy expenditure for four to six weeks to allow your body to normalize, and then start cutting anew.
Do that, and you should have no trouble breaking through weight loss plateaus.
(And again, if you feel confused about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz to learn exactly what diet is right for you.)
Have you ever experienced a weight loss plateau? Have anything else you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Geliebter A, Maher MM, Gerace L, Gutin B, Heymsfield SB, Hashim SA. Effects of strength or aerobic training on body composition, resting metabolic rate, and peak oxygen consumption in obese dieting subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997;66(3):557-563. doi:10.1093/ajcn/66.3.557
- Gleeson M, Blannin AK, Walsh NP, Bishop NC, Clark AM. Effect of low- and high-carbohydrate diets on the plasma glutamine and circulating leukocyte responses to exercise. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 1998;8(1):49-59. doi:10.1123/ijsn.8.1.49
- Tomiyama AJ, Mann T, Vinas D, Hunger JM, Dejager J, Taylor SE. Low calorie dieting increases cortisol. Psychosom Med. 2010;72(4):357-364. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181d9523c