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5 ways to break through weight loss plateaus

5 Wege Gewichtsabbauplateaus zu durchbrechen

Have you reached a plateau in your weight loss? It's time to learn what you can do about it.

Just a few weeks ago, the fat was just melting away and now you're wondering if your scales are broken because no matter what you do, the hand just won't budge.

What's going on here? Why has your fat loss program suddenly stopped working and what can you do to overcome this weight loss plateau?

Understand the difference between weight loss and fat loss

A "weight loss" program is a tricky little devil because it doesn't differentiate between changes in fat, muscle and water.

The goal, of course, is to lose as much fat as possible while losing as little or no muscle mass as possible and keeping water retention to a minimum. If you step on the scale and see that you're a pound lighter than a week ago, you'll probably assume that you've lost a pound of fat - and if your weight hasn't changed or has even gone up, you'll probably assume that you haven't lost any fat or have even gained fat.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple.

For example, nothing makes your weight fluctuate as easily as water retention. If you eat a lot of sodium (salt) and carbohydrates and drink little water, you will retain a lot of water, which will give you a soft and bloated appearance. This can easily add up to 1.5 to 2.5 kilos in a single day, which can be quite disconcerting when you step on the scales in this state.

On the other hand, if you eat low sodium and carbohydrates while drinking plenty of water, your body will excrete water and you will achieve a harder, more defined look, which could lead you to think that this was a great day for your fat loss.

The unpredictability of water retention is one of the reasons I only weigh myself once a week, on the same day of the week in the morning, without clothes. Weighing yourself several times a week - or worse, several times a day - can drive you crazy and affect your confidence in your diet.

So I would recommend that you choose a "weigh-in" day that doesn't follow a day with a cheat meal, as these can often cause a pound or two of water retention, which in my experience will usually be gone by the end of the following day.

What is a true weight loss plateau?

A true weight loss plateau is a situation where you are no longer losing fat. I assume that I have reached such a plateau when my weight has not changed for two weeks.

Since I only aim for 250 to 500 grams of fat loss per week, no weight loss on the scale after a week of dieting is not necessarily a cause for concern - it could well be that I've lost a pound of fat, but also retained a bit more water at the same time - or maybe my bowel movements just weren't as regular the day before or the previous two days.

No change in weight after two weeks of dieting, however, tells me I'm probably stuck.

A few fat loss facts to keep in mind

Before I go into more detail on how you can break through these plateaus, there are a few things you should know about fat loss.

1. weight loss plateaus are to be expected

Virtually everyone experiences weight loss plateaus sooner or later. If you have no idea what I'm talking about and manage to reach a single-digit body fat percentage with complete ease, consider yourself lucky.

On their journey to a six-pack, most people reach a whole series of plateaus because the human body is simply stubborn when it comes to losing fat.

I've found for myself that I can't get below 9 to 10% body fat with diet alone (you can only reduce calories to a certain extent, otherwise you start to lose muscle mass). This means that I have to do additional cardio training if I want to continue to lose fat.

When I build muscle mass, I usually end up with a body fat percentage of around 14 to 15% and I can usually diet down the first 5% of this without major problems before I reach a plateau that I can only overcome with 2 to 3 days of HIIT cardio training per week (20 to 25 minutes per training session).

The next plateau for me comes when my body fat percentage is around 8%. If I want to reduce my body fat percentage further, then I need to increase my cardio training to 3 to 4 days a week.

Everyone I've trained or helped in other ways has experienced the same phenomenon, though the thresholds vary. I know a few people who can get to under 10% body fat without cardio training, but most people can't get to a body fat percentage under 10% without a very strict diet and regular cardio training.

2. the more you lose, the harder it gets

The leaner you get, the longer it takes to lose fat in a healthy way (which is key as you want to maintain as much strength and muscle mass while losing fat).

If you have a body fat percentage of 25%, then it is easily possible to lose 2 to 3 pounds of fat per week during the first few weeks. However, if your body fat percentage is 10% and you are trying to achieve a single-digit body fat percentage, then 2 to 3 pounds of fat per week is impossible to achieve without dangerous pharmaceuticals.

Once I've reached a body fat percentage below 12%, I'm very happy if I can achieve one pound of fat loss per week - and I have to work hard for that.

3. your body has a comfort zone

At the risk of sounding a bit broscientific, this is the best way to describe a phenomenon that I and millions of other athletes around the world have experienced.

The body seems to have a weight (and correspondingly a body fat percentage) that it feels most comfortable with. Your natural appetite tends to maintain this weight and if you eat less, you will feel hungry. If you eat more, you will feel very full.

For some, this so-called set point is relatively high, while others settle at a weight where they are quite slim. I have found for myself, for example, that my body seems to feel most comfortable at a body fat percentage of around 10% (which corresponds to a body weight of around 90 kilos). I don't have to watch my calories too much and can plan cheat meals several times a week and still stay in the 10% body fat range.

Maintaining a weight that is below this comfort zone requires monitoring calorie intake and often some additional cardio training. Getting fatter than this will require an increased calorie intake and if you continue this for too long, your body's comfort zone will continue to shift upwards.

5 ways to break through your weight loss plateaus

Now that you know the difference between a weight loss plateau and a fat loss plateau, here are some surefire ways to rev up your metabolism and keep losing fat.

1. recalculate your daily calorie target

Your metabolism will slow down as you lose weight, as your body won't need as much energy to maintain your now leaner body.

If you don't adjust your calories to take this into account, then you can reach a plateau. The easy way to avoid this is to recalculate your calories after every 7 to 8 kilos you lose. As you will see, your calorie target will continue to drop.

There are many formulas for calculating the amount of calories you should eat to lose weight. Here is a simple one, based on Ktach McArdle:

  • 2.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight
  • 2.2 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight
  • 0.5 grams of fat per kilogram of body weight

These simple macronutrient formulas will put you in a slight calorie deficit and allow you to maintain a steady, healthy weight loss. To get the amount of calories, simply multiply protein and carbohydrates by 4 and fat by 9.

2. control the hidden calories

Most weight loss plateaus are caused by nothing more than "hidden calories", which simply means that you are eating more calories than you think you are. This, combined with a slowing metabolism, is a guaranteed recipe for plateau success.

Calories can hide in many places. Eating mindlessly in between meals, eating out at restaurants (which often use lots of butter, oil and fatty sauces) or drinking alcohol are all common ways to accumulate enough extra calories to stall your weight loss and make you feel like your diet isn't working.

The sad truth is that just 200 to 300 kcal too many per day can bring your weight loss to a complete halt. To give you an idea, this is the equivalent of just 50 grams of nuts, a few tablespoons of fatty salad dressing or a small bag of potato chips. Yes, your fat loss is that finicky. It's not very complicated, but it requires absolute precision.

To get around this problem, you just need to know exactly what you're putting into your body every day. You can keep a food diary or simply do what I do: I calculate in advance what I can eat each day, divide it up between my meals and eat the same amount of calories and the same foods at each meal every day.

I don't have the time or patience to add much variety to my diet, so I like to pick a few nutritious foods and eat them over and over again.

3. increase your cardio workload

If you know your daily calorie target is good and you're confident you're not eating any hidden calories, then you should increase your cardio.

You can add another cardio day to your training program if possible (I recommend no more than 4 days a week if you are also doing a weights workout) or do a little more cardio on each of those days (I like to add 10 minutes to each cardio session and see how my body responds).

The idea is to simply move the scale a little towards fat loss and monitor the results. If your first round of extra cardio doesn't do what you want, then add more cardio (e.g. another 10 minutes to each workout) and you will achieve what you want.

Oh yes, please do HIIT cardio training.

4. use cheat meals

Believe it or not, a cheat meal can help you lose fat.


Well, first of all, it's the psychological boost (1) that will keep you happy and motivated, which will ultimately make sticking to your diet easier. But there's also a physiological boost.

Studies on overeating have shown that a higher calorie intake can increase your metabolic rate by 3 to 10% (2). While this may look good at first glance, it doesn't mean much when you consider that you would need to eat anything between a few hundred and a few thousand extra calories a day to achieve this effect.

More important are the effects of cheat meals on the hormone leptin, which regulates hunger (3), your metabolic rate, your appetite, your motivation (4) and your libido (5), as well as performing other functions in your body.

When you are in a calorie deficit and lose body fat, your leptin levels drop (6). This in turn slows down your metabolic rate and causes your appetite to increase, your motivation to lose weight and your mood to plummet.

On the other hand, if you provide your body with more energy (calories) than it needs, your leptin levels will increase, which can have positive effects on fat oxidation, thyroid activity, your mood and your sex hormone levels (7).

But what should you do if you want to increase your leptin levels?

Eating carbohydrates is the most effective way (8). This is followed by eating protein (and protein-rich meals also increase the metabolic rate (9)). Dietary fats are not particularly effective when it comes to increasing leptin levels and alcohol actually inhibits leptin secretion (10).

So if your weight loss has stalled and you're feeling irritable and demotivated, a little leptin boost might be all you need to get the scales tipping again. Treat yourself to a nice cheat meal and enjoy the leptin boost. This can support your weight loss.

5. move heavy weights

If you know me and my articles, then you know I'm a big fan of working out with heavy weights. One of the many benefits of moving heavy weights is that it accelerates fat loss.

A study published by Greek sports scientists found that men who trained with heavy weights (80 to 85% of their maximum weight for one repetition) increased their metabolic rate for the following three days and burned several hundred kcal more than men who trained with lighter weights (45 to 65% of 1RM weight) (11).

So you should train with heavy weights if you want to increase your metabolic rate and thereby accelerate your fat loss. And if you want to earn some extra points, focus on multi-joint exercises such as squats and deadlifts, as these are the type of exercises that burn the most calories after training (12).


I hope you have found this article helpful and always remember that the road to a lean, muscular body is a marathon, not a sprint.




By Michael Matthews

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