If you’re in a well planned fat loss phase (or calorie deficit) using a macros approach, it’s not a matter of IF you will plateau with your progress, but WHEN you will plateau.
But don’t fear a plateau. Your body has a ton of fail-safes that activate when it senses fuel stores are low (that’s a good thing)! In order to gently push past a plateau and continue seeing fat loss, we might check to make sure you’re mastering the basics before manipulating macro targets. Because, after all, we don’t fix things that aren’t broken. Most often, plateaus are caused by failing to consistently execute on the basics. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Before jumping to the conclusion that you’re in a plateau, it’s important that you are measuring progress correctly. This is because weight loss and fat loss are distinctly different. Your scale weight is simply a measure of gravity on your body at one moment in time, it does not measure how much of that “weight” is muscle, fat, bone, water, etc. When you lose weight, it can come from muscle, water or fat – or a combination. If you are eating enough to support strength training and muscle building while in a deficit, the scale might not reflect the changes that are happening in your body, but your physique will. Adding more muscle will make you appear leaner, more toned or defined because muscle takes up less space than body fat on your frame. That said, instead of relying on just on scale weight changes, you should rely on a combination of progress pictures and tape measurements to evaluate your progress towards improved body composition (fat loss and lean muscle gain). If you do use the scale, best practice is to weigh yourself each day and then find your average scale weight across the week. By comparing your weekly weight averages over time, you’ll get a better sense of what is happening with your body composition.
If you’re confident that you’ve reached a plateau while measuring average scale weights, progress pictures and body measurements, then you can look to the list below.
11 tips to get past a plateau
Before adjusting macro targets, make sure you are doing the things on this list first:
- You’re hitting protein targets within +/- 5 g at least 80% of the time for at least 4 weeks. We can’t expect change if you’re not following your macro targets consistently, and when it comes to fat loss, hitting protein targets is a top priority. This is because in a calorie deficit, eating enough protein tells the body to “hold on” to your hard-earned muscle and use fat for extra fuel.
- You’re hitting calories goals at least 80% of the time for at least 4 weeks. As I already said, we can’t expect change if we’re not following our macros – and the same goes for calories. Hitting calories +/- 10% of your target is a great goal here. Aside from protein, hitting total calories is the next most important thing to aim for while tracking.
- You’re moving your body throughout the day and being active outside of formal exercise. You might have heard this referred to as NEAT movement (non-exercise activity thermogensis). NEAT is all the calories you burn outside of formal exercise, and you might be surprised to find out that it’s actually a lot of calories in your day. Things like walking, standing, doing chores around the house all count here. Get creative about moving more and aim for 8-10K steps per day every day.
- You’re participating in 3-5 strength training sessions per week and progressively overloading the activity with a structured plan. Just like eating enough protein tells your body to “hold on” to your lean muscle, so does strength training. And, having more muscle on your frame takes up less space than fat mass so you’ll naturally appear more lean, toned and fit by working hard to keep, and even build, some muscle through strength training while in a deficit.
- Minimizing alcohol consumption, especially occasions where you’re not tracking alcohol towards macro targets. Not only does alcohol provide extra calories to your day, but unfortunately, it’s also a toxic substance and the body cannot do anything with it. When you drink alcohol, the body prioritizes detoxing it and getting it out as quickly as possible, which means any work you’ve put in towards fat loss or lean muscle gain is halted for up to 48 hours after you drink. It’s best if you can keep alcohol to a minimum during a fat loss phase for best results.
- You’re taking at least 1 full rest day each week, but preferably 2 full rest days. I always tell my clients – “muscles are broken in the gym, fed in the kitchen and built in bed” – which means that if you’re not resting enough you could be preventing lean muscle gain. Not to mention that not taking rest days is a form of stress on the body, and we want to keep stress from as many angles as possible as low as possible during a fat loss phase.
- You’re eating mostly minimally processed, whole foods. This one is a bit self-explanatory but what it means is to focus on the quality of your foods and eat foods in the least processed form. Things like fruits, vegetables, whole cuts of meat, and grains are going to provide more nutritional value and be more filling than foods that have been highly processed and are packaged. This certainly does not mean you can’t eat any processed or packaged foods (we all do), but simply means that MORE of your food should come from whole, real foods and less from a package.
- You’re increasing the use of your food scale to decrease errors in tracking. I know, I know… using the food scale can seem daunting at times. But when you’re in a calorie deficit, accuracy is important (especially if you think you’ve hit a plateau). Logging food by weight is the most accurate way to track. Remember that fat loss phases are temporary and you do not always need to log with such accuracy.
- You’re managing stress effectively and doing all you can to remove unnecessary stress. Eating in a calorie deficit is a form of stress on the body in and of itself. This is part of the reason we keep deficits short. However, removing unneeded stress from other areas of your life can keep the overall stress load on your system lower and help you achieve a more successful fat loss phase.
- You’re tracking bites, licks and tastes to account for all calories consumed. While this might not seem like something that matters (because it should be such a minimal amount of calories) if this is something you do many times throughout the day and/or you’re doing it constantly while preparing meals, the calories really can add up. It likely isn’t an issue for most people, but it’s on the list because it does apply to some.
If you can successfully say that you’re doing everything on the above list AND you’ve seen no changes in your average scale weight, body measurements or progress pictures for two consecutive weeks, then you could be in a plateau. If so, it’s time to adjust calories down slightly for another two weeks before reassessing progress.
But remember this – when you have goals for body composition change, you should opt for a slight calorie deficit and aim to be eating as much food as possible while seeing fat loss. This keeps hormones happy and metabolism healthy while still allowing you to reach your goals for fat loss and lean muscle gain. If and when you are making adjustments, slight adjustments are almost always better than drastic ones.