It’s that glorious time of year again. Summer is just around the corner, and all my clients are starting to think about body composition changes and showing off their semi-naked self on the beach. Me too!
Once on our mission, we often see some quick progress within the first few weeks of creating a calorie deficit. But when you can’t remove yourself emotionally from the small picture, things start to fall apart. You start to focus more on “why the hell did the scale go up this week?” Things become a bit frustrating, even when we smashed the nutrition this week.
I’m here to convince you that fat loss is never (rarely) linear. This is what you want fat loss to look like:
This is what it actually looks like:
The Progression Isn’t Linear
My cut started on the 17th of March, and you can see increases and decreases in that graph. It’s definitely linear over time, but not week-in week-out.
There’s so much more to weight loss than just the number on the scale, and there’s a ton of other factors in play. We’ve become so obsessed about reading into the scale that when it goes against our wishes we become frustrated, and maybe give up. We need to stop using the scale as our only frame of reference.
When you start to look at biofeedback mechanisms such as hunger, how your workouts feel, your energy levels, your sleep, and really going deep into how your body is feeling and reacting, you begin to realize that the big picture is the best way to assess if what we’re doing is working. When you read the number on the scale, you’re analyzing only one variable. In fact, there’s tens if not hundreds of variables at play, so focus on the bigger picture is crucial.
There Are Ways to Smash Plateaus
Don’t get me wrong, plateaus are going to happen. It’s your body’s way of maintaining balance, and it is a survival mechanism to ensure you don’t do yourself any harm. Sudden plateaus can actually be a sign that your body is in a healthy state. It’s working healthily, changing your body mechanics to ensure you’re not losing weight too fast or hard, and protecting you in the process. Every cloud has a silver lining right?
There are ways to smash those plateaus and to ensure we keep downward progress of losing weight or getting lean. We just have to play the game that is our body—a complex system that wants you to hold as much energy reserves as possible.
Plateau Destroyer #1: Eat More
Yep you heard me, eat more.
Metabolic adaptation plays a huge role in your hormone output, and ultimately, your body’s ability to burn fat or lose weight. When you sit in a calorie deficit for a considerable time, your body wants to fight for survival. Hormone output is lowered, body mechanisms slow down (such as fat loss), and energy output is lowered. This is all in order to preserve as much energy as possible in the lower-calorie state.
Sadly, further lowering calories while your body is in this survival state will only accentuate this plateau, and possibly even damage your metabolism in the long run, hindering your pursuit of body composition goals. Instead, we have to manipulate our metabolism through eating more food. Yes, more! We do this with a controlled caloric increase.
The best approach, and my favorite method to increase calories for an individual like this, is through a structured re-feed. By definition, a re-feed is an increase in calories for one 24-hour period in order to bring your current calorie consumption close to maintenance, if not over. Typically this is achieved using an increase of 50-100g of carbs (200-400 calories).
This increase results in increased hunger throughout the day, increase in body temperature in the night and day, or can result in increases in hunger the following day. Through these biofeedback mechanisms being activated, and we know that metabolic function has returned to a normal healthy state.
There are “cheat meals” you can use to have a similar effect, but in my experience, they can often result in huge calorie gains because they’re not very structured. You’ll provide a metabolic spike, but I always advise a controlled increase from a weekly structured re-feed.
Plateau Destroyer #2: Control Volume of Training
The variety of issues that arise from under-fueling your body, surprisingly, can also arise from over-training in your sport. Hormone issues, especially adrenal issues, and various other symptoms are a more and more common sight in gym-goers and clean eating fans every day.
Little do they know that going to the gym exhausted is doing nothing beneficial for them, and that badge of honor they think they wear should be stripped off. You’d be much better served waiting to get over exhaustion before attempting to wear your body down through training.
I know it’s hard to keep up with training, but recovery is a huge part of the process. By wearing your body into the ground day-in and day-out without recovery, you’re also putting severe fatigue onto your adrenal gland, ultimately affecting your hormone output. This reduction in hormone production only ends up damaging your metabolism, ruining your hormones, and affecting your desired physique.
Plateau Destroyer #3: Know Your Body
It might sound really cheesy, but by far the best and easiest change to make is to simply listen to your body by monitoring a few body hints.
Try and dial in your hunger recognition and learn what it feels like to actually need food, as opposed to boredom or other triggers. Don’t let your blood sugar dip beyond healthy levels, but just learn to realize when you’re hungry or full. By being aware of this biofeedback mechanism, you learn when you need more food and can react appropriately. Hunger is a sign of a healthy metabolism, so don’t ignore it.
The same goes for monitoring your sleep. Sleep quality is a brilliant indicator of recovery. When we sleep, we want cortisol to be low, and then high when we wake up (cortisol assists us in waking up). When we overtrain, we increase the amount of cortisol hormone in our body and, as a result, will sleep poorly. Having a decent quality of sleep is a sign of good recovery and good hormone output.
Using feedback mechanisms like these allow you to assess whether what you’re doing in your nutrition or training is helping or hindering.
The Whole Food Factor
One other recommendation would be to really understand what foods you’re eating and how they’re affecting your body too. If you’re training and not eating so much whole food, you won’t be reaping as many benefits as on a whole food diet. The type of food you’re eating can affect your physique and water retention, especially if you react badly to gluten, dairy, or other modern-day allergens. Bloating and decreases in performance can be affected by such foods, so a food test would be beneficial to anyone having issues with digestion or constant bloating.
Please, Be Patient
Overall, there’s many reasons why you may not be progressing as you like in your fat loss endeavors, but I’m here to encourage you that fat loss is rarely linear and that patience is the route to success.
When patience fails you, it’s worth assessing whether you’re overtraining or under-fueling. A few tactics exist to shift those plateaus, like cheat days or re-feed days, but really getting to know your body, and learning how to react accordingly, will help you understand what’s keeping you from progressing.
Use a few of these tactics and you should see some progress through your plateaus. Be patient, but keep smashing those goals. Most importantly, keep your eye on what’s happening with your body. It’s complex, but gives you a ton of information.