You’ve been good, exercising and eating well, and have seen the fruits of your labor. Perhaps your payoff has been in the form of looser pants, a lower number on the scale or more defined deltoids. Then, all of a sudden the improvement stops. You’re still working just as hard, but you can’t seem to shed another pound. Most likely you’ve hit a plateau—your body is in a holding pattern. Rather than get discouraged and fall back into old habits, look at it as an opportunity to refine your strategies and reap new benefits.
“When you stop losing weight all of a sudden, it’s because you’ve created a hormonal imbalance in the body,” says Derek Johnson, a Los Angeles-based holistic nutritionist and executive nutrition director of the Biggest Loser Resorts. “You’ve either forced weight off too quickly or you’ve depleted the body of its glycogen stores, which messes with your natural ‘set point.’”
The solution is not to simply eat less and work out more. “The body is not a bank account, it’s a chemistry set,” says Johnson. Rather than worry about calories in versus calories out, the key is to calm the body and get it back into balance. Here are a few tricks for doing just that.
“When someone tells me the scale won’t budge, the first thing I ask is, ‘How’s your sleep?’ If you are not getting enough rest, you are continually stressing the body, and there is no way you will break through a plateau when you are sleep-deprived,” Johnson says. The solution is to shoot for a good eight hours nightly.
Your body fasts overnight, so eating within 45 minutes of waking keeps it from going into preservation mode—a cycle in which it wants to store fat. “Make sure to include a quality protein with breakfast,” says Ed Bauer, a certified personal trainer and vegan National Physique Committee champion bodybuilder. “Protein with breakfast has been shown to feed hungry muscle from the night’s fast, strengthen the immune system and stabilize blood sugar for steady energy to start the day.”
Don’t be afraid to use weights. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so increasing lean muscle mass will ultimately help you lose inches. “Focus on free weight compound movements, which work more muscle in less time,” says Bauer. For example, try 10 reps each of overhead barbell push presses, pull-ups (assisted if needed), barbell dead lifts and weighted walking lunges. “Three rounds of this in a circuit fashion can be done in less than 20 minutes and will stimulate testosterone production and lean muscle increase,” he says.
Thirst often masquerades as hunger. “You really need to be drinking water throughout the day in order to keep your body properly hydrated,” Johnson says. Relying on meal times for the bulk of your liquids actually dilutes digestive enzymes and interferes with proper digestion. The trick is to get about a half-ounce of water per pound of body weight daily, and get it by sipping throughout the day.
Exercise less—but smarter
When the results come to a halt, intensifying your exercise regimen is not always the best idea. In fact, when your body is stressed or imbalanced, boosting exertion can make things worse. “Fewer workouts that focus on short bursts of intensity rather than long stints on the cardio machines can help bust through a plateau,” Johnson advises. Also, simply increasing your daily activity can help. “Take the stairs, park farther away from the front door, enjoy a morning walk with friends—it doesn’t matter, just focus on maintaining an active lifestyle,” Bauer suggests.
“I used to tell my clients to eat six small meals a day, but not anymore,” Johnson remembers. For most people, eating that frequently can stimulate too much insulin in the body, which can signal the storage of fat. “Most people do better with three solid meals and one small snack in the afternoon,” Johnson says. It’s also easier to maintain portion control when you’re not grazing all day long. Be sure to focus on lean protein, vegetables and healthy fats.
If you want to lose weight and keep it off, you can’t just play a calorie game, you have to teach the body how to gently and efficiently burn fat. That means feeding it the right foods at the right times, and exercising smartly—not just for a long time. “Simply worrying about how many calories you are burning always leads to ups and downs,” Johnson notes. Reducing stress and maintaining balance in your eating and exercise will keep you on the road to steady results.