Then one day you step on the scale expecting to see a new number, a lower number but it doesn’t happen. “Oh well, I’ll give it a few days and check again.” A few days later…nothing, your weight hasn’t moved.
A few weeks…still nothing!
“WTF is going on here?! I’m doing everything right! Why am I not losing weight anymore??”
This isn’t just a weight loss phenomenon either, it applies to fitness, strength, even skills. Hell, this is a life thing, people! You’re progressing well, you’re achieving your goals and then BOOM! Without warning your progress suddenly stalls.
Today I want to talk about the dreaded plateau. Is it real? What happens when you get stuck in one? And what you need to do to break out.
SO, WHAT THE HELL IS A PLATEAU?
A plateau happens when all your progress seems to suddenly stop. Despite your best efforts you just seem to be treading water and going nowhere. You might think you’re doing everything right, you might actually be doing everything right, ya know; moving more and eating better, but without warning the honeymoon is suddenly over.
Our bodies tend to jump from consistent progress to getting stuck and stalling. This is the plateau and we don’t like it.
We all crave progress and success. Whether it’s losing fat, lifting heavier weights, or running/walking further and faster. Shit, we like to achieve our goals, right? It feels good. We like to know that we’re progressing and we hate it when we don’t.
Is it Real? Has Your Progress ACTUALLY stalled?
I hear a lot of people saying that they’re stuck in a plateau. A LOT OF PEOPLE!
They talk about eating well and exercising more but they just can’t make progress. Lots of crazy explanations start to get thrown into the mix. “I must have a thyroid issue.” “It’s my genetics, it’s actually impossible for me to lose weight.”
When the crazy theories come out I know there’s something else going on here – you’re not being honest with yourself!
Ask yourself a question – Have you really plateaued? REALLY?!
Playing the plateau card is sometimes just a convenient excuse. In many cases, it’s simply a matter of focus. Some old habits have come back to play but you don’t want to admit that, or you simply haven’t recognised some of them sneaking back into your daily lifestyle and routine. That’s ok, it happens, the trick is to recognise it and take appropriate action to get back on track.
Now, I’m not saying that plateaus don’t exist, I can tell you from my own experience that they absolutely do and we’ll explore that a little later. But for now, if you think you’ve plateaued, take an honest look at what you’re doing, are you being completely honest with yourself?
Is this really a plateau, or have you been a little complacent lately? Perhaps a little comfortable with where you’re at and let things slide?
Consider getting back to basics:
- Track your meals and snacks for the next few days. Often we think we’re making all the right choices until we realise that after a few weeks, or months of doing really well, we’ve started to get a little slack. “Oh, I’ve been super good this week, just this one time…” Now there’s nothing wrong with that! In fact, I’m totally against depriving yourself of the things you love. But ask yourself is it really just this one time? Or have some of your old habits snuck back in? Has the family bag started to replace the snack sized bag again? Has sugar snuck back into your coffee? Or have you started to enjoy soft-drink again? Maybe refocus and start tracking your food and beverage consumption again, just for a few days, or a couple of weeks. Have some of your old habits come out to play?
- Review your movement. Whatever exercise you’ve been doing, how’s it going… REALLY? Are you improving? Are you walking as much? Running as far? Lifting as often? Or, have you become comfortable with the fact that you’re doing something, anything, rather than gently pushing yourself to improve? Have you caught the bus, or used the car more lately? Maybe you’ve become comfortable saying: “Bugger it, I don’t feel like it today.” I know when I’ve hit a plateau or thought I’ve hit a plateau, it’s often because I’ve become too comfortable with what I’m doing. Rather than focussing on the next target, I let myself have a few too many days off and I’ve stopped striving for improvement. Walk further, run faster, lift more. If it’s not as hard as it used to be this is a good sign that it’s time to set the bar just a tiny bit higher. Don’t go crazy, just take it up a notch.
- What else has changed? Look back at the last wee while, has anything changed in your environment? Are you working longer hours? Getting less sleep? Have you had visitors staying with you lately? These are all little things that can throw your healthy routines out. That’s what happened to me – a young family member is staying with us while he finds his feet in a new city and gets started at university. And it’s changed my environment and my daily routines. The grocery list has changed, what and when we eat has subtly changed. When I get to bed has slowly changed. In the same way, tiny healthy changes can add up to massive success. Tiny, nearly unrecognisable unhealthy changes can have the reverse effect. Recognise them and take appropriate action.
Having taken an honest look at the last wee while, can you honestly say that you’ve spent the last few weeks making good choices and striving for improvement? Are you sure there haven’t been any subtle changes to your environment that have had an impact on your lifestyle and healthy routines? Sometimes we think we’re stuck, but really we’ve just let a few things slide. When this happens you don’t need to go crazy and start looking for big sweeping changes to jumpstart your progress, you just need to be honest with yourself and refocus.
Before we move on to what a real plateau looks like, let’s be clear on a couple of things:
Progress doesn’t happen in a straight line and over time your progress WILL slow down. You just can’t progress at the same rate forever. If we were capable of losing 2kg a month forever we’d eventually cease to exist. If we could keep adding weights to the bar indefinitely, sooner or later we’d start defying the laws of physics. You can’t argue with science – some things are just aren’t possible.
Don’t mistake slower progress for a plateau. At some point, whether you’re losing weight, improving your fitness or trying to build muscle – you’ll need to adjust your expectations based on how far you’ve already come.
SO, WHAT DOES A REAL PLATEAU LOOK LIKE?
Well, let’s say you really are doing everything right and your progress has totally stalled, maybe you’re even going backwards a little. You might have reached a plateau.
If you really have reached a plateau, then it’s time to change things up a little.
Do you remember learning to read as a kid? Books with large print and big descriptive pictures? There’s only so far these books can take you, right? Once you know all the words, you can read these same books all ya want but there’s nothing more they can teach you. If you want to continue learning and improving your skills, sooner or later you’ve gotta graduate to full blown books, with big words you don’t yet recognise and no explanatory pictures to help you understand.
In other words, you’ve gotta start working a little bit harder if you want to keep progressing.
Weight loss, fitness and strength are exactly the same – at some point what you’ve been doing will no longer be enough for you to keep pushing forward.
When you first started out you made pretty good progress and everything was great. You made small changes and you were seeing some big results, and it was happening relatively quickly. But things have slowed up now, right? Maybe it’s been a few months, maybe a year or two and the results you’re seeing from the effort you’re putting just aren’t what they used to be. Hell, it might even seem like you’re going backwards.
- When you got started with your weight loss mission everything was great! The number on the scale was going in the right direction, after a while you even had to shop for new clothes and you were generally excited about the way things were working out. Then, things started to slow down – you were still trying hard but the results just weren’t coming like they used to. You start to question EVERYTHING.
- You finally started to enjoy exercising and it was getting easier all the time. You started with just a few minutes but quickly graduated to longer and faster walks. Skip forward a few months and it’s become a struggle. You’re doing everything right but it seems to be harder than ever. WTF?!
Plateaus happen in every aspect of our life, they’re not confined to fitness and weight loss alone. We plateau in our working lives and relationships too and it can feel like failure. It’s a time where it’s easy for us to question all our effort and think; ‘ya know what, fuck it, what’s the point?!’
But the things is, when it comes to fitness and weight loss this isn’t failure at all. It’s actually progress in disguise – you’re on the verge of taking your success to the next level.
HOW TO BREAK THROUGH A PLATEAU
So, how do you keep going when it feels like you’re failing? How do you push through a plateau?
You do what we’ve always done and focus on small changes. Find a way to make a tiny improvement every day.
I’m gonna repeat that because it’s important: Find a way to make a tiny improvement every day!
See, our bodies crave efficiency. Basically, they strive to perform every action in the most efficient way possible, expending the least amount of energy possible to carry out whatever action your brain has set in motion.
If you perform the same action over and over again your body will learn to perform that action in the most efficient way it can. So, over time, you start to burn fewer calories than you used to.
You might think that’s disappointing, but actually, that’s FITNESS.
Consider a plateau as your body’s way of telling you “hey man, I’m better than this now and I’m ready for the next challenge.” You’re on the verge of taking your success to the next level!
Some small changes to consider:
- If you’ve been walking to work every day, add a short section of jogging into the mix.
- If you’ve been jogging to work every day, add a couple of sprint sections into the mix.
- If walking has been your only exercise, add some basic strength exercises into the mix.
- If you’ve been doing basic bodyweight exercises, add some weights into the mix.
Whatever exercise you’ve been doing, add something new into the mix. Basically, you want to add a small action that your body isn’t yet efficient at. You don’t have to go crazy, just a small action that is new and unfamiliar. This is how you break through a plateau and take your success to the next level.
In the same way small changes helped us make a start and created momentum in our weight loss and health mission, small changes can help us break through a plateau.
Remember: your body will always seek the easiest way to do something. The more practise it gets performing certain actions, the more it adapts to successfully find the path of least resistance. If you’re stuck in a plateau, your job now is to confuse it, throw something at it that it doesn’t yet recognise.
Our bodies seek efficiency but they thrive and improve when they’re forced to adapt to the unknown.
Find a way to make a tiny improvement every day – run faster, walk further, lift more. Find a way to get better/faster/stronger.
Other things to think about:
If you focus has solely been weight loss, consider shifting that to fitness. Your ability to lose weight will always slow down and as you get fitter and build muscle the downward trend you’ve seen on the scale will definitely slow down – we all know muscle weighs more than fat. So, if you’ve only thought about progress in terms of weight lost, maybe start thinking about progress in terms of fitness gained. Try something completely new and work on achieving it and improving. It might be a pull-up, a handstand, or running the route you usually walk.
It can be depressing when you only focus on your total weight and the number isn’t changing. Take some pressure off yourself and put the scale away, shift your focus from weight loss to strength or fitness for a while. You might just find that that’s the change you need.
Remember that we’ll always have bad weeks. Shit happens, it always will and mostly it’s out of our control. This isn’t failure, it’s just life. Don’t stress about the stuff that’s not yours to control. Only give time to the things that are in your power to control. If you’re having a good day push yourself harder, on the not-so-good days, just keep chipping away at it and remind yourself that you’re doing what you can. Doing something will ALWAYS be better than doing nothing at all.
Shift your diet. When we set out to lose weight it’s easy to think we simply need to eat less, when actually it’s just as likely that we need to eat better. It could be that you’ve fallen into the trap of eating too little. Two things can happen here:
1. You don’t have enough energy to make the tiny improvements you need to push through a weight loss and fitness plateau, and
2. Your body might be storing calories in the fear that its source of energy will run out. This is the over-hyped starvation mode you might have heard of. It’s an evolutionary thing that harks back to times being tough and the availability of food not being constant. It’s like a built-in self-preservation mode in case there’s a famine around the corner.
If you lack the energy you need to make a tiny improvement each day, it might be that you’re eating too little. Try increasing the amount you eat, just a little, but focus on healthy fats and protein. Stuff like avocado, chicken, almonds, eggs etc. This will give you the additional energy you need and your body might just start to rethink its concerns about the source of energy running out and change its tune: “ Hey man, there’s plenty of food here. I don’t see a famine around the corner, let’s turn this into muscle instead of fat.”
MY OWN EXPERIENCES
If I look back at my experiences of losing weight and getting fitter I realise that there have been times where I thought I’d plateaued but really I was just trying to convince myself that I hadn’t let a few things slide. Old habits had come back out to play and I was slow to recognise them. That’s ok, it happens. At these times, I found myself having to recommit to what I was trying to achieve and take an honest look at what I was really doing. Lying to yourself isn’t really an option here, you’re the only person that stands to lose!
There were other times when I really had plateaued and I made tiny improvements which led to significant progress.
Changes I’ve made in the last 18 months or so:
- I use the elevator less at work. For the longest time, I felt like I’d earned the right to use the elevator at work. I mean, I walk to-and-from work every day, I’m allowed to use the lift, right? Actually, taking the stairs more is a tiny improvement and an easy win.
- I changed where I eat my lunch. During the working week and weather permitting, I always go for a walk to eat my lunch. Usually, I walk to a small park a couple of minutes down the road. I found a new park, a couple of minutes further down the road with a set of stairs to get there. A small win and a tiny improvement.
- I started jogging small sections of my walk to work. I’ve walked to work for the last few years, if you’ve read: A Short Walk to Healthy: Lessons from a Former Fat Guy, you’ll know how that progression came about. In the last 18 months I’ve gone from jogging small sections of that walk, to running the whole way and now I’ve added small sections of sprinting into that weekday activity. Small improvements over time that have led to a significant change.
- I added weight and an extra set to my morning strength routine. About 18 months ago I added a strength routine into my weekly activity. It started sporadically, just doing it when I felt like it. Then I committed to it, three days a week before I leave for work. It started with two sets, then three, then four, then I added some weights into the mix. Small consistent improvement.
This sounds like a lot, but remember none of it happened overnight. These are small changes that happened weeks, sometimes months apart. This is how you continuously improve and this is how you break through a plateau.
Rugby players like to say that it was a game of two halves, well, weight loss and fitness is a game of many phases. When you accept that your progress will never be a simple process of going from A to B and there will be many dips, u-turns and other variables along the way, you’ll be better equipped to recognise that you’re not failing, your mission is simply evolving.