Tom, I know you often say that to get to the point to be able to see your abs, you need to get to single-digit body fat. What if I hit a plateau at about 12% body fat? What do I need to do to break the plateau and get my fat% down to single digits? Should I do more cardio, more weight-training, manipulate my diet somehow?”
You could do any of the above. You could manipulate your calories, add cardio type, duration or frequency. You could increase cardio intensity. You could change your weight-training. You shouldn’t limit yourself.
One of the problems I see with quite a few programs is that they’re too dogmatic. If you hit a plateau, the person with the most flexibility in their approach is the person who’s going to be most likely to get through that plateau.
The first thing though is to understand what a plateau really is. This is important, because if you were losing weight, but now you’re not, there’s only one thing that that could mean; you were in a calorie deficit but you’re no longer in a calorie deficit.
You may be wondering why that happens.
There are four primary reasons you hit a plateau:
The first reason you hit a plateau is because your metabolism decreases. While this does not completely stop fat loss, it does slow down fat loss. If you’ve been cutting calories, especially if you cut them severely, your body adapts by decreasing the metabolic rate. That’s sometimes known as the “starvation response” or “Adaptive thermogenesis.”
The second reason is that you need fewer calories after you lose weight. Calorie needs are directly tied into your body weight. One problem is that after people lose a lot of weight, they tend to keep eating the same way they were eating when they were heavier.
So they’re feeding a smaller person the way they were when they were a bigger person, but when you’re a smaller person, you don’t need as many calories, even at rest (your basal metabolic rate is lower).
A third reason is that when you move that smaller body, you’re not burning as many calories. If you strap on a weighted vest or heavy backpack and go out and hike up a hill, you can tell, obviously, that if you’re lugging around extra weight, you’re burning more calories. So now can you see why, after you lose weight, you burn fewer calories?
The fourth reason is that most people either cheat on their diets or they forget to record part of their food intake. This one requires a little bit of honesty with yourself. Even if you don’t do it intentionally and you don’t “cheat” per se, unconsciously, we’re all terrible at estimating how much food we eat.
Some studies have even showed underreporting calorie intake as much as 50%. In other words, you say, “I’m only eating 1,200 calories a day, but i’m stuck at a plateau!” but you’re really eating 1,800 calories a day which doesn’t give you much of a deficit.
All of these reasons for plateaus get amplified in the later stages of a diet, because biologically speaking, your body is doing everything it possibly can to get you to go off your diet and to get weight to stabilize.
After a long period of dieting and after a large weight loss, your body cranks up the appetite, stimulates cravings and tries to trick you into eating more.
The leaner you get, the longer youve been dieting and the more aggressively you cut calories, the more your body tends to defend its weight, and hold on to remaining body fat.
So it’s really common to hit that plateau when you’re dieted down and leaner. Usually it’s nowhere near as difficult for the overweight person to start losing weight as it is for the lean person to get even more lean. The last 10 lbs is usually a lot harder than the first 10.
If you think about it, it’s pretty unnatural from a biological perspective to walk around with really low single-digit body fat. It’s not beneficial from a survival-of-the-species point of view to have low body fat. So this metabolic adaptation becomes more pronounced the leaner you get.
You’re also at a higher risk of losing muscle, because extra muscle is not econmical when there’s a calorie shortage. Having extra muscle is like having an engine that’s bigger than you need – It’s like a gas guzzler.
The ultimate answer to why you plateau, why that last 10 pounds is so hard to lose and why it’s hard to break into those single digits is that you were in a calorie deficit but for all of the reasons mentioned above, you’re no longer in deficit.
The way to break the plateau then is to:
(1) re-stimulate metabolism and re-set fat-burning and starvation hormones
(2) re-establish the deficit.
(3) KEEP AFTER IT!
The question was, “How do I do that? More cardio, more weight training, manipulate my diet?”
You could do all of the above. Eating less or exercising more can both increase a deficit. But one thing you might want to do first, is give yourself a little break. Take your calories up to maintenance level, maybe for a week.
The idea there is not to try to accelerate fat loss, because what you’re actually doing is removing your calorie deficit for a short period of time. What you’re trying to do is facilitate the fat loss when you jump back into it.
It gives your body a physiological break from the stress of dieting; it resets some of those starvation hormones and stimulates your metabolism so when you go back to the calorie deficit, your body responds again.
You also get mental break from the diet as well, which makes it easier to stick with the program when you go back to it.
You could also use a calorie cycling approach, to help prevent yourself from hitting another plateau, and we already covered calorie and carb cycling in the last call.
I also recommend, because so many people underestimate how much they eat, don’t take any chances. Count your calories, or at least become really aware of the portion sizes and maybe even consider keeping a journal.
You’ve probably been told many times by a lot of different “experts” that you don’t have to count calories. But when you’re in a plateau, I’d recommend that you stop guessing and really get serious about what you’re taking in.
Then what you need to do is reestablish that calorie deficit using every tool at your disposal.
Use nutrition by pulling back your portion sizes. Or use cardio. And by increased cardio, I mean increasing energy expenditure. You could increase your frequency. You could increase your duration.
But increasing energy expenditure is not necessarily doing longer workouts, just burning more calories. You could also take the same amount of time that you’re spending right now and increase your intensity.
The whole idea is just burn more calories and stimulate metabolism, which gives you your deficit back again or you can pull back your food intake and give yourself a deficit again from the food side.
There’s more than one way to do it and I don’t think that you should lock yourself in. Use all of the variables and remember that there are TWO sides to the energy balance equation, not one.
Burn The Fat, Feed the Muscle is the most detailed, one-stop guide to fat burning nutrition you’ll ever find.That’s why so many people call it the fat loss bible.