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Break On Through – How to Bust a Plateau and Get Back on Track


We’ve all been there. Working our rear ends off for weeks, sometimes months, and making great progress in our fat loss, or muscle building goals. Then, suddenly our body catches up and everything slows to a screeching halt.

It’s like this:

We’re cranking out the workouts and busting our butts to bust that gut.

Yet, we end up stuck in the proverbial fat loss rut.

And now I’m dropping fat loss rap bars like I’m the MC of the fitness game, son. Back up off me.

But, yeah, seriously … the dreaded plateau really sucks.

However, this does not mean that it’s time to toss in the towel, give up on our goals and retreat to the pepperoni pizza Gods for comfort. Well, actually … maybe it is (sort of) … but more on that later.

A plateau or a stall in progress is when things cease to move in a positive direction for a period of time. It could be a couple of weeks. It could be a couple of months. Either way, it sucks. But, my friends, it’s inevitable. And it will hit all of us that are trying to drop some extra fat. 

See, fat loss is not a linear process. I like to think of it as kind of like a reverse stock market. There are some days that are up, days that are down … but the trend is in a more positive direction. So, from time to time, we hit these stubborn areas when things just don’t want to get moving as quickly as possible.

There are a number of various factors for this, including: like water retention or just a slowed metabolic rate due to the body being more accustomed to the reduction in calories from dieting. And then, as we get leaner, it gets tougher and tougher for the body to break free from those last few pounds.

A few things to point here, though.

There is a difference between a weight loss plateau (when our scale weight stays the same) and a fat loss plateau (when the amount of excess fat on our body does not budge). And this is why taking accurate measurements on a regular basis is always recommended, and followed in our RealFOCUSFitness online coaching program

You see, if the weight doesn’t move, but our measurements improve, it could be a sign of the body adding lean body mass. Hint: that’s a good thing.

We could also benefit from what trainers like to call the Whoosh effect – very scientific terminology being tossed out on the blog, kids.

The whoosh is when the body essentially hangs on to some excess water for a while and we appear to have hit a stall, only to see a rapid and notable drop in weight when the body finally flushes out that liquid.

Here’s the scenario: We train hard and eat right week after week with no results. Getting a bit discouraged, but still dedicated to our goal, we realize that stalls happen and it is best to keep pushing through with our workouts and nutrition. After a couple of weeks, we are ready to give up. “One more test of the scale,” we say, “If it doesn’t change, I’m giving up.” With that said, we step on that scale and eureka! A substantial weight loss and improvement in all measurements across the board. That’s the whoosh effect in action, my friends. And if we abandoned our plan, we would have never seen it come to fruition.  

But sometimes, the whoosh doesn’t come. And we are still stuck in that damn rut. Now what? Well, that’s when it may be time to shake things up a bit.

Here are few tips you can try out right now that should have you back on track in no time:

Increase/Decrease calories – This is the usually the culprit. We should always be keeping a good track of the amount of calories coming in (especially for beginners in a fat loss or muscle building program). When that dreaded plateau hits, usually small tweaks to our diet are enough to get back on track. Keep running totals of the calories you are consuming with free online programs like FitDay or MyFitnessPal. If you are looking to drop weight, then try to reduce your calorie consumption by 10-15 percent of that total. If looking to pack on weight, increase by 10-15 percent.

Switch up the workout – Our muscles can adapt pretty quickly to a workout program. If you are doing the same routine time and time again, your body will literally adapt to the program and basically become bored … which means no progress and a whole lot of frustration. We need to constantly switch things up to throw the muscles off. Tony Horton slapped marketing speak on this and calls it “muscle confusion” as part of his P90X program. [note: this is the only time you will hear that stupid term on this website … my apologies for tossing it out here to begin with] That’s a cute way of saying that you need to alter your workouts regularly. Stick to changing up your routine every 4-6 weeks.

Take a week off – What?! Well, we all need vacations from work. Our body sometimes needs a break from working out or from our diet. It really does not take much for us to over-train our bodies. If you’ve been following a plan for 3-4 months and have not given yourself ample rest from training, you could be doing yourself more harm than good. We should be taking one week off about every eight weeks – whether you are trying to lose or gain weight. It allows your body to fully recover and get ready for another eight weeks of taxation. This is not an invite to become a couch potato. During that week off, focus on low-impact activities to keep your body fresh.

Cheat meals – This is where the pepperoni pizza comes in. If we’ve been strict with our nutritional plan for an extended period of time, it can do our body good to step away from the chia seeds and whole wheat bread to enjoy a big, greasy slice of New York pizza.  If we can stick to 90 percent adherence to our nutritional plans, a break from the diet to enjoy a cheat meal each week will boost us both psychologically and even physiologically. Here’s the caveat: go easy, eat slow and stop at 80 percent full on these cheats (as with all meals). And never let a simple cheat meal turn into a disastrous cheat day.

Ditch the long cardio for shorter interval training – If you are trying to drop those last few pounds, running for distance will have you running in circles. Switch it up and go with more effective interval training methods. For those trying to gain weight, think about reducing the amount of interval training/cardio you’re doing … or drop it altogether.

Increase the weight – You’d think this would only apply to those trying to pack on muscle. False. The stronger we are the more calories are burned by our body just to keep those muscles fully fueled and ready for duty. So, by building more muscle, we are boosting our metabolism and allowing for more fat burn throughout the day. If you believe in that philosophy that lifting light weight for a lot of reps will drop pounds … think again. Lower the reps and increase that weight to see real results. And if you are trying to gain muscle mass by lifting smaller weights with higher reps: don’t talk to me.

There is nothing more demoralizing than hitting a wall in our fat loss/muscle gaining efforts and seeing those measurements stay the same week in and week out. But, there is hope. Luckily, it does not take much (just a few small tweaks here and there) to break through the plateau and start gaining or losing again.

Don’t get stuck in a rut because your weight is stuck on a number. Plateaus are all part of the game here. It’s just how we combat those plateaus that will determine if we are going to be victorious in the long run. Simple tweaks like the ones listed above will have you busting through the plateau in no time.

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Pete Cataldo is a former television sports anchor that has taken his passion for fitness and turned it into his career. As a Certified Fitness Trainer, Certified Turbulence Trainer and Precision Nutrition Certified Coach, Pete is an expert in helping clients burn fat, lose weight and get in the best shape of their lives.
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