Body Conquest Articles | How to Overcome the Fat Loss Plateau

on Tuesday, 16 April 2013. Posted in Training

How To Overcome The Fat Loss Plateau


A couple of months ago I wrote an article on plateaus and how to avoid them when training. However you can also plateau in your efforts at fat loss. As we are now in the warmer months of the year, most of us want to shed our "winter coat" and display a fit, lean physique. For those of us who live the bodybuilding lifestyle, whether competitive or not, this is the time to shine at the beach and get our kudos for all the hard training we have done. So, what do you do if you fat loss has come to a grinding halt? Well, the good news is that there are numerous ways to 'trick" the body and continue to drop those unwanted kilos, even if you have hit a wall.

Usually, in the initial stages of becoming lean it is relatively easy to shed much of the excess fat. If you "clean up" your diet, take out any junk food and alcohol you may have been consuming, you will notice good, solid changes in as little as a week. Carry this on for two or three weeks and you will lose anything up to five or six kilos without even really trying. This is the easy bit. You don't have to count your calories, weigh your food or go hungry.....the fat just falls off by not eating high fats and sugars and consuming calorie dense alcohol.

As the fat falls off you might become quite motivated so you add some cardio into the mix. So a meander on the treadmill after your weights workout helps you to burn some further calories and the march towards leanness continues. Then you notice that the fat loss per week is slowing down. You know that you have to change things when that happens. There are still a lot of options. Perhaps you can spread your total calories per day over one or two more meals? Drinking more water is another tactic. Another popular method is to up the intensity of your weight training and employ different training principles such as giant sets, drop sets and supersets.

Ok, so you are training like a gun, nailing your cardio, drinking plenty of water (at least 3 litres a day minimum) and you are eating "clean" and yet the unthinkable happens and your fat loss has hit yet another wall. Now what do you do? Well, the next thing to do is to take a closer look at your nutrition and make sure that you are getting the finer details right.


We've all heard stories about people getting lost in the mountains for weeks with only water and a chocolate bar or historical tales of prisoners in war camps who were confined for years with only miniscule amounts of food. Have you ever wondered how these people survived?

Firstly, you've got to recognise that your body is an astounding thing. Your body not only looks good when you're fit, strong and healthy, but it has the amazing ability to ADAPT to the environment. If we're looking from the point of food intake, your body is actually able to slow down its rate of burning calories if it needs to. When you're faced with a situation where food is limited, your body senses this and tells itself -"Hey, we better stop burning all these calories so quickly because it looks like we're having a shortage of calories lately, and this may go on for some time. Let's slow down and start saving more energy so that we can survive longer under these conditions with the little food we're getting". Now, that is one smart machine!

As a result, your metabolism slows down too, and your body is no longer at peak performance. This is THE VERY REASON why you can never starve yourself to lose fat. Yes, you'll lose weight dramatically, and some fat together with it, but you'll eventually reach a point where you're getting nowhere, and just be a miniature version of what you previously were... and not a transformed physique. You want to lose FAT, not 'weight'. (I am not even mentioning all the hard earned muscle you will lose in the process).

Okay, so let's say if somehow you manage to starve yourself to a size you want... and now you want to 'resume' your eating habits... well, I've got news for you. You're just gonna pack on the pounds all over again, and gain weight faster than you ever have! Why? Simply because you've successfully managed to trick your body into functioning with lesser calories and anything more would simply make you gain fat because you're consuming MORE than what your body needs.

Until today, every single person I know who tried to starve themselves to a better physique are either back to the shape they were before, or fatter than before (most of them are fatter now and find it even more difficult to do anything about it). Who is to blame when this happens? What more proof do you need? The starvation response evolved in humans basically to ensure the survival of the species... not for you to suddenly inherit a beach physique or fit into a dress.


Don't skip breakfast! Breakfast is exactly what the name suggests "Break Fast". It's breaking the fast your body had while you were asleep for 8 hours. It is the first meal of the day, usually eaten in the morning (assuming you slept at night). If you've got an unusual sleep cycle (perhaps due to working on shift, etc) and you sleep in the afternoons, then your breakfast will be the first meal you have when you wake up. Breakfast does not follow the time of the day, but your sleep cycle, and helps kick-start your metabolism levels for the day, which is crucial to fat loss.

A study once conducted found that although skipping breakfast may seem a good way to eliminate calories, breakfast skippers tend to be fatter than breakfast eaters. And when people eat a larger-than-normal breakfast, they end up eating almost 100 fewer calories by the end of the day, an amount that can help your summer fat loss campaign.

Skipping breakfast in order to lose weight is a big and common mistake and is counter productive because it actually slows your metabolism and can lead to over eating.

Planning what you will eat for breakfast the next day is one of the keys to success in being able to eat a regular breakfast. Always include protein foods in your breakfast as it takes longer to digest and will provide sustained energy and keep you feeling full longer. For example, you could have:

Oatmeal topped with raisins and a scoop of protein powder to get you going for the day. A good mantra that you have probably heard is to "Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper". Hopefully you are already not eating just these 3 meals, but rather are eating between 5 and 7 meals per day. However, tapering the calories from the start to the end of the day can definitely help with fat loss.

So, for example your Meal and calories count may look something like this for someone consuming 2080 calories per day:

  1. Meal 1: 480 calories
  2. Meal 2: 420 calories
  3. Meal 3: 380 calories
  4. Meal 4: 320 calories
  5. Meal 5: 280 calories
  6. Meal 6: 200 calories
This means the majority of your calories are consumed in the early part of the day, giving you the chance to burn them off via your daily tasks. This also means that you don't go to bed on too much food which may otherwise be converted to your fat stores.

People who eat a healthy breakfast have fewer weight and health issues than those who don't. And remember... Eat breakfast like a king, but not a FAT king - sausages, bacon, and fried eggs does not constitute a "good, clean breakfast".


Another super efficient method of tricking your body into further fat loss is to cycle your carbohydrates. Please note: cycling doesn't have to be relegated to just carbs. You can choose to cycle all of your macronutrients or your daily total number of calories to keep your body guessing about what's coming in next via nutrition. This method is guaranteed to help you bust through that plateau!

To be frank, carbohydrate cycling warrants a whole article by itself, so the following explanation is fairly simple and straightforward, although perhaps a little short on detail. In fact, I espouse 3 "types of days" when carbohydrate cycling my clients- High carb day, low carb day and a "no-carb" day........yeah, yeah I know, I should be tarred and feathered.

Carbohydrate cycling is the practice of lowering carbohydrates for a period of time, (3 days is often used) and then bringing your carbs back up for a day. This is done as opposed to just keeping your carbohydrate ratios the same day in, day out. This helps your body to burn fat at a higher rate on the lower carb days and then replenish your carbohydrates on higher days. This keeps your metabolism from slowing down and makes sticking to your 'diet' mentally easier knowing that you will be able to eat higher carbohydrates and calories in a few short days.

There are no strict rules when using the carbohydrate cycling diet. Everyone is different and you will need to play with the days you stick with lower carb days and higher carb days. Finding the right ratios are also something you will need to experiment with. Some people can eat more starchy carbs and still lose fat, but others will need to restrict their starchy carbs and focus more on using fibrous carbs to meet their carbohydrate needs.

You can also plan your carbohydrate cycling around special events or plans that you may have. That is what makes this diet so easy and personalised.

On average, women should lean towards 125-175 grams of carbs on low days and 200-300 grams on higher days. Men, 175-225 grams on low days and 350-400 grams on high days. Like I mentioned before, every individual is different and may need to play with these numbers a bit to find what works best for you.

Pay attention to how your body is feeling. If you are lacking in energy and feeling really lethargic, increase your starchy and fibrous carbs, but focus your starchy carbs around your workouts. But, if you have plenty of energy, but aren't seeing any fat loss results, slowly decrease your starchy carbs.


Another successful tactic to bust your way through a fat loss plateau is to get off the steady state cardio treadmill and crank up the intensity via interval training. Interval training is an excellent method of burning a lot of calories in a relatively short amount of time as lets face it, most of us do not have the time, patience or discipline to be on the cross trainer for two hours at a time. If sprinting is not for you, and you're going to do more traditional cardio methods like the treadmill, stepper and rowing machines there are things that you can do to try to minimise muscle loss and accelerate fat loss. Exercise too short and too low intensity and you won't burn much fat at all. Exercise too long and too hard and your hormones will switch your body from burning fat to burning muscle. This can also cause your testosterone levels to plunge, and even worse, your levels of the potent muscle-eating and fat –producing hormone cortisol to skyrocket. This is what you definitely want to avoid!!

Optimum duration to avoid this would be somewhere around the 20 minute mark at an intensity where you are really working, with your heart rate up around 75% of your work rate. High intensity exercise stimulates the sympathetic nervous system which releases key hormones that are called catecholamines-the strongest stimulators of fat burning. These hormones enable you to train harder and longer by improving your ability to tap into your fat stores for energy. Don't forget also, as your level of fitness improves over this 20-30 minute period, your ability to burn your own body fat dramatically improves-in other words-by losing fat, you become even more efficient at burning fat.

With high intensity training there is an increased post exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). This means that your metabolic rate remains higher for longer long after you finish exercising. With low to moderate exercise your metabolic rate returns to normal much earlier. Burning fat is significantly greater when exercise intensity is high. In one particular study, individuals performed either an endurance training (ET) or High Intensity(HI) training program for a period of 15 weeks. At the end of the testing period, the HI group experienced 9 times the fat loss of the ET group.[1] This is certainly presently supported empirically by the many individuals who have accelerated fat loss after adopting HI as their form of cardiovascular exercise.

Your body is a tool and you can use it to achieve many things. Don't be afraid to try different things, especially if you have hit a plateau. Changing things up, whether it's your nutrition, your resistance workouts or your cardio is always a good way to awaken your metabolism and help you to start making progress again.

Ingrid Barclay is the owner of Body Conquest, an elite personal training service specialising in contest preparation for men and women. Ingrid is a Master Trainer of 17 years, author of "Go Figure" and a NABBA/WFF judge who has helped numerous competitors to compete at their very best.