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Overcoming Weight Loss Plateaus - Part 1

This article series is designed to help our clients identify weight loss plateaus while learning to modify their strategies to better comply with their programming. Additionally, the series serves to arm the Fitness Professionals with the tools to systematically eliminate the cause(s) of the plateau.


A plateau occurs when your body has found a way to burn just as many calories as you are consuming, even with the presence of exercise and dieting. This is a naturally occurring process and is essential to survival. Plateaus happen in all aspects of life; nothing can progress at the same pace forever. Sometimes, you just must slow down, take a strategic break, reorganize and begin again.


An example of a non-fitness plateau might be the growth of a child. Children grow like weeds until their teen years and then continue (slower) well into their twenties. Then, slowly, over time, they begin to decline in the pace of their vertical growth and by around the age 25, stop completely. They all possess moments of progression followed by moments of maintenance. Accepting that plateaus will happen is part of the process. With exercise and fitness, it is no different.


Recognizing a Plateau

A plateau is recognized when your body weight or body fat has not changed after a 1-month period of activity and/or dieting. Initially, a avoiding a plateau is easy to implement and simple to restart progress. However, an extended plateau is more difficult and can require more programming and nutritional manipulation.


Weight Loss Plateaus: What’s the Cause?

Weight loss plateaus are typically caused by one of two things (sometimes, it’s both):

  1. A metabolic adaptation to your current diet and exercise regimen. All biological systems prefer “homeostasis”. Homeostasis is just a fancy scientific word that describes the body’s preference for “staying the same” or “bodybalance”.
  2. Accumulated changes in your existing exercise and eating routine that are causing you to eat more or burn less calories with exercise, even though you aren’t aware of it.

In the above visual example, we can clearly trace how the body adapts to physiological stimulus – the WHY of this situation is simple. As discussed, the body strives for balance (Homeostasis). It does not care about the way you look, your desire to look better or to improve performance.  Your body does not care about what you feel you deserve or how hard you work towards your goals. What it does care about is efficiency. 

How Does a Plateau Occur? 

 In the above chart, I use a 2000-calorie intake to start with. I am making a few assumptions here: 

Beginning with the 2000-calorie intake and adding a new, unaccustomed stimulus, you can see that there is a 500-calorie expenditure (labeled – Initial Exercise Response). Basically, you are now doing more than you were doing before. Let’s next review at what happens to that 500-calorie response. 

First, everything new works great for about 6 weeks, so we will use that as the initial exercise response. 

During this time, new enzymes get created, metabolic pathways are enhanced and cellular strengthening occurs, all leading to exercise exertion to become easier.  Within this 6 weeks, the body has become a more efficient machine in order to handle the new stressors. 

In simple terms, when you begin working out, your body must strengthen and reinforce structures. It works hard and quickly to do so. Once this has been accomplished, maintaining these structures requires less energy.

Now, doing the same workload burns only half the energy it did prior to beginning the program (only 6 weeks later). A future challenge is that, although adding additional volume and intensity can increase the caloric deficit, it will not be a significant increase once the initial adaptation has been accomplished. 

Next, you will also experience a lower resting metabolic rate. Let’s use the cardiovascular system as an example here. Perhaps, when the client began the program, their resting heart rate was 72 beats per minute, through partaking in cardiovascular exercise, they have strengthened and improved their cardiovascular system and their resting heart rate reduced to 67 b.p.m. That reduction is a fantastic health benefit, but it’s also a decrease to the metabolism because the cardiovascular system is stronger and more efficient (and thus, less calories expended).

Additionally, let’s assume that the client achieved a 15-pound weight loss initiating a new exercise program. If they are moving around 15 pounds lighter, they are burning fewer calories just to live. Imagine carrying a 15-pound dumbbell with you everywhere you went. You would burn more calories. The result? A decrease to total metabolism AND weight loss has significantly slowed. Lastly, assuming the client lost ALL of their weight loss from adipose tissue (nearly impossible), this tissue has a small metabolic footprint. It is estimated that each pound of bodyfat burns between 4-6 calories per pound, per day. This would give us an additional 100-calorie loss to our metabolism.

There are trade-offs here.  The client is healthier and fitter. They have lost weight and have achieved parts of their overall goal. The challenge is that weight loss has slowed and/or stopped, meaning that a new stressor needs to be applied. 

A typical response might be to add in more of the same type of cardiovascular activity to “boost” results. The coach needs to step in and replace the type of cardio first. We must strive for the least amount of work to create a change. 

Utilizing the principles below can aid us in doing that.

Applying the Most Basic Physiological Principles to Training and Plateaus  

1.The Overload Principle

2.The FITT Principle

3.The Specificity Principle (S.A.I.D.)

4.The Rest and Recovery Principle

5.The Use or Lose Principle



The Overload Principle

The Overload Principle is probably the most important principle of exercise and training. Simply stated, the Overload Principle means that the body will adapt to the workload placed upon it. The more you do, the more you will be capable of doing. This is how all the fitness improvements occur when exercising and training. When you stress the body through lifting a weight that the body is unaccustomed to lifting, the body will react by causing physiological changes in order to be able to handle that stress the next time it occurs. This concept is similar in cardiovascular training. If you ask the heart, lungs and endurance muscles to do work not previously done, it will make changes to the body to handle that task better the next time. This is how people get stronger, bigger, faster and increase their physical fitness level.


When you are working out, you want to strive to somehow increase the workload you are doing above what you did on your previous workout so you have overloaded your body to create a training adaptation. This increase in workout stress can be a very small increase, which over time will eventually be a significant increase or adaptation. To determine how to increase the workload of a given workout, you need to understand the F.I.T.T Principle.


The F.I.T.T. Principle

An uncomplicated way to get started on developing a personal fitness program is utilizing the

F.I.T.T. principle. This acronym stands for FrequencyIntensityTime and Type. These are the areas in which someone could increase or overload in order to improve physical fitness.

Combining the Overload Principle and The F.I.T.T. Principle


Resistance Training

Cardiovascular Training


Increase the number of workout days

Increase the number of workout days


Increase the resistance / weight

Increase pace or % of Max. Heart Rate


Increase time involved in exercise or increased repetitions.

Increase time involved in exercise


Changing the exercise, but still working the same area of the body

Changing the workout to a different cardio exercise. Ex. jogging to rowing


Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (S.A.I.D.) - The Specificity Principle

This principle is just how it sounds - how you exercise should be specific to your goals. If you're trying to improve your racing times, you should focus on speed workouts. If your main goal is simply health, fitness and weight management, you should focus on total body strength training, cardiovascular training and a healthy diet. Make sure your training matches your goals. Regardless of the chosen goal, your body responds by adapting to any/all demands placed upon it.


The Rest and Recovery Principle

While we often focus on getting in as much exercise as possible, rest and recovery is also essential for reaching weight loss and fitness goals. While you can often do cardio every day (though you may want to rest after very intense workouts), you should have at least a day of rest between strength training workouts. Make sure you don't work the same muscles two days in a row to give your body the time it needs to rest and recover.


The Eustress v Distress - “Use or Lose” Principle

The Principle of Use or Lose implies that when it comes to fitness, you "use it or lose it." This simply means that your muscles build strength (hypertrophy) with use and lose strength (atrophy) with lack of use. This also explains why we lose fitness when we stop exercising. Moving better requires several interconnected parts. Each of these is important to creating success in your exercise program.

Each small working part has a role in overall fitness and must be trained accordingly. A healthy and fit lifestyle will encompass all the larger components as well as the smaller moving parts.



In this first installment, we have successfully learned to identify plateaus and gained a few insights on how and why the body plateaus.  The next installment will provide a comprehensive list of solutions, but for now, here is a simple list to ensure the client is performing the simplest things to stave off or delay plateaus:

One strategy at a time

When you begin a workout regimen, the changes are significant. The body works hard to figure out how to adapt to these “new, unaccustomed” stimuli and you burn significant energy performing the work AND adjusting to the work. Our body is great at conserving and storing energy. Adaptation is a disadvantage to improving fitness levels. Trying to make multiple, simultaneous changes leads to confusion because you will not be able to determine what is working (or not).


Drink Water

Increasing the amount of water you drink will aid in appetite control, improve workout performance, enhance recovery and occupy you so you do not eat as much food. Strive for 0.5 - 1.0 oz per pound of bodyweight.


Increase Workout Intensity

Track the weights that you are using and strive to add repetitions with the same weight or to increase the amount of weight being lifted. Not only is this mentally challenging, but you are forcing the body to adapt to a new stimulus. Be sure to strength train 3-4 times per week. Maintaining muscle tissue aids in keeping your metabolism high and creates an athletic appearance.


Increase Daily Activity

Most people confuse busy and active.  We tend not to move nearly as much as we think we do.  Getting out for a daily walk or any other type of activity for 20-40 minutes will keep you active and allow your body to feel better, which would enhance your planned strength workouts. Add mobility and stability work daily to insure joint and muscle health.


Improve Food Quality

Like movement, most people dramatically over-estimate how well they eat. Track your daily quality carbohydrate intake and/or vegetable servings, track your protein intake and track your non-nutritive food intake to see where improvements can be made.

Strive for 0.5 - 1.0 grams per lbs. of bodyweight for protein. 



Add an hour to your sleep cycle.  We live in a rapid and busy society. Sleep is essential to recovery and will have you feeling refreshed and energetic, enabling you to be more active and train harder during workouts.


Watch out for the next article in this series: A Systematic Approach to Overcoming Plateaus.

Questions on Fat Loss Programming?  Check out this article: