Breaking Through a Plateau (And Are You Really Plateaued?)
A lot of clients and people in general often reach out to me asking what to do when they reach a weight loss plateau. Typically what they’re referring to is a lack of positive movement on the scale. So before validating any kind of a belief that they are at some kind of sticking point, I often like to double check they truly are in need of breaking through a plateau.
Are You Really Plateaued?
Most resources will tell you that if you haven’t lost 0.5lb in 2 weeks then you’ve probably hit a plateau. While that’s one way to measure whether you are plateaued, I tend to favor encouraging my clients to take girth measurements and progress photos. Sometimes we might not see much change on the scale, but we might see significant improvements in body composition or favorable improvements in inches lost at various body parts. In addition to that, I always help clients reflect an evaluate their performance over the past two weeks.
My standard considerations when it comes to assessing whether a client is truly plateaued, tend to be as follows:
- Are you being consistent with your calorie and macronutrient intake? Like really consistent?
- Are you getting a good balance of nutritious foods or have processed foods made a comeback? (I encourage clients to look into their daily salt, sugar and fiber intake)
- Has your activity changed all of a sudden – either in frequency or type of activity?
- Has quantity of sleep changed or is stress all of a sudden more prevalent?
If any of these considerations cause you to pause, or answer with “most of the time” or “I’m not sure” then your plateau could be easily resolved with a little more awareness and consistency to your habits.
Of course, while helping clients to implement any tweaks to their lifestyle, there may still be a period of little visible change. At least half the battle when it comes to losing weight (if not more) is not replacing your bad habits with goods ones, but finding the mental fortitude to overcome setbacks, tackle your demons and handle periods of frustration when you have little to no motivation and you’re not seeing results. So, I know I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the mindset approach to dealing with a plateau.
How to Deal with a Plateau – The Mental Minefield
Plateaus are a pretty common phenomenon in nature and life in general. It’s a frustrating period of time, classically filled with uncertainty and self-doubt. Often times though, a knee jerk reaction to this period of apparent stagnation is not the best course of action. People tend to either give up because “it’s not working” or change everything all at once in an attempt to find more immediate results. The assumption is that just because nothing is visibly happening on a surface level, that nothing whatsoever can be going on behind the scenes. Nature provides us with many examples though where this couldn’t be further than the truth. An ice cube is a really good example of this.
The Plateau of Latent Potential
If you imagine an ice cube sitting on a table in front of you and the room temperature is at 28 degrees. Nothing happens, the ice remains solid. The temperature rises by 1 degree and still nothing appears to happen. The temperature continues to rise 1 degree at a time with nothing happening until all of a sudden at 32 degrees the ice cube suddenly starts to melt. This is known as breaking through the plateau of latent potential.¹ Here’s a really good visual of typical progress:
Although at first glance nothing appears to be happening, if given an appropriate amount of time, your daily habits will compound like interest and you’ll have a “breakthrough”, almost seemingly overnight, when in reality this breakthrough is as a result of many previous actions building up as a catalyst for major change. The most powerful outcomes of any compounding process are delayed. You need to be patient.
1% Better Every Day
It’s important to remember that the scale can be somewhat fickle and daily fluctuations are a part of the course. Using other measurements and indicators of progress are important for obtaining a more comprehensive assessment of your progress. If you haven’t already, make sure you read my article, 11 Ways the Scale lies. Staying focused on the general trend over time is exactly the right perspective. If your current trajectory – i.e. the sum of your daily habits – are mostly in line with becoming the healthiest version of yourself, then don’t allow the cursory results of the scale deter you from that path. Shoot for 1% better every day and a year from today you’ll be 37% better than when you started.² That’s the power of tiny habits!
How to Deal with a Plateau – A Practical Approach
First of all, review the introductory section on whether you really are plateaued. And don’t just take stock of those considerations listed. Go one step further! Any time you do something in your day ask yourself, “Is this taking me closer to where I want to be, or further away?” It’s a helpful question I deploy any time I find my motivation waning or when I’m faced with a challenging decision. Essentially the question I’m asking is, “what would the BEST version of myself do in this scenario?”
If you work through the introductory notes and in the end, after careful analysis and patiently waiting (a minimum of 2 weeks), then perhaps it is time to switch things up. So what should you do? Well my best recommendation is to seek independent advice from a professional. Someone who’s been through the process and knows what they’re doing. If that’s not an option for you though try making one small change. Only adjust one thing at a time and give it at least a week to see whether it illicit’s any response.
6 Ways to Breakthrough a Plateau
- If you’ve been in a deficit for 3 months or longer, try a small increase to your calories. Something like a 100 calories daily to start. You’d be surprised but often times our metabolism just needs an extra boost of fuel to keep the fire burning.
- Have your blood tested and implement nutritional changes to your diet based on those tests. We use Inside Tracker twice a year to test our blood and love the dietary and supplement recommendations we are always given when some of our markers are less than optimal. Use the code ACKERMAN for 10% off any plan.
- Look at your training. Is there anything you could do differently? Are you training too much and could you potentially benefit from more rest days? Is your training a little inconsistent, or have you gotten in a rut with your routine? In accordance with training principles of progression and overload, consider your training frequency, intensity, time & type.
- Do you regularly drink alcohol? Try cutting back or even go without it for a week and see what happens!
- Minimize processed sugars
- Work on optimizing your gut health
Change isn’t easy but it’s incredibly rewarding. Challenging periods like being faced with a plateau can often undermine our confidence and motivation and prevent us from making continued progress. If you’re looking to make a change but have struggled in the past with following through then working with a coach is exactly what you need to help keep you on track. Not only do I understand what you’re going through, but I have the experience and knowledge to keep you on the right path towards success. Find out more about one-on-one nutrition coaching or our nutrition challenges.
 James Clear, Atomic Habits – https://jamesclear.com/atomic-habits
 James Clear, Atomic Habits – https://jamesclear.com/atomic-habits