The Definitive Guide To Busting Through Plateaus

Plateaus, whether in weight loss or strength gain, are an expected and natural part of the process. When you hit a plateau—a cessation of measurable progress—it can feel frustrating. You feel like you’re doing everything right with no positive outcome: huge effort with no reward. This article will teach you how to identify when you’ve hit a plateau, and the process to overcome plateaus in three major areas: weight loss, strength gain, and motivation. 

What Are Plateaus?

The origin of plateaus is coded in your DNA as part of human evolution. From a survival perspective, your body does not want to lose weight. The mechanism of fat storage helps to prevent starvation during times of famine. The stored fat on our body meant we could survive a few extra days, or even weeks, to sustain us until we could find our next food source. By the old evolutionary math, weight loss meant there wasn’t enough food and we were slowly starving. 

As a result, weight loss is a game of cat and mouse. We eat fewer calories to lose weight, putting ourselves in a position to burn this stored energy. But our body fights back. When our body senses we’re expending more calories than we consume, we start to move a little less during the day. We stop fidgeting as much and feel less compelled to get up from our chair. Our body makes us lazier, in ways we probably don’t even notice, to reestablish the calorie equilibrium.

Whatever changes we try to make, our body responds by adapting. Take, for example, someone with a maintenance level of 2,000 daily calories. This is how much they need to eat to keep their weight exactly the same. To lose weight, they begin eating 1,850 calories. Shortly thereafter, the body adapts its metabolism. Now the new maintenance level is 1,850 calories. If you kept eating 1,850 you wouldn’t see any additional weight loss, and if you went back to eating 2,000 you’d gain the weight back. 

You’re faced with a conundrum: your only obvious options are to reduce calories even further or increase exercise to add to the total calorie output. Yet an adapting body can quickly meet every change you make to your diet and exercise routine. In this sense, plateaus mean your body has caught up and it’s time to readjust the plan.

Why Are Plateaus So Discouraging?

Plateaus occur naturally, but this doesn’t help them feel any less discouraging. As it turns out, you’re experiencing the core of what researchers call “learned helplessness.” In the original studies into this phenomenon (bear with me, these old researchers weren’t very nice), three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. For group one, the first part of the experiment ended there. For groups 2 and 3, each dog was given a special shock collar. In group 2, the dogs received a shock that could be ended by hitting a lever within their kennel. The group 3 dogs received the same shock as did the group 2 dogs, but their lever didn’t work to end the shock. (Instead, their shock ended when their group 2 counterparts hit the lever for their own shock.) 1

For these group 3 dogs, the end to their uncomfortable situation seemed random. There was nothing they could do to change the outcome. 

Yet, the study didn’t end there. (Come on, mean research dudes!) Researchers then took those same three groups of dogs and put them in a different kennel, and every dog was given a special shock collar. (These dogs were by themselves during the study, not together in a group.) In this experiment, every dog was given a shock. Jumping over a low partitioned wall in the kennel could end this shock. During the experiment, the dogs from previous groups 1 and 2 learned this escape route pretty quickly. And those dogs from group 3 who previously had no control over ending their shock? Those dogs didn’t even try to escape the new situation. They sat sadly in their kennel and took the shock. 

Learned helplessness is the feeling of being unable to exert control to change a bad situation. Closely tied to self-efficacy—the belief in one’s ability to be successful at a task—this failure causes us to become frustrated and discouraged. These failures also lead us to quit looking for solutions to our problems because, as we’ve experienced in the past, “resistance is futile.”

It’s a perfect storm of negative feedback. We stop seeing results, bringing into question the plan we’ve been following, and then we develop a sense of helplessness to do anything to fix the plan. For many people, this is the point at which they quit their programs.

Fortunately, more research has uncovered that this “helplessness” might not be learned as originally thought. As it turns out, our natural tendency is to assume we have no control over bad situations. What’s actually learned is “helpfulness,” or learning how to change our situation and escape bad outcomes. 2

So let’s break the cycle and learn some measures to regain control. Here the steps to break through your plateaus on three fronts: weight loss, strength, and motivation.

Weight Loss Plateaus

1) You Have To Be Honest With Yourself

Plateaus happen, but they generally happen less than most people realize. Step one in finding a solution is to be honest with yourself: are you following the plan as it is laid out? 

Here’s a common scenario I see:

Someone starts a new fitness program and nutrition regimen, and they start strong. They’re hitting their daily nutrition targets, they’re being mindful of their food choices, and they are making sure to complete their workouts. They’re still in the “honeymoon” phase of their plan, the new shiny object that’s exciting. Over time, this honeymoon phase goes away. They still need to make the necessary sacrifices in their daily life—skipping happy hour, avoiding Friday night pizza, or skipping dessert at the restaurant. This is the moment when people begin to realize this thing is going to take daily effort, and the plan loses its sex appeal. 

So, they stop following the plan. Not completely, they still do enough to convince themselves they’re making changes. They start missing workouts, but they still hit the gym enough to feel the inconvenience of going so they think they’re being productive. Or they might be tracking a few meals throughout the week, but are still falling into old habits.

In this case, it’s not a plateau you’ve reached. You haven’t hit a plateau because you haven’t even started yet. To be clear, this can happen even if you’ve seen progress in the past. Maybe you’ve already lost some weight, and then for one reason or another stepped away from the plan for a while. Once you return, you can fall into this mental trap. 

Now, imagine a slightly different scenario: 

You’ve started a fitness program and you’ve remained diligent. You’ve seen some noticeable weight loss, something like 10-15 lbs; that’s great. You’re looking and feeling awesome. Some of these healthy habits are becoming more normal, the sacrifices seem less severe, and you’re getting the hang of this whole fitness thing. You’ve managed to push past the honeymoon phase to see real results.  

So you start to relax a little. You start to make the mistake that you’re better at this nutrition game than you actually are. Don’t fret; it’s a common mistake. You start to take a few bites of things here or there. You have just a bite or two of dessert when you go out. I mean it’s better than eating the whole thing, and you’re better than that now. However, if you fall into the trap of regularly letting yourself slip, then these slips turn into big falls. You mistakenly believe you can get away with more indulgences than you realistically can.

In the first example, you slip because you aren’t fully prepared to make the changes required to see real change. In the second example, you’re making the mistake that little slip-ups don’t compound. Either one can spell disaster.

The Problem: Inaccurate Nutrition Tracking

Calorie balance is the most important variable in weight loss. Inaccurate records (or no records) could leave you consuming more than you anticipated. Most people believe their diet is healthier than it is, often underreporting calories when asked to recall from memory. 3

The Solution: Keep a food journal and double-check that entries are accurate. I once had a client who was out for a nice steak dinner, and when she went to log her filet mignon she had a sneaky suspicion her entry wasn’t correct. The entry she found said 10oz of filet was 239 calories. A quick Google search revealed that 239 calories was actually the number for a mere 3oz of steak. That’s more than a 500-calorie difference! 

Maintaining a bit of skepticism with unfamiliar food searches, and erring on the side of over-logging calories, can cut inconsistencies between how much you think you’re eating and how much you actually are. 

The Problem: Insufficient Workout Stimulus

A certain amount of workout stimulus is necessary to see changes to the body. The body will burn calories during any exercise, but it will burn fewer calories at lower intensities. If your workout intensity is negatively impacted by any number of factors—poor sleep, scrolling through social media between sets, etc.—then you won’t be burning nearly as many calories as you think. 

When I first started going to the gym I would complete one set of 10 repetitions on each machine. I’d finish within 20 minutes and thought it was a job well done. I didn’t catch on until I went with my mom (who had worked with a trainer before), and she mentioned it probably wasn’t enough. Some activity, even one set on every machine, is better than no activity, but not every activity will help you reach your goals.

Additionally, if you’ve been dieting for an extended period of time, you may be experiencing the effects of metabolic slowdown. A slower metabolism and decreased energy expenditure is a recipe for stalled weight loss. 

The Solution: Eliminate workout distractions. Set your phone to airplane mode during workouts. Join a workout class that helps you stay focused on the workout. Avoid anything that takes your focus away from the task at hand.

Additionally, try to put forth your best effort in every workout. You could include supersets, two exercises completed back-to-back with no rest, as a way to bump the intensity. Generally speaking, aim to push yourself to do a little more in each workout. 

The first step to beating your plateau is to figure out if you’re following the plan to begin with. Audit your food logs and recent behaviors. Are you tracking everything diligently, or letting some things slide? Are you eating out more often than usual? (Even if doing your best to choose healthier entrees.) If you notice you’ve deviated from the plan, then your first course of action is to get back on it. If you can honestly say that you’re following the plan as perfectly as one could expect, then continue on to step two.

2) Adjusting The Plan

If the plateau is real, it means your body has adjusted its maintenance level to match your current food intake. This leaves you with two options: reduce calories even further, or increase physical activity.

For most people, reducing calories is generally the easiest option. Your appetite has likely adjusted to match your new eating plan. Another small reduction in calories shouldn’t leave you feeling any hungrier. (Especially if you’re choosing the right foods.) However, there is a limit to how much you can reduce your calories. Generally speaking, women should not eat below 1,200 calories per day, and men should not drop below 1,500. If you plan to reduce calories further, don’t reduce by more than 200-300 at any given time (and never eat below those lower limits). Doing so can deprive you of essential nutrients. 

If you have concerns about increased hunger with a calorie reduction, know that there are strategies to help stretch calories to help you feel satisfied. Swapping calorie-dense foods for less-caloric substitutes can help create a higher quantity of food in your diet. Another strategy involves the use of intermittent fasting to compress the amount of time in which you consume your daily calories, allowing for larger meals and a greater sense of satisfaction. 

How often should you reduce calories? You should reduce calories only after hitting a true plateau. If you continue to see noticeable progress at a given calorie level, then there is no need to adjust. 

You can also opt to increase physical activity to help add to the calorie deficit, but keep in mind that burning calories through exercise is much more taxing on the body than reducing food intake. (Just take a look at any of those “it takes X number of burpees to burn off a fun-sized Snickers bar” infographics.) If you choose to increase physical activity, you’ll need to be sure you’re getting adequate amounts of rest to prevent injuries. 

Strength Plateaus

Sometimes the plateau isn’t in the form of stalled weight loss. Sometimes we’ve reached a wall in our ability to grow stronger in the gym. 

Here’s a likely scenario: You have been diligently completing strength workouts throughout the week. You’re following a good program and initially saw great results: your lifts were increasing, you felt more capable in the gym, and you even began to notice some increased muscle definition, too. Then, you notice your performance in the gym has stalled. You don’t see the same increases in your lifts that you once saw. The first time or two you chalk it up to a bad workout; maybe your sleep or eating was a little off. But then you notice this remains unchanged for a week or two. You notice that nothing is changing, no matter how consistently you follow the plan. 

In this scenario, it’s likely that something about the program needs to change.

The Problem: Insufficient Workout Stimulus

The body builds muscle as a response to stress. If your strength workouts are not challenging enough, then you won’t see results. 4

Baechle, T. R., & Earle, R. W. (Eds.). (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Human kinetics.

The Solution: Increase workout intensity. This could be a small improvement in only one variable, such as increasing the number of repetitions you complete using your current weight. Or, you could increase the volume (number of sets you do in one workout), or your training frequency (the number of workouts you do in one week). 

Another solution is to pick new exercises to fill your workouts. The better you get at an exercise the harder it becomes to see more progress in that particular exercise. This means that changing the exercise can stimulate the body in new and different ways.

The Problem: Insufficient Rest Between Workouts

If strength is the main goal, there is an optimal rest time between strength workouts. This rest time is determined by how much the exercise stresses the body. 5

Bompa, T. O, & Haff, G. (2009). Periodization : theory and methodology of training. 5th ed. Leeds: Human Kinetics.

For example, golf is highly technical but with little physical exertion. One could golf every day of the week without seeing reduced performance. In contrast, completing a heavy squat workout is technical and physically challenging. Squats (and other strength exercises) will require more rest between workouts. You wouldn’t do a heavy squat workout every day.

The Solution: As a good rule of thumb, 48 hours is a good starting point for optimal recovery period for any particular muscle. This means you could work the same muscle group 3x/week and likely get enough rest. As the intensity increases you may need more rest. In contrast, lower intensity workouts (like some cardiovascular workouts) don’t require as much rest for the body to recover. If you aren’t seeing strength progress, then it may be beneficial to reduce the intensity and give your body a longer rest between workouts.

The Problem: Poor Form

There are a lot of people who get caught in the intensity trap, favoring workout intensity over good exercise form. Workout intensity is an important variable in strength.4 However, if you aren’t using the right muscles during any particular exercise, then you won’t see as much strength progress in that exercise. Not only will poor form cause you to recruit other muscles, but poor form will also cause you to distribute force in ineffective ways.4,6

4) Baechle, T. R., & Earle, R. W. (Eds.). (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Human kinetics.

6) Clark, M. A., Lucett, S., & Corn, R. J. (2008). NASM essentials of personal fitness training. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

The Solution: Focus on where you’re supposed to feel each exercise. If you primarily feel a chest press in your arms or shoulders, then you may be doing something wrong. Often times the solution is as simple as moving your arms further apart by an inch or two. With such little adjustments making a huge impact it’s easy to see how we could be recruiting other muscles. It’s also possible to look like you are in the right position, and still be using the wrong muscles. 

This is where hiring a good coach can prove effective. A qualified fitness coach can help you identify where you can make adjustments to get the most out of each exercise.

Motivation Plateaus

We’ve discussed the challenges of weight loss and strength plateaus. The final piece of the puzzle—and usually the biggest culprit in failed fitness programs—is a plateau in motivation.

Keep in mind that motivation isn’t a stable trait. It has a natural ebb and flow that can lead to motivation highs and lows. Most people, upon hitting a motivational low, decide they no longer “want” to put effort toward whatever goals they’ve laid out for themselves. Getting through the low points is imperative if one hopes to stick with their program for the long haul. How do you overcome these motivational lulls?

The Problem: Lack of Results

There is nothing that will demotivate you faster than working hard and not seeing the results that you want. When this happens, it can often seem like a waste of time and effort to prepare healthy meals and set aside time for workouts. 

The Solution: First, make sure you aren’t making any of the common mistakes outlined earlier in this article. Fixing what might be wrong can help you beat the plateau and get back to seeing the results that you want. 

Additionally, an important thing to remember is that results take time. How long have you been following the program with consistency and minimal mistakes? If you’re just beginning a program (or just made significant changes), then you may need to wait it out and let the results come. However, if it’s been a few weeks and you aren’t seeing results, then something needs to change about what you’re doing. When this happens, modifying your program can create new hope and motivation for the future. 

The Problem: Boredom

If you’ve lost motivation to go to the gym and complete your workouts, or to prep meals, then it might be boredom. Are you doing the same thing over and over again in your workouts? Are you making the same meals every week during your meal prep? Depending on the individual, some get bored easily with a monotonous routine. Boredom can lead to decreased excitement and motivation to engage in those behaviors.7

The Solution: Switch things up with your routine. Find new recipes to try for your meal prep, or try a new workout class with a friend. If you normally run on the treadmill, switch to intervals or do something different (like rock climbing). Finding new activities can help spark the excitement and feelings of novelty you had when you first began your fitness routine. These don’t have to be permanent changes to your routine. Adding these activities for even a short time can help your normal routine feel more exciting when you return.

Additionally, music can play a huge role in motivation. Finding new workout music to add to your playlist can make your regular routine feel more exciting. Not to mention, the right music has actually been shown to make your workout feel easier.

The Problem: Overtraining

Overtraining can occur when you don’t get enough rest between workouts. Overtraining can result in a variety of outcomes, including plateaued results, trouble sleeping, increased risk of getting sick, increased risk of injury, and decreased motivation to exercise. 8,9

The Solution: If you’re feeling unmotivated to complete your workouts and notice stalled progress, then you may need to rest a bit more. Sometimes a plateau means taking a step back instead of continuing to push forward. Additionally, getting some extra sleep can help you recover better and get you back into the groove you need to see continued results.

Other Lifestyle Factors That Affect Plateaus

Some lifestyle factors could also be impacting your ability to see results. Addressing these challenges is often a big step in the right direction.

The Problem: Poor or Insufficient Sleep

Many studies have shown the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation. Not getting enough sleep can lower metabolic rate, as well as increase the release of the hunger hormone ghrelin. In other words, not getting enough sleep can lead to increased hunger levels, fewer calories burned, and an increased rate of body fat storage. 10,11

The Solution: Make sure to get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Sticking to a sleep schedule can help you stay on track and fall asleep at appropriate times. Routines for relaxation, such as meditation, can help you get to sleep more easily. Additionally, try to minimize the use of electronics before bed. The lighting of electronic devices has been shown to disrupt sleep patterns. 12

The Problem: Poor Stress Management

Chronic stress increases the release of stress hormones (cortisol) into the body. In small doses this is completely normal, necessary even. However, chronically elevated cortisol levels can lead to increases in abdominal fat storage. Managing stress is important for successful weight loss and general health.

The Solution: Identify what’s causing your stress, and find a way to relieve it. This could include activities that physically help you relax, like getting a massage. It could include listening to calming music, light movement (such as walking), or meditation. Participation in a hobby that you enjoy can also help relieve stress. Finding activities that allow you to control stress levels will help combat its negative effects.

Plateaus Are Not The End of The Road

If you’re frustrated with stalled progress it’s not the end of the road for you. First, you’ll need to evaluate how well you’re following the plan. If you’ve been diligent with the plan, then your plateau means something needs adjusting. Remember, plateaus only happen because the plan is working, not because it isn’t. Once the appropriate adjustment is made, results usually follow. The last thing you’ll want to do is throw in the towel. That is the only sure way to throw away all of your hard-earned progress. 

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