Overcome Plateaus – Tear Down “The Wall”

Overcome Plateaus – Tear Down “The Wall”

“At first, I was having an easy time losing weight.  The fat was melting off.  Then, after a couple months, I stopped making progress – I hit the wall!”

Does that sound like you?  Practically anyone who’s been on a diet knows that you’ll eventually hit a point where results come to a screeching halt.  To make matters worse, once you lose weight, it nearly always comes back with a vengeance. 

Why (despite your best attempts) do you continue to end up back at square one, frustrated and confused?

In this article, we’ll help you devise a strategy to tackle “The Wall” and keep the fat off for good.

What Is “The Wall?”

To begin, you need to understand a bit about your nemesis.  “The Wall”, the barrier that’s standing in the way of you getting leaner, is your body fat set point.  Your set point is just the body fat percentage – the ratio of lean mass to fat mass you carry – that your body has become most comfortable with.  This is influenced by a ton of different factors but the one we’re going to focus on is energy homeostasis.  If you’re carrying around a lot more fat than you used to, your set point has increased.  This can be usually be attributed to chronic overeating and a lack of physical activity.  In other words, eating too much and burning too few Calories resulted in you storing extra body fat.

I’m willing to bet you’re not exactly a sedentary person though – you probably exercise several times a week at a pretty high intensity.  You probably eat clean and work diligently to avoid junk food, and you’re probably in better shape than you used to be – your set point is slightly lower than when you were a bump on a log.  Why can’t you seem to lose fat then?  Unfortunately, the very thing that everyone tells you to do to lean out is inhibiting your progress.  “The Wall” is different for you.

Your wall has been erected in response to chronic undereating combined with excessive physical activity.  Months or even years of eating too few Calories – whether intentional or not – and pushing harder and harder in the gym have elicited adaptations that will prevent you from losing fat.  Your body fat set point is lower than most people, but you’re not like most people – you expect more from yourself and that’s why you’re reading this article.

How Do I Lower My Set Point?

To lower your set point, you can’t be in diet mode 365 days of the year.  You need to attack fat loss from both angles – adding lean mass during parts of the year is absolutely necessary if you want to reduce your set point and tear down the wall.  Every few months or so, you need to take a diet break, which is just an extended period of eating closer to your maintenance Calorie intake.  We like to call it “un-dieting.”

We’re not talking about a cheat meal/cheat weekend or anything like that where you eat whatever you want.  No, this is not a free-for-all – that’s how you go from making progress to regressing and increasing your set point (not good)!  Un-dieting/diet breaks are controlled, gradual, and they work to decrease your body fat set point by shifting your maintenance Calories slightly lower than they were before the diet began.  A weekend of binge eating does the opposite.

Think about un-dieting like “The Three Little Pigs” but in reverse; you’re the big bad wolf attempting to topple a structure with just your breath.  Your set point is as thick as a brick by the time you reach a fat loss/weight loss plateau.  You’re just not going to break through it, and if you try to trick your body, you’ll end up in hot water.  You can soften it up by gradually increasing Calories back to maintenance, working from brick to wood, until you finally reach a point during your diet break where all you’re dealing with is a flimsy straw barrier.

What Do I Do When I Hit The Wall?

Eventually, you’ll hit the wall – your body will adapt and what you’ve been doing will stop working.  You need to be prepared for this, not surprised by it.  At this point, your body fat set point will be lower, but you’ll likely become frustrated by your lack of progress.  When the wall rears its head, most people attack with brute force and further reduce their Calories – they work harder and harder and the result is usually a loss of muscle mass, which actually increases your set point.  

DO NOT BECOME VICTIM TO THIS METHOD OF APPROACH!  All you’re doing is fortifying the wall and making it harder and harder to see results.

Instead, when your fat loss stalls, confront the wall with a more intelligent plan; instead of working harder, work smarter. Gradually increase your Calories by 100-200 each week and monitor your weight.  It’s important to take things slowly to allow your body to adapt positively to the extra food – you want to increase your metabolism and recover from dieting, not backtrack and put on unnecessary body fat.

After your weight has stabilized with more food, you want to stay at that Calorie intake for a period of time to allow your body to adapt.  The end result will be a lower set point and easier fat loss moving forward.

How Long Should My Break Last?

The leaner you get, the longer your diet break needs to last and the more gradually you need to increase Calories.  We usually recommend about three weeks of time for people who maintain “normal” levels of leanness.  People with more fat to lose can go a little less than that, and folks who’re approaching lower levels of body fat might need more time to adjust.  If you’ve spent a very long time undereating, the process might require some patience.

Essentially, the longer you’ve been dieting, the longer you need to un-diet.

Tips for Breaking Fat Loss Plateaus

  • Track your food intake for a few days.  Compare your Calorie intake with the results of our TDEE Calculator.  This will give you a look into how much you’re undereating/overeating and help you determine where to go from there.
  • Take your diet break seriously.  Don’t eat everything in sight – stick to mostly whole foods and gradually increase your Calories.  This should happen over the course of weeks, not days.
  • A word on cardio:  if you’re doing it to lose weight, you might want to tone things down.  The added Calorie burn isn’t helping you out if you’re severely underfed.
  • Adding in more food will give you more energy – enjoy the extra vigor and focus on gaining strength.
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