Why Can’t I Break My Weight Loss Plateau?

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question-icon-newI have lost 55 pounds in the last 6 months by following a running program. I’m currently deployed overseas in the military. I have now hit a plateau and have been at the same weight for the last 2 months. I have 4 months of deployment left and I really want to lose another 20 pounds. I do at least 45 minutes to 1.5 hours of cardio a day but nothing is working. Can you help?

answer-icon-newFirst let me say, that I think it’s great you’ve made the initiative to lose weight on your own, and you should be proud of yourself for such an accomplishment, so first, let me congratulate you. There was not anything specifically mentioned besides running, so I’m not sure if there is anything else you did to lose the first 55 pounds besides cardio. If this is the case, you should consider weight training. Weight training, or any weight bearing exercises that is specific to working the whole body using your own body weight (yoga, CrossFit, pilates, bootcamps, boxing, TRX classes) are extremely important for fat loss and critical if you want to keep the weight off.

Since cardiovascular exercise has been your exercise of choice (or the only one mentioned in your question), let’s address “cardio” exercise and explain what exactly it is.

Think of cardiovascular exercise as exercise for your heart muscle and a way to shuttle nutrients to different parts of the body and getting them to where they need to go, like shuttling your fat cells to your muscle to be burned. Try not to think of it as your primary weight loss tool.

Without adding lean muscle to your body, running will eventually become a useless tool, hence your dreadful plateau. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that running is a useless exercise, you just need to help it work in your favor, by making your body feel it differently.

There Are Mainly 3 Types of Cardio:

#1. Low intensity cardio is exactly as the name implies. It is a low grade intensity cardio which is less than 65% of your maximum heart rate. This would include activities like walking and hiking.

Pros: Far more appealing to most people, especially the mature population, less risk for injury, can be prescribed to any population – even those athletes with no danger to overtraining.

Cons: Not really efficient for fat loss.

Recommendations: Whenever you feel like it.

#2. Steady state cardio is cardio that requires more of a percentage of your heart rate to be utilized. This is anywhere between 65% to 85% of your maximum heart rate. This includes activities like jogging, elliptical, or biking.

Pros: It’s what most people are used to doing anyway and it’s more appealing and seemingly attainable to most of the population, less risk for injury, and it is an effective fat burner.

Cons: Most people use this as their only focus to getting leaner and so neglect the weight training side of it.

Recommendations: Try to get in 3-4, 45 minute sessions per week.

break-plateau-running-stairs#3. Interval training (also known as HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training) is probably the one you’ve been hearing the most about lately and this of course requires above 85% of your maximum heart rate. This includes activities such as sprinting, or any activity really with high bouts of speed while doing it – so sprints can be applied to running on a treadmill, a rowing machine, a bike, etc. But generally, Tabata, spinning and sprinting are the first ones that come to mind. It is a “feel the burn” activity and cannot be sustained for very long for obvious reasons.

Pros: Variation from the boredom of regular steady state cardio and it really kicks up the endorphin levels and can make you pretty giddy.

Cons: Since the intensity increases, there is more opportunity for you to get hurt. Most people don’t even push hard enough to acquire the benefits of it, so essentially there is not much more benefit to this than doing steady state cardio, as it has the same benefits in the end, so if time constraint is a factor this is the one you should choose.

Recommendations: 1-2 times per week.

The bottom line is that none of these are useless aerobic fitness variations. When anyone asks me which one is more effective, I have to say, “It depends”. It depends on what your goals are, and what activity level you’re starting from. Is it fat loss? Improving your aerobic duration for a race? Different goals require different training.

Have You Ever Heard of EPOC Training?
EPOC stands for Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption. In simplified terms, it’s your body’s effort to return back to equilibrium, or return to it’s balanced state. The whole point of doing sprints is the benefit to EPOC. The key is that you have to go all out, meaning you have to go as hard as you can until you can’t go anymore (usually a good 12-15 seconds for us average folks). It’s recovery from this output that you obtain the benefit of the high recovery demand, which is the work it takes for the body to return to homeostasis.

Is EPOC really necessary for fat loss? You do get hungrier after EPOC because of the increased recovery demand and it’s never good to perform in a caloric deficit (decreased calories). No, it is not absolutely necessary for fat loss, just think of it as another option for an aerobic fitness variation. You have to try it out to see if it will work for YOU, and YOUR goals.

Steady state can be just as effective and less intimidating. If you however are short on time, then EPOC is the way to go. Always remember that fewer calories in and more output will help you lose fat. I’m certainly not against EPOC and it’s great for those who want to do it, but it’s not the only way to reach your fat loss goals.

You should be doing all 3 types of cardio if weight loss is your goal. First, however, let’s start by varying your cardio up a little bit. Below is a list of ideas from my own cardio workouts to help you implement that immediately:

  • Monday: Stair exercises: Running up 6 flights hitting every step, walking up 6 flights hitting every other step, jumping rope in between flight, step wide onto each step, walking up steps with a 10-12 pound medicine ball overhead, turn to the side and walk up (laterally), double feet hops up the step, every other step doing double-foot hops with medicine ball.
  • Tuesday: Treadmill 15% incline @ 3.5 mph for 40 meters, and alternate with sprints at 5-7.5 mph.
  • Wednesday: Sprints outside on a neighborhood track: alternate between sprinting 100 meters and skipping 100 meters – alternate each for 1 mile, alternate backward running lunges with buttkickers 100 meters each for one mile.
  • Thursday: Rowing machine as fast as your body will allow for 1 minute, then slow your row for 30 seconds, and speed it up again. This is fun but extremely challenging. I don’t know how those Olympic rowers do it!
  • Friday: I just go for a brisk 40 minute walk. This is a challenge for me because I hate walking. I’d prefer to run but my body has become too accustomed to it, so I look for variations in my running such as on Wednesday’s workout.

Try implementing these activities instead of your normal “cardio routine” for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Your body just needs variety in order to get it to change more. If it’s not a challenge in some way, you’re not changing your body. Remember that. Try not to become too accustomed to doing the same thing over and over again, running the same route over and over, running on the treadmill at the same speed and same incline over and over again. Don’t think about the distance covered, but rather how you get your body to feel it differently. You are only limited by your creativity.

break-plateau-lift-weightsWeight bearing exercises are exercises that make your muscles and bones work against gravity or some type of resistance. Even though running is a weight bearing activity as well as a cardiovascular exercise, it is mostly beneficial to the legs and without load variance, a plateau is inevitable. Weight training is important if you want to continue to lose weight and change the shape of your body in desirable ways.

I highly recommend you add weight training into your regimen. There is nothing that will change the shape of your body faster and burn more calories. Or, find something equivalent to moving your body while using your body weight (yoga). I can’t stress that enough.

As far as a weight training routine goes, you should start out with something very basic that you can do for at least 2 days per week. I recommend adding weight training in first with the new cardio program and gradually taper off your cardio until you’ve reached 5 days per week.

Choose one from each category (abs workout routine #1, back workout routine #1, biceps workout routine #1, butt workout routine #1, calf workout routine #1) and continue to do the first choice of all workouts all the way to the triceps muscle groups for 4 weeks.

Then return to the list of workouts and start with the #2 exercises for each muscle group all the way to the triceps muscle group. Watch your body change in ways you did not know was possible. Continue to enjoy your progress and keep up the great work!

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About Author

Velma Garnes

Velma has been an extraordinary personal trainer for 28 years and combines challenging workouts geared towards your current level of fitness with compassion, empathy, respect and humor and gets great joy out of helping her clients gain belief and trust in their own strength and abilities.

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