Troubleshooting a plateau

by Michelle Fiscus. 0 Comments

Six reasons why you’re not getting results and what to do about it

When it comes to diet and fitness results, people have come to expect overnight success. We see people in the public spotlight change their bodies in a matter of weeks. And while, they “claim” to be doing nothing special; believe me, they have teams of people helping to make those dramatic changes.

The reason most people fail a diet or never start an exercise plan is an unrealistic expectation of what should happen. When someone does not get the results they want, it’s easy to feel defeated and give up before giving it a real chance. Before you throw in the towel, evaluate the six different criteria below and decide if you are guilty of one (or more). If so, try making the necessary adjustments before you trade your morning oatmeal for that morning doughnut. You may find you were capable of making a transformation all along.

Working Out Too Much

You would think the more you work out the better, right? But too much exercise isn’t always a good thing. If you are working out six to seven days a week for hours at a time you could be overtraining. The stress this puts on your body causes physiological issues which negatively affect your results.

First, it can impact the hypothalamic-pituitary axis leading to hormone changes that mimic hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism causes fatigue, weight gain, brittle nails/hair, and constipation.

Second, the stress can also increase the cortisol response in your body. Continuous high levels of high cortisol are linked to sleep disturbances, digestive issues, depression, and weight gain (especially around the middle). High cortisol is also thought to increase water retention, which may show up as extra weight on the scale.

Working out too much can mean logging too many hours of cardio, weight training or both. You may also be stressing your body if you train the same muscle groups too much with not enough rest in between. Even if you don’t have marathon long sessions, if your work outs are particularly intense (HIIT or heavy lifting) you may be suffering from this as well.

Working Out Too Hard

When you do work out too hard, another problem can occur. Your body makes you compensate for all that hard work in the gym. Let’s say you burn 1000 calories every day you do weights and cardio. That deficit combined with a diet at a maintenance level should produce a two pound weight loss a week. But, that kind of activity tends to make people tired, and their non-exercise activity thermogenesis (or NEAT) goes down.

NEAT is all the other things you do in a day to be active. So instead of taking the stairs, you take the elevator, instead of doing laundry when you get home, you park yourself on the couch, and instead of walking the dog you let him outside in the backyard. Now, even though you burned 1000 at the gym, you haven’t burned as much that one would assume during the day so youroverall deficit (not including exercise) is lower… maybe 500 per day. Now you are only losing a pound a week instead of two.

In addition, a lot of folks tend to eat more when they workout hard…either because they are really hungry or feel they “deserve it.” Combine a lower NEAT with a higher food intake and your deficit goes to zero… and it looks like your hard workouts are not doing the trick.

To solve both of these problems, make sure you have at least one rest day planned per week and try an active recovery week or two, where you still work out but reduce the time or lower the weight. If you have been working out hard for several years, you are going to need more than a week and probably the help of a fitness professional.

Body Becomes Efficient

If your workouts are appropriate in time, intensity, and rest then make sure you are changing them every 6-12 weeks. The more you do something, the more efficient your body becomes at doing something. That means it is less of a challenge for your body to overcome, so it burns less calories to do the same amount of work.

If I told you to give me 20 pushups, you might get as far as three regular pushups and 12 knee pushups before your muscles gave out and your heart started beating fast. If you tried to do those 20 pushups every day and trained your chest for strength, then you would probably be able to knock them all out in 12 weeks. It would be an easier task for your body because it was used to it and you would use less energy doing those pushups.

It’s at that point you need to change how you do it. Try one arm pushups, decline pushups, plyo pushups, etc. This same example can be applied to your whole body. If you are plateauing, try making changes to your workouts before you give up.

Lying to Yourself and You Know It

You know what diet you are supposed to follow and you follow it…. most of the time. But, you just can’t help lunches out with your co-workers or joining your spouse for a bowl of ice cream. You may justify it in your head because you do so well the rest of the day. But these slip ups add up and can easily cancel out your dietary deficit.

Either plan some cheat meals into your plan so you don’t feel deprived; or when you do indulge, account for it. Make sure you journal what happened, what you ate, and how many calories it contained. Look at your diet for the rest of the week, and figure out where you can make changes so you still come out ahead. One or two treats is not going to mess things up. But, when you ignore mindless eating (in the car, at your desk, in front of the television) and pretend it never happened, you will never see the results you want.

Lying to Yourself and You Don’t Know It

Similar to the point above, sometimes you are following a diet to the last fat gram and you don’t lose weight. You write everything down, passed up this week’s break room birthday cake AND skipped your Monday double caramel cream mocha latte. What the heck is going on?

It’s probably your portions and how your food is prepared. Many people have no idea what three ounces of chicken is supposed to look like. You may be eating six ounces. If you go out to eat a lot you have to be careful of what is arriving on your plate. The portions certainly are not diet friendly and it’s usually cooked in butter, oil, or some other high calorie sauce. The cook doesn’t care about your diet; their job is to make food taste good.

Combine that with other easy mistakes: thinking you took a handful of almonds when you really ate three servings, assuming all fruits and vegetables are “free” foods, eyeballing your tablespoon of peanut butter, believing you know what a quarter cup of rice and pasta look like, etc. You can easily eat 1000 calories OVER what you are supposed to by those mistakes.

To correct this invest in a food scale and start weighing your portions. Instead of ounces and measuring cups, use grams. Be THAT specific. You don’t have to do this forever, but it’s an easy way to make sure you are eating what you actually think you are eating. After a month or two, you should be good enough at measuring out items, that you can eyeball it.

Undiagnosed Medical Problems

Finally, if you have read this whole article and know you aren’t guilty of any mistakes listed above, it is possible you are suffering from an undiagnosed medical problem. There are many types of things that can go wrong in the body to cause fat gain, the inability to lose weight, or water retention that looks like weight gain. You can start with a primary care doctor, but your best bet is to seek out a qualified endocrinologist. This specialist deals with the hormones in the body. When something does go wrong, usually one or more of these hormone levels will be abnormal.

If you have a question about any of the points above or something else fitness related, email the author at


Michelle Fiscus writes a regular column for Michelleand her husband own a personal training and nutrition business based in Frederick County and hold industry certifications and credentials.

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