I get my body fat tested every three months using hydrostatic weighing. The past few months I have been getting in five workouts a week, logging my food in an online app, and watching my calorie intake, but when got my results I was the same percentage of fat, lean mass and scale weight as three months earlier. Immediately I asked myself, “Why Am I Not Losing Body Fat?” Not with judgment, but just in a scientific way, the way you might ask, “Why is the sky blue?”
Most people might get discouraged by no progress, but I’ve been a fitness professional for ten years, and I know a few things about fat loss and progress. I did a quick evaluation of what I had been doing vs. what I could be doing and what I have done in the past and here’s what I quickly realized.
- My daily life has been pretty stressful lately
- My macros have not been entirely on point
- Some of my workouts were more “maintenance” than challenging workouts
- I have not been willing to change a few of my “vices, ” i.e., Ice cream, wine, corn chips and bourbon
- If I’m truly honest, I am not nearly as motivated to lose body fat as I was when I was fighting
- I’ll be 38 in 2 months
#5 is a big one. Willingness. I sat down and thought to myself about how my motivation, training, body image and goals have changed since I stopped fighting.
First, I don’t have the motivation of having to be in “fight shape” and weigh a specific scale weight on a particular date. Also, I don’t have the “fight camp” where I completely clean up my diet AND lifestyle to have optimal performance and make weight. Third, in the past couple years I have been more concerned with gaining strength than losing body fat, and my body image has changed to value strength over ripped abs.
Still, I do want to look good, feel good and be healthy. Therefore, regular evaluation of how I am balancing my life, fitness, health, career and relationships is always something I prioritize. I have to figure out if the body fat goals I have are worth making the sacrifices in other areas of my life, and more importantly, can my current work/life situation allow for significant changes like that?
If you feel like you are not making the progress you want there is so much more to evaluate than just your workouts and calories. Here are seven things to consider when addressing fat loss plateaus:
Generally in order of importance!
Macros and Food Quality (and Calories)
It’s not just about calories. You could be under eating protein or over (or under!) eating carbohydrate. Also the higher the quality of your food the better your metabolic rate. Your food choices do matter. However, if you are over or under-eating calories that could also be the issue. You need to dig into all these factors and stop trying to guess what the issue is. Check out my blog about Calorie Counting for more info.
If you don’t get 7-8 hours a night, your fat loss could be affected by the lack of sleep. You might even need nine hours if you are training hard and often.
When we are stressing our cortisol levels rise, cortisol directly inhibits fat loss. Chronic stress can have extremely adverse reactions on body composition. Chronic stress can affect hormonal balance, lowering testosterone in men and causing estrogen/progesterone imbalances in women. Chronic stress can also negatively affect our gut health which also affects fat loss. In summary, stress can make you fat. Also if you are taking on too many new challenges at once, your willpower will be affected.
Cutting out alcohol may seem like an obvious one, but alcohol can be a huge factor in fat loss even in people who just have a moderate amount of drinks per week. When you consume alcohol, you body uses alcohol as it’s preferred fuel above ALL else until all alcohol calories are used up. Therefore when drinking, you are not burning any fat. It’s not just that it’s “empty calories” it’s that alcoholic beverages stall fat burning while in your system. Not to mention that while drinking you tend to make poor decisions about food. However, alcohol is not everyone’s troubleshooting weak point. For some, moderate alcohol consumption has little effect on body fat percentage, but if you think it might try cutting it out for a month, and see what happens.
Lack of Social Bonds or Lack or Purpose
If your life is lacking in purposeful, meaningful daily activities and positive social interaction the existential stress that amounts from this can affect fat loss. Also if you hate your job, that tremendous impact on your mental health can drastically affect all aspects of health (and fitness).
Have you become obsessed with fitness and fat loss? Do you beat yourself up for eating dessert and start every Monday vowing to be perfect this time around? If so you may have spun yourself into a mindset that is no longer conducive to fat loss. There is a big difference between commitment and obsession. Commitment is positive; obsession can overtake our lives in a negative way because we see things too black and white, always binge and purge via restrictive diets followed by massive” cheats” and can no longer find a healthy balance. Healthy fitness pros know that long term fat loss and sustain body composition results from continued healthy eating and focusing on a balanced life.
Your Training Program
If everything else is in order only then is it time to evaluate your workouts as a culprit to fat loss plateaus. So many people look to this first, thinking they need to change or add to what they are doing in the gym when in reality the real problem is probably another one of the factors above that is holding them back.
But let’s assume that you have your nutrition and lifestyle ducks in a row, what kind of “audit” should you do on your training? Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Are you slacking on intensity? Be honest! Do you just do “enough” and are no longer challenging yourself to increase your weights, volume, power output, etc.
- Are you not tracking your workouts? If you don’t log your workouts in some way that gives you markers for conditioning and improvements you will not know if you are just maintaining, backsliding or improving.
- Do your workouts have some periodization, or at least options for measurable development? Even if you don’t lift weights, your workouts should have some system for improvements. Sprint distance or times should increase, there should be a level 2 class to aspire to at your gym, without set markers you are just moving around aimlessly, and this is not the optimal way to burn fat.
- Do you regularly switch workout routines? If you don’t see results right away with one type of training, and so you switch to another, you could be doing yourself more harm than good. Give yourself eight weeks on a new plan of action before assuming it’s the training’s fault. Look to the other fat loss culprits above first! Assess, track and measure progress during that eight-week time, but switching your plan mid-program will not help get long-term fat loss information that helps you improve. If you jump from kettlebells to yoga to Zumba to sprints, to kickboxing, to HIIT to barbell how will you know what’s going on?
- Are you doing too much cardio and not enough resistance training? Cardio is a healthy addition to any plan, but too much cardio, especially LDC can hinder fat loss. Strength training, on the other hand, will build healthy lean muscle that will aid in fat loss. If you only have three days a week for training, make sure a least two of them are weights. If you can train five times, workout three weight training days and two cardio days.
- Fighters are you doing strength training in between fights? If you are a fighter, you’ll want to do weight training 2-3 x a week in between fight camps. Don’t worry about adding strength training while trying to cut weight, maintenance strength workouts are okay during fight camp depending on how you feel as you get closer to weigh-ins, your pad work and sparring will take priority to strength workouts while you are in fight camp, but you have to focus on strength training between fights to keep your body composition ideal.
- Are you doing too much? If you workout 10 hours a week but don’t have time to sleep, recover and fee yourself properly you could plateau your fat loss. Anytime you increase the volume of your training you have to increase recovery! If you don’t allow for ample rest between heavy training days, you may not see any progress in lean mass. More is not always better.
I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do with the information I got from my last body fat test. I know what I can do, but I’m not going to burden myself with “should” do’s. I’ll be 38 years old in two months. My priorities have changed a lot since I was an active fighter with a single digit body fat percentage. I know I have the ability to create body change if I want it, but I would have to be okay with making some sacrifices to my daily habits and lifestyle. The impressive part about where I’m at today mentally is whether I do or I don’t I’m still happy with myself. I just know it’s a choice, my body fat is just a number, my weight is just a number, and it does not define me. I decide what I want to do with the information I have. It’s my choice, my responsibility and there is no self-judgment either way.