Is the scale stuck? Get it unstuck!

breaking the weight loss plateau

We’ve all been there.

You start a diet, and during the first few weeks the weight seems to come off easy. You’re so excited to get on the scale Sunday morning because you know the numbers staring back at you will be smaller than the previous week’s total. All of your hard work and effort is rewarded. It’s exhilarating.

Then, as time passes, the weight loss comes to a trickle. The scale seems to barely move. Your sense of excitement turns to frustration and even dread.

And then it happens. Bam. The weight loss comes to a screeching halt. Even though you’re doing EVERYTHING just like you were, the scale won’t budge. 1 week goes by. Nothing. 2 weeks go by. Still nothing. 3 weeks go by. STILL nothing. WTF. Is the scale broke? Is it physically impossible to lose anymore weight?

The good news is that it’s not just you. The better news is that there is a fix. People just like you have busted through the weight loss plateau not just once, but two, three , and even four times. How?

Before the how, it’s important to understand the why so you don’t blame yourself or your crappy genetics. So first let’s look at the why, and then we’ll develop the how.

Let us begin….

The first step in understanding the plateau involves just a sprinkle of math and science. Just a little.

No matter what diet you’re on, the laws of thermodynamics apply. You must burn MORE calories than you consume. That’s one of the few statements in nutrition and exercise that is non-negotiable. So,

For weight loss – calories in < calories out
For weight maintenance – calories in = calories out
For weight gain – calories in > calories out

Further expanded, we can break it down into actionable parts.

Calories in simply means calories consumed. There’s simply nothing else to be concerned with on that side of the equation. What you put in your mouth is the only thing that matters.

Calories out can be broken down into:
1) Your resting metabolic rate (RMR) which makes up between 65-75% of your calories out. This is simply how many calories you burn at rest. It’s highly variable and is influenced by lean body mass, hormones, gender, and age.
2) Thermic Effect of Food (Food) which makes up around 10% of your calories out. Protein burns the most calories during metabolism while fat burns the least. However, overall, worrying about this is like worrying about what colors your shoes are during a race.
3) Thermic Effect of Activity (Exercise), which is highly variable and can range from almost zero calories daily to several thousand calories in cyclists and other high level endurance athletes.
4) Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis (Lifestyle), which also is highly variable. It’s heavily influenced by your environment. Think everyday normal activity outside of the gym.

So according to the equation above, if you want to lose weight you have to eat less than you burn via RMR, Food, Exercise, and Lifestyle. Simple, right? If a pound of fat contains about 3500 calories, a 500 calorie daily deficit should result in a 1 pound weight loss every week. In other words, if you consume 2000 calories and burn 2500 calories, you should expect to see the scale drop by 1 pound every week.

Unfortunately, it never works out like that. The math isn’t as simple as it sounds, nor is the line as linear as it should be.

So, what goes wrong?

As you lose weight, your body tries as hard as possible to keep your weight stable. It doesn’t care if you want to look good in a swimsuit or if you want those 6 pack abs. It just cares about surviving. A sudden drop in weight shouts, “I’m starving and I don’t know when my next meal will be. Slow down that metabolism or you’ll die.”

Two things happen on the calories out side of the equation that contribute to the weight loss plateau.

1. As you lose weight, you burn less calories daily because a smaller body doesn’t require as many calories to fuel its movement compared to a larger body. Although this sounds like common sense, we often forget this. Thanks to MyZone, this has become evident during our classes. Larger males will burn 800+ calories during a class while the smaller females typically burn a little over half that amount. Thus, RMR, EXERCISE, and LIFESTYLE are all affected simply by having a body that weighs 10-15 pounds less than what it did.
2. Beyond the expected decrease in calories from the weight loss, the body also decreases RMR, EXERCISE, and LIFESTYLE beyond what you’d expect from being 10 or 15lbs lighter. Some refer to this as metabolic adaptation while others call it metabolic damage. The name isn’t important. What is important is that the body becomes more efficient at using calories, and thus burns LESS calories throughout the day. So, let’s say that before you lost weight, you weighed 200lbs. Your RMR was 2000 calories. After you lost 20 pounds, you could calculate your new RMR and would expect it to be 1800 calories based on a body weight of 180lbs. However, you had your RMR tested via indirect calorimetry, and the results showed your RMR was actually only 1650 calories now. That 150 calorie difference was due to metabolic adaptation. And that’s exactly what happened in a study done a few years ago on contestants from the Biggest Loser. Their RMR’s dropped significantly more than predicted after their weight loss.

(Side note: You also have water retention issues, hormones, a menstrual cycle, etc. However, we won’t touch on those in this article.)


So now that 500 calorie daily deficit you thought you were in isn’t really a 500 calorie deficit. It can be low as a 200 calorie deficit as the effects of metabolic adaptation and a smaller body are taken into account. That 300 calorie “error”can make a big difference over the long-term. Bam. Here’s your weight loss plateau.

The Plan
In short, if you don’t continue to create a bigger deficit by either eating less or exercising more, the plateau is inevitable. You must adapt as your body adapts.

You probably already came to that conclusion.

So, let’s get a plan together by looking at the equation from above again.

Calories In < RMR +Food + Exercise + Lifestyle = weight loss

I can’t guarantee you happiness, but I can guarantee you’ll find unhappiness by:
1. Comparing yourself to others, as opposed to your former self.
2. Worrying about things you have no control over.

With that said, let’s look at what we CAN’T control in the equation above:
1. RMR – Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword. As you lose weight, your RMR will decrease as we described above. It takes less calories to sustain a 200lb person than it does a 125lb person. The good news is that as you add lean body mass (muscle) your RMR will increase, although usually not to the extent that it decreases due to the weight loss. That’s why it’s important to include some type of resistance training in your fat loss program. You want to preserve as much muscle mass as possible so your RMR doesn’t bottom out. That’s also why protein is important too.
2. Food – As you eat less, the calories you burn from eating, absorbing, and digesting the food will decline too. There’s nothing we can do about that.

So that leaves us with calories in, Exercise, and Lifestyle.

If you’re already on a very low calorie diet (VLCD), usually defined as ~1200 calories daily, you won’t have much wiggle room. I personally am not comfortable recommending anything lower than that. I think the cons outweigh the pros as you start approaching 1000 calories per day. However, if you’re closer to 1800-2000 daily calories, shedding another 100-200 calories daily should be just the decrease you need to start your weight loss again.

If you’re already on a VLCD, you’re only left with two options – Exercise and Lifestyle

Of course, owning a gym, I’d focus on Exercise, but in all honesty, Lifestyle is the easier of the two options because you can literally add it to any part of your day. In fact, researchers over the last few years have really been focusing on Lifestyle as a treatment for obesity. They’ve found with just a few simple adjustments, people can burn an extra 200-300 calories per day with little effort. Getting up to change the channel on the TV instead of using the remote, walking to work instead of driving, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or actively participating in your child’s youth practices can add up over the long-term.

If you’re interested in Exercise, all you need to do is add an extra 15-20 minutes to your workout so you burn 100-200 calories more than you usually do.

Small, incremental changes (100-200 calories) should be your focus, not drastic caloric reductions or extreme exercise programs. We’re trying to coax your body into weight loss, not force it.

And that’s it. That’s how you break a weight loss plateau.



Lyle McDonald at

Eric Helms at

Dr. Mike Israetel at Renaissance Periodization