How can I break the weight loss plateau?
July 1, 2009 10:03 AM   Subscribe

I am not seeing results of personal training/working out, what can I do differently?

I have been working out 'regularly' since early May. Because I've hit a plateau near the end of May, I got a personal trainer and have been working out 3x a week with her and working out by myself 30-60min a day the rest of the week. I am eating healthy 5-6 small meals a day of fruits, veggies, good protein. I do cheat a bit, with chipotle and a bagel or so, and, I am not seeing any results, neither in inches or lbs.

My personal trainer is telling me that it takes a good month to see the results, and it's been almost 4 months since I started training. I am getting discouraged and think it's a waste of my time and money.

I've read up on some stuff on plateau and what to expect, but it's been about a month and a half since I hit my plateau and I am working out more than before, doing more cardio, and diverse weight training.

Am I missing something? Has anyone experienced the same? What can I do to break the cycle? I have lost 10-15lbs in the past several times (yo yo effect), and this time I was able to do it in 2-3wks, and I think it's just harder to lose after that.

Anyway, if you have any suggestions, I'd appreciate it.
posted by icollectpurses to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Can you be more specific as to what excersizes you are doing and what type of shape you are trying to achieve from what you have now?
posted by stratastar at 10:07 AM on July 1, 2009

We really need to know what you are doing in the gym to be of any use.
posted by Loto at 10:09 AM on July 1, 2009

Are you building muscle? Sometimes you can be working out and losing fat, but at the same time building muscle behind it. If that's going on you don't always see the weight loss on the scale; you might even weigh more as muscle is more dense than fat.
posted by milarepa at 10:09 AM on July 1, 2009

Are you counting calories? I didn't see any results until I started keeping close track of how much I was really eating. I use The Daily Plate.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:12 AM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

You may want to start tracking your calories. Livestrong has a calorie tracker via the Daily Plate which allows you to input food and exercise to get a pretty good idea of your calories consumed vs burned. You seem to be working out sufficiently (5-6 days a week?) its likely going to take some adjustment to your nutrition.

I've also had luck when with plateaus by increasing the amount of water I drink through the course of a day.
posted by bitdamaged at 10:14 AM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

doh! rabbit beat me in there!
posted by bitdamaged at 10:14 AM on July 1, 2009

Yeah it is all calories in vs calories out. If your weight hasn't changed for four months then you're consuming the same amount of calories that you're burning. I wouldn't recommend working out more often, because you are already working out for a good amount of time. But you may need to add more cardio, as a more efficient way of burning calories. You should also cut some calories in your diet, but make sure you get carbs and protein in every meal. I would probably try to cut the carbs first as protein is really important for muscle maintenance. Don't try to totally eliminate the carbs though...

The main thing to keep in mind is losing weight isn't about tricks or "missing something." At the core of weight loss is calories in vs calories out. Decrease in and increase out and you'll lose weight.
posted by fourmajor at 10:29 AM on July 1, 2009

Since this is a really complex issue having to do with your current conditioning, your goals, how you exercise, how much, your diet including what you eat, how much you eat, and when you eat it.

So, to go another route, what does your personal trainer do? Have they designed a diet program as well as an exercise program?
posted by munchingzombie at 10:32 AM on July 1, 2009

Response by poster: Sorry for not being clear enough...

On my own, I do 30min of elliptical or interval training(running and walking). Sometimes I walk on an incline for 30min or more.

With the trainer, upper body one day(biceps, triceps, shoulders, back) with machines and free weights, then lower body on another day, lunges, squats, quads with some machines, along with other machines, then a total body workout for both upper and lower body on the 3rd session of each week. On all of the days, she has me do ab workouts for both upper and lower.

I am building muscles, I am sure. I feel them first of all, and they're a bit more defined. I have had a decent muscle underneath, but still feel more, I get sore, etc.

I have tried tracking calories and some days I can't keep up due to work, and other things.

I drink 24oz of water each day. I have increased my coffee intake, however, to 2 cups a day.
posted by icollectpurses at 10:32 AM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have tried tracking calories and some days I can't keep up due to work, and other things.

If you want to lose fat you're going to have to solve this problem. You cant be serious about weight loss or nutrition generally if you don't know exactly what you're putting into your body.

Also my guess is that your trainer is a waste of money. You don't need a trainer to tell you to do a bunch of isolation exercises with machines. Doing compound movements with barbells and dumbells will be much more effective for you as a beginner and would be a much better use of a trainer's putative expertise.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:41 AM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Your trainer is a hack. There is absolutely no reason for you to do a split routine.

Let's keep this simple: rather than doing a body-part split two days a week just do your full body workout on those days also. You also don't need isolation work. Compound lifts will work all your muscles and produce better gains in addition to getting you out of the gym faster since you'll be doing fewer lifts overall, but working more muscles simultaneously.

Try to add weight to each lift as often as possible.

Forget the elliptical. If your gym has a rower, use it. Do 500m intervals until you can do a 5k row without breaks. Keep walking/running. Work up to walking/sprinting.

As for your diet, unless you track it no one is going to be able to offer solid advice. Tracking it doesn't take long and if you are preparing all your meals you can do it before you actually eat them. If you don't want to do this, look into something like the Zone diet. Most of the Zone diet is bullshit but the only thing they have right is portion sizing and control.

Finally, if you aren't losing weight but you are still cheating regularly, stop cheating.
posted by Loto at 10:46 AM on July 1, 2009 [4 favorites]

How much water do you actually drink? 24 oz. is far too little for anyone at any fitness level.
posted by kittyprecious at 10:57 AM on July 1, 2009

Just for reference, Chipotle burritos and such can easily run 900 calories. Bagels (full size ones) can be 500. Definitely track calories and nutrition. It is tedious and can be hard, but as a point, it makes you responsible because you can have anything you want, but you have to track it. So you get into a different mindset. How I started doing this was telling myself I only had to commit to doing it for 7 days.

I gave myself the choice to either renew the 7-day commitment each week or quit. It eventually became a habit. One that a busy schedule did derail (with 10lbs gained), but I'm back into establishing it again.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:02 AM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I was working out 6 or 7 days a week (close to an hour of cardio, with 20min of weights) I didn't "notice" a difference till maybe 5 months or more in, and even then it was sort of depressing. The thing here to note is that you see yourself every day in the mirror so it is very difficult to notice the changes over time. I could still grab a handful of beer gut at 5 months, so I still felt a little defeated. However, if I looked at before/after pictures the difference in my neck/face, legs, and gut were far far more obvious.

Sidenote: I wasn't particularly worried about losing weight as I was a reasonable weight to begin with, I just wanted to be in shape.. and in fact I didn't lose any weight, or not much. I ate healthy, but I probably ate a lot. I took that to be a benefit of working out so much. It tasted good.

Remember - regardless of whether you are loosing weight, or whether you notice a huge visual change, that exercise is great for you. Keep it up, and try to enjoy the non-visual benefits of being fit.

Otherwise, as everyone else has mentioned: 24 oz. is not enough water and you need to count your calories and stick to it.
posted by mbatch at 11:10 AM on July 1, 2009

I totally get that a trainer is a reason to commit and to show up at the gym. So, even if the trainer isn't that great - showing up is more important than anything else. Spending the money might mean you're committing to yourself too.

While I'm not a proponent of anything other than HIT (high intensity training); all the extra work (sets, split routines, etc) does count as work and does burn calories.

Forget trying to 'control' your diet for a week (that doesn't mean eat like shit.) For one week figure out every calorie you eat. Every chip, etc; weight it, research it on corporate websites, etc. Don't worry (right now) about the nutrition either. Just get a calorie count from a week's worth of eating.
posted by filmgeek at 11:10 AM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Does the trainer know what your goals are? Has the trainer provided a nutrition program?

If the answer is no. Time to get a new trainer.

And you really, really, really need to track your diet. FitDay is a great website to do this with. Even if you write down what you eat and then enter it all in later in the day knowing how much you eat and the macronutrient ratio is vital.
posted by munchingzombie at 11:15 AM on July 1, 2009

* your trainer is giving you sketchy advice, or doesn't know that your goal is weight loss. Well-designed and faithfully-followed weight loss programs show quick results up front, and steady results thereafter -- sure you can plateau for a week or two, but not for a month -- pure physics.

* your program isn't well designed. the 5-6 meal-a-day program requires very tight limitations on / tracking of calories and allows little cheating. while otherwise beneficial, the calorie burn from your exercise program is minimal -- depending upon your body weight and effort, as little as 150 calories per cardio session and almost certainly not more than 250, and significantly less than 150 from your strength sessions.

* unless exceedingly rare, your cheating is pretty severe. chipotle is many good things, but low cal ain't one of them. 500+ calories for a conservative burrito bol to over 2000 for a burrito with the works, chips and guac, and a non-diet soda.
posted by MattD at 11:16 AM on July 1, 2009

I have two pieces of advice:

1) Be more predictable.
2) Do something different.

Your initial weight loss was quite rapid and may have involved some significant water loss along with any fat. Unless you were working out several hours a day and really reducing calories, you could not have lost 15 pounds of fat alone in three weeks. So what you now see as a "plateau" may be a more typical slow and sustainable rate of fat loss.

You'll have to do some daily, predictable eating and tracking if your life is as complicated as you say it is.

1-a) Go to Physics Diet and sign up for a free account. The site lets you enter your weight and fat percentage (if you have a scale that tracks that) DAILY. Weigh yourself every morning at about the same time, then plug in those numbers. The site will graph not just the literal daily values, but a weighted average as a trend line. If the trend line is going down, and you see your daily weights are staying below that line, you are not plateauing and you are losing weight.

Time required: 1 minute every morning.

1-b) Go to and get a free account. They have tools to track your weight (not as well as Physics Diet) and let you set a goal and see how well you're moving toward it. You can also estimate your basal metabolic rate, track your activity on typical days, and see if you're getting enough of an overall calorie deficit to lose 1-2 pounds a week.

You also have to track your food and calories, and that can be time consuming, so make it easier. Plan to have the same breakfast, or one of the same two breakfasts, every day. If you pack a lunch for work, that's easy to structure, too. For supper and other non-predictable eating, get in the habit of making a quick note in your notebook or PDA if you don't have a good memory. FitDay allows you to choose from a list of recently listed foods, so if you're eating more or less the same breakfast, and maybe the same lunch and snacks, that makes data entry much faster.

FitDay will tell you just how many calories are in your tiny, cheating snacks, and how active you have to be to burn those off. I predict that your snacks alone may be a big reason for your slow weight loss. If the prospect of life without Chipotle's is enough to make you give up, then plan a refeed day. Eat well but within your limits 6 days a week, then one day a week, have something you really want, enjoy it, and eat within your limits the next 6 days. Repeat. (You may see a bounce in water weight the day after, but if you keep eating properly and keep active, that will smooth out.)

Time required: 5 minutes every evening.

2) Move differently.

You also have to re-examine and shake up your routine. I agree with the advice that seeing a trainer three days a week for a routine that relies so heavily on machines isn't the best use of your time and money. Use your trainer's expertise to develop a new workout around compound movements that will keep changing at intervals and continue to challenge you. Find a new trainer if this one insists that you just have to spend more time on the old one. Stumptuous is a good place to get a reality check on training and some ideas for routines.

30-60 minutes every day on an elliptical or treadmill would bore me witless. Does it bore you? Are you still working hard? Try something different, like walking outdoors or cycling. Try a program where you must make progress, like the Couch to 5 K program. Keep building on your initial fitness, challenging yourself, and changing it up.

Good luck!
posted by maudlin at 11:19 AM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

FWIW, for calorie tracking, I tried all three of the sites I saw recommended here: The Daily Plate, FitDay, and SparkPeople. The Daily Plate won, hands down, for ease of data entry.

Their database is enormous so you almost never have to manually enter anything, almost every conceivable food and exercise is already in there. Just a quick search, and click to add to your plate for the day. If you regularly eat foods or do exercises together, you can make custom meals and workouts and quickly add them.

You can tell the program how much weight you want to lose (I'm on 1.5 lbs a week) and it will tell you how many more calories you may eat that day. I would estimate I spend like two minutes, max, per day entering exercise and meals. Recently eaten foods and recent exercises are also conveniently linked on the right sidebar.

It is really very easy to enter calories once you've got things entered initially, and so worth it to see what you're actually doing w/r/t diet and exercise.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:40 AM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

I recently started trying to lose weight as well and what has helped me the most is telling other people. Seriously. It might sound silly, but the more people who know that you're actively working on this, the more people will a) try to help you b) motivate you and c) tell you if you're slacking.

I'm keeping track on a blog and to be honest, I absolutely hate working out AND love writing. But I tell myself every day: Work out or you don't get to write anything in your blog. That alone gets me going to the gym and the comments keep me going.

If I were you, I'd start a blog or join an online community where you'll be checked by other people. It's incredibly motivating to have people tell you you're doing a great job and/or you're screwing up.
posted by melodykramer at 11:45 AM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have tried tracking calories and some days I can't keep up due to work, and other things.

BS. It takes about 45 seconds per day for me to track my calories on Tracking calories is important to reaching your goals.

Also, have you taken pictures along the way? It's easy not to see gradual progress -- pics are mandatory.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:12 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think I might be missing something. You said you started working out regularly in early May, and today is July 1. By my count, that is two months, not four, and 15 lbs lost in that time is certainly commendable progress (even though doing it in 2-3 weeks is rather quick and may not be sustainable). Is it possible you might just be feeling a little impatient rather than having hitting a plateau? After losing your initial water weight, healthy weight loss is considered 1-2 lbs a week. It can feel maddeningly slow, especially if you have a lot of weight to lose, but it's sustainable and you're losing fat, not muscle. If you are losing and gaining the same few pounds over several weeks, however, then yes, you've hit a plateau.

If this is a true plateau, then, as everyone has mentioned, keeping an accurate food journal would probably make all the difference in the world. Also, measuring food to keep portion sizes under control can make a big difference. It's easy to overserve yourself without realizing it. I'm a big fan of Weight Watcher's point system because I think it's easier to quantify what you're eating and evaluate food choices. It's not free (I pay $17 a month for online only access), but I think it's well worth it. Regardless of what website or system you use, all those "cheats" can really add up, and I would not be surprised if you're eating more than you think.There's also quite a difference between eating for maintenance and eating for weight loss. There's a lot more leeway in a maintenance phase than a losing one.

Either way, good luck, and try not to get discouraged. A regular exercise habit seems to be the most important thing any of us can do for our health, and it's not always easy!
posted by katemcd at 1:09 PM on July 1, 2009

The amount of work you can undo in one trip to Chipotle is staggering. If weight loss is your goal, managing your diet is far more important than exercising more. It's unlikely you're burning more than 400 Calories in any given day at the gym, but a burrito could easily be 900+ Calories. When you're tempted to "cheat", think of the number of calories as time spent working out. Is a bagel worth running 4 miles? Is a burrito worth 3 hours on the bike?
posted by 0xFCAF at 1:52 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Everyone is on the money - for losing weight diet is waaaaay more important than exercise. You can lose shit-tonnes of weight without hitting the gym at all. Though I question whether you've really plateaued (slow and steady really does win the exercise race), if there is a culprit, it's your diet, not your training.

If it's important to you, take the time to really look at your diet.
posted by smoke at 8:20 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

It is NOT about the weight. It is about the body fat count. You can do it with a couple of body measurements using a measuring tape and a calculator. You can be losing body fat and staying they same weight - your belt size is probably the best indicator.
posted by lamby at 7:57 AM on July 2, 2009

Are you putting scheduled rest breaks (less work, less time, less weight) into the mix?

Rest consolidates all the efforts and starting up again you tend to be enthusiastic, so at least you get discouraged and quit, which is the worst thing of all.

Also, by my reckoning, losing 10-15 pounds in 2 or 3 weeks seems kind of dramatic. You don't mention your weight loss goals: you're trying to get from where to where? These things take time and don't necessarily follow a schedule...
posted by holdenjordahl at 10:05 PM on July 2, 2009

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