What Is a Body Plateau?

side profile of a woman standing on a weighing scale

When you begin a new weight loss or fitness routine, the impact of immediate results is incentive to continue. In many programs, initial weight losses tend to be more dramatic before settling down into a more consistent loss cycle. For some people, the results seem to stop coming completely. When your current fitness routine is not yielding the desired results, your body has reached a plateau or equilibrium. Plateaus may be frustrating, but they are not impossible to overcome with some small adjustments to your fitness strategies.

Body Plateaus Defined

A body plateau refers to a period of time in which your body no longer responds to your fitness or diet routine. Plateaus often occur as an abrupt halt to progress that had previously been results in weight loss or muscle gain. Plateaus are the results of your body's impressive ability to adjust to stress and change. Your body mass is the major factor that determines your body's basal metabolic rate, or the rate at which you burn calories for essential body functions. When you reduce your body's mass through exercise, your basal metabolic rate also declines. Your body burns fewer calories at rest, and weight loss tends to slow or stop completely as a result of your reduced metabolic rate.

Types of Plateaus

A body plateau is often called a weight loss plateau because it most commonly refers to a sudden stop of weight loss after beginning a diet or workout plan. Another type of body plateau refers to a sudden stop in your body's ability to gain muscle, weight or increased strength. Muscular body plateaus are more common in people who are looking to strength train rather than lose weight, like bodybuilders or professional fighters. Body plateaus are similar to weight loss plateaus in the sense that they are the result of your body's successful adaptation to your fitness regime. Strength training tends to increase basal metabolic rates because body mass increases rather than decreases, so the management of a body plateau is different than the management of a weight loss plateau.

Overcoming a Weight Loss Plateau

As your weight decreases along with your basal metabolic rate, your body will require fewer calories per day for sustenance. In order to continue losing weight, you have to reduce the number of calories your body accesses either by reducing caloric intake or increasing caloric output through exercise. Reduce your caloric intake by 200 calories per day if you are currently taking in 1,400 or more calories; do not reduce your caloric intake below 1,200 calories per day unless you are under the guidance of a doctor. Adding 15 to 30 minutes of additional cardiovascular exercise into your routine will also increase your caloric output and recharge weight loss efforts. Yale University professor Dr. David Katz suggests that replacing calories ingested through carbohydrates or fats with calories from protein may also spur weight loss. Another option is to increase your basal metabolic rate by increasing your muscle mass rather than your fat mass. Incorporating strength training into your fitness routine will build lean muscle that contributes to higher resting metabolic rates.

Overcoming a Strength Training Plateau

Strength training plateaus indicate two different types of adaptations. If you've increased your body mass, you've also increased your basal metabolic rate. Failing to provide enough calories means that your body lacks the components necessary to build muscle. Increasing your caloric intake with protein-rich foods ensures that your body has the building blocks for muscle. Your body has also adapted individual muscle groups to accommodate the stress of strength training. Increasing repetitions, sets or the weight or resistance used in your workout will challenge your muscles to work harder. A trainer can help you tailor your routine to overcome a plateau with specific strategies; drop sets, a technique in which you perform a move until you are unable to and then repeat the move after rest with a lower resistance, and super sets, in which two exercises are performed back to back with no rest, are successful strategies for overcoming plateaus but should only be undertaken with the guidance of a professional.