Many people find that simply adding a few hundred calories to their diets, keeping a food journal for a week or tweaking their carb intake is all it takes to propel them off their plateaus. For others, prioritizing an early bedtime and getting at least seven hours of sleep each night nudges them forward, and they begin to see results again.
This week, in the third and final installment of this series, I'm going to reveal Culprit No. 3, as well as my top tips for how to combat it.
I have witnessed this scenario time and time again in my 13 years as a self-proclaimed (and proud!) gym rat:
"Unfit Fiona joins gym and gets plugged into a high-energy kickboxing class.
After just a week, Unfit Fiona feels phenomenal (say that five times fast). She's sleeping better. She's thrown out all the processed and sugar-laden junk from her pantry. She's bought new Nikes and a smaller pair of yoga pants than what she normally wears because she's so confident the weight is going to melt off of her.
After six weeks, Unfit Fiona is a whole new woman. She's attended her class religiously, slept like a baby, and eaten like a sugar-shirking cave woman. She's dropped 30 pounds, just 10 pounds away from her goal weight.
Two weeks later, the scale hasn't budged. She tries cutting back on her calories, but that only makes her tired, cranky, less motivated to work out, and a respectable online article tells her that's not the right tactic.
For two weeks, she ups her class frequency from to three days a week to five, and still, her clothes fit exactly the same. She can almost hear her archnemesis, the scale, laughing at her when she steps on.
What's Fiona to do?
The answer: something different.
In Fiona's case, she needs some weightlifting in her life, as do the vast majority of women I've heard from who are frustrated and confused by their weight loss woes. They had a good thing going for so long—why did it stop working?
I've written previously on why women should lift weights (and heavy weights, at that), but for time's sake, I'll offer the key points of that article:
Weightlifting Raises Your Metabolic Rate
Your metabolism is the amount of energy your body needs to sustain itself. Because muscle requires calories (aka energy) to survive, increasing your muscle size and density will increase your metabolism.
Since we work against a high degree of resistance with heavy weights, we create tiny muscular tears throughout the body. We expend a greater number of calories post-workout to repair those tiny tears, thus increasing your overall calorie requirements. Lifting weights will raise your metabolism long after you're finished. In fact, experts estimate that your metabolism stays elevated for up to 15 hours after you train. Again, this is because lifting strains your body so much that it needs extra time to recover.
Greater Muscle Definition
The next benefit to lifting heavier weights is that you'll see greater overall muscle definition. When you lift a light weight lots of times, as most women do (no joke, I once spotted a woman doing a three-pound tricep kickback with one hand while chatting on her cell phone with the other for a solid two minutes), the muscles are barely challenged. As a result, your muscles won't feel any need to adapt (grow) since they can easily handle what you throw at them.
Functional Strength for Daily Life
The final benefit you achieve by lifting heavier weights is that you improve functional strength capabilities. Since you get much stronger by lifting heavier weights, everyday activities will get much easier over time. You won't need to call your boyfriend to move a couch or ask your husband to hoist the bag of dog food out of the trunk. Muscularity also means a lower chance of injury if you participate in sports or other activities.
If you can identify with Fiona, my first suggestion would be to add a 45 to 60-minute weightlifting session to your workout schedule two to three times a week. Consistency is key here, so don't expect to see results if you only pump iron for a week. Give it six to eight weeks and I can almost guarantee that stubborn plateau will be nothing but a speck in your rearview mirror.
If you've been lifting weights for a while and you've stopped seeing progress (we'll call you Frustrated Frank), I would be willing to wager the simple reason is that you haven't switched up your rep scheme or upped the poundage of the weights you're lifting. Here are a few signs you need to increase the load:
1. The dumbbell feels like a Barbie doll. If your weight feels light, that's a problem! According to certified personal trainer Terry Asher, owner of GymJunkies.com, "Lifting a weight that is too light for you is counterproductive to your strength gains, fat loss and overall health." In fact, Asher believes "you should not train with a weight that doesn't require your full concentration and strength to move safely before you even start your sets."
In other words, there's a reason it's called working out—it shouldn't resemble playing!
2. You don't feel the burn. If you don't feel your muscles contracting with every rep, it's time to up the weight. According to certified trainer Kendall Wood, NASM and coauthor of Core Fitness Solution, "If you're not feeling each contraction on every rep of your workout, you're not doing everything you can to spark positive changes in your body shape, fat loss or strength gains. A real workout means putting in effort in the gym, and that means feeling the burn while you're training and subsequent soreness the next day," Wood said. "If you're not feeling it, that's why it isn't working."
3. You ain't skeered. When our CrossFit athletes are trying to decide how much weight to put on their barbells for a particular WOD ("workout of the day"), I like to encourage them with this one-liner: "Do what scares you."
If they're confident they can do 30 repetitions of 225-pound deadlifts in under two minutes because they've done it before, it's not scary—it's comfortable. If they approach a 135-pound power snatch without pause, it's not scary—it's comfortable. And comfort is the antithesis of progress in every arena of our lives. Get mad at it. Break up with it and block its number. Shed not one tear nor eat one chocolate over it. It never loved you anyway.
Just before my remote trainer, Michael Prince, sends me a workout (he lives five hours away and texts me my routines), I always feel a few butterflies fluttering around in my stomach. Without fail, I feel a little scared to see what will pop up because he is always pushing me past my limits, and as a human being, leaving my cozy comfort zone is often a Herculean task. But you know what? I'm the better and stronger and fitter for it, mentally and physically. And you will be too!
Here's the bottom line: Whether your goal is losing weight, defining and shaping muscle, gaining strength and muscle mass, or running faster, lifting weights is essential if you want to progress. Sooner or later, coasting through workouts will run you straight into a plateau. Gradual increases in weight, tweaks to your rep schemes, and new exercises will ensure you're always improving and having fun with your fitness!
I hope you've found this week's article helpful! If you have, please leave a comment below or tweet me@dandersontyler! Let me know how you've plowed through plateaus, or whether you're going to use one of the above tips to do so soon!
Diana Anderson-Tyler is the author of Creation House's Fit for Faith: A Christian Woman's Guide to Total Fitness, Perfect Fit: Weekly Wisdom and Workouts for Women of Faith and Fitness, and her latest book, Immeasurable: Diving into the Depths of God's Love. Her popular website can be found at dianadeadlifts.com, and she is the owner and a coach at CrossFit 925.
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