Visit our archive

“I was doing great and last week the weight loss just stopped! And today I gained a pound! What did I do wrong?”

It hits the best of us. After 3-4 months of steady exercising, your weight loss plateaus – maybe even reverses!

You get some good results at first, but now you just seem to be hovering around that point between “have you lost some weight?” and “is that a new outfit?” – meanwhile, the scale seems to be running its own evil propaganda campaign.

The Fat-loss Plateau of the Ya-Ya sisterhood

So what do you do to break a plateau? What if your weight has started to creep back up again despite your best efforts? Do more cardio? Change up your program? Get a personal trainer? Which one you choose (and how you stick with it) can make all the difference.

#1 Mistake people make in the quest for weight loss:

Repetitive cardiovascular activity

If you are doing cardio to lose fat, you may have been making a crucial mistake:

As your body improves in cardiovascular ability (and its ability to do certain movement patterns such as the repetitive motion of an elliptical trainer), it becomes more efficient at doing certain activities.

If you always use the same movement pattern, the body becomes more efficient at that movement pattern. Think about the first time you played a new sport/activity. You were exhausted the first time, but much less exhausted the third or fourth – physical changes played a part, but your body was already becoming more efficient at moving in those patterns.

The elliptical machine. Can you imagine the energy we could generate if we hooked these up to the main grid? You could power a whole gym with these oversized hamster wheels.

When doing an activity that you are familiar and competent at, you burn less calories within the same amount of time.

Looking at the picture above, can YOU think of a more repetitive and predictable movement for both your upper and lower body than doing the same pattern with your feet and arms every…single… time…

Confused? Try this example on for size:

Meet “Cardio Charlie”. Charlie one day decides to burn the fat away purely by doing the same cardio machine day in and day out. More miles tracked means more poundage burned, right?

Charlie keeps everything else the same (same calorie intake, same daily habits, same sleep patterns) but adds cardio to the routine. For the first week, Charlie does 40 minutes 3x a week and burns 2 pounds. Overjoyed by the results, the next week Charlie does an 60 minutes 3x a week and loses 2 pounds again and starts to think “What are all those people complaining about… this weight loss thing is a piece of cake!” (mmmm, cake)

What kind of mpg is your body getting? The less fuel you burn in your workout, the more you have left on your thighs…

From Hummer to Hybrid

It only takes a few weeks of dedicated cardio sessions before something starts to go wrong with the plan…

Your body (which started off burning fuel like a rusty diesel truck) after a couple of weeks is suddenly burning fuel much more economically.

You have, (by virtue of your bodies amazing physiological and cardiovascular adaptations), created a fuel efficient machine capable of doing the same amount of work with even less fuel consumption.

But building a fuel efficient machine is probably not what you came here to do, is it?

If you wanted a fuel BURNING machine, then your strategy of doing even more and more cardio to burn the pounds just backfired on you.

Process this equation:

New guy on treadmill = “X” calories in 40 minutes

Experienced treadmill user working at same pace as the newbie = Less than “X” in 40 minutes due to muscle and cardiovascular efficiency.

The end result? New guy gets the calorie burn – experienced guy gets the chronic and repetitive stress of the joints doing the same movement repetitively for the last 100 workouts.

The more cardio you do on the same equipment at the same intensity, the more fuel-efficient your body becomes at that exact workout.



But faithful reader, this story does have a happy ending…

What if our good friend Charlie were to mix up the cardio AND intensity AND equipment selection?

What if Charlie were to do some long slow distance cardio mixed with some higher intensity mixed with some interval cardio sessions.

Would that unpredictable nature keep the system from ‘settling in’?

Would it also make a difference if the program involved different machines? How different would the muscle pattern be if you switched from a treadmill to a rowing machine? From a bike to a stairway?

So if Cardio Charlie started switching up the cardio – added some weightlifting circuits, got a few sessions in with a trainer just to make sure everything was being done right, then most likely the plateau would be broken and Charlie would see the scale start to drop once again…


Unless of course Charlie made the second most crucial mistake – the mistake of working out the wrong muscles in the wrong way to achieve fat loss.

Stay tuned for the workout mistake #2 that people make that actually REVERSES their fat loss in the gym.

Have you seen this mistake #1 happen in front of your very eyes? Had a friend experience this exact phenomenon? Tell us about it!

Jamie Atlas

Want more fitness ramblings in your inbox? Make sure you subscribe to my rss feed!

  • fatintothefire Jun 19, 2008 Reply

    Nice information. Way too many people get in to ‘cruise control’ mode with their cardio exercise. They waste away their muscle mass with prolonged steady state cardio and move further away from their goals. The body becoming cardiovascularly efficient is great, but not if you want to get the flame started and burn off the fat. Intensity. It’s gotta be there.

  • Warren Jun 24, 2008 Reply

    INTENSITY, INTENSITY, INTENSITY!!!! Those that hop on the same stationary bike or eliptical machine at the local 24 Hour Fitness and jack up the level to a blistering ‘1’ while talking on the cell phone make me want to scream!! Then bragging to the boys at the office that they did an hour of cardio over their lunch break. AWESOME dude…nice work!! SImply changing up (or in most cases ‘stepping up’) the intensity will throw a shock wave through their respective untested body….

  • erin Jun 28, 2008 Reply

    I have had this happen to me numerous times. My girlfriend and I would always joke about how we could never lose those last 10 pounds, but our heavier friend could come to the gym with us for one week and lose it right away. Of course, we realize the plateau phenomenon. I think this time around I will do the cardio but add much more strength training. Thanks for the nice article.

  • SOG knives Jul 19, 2008 Reply

    SOG knives…

    Interesting ideas… I wonder how the Hollywood media would portray this?…

  • Name (Required)

  • Email (Required, but not published)

  • Url (Optional)

  • Comment (Required)