So you’re working hard in the gym and eating better and the weight is just not coming off or you’re not seeing those abs or biceps like you wanted to. Is it a hormone imbalance? A genetic problem? Are you too old? Not taking the right supplements? It’s tempting to go first to these explanations because they are largely out of our control, or need some extra measure beyond plain old (boring, tedious, time-consuming…) diet and exercise to fix, so we can throw up our hands and not look too hard at the things we can control, but that require a lot of consistent effort.
The truth is much more likely to have a simpler explanation. Once you’ve got all the following on point and are still not getting anywhere you can look for more complicated solutions, but almost no one I know who is not an elite athlete is actually doing the simple things correctly and consistently.
And honestly, it’s totally ok to recognize that you simply don’t want to work out as often as you would need to or be as restrictive in your diet as you would need to in order to look like a fitness model (fitness models don’t even look like fitness models all the time, actually). I love John Berardi’s infographic: the cost of getting lean, which outlines what an average person would need to do in order to get and stay at varying levels of leanness. It’s a great tool for reflecting on your goals and what you’re willing and able to do to achieve them, and to modify those goals if you decide to. You don’t need a 6-pack to be healthy or live your best life, though if you really want one that’s fine too!
All that said, here are the most likely explanations for a lack of fat loss or muscle building results in your gym and nutrition endeavors:
1) You’re underestimating how much you eat / drink.
Even when we’re being careful to record everything we eat, it’s super easy to underestimate our caloric intake. And most of us aren’t that careful to begin with. Do you pay attention to portion sizes when you dish up your dinner? If so, do you carefully measure with a food scale or measuring cups or spoons? Especially with calorie-dense foods like butter, oil, nuts and nut butters, it’s incredibly easy to overeat. When you splash what you think is a tablespoon of oil into the pan to cook with, it’s likely you’re splashing 2-3 times that much, adding 200-400 more calories to the dish. I read a case study in which a guy was unknowingly putting 16 tablespoons of olive oil in the pan, that’s 3200 calories, and that one mistake was completely stalling his progress! Salad dressing? A serving size is 2 tablespoons but you’re probably not measuring when you pour it out of the bottle, and even if you get it on the side at a restaurant those little cups they give you are usually at least twice that, adding up to 600 calories to your nice, light salad. Spreading some peanut butter for a dose of protein and healthy fats? Awesome, but a carefully measured tablespoon and an overloaded one with twice as much look awfully similar, and with each tablespoon containing about 95 calories, it adds up fast. Do you grab a piece of candy a couple times of day at the office? Grab an uneaten chicken nugget from your child’s plate? Little stuff like this often doesn’t get recorded or considered because it’s just a tiny little thing, how could it make a difference? But many of these instances over the course of a day or week can become a big caloric surplus. The calories you drink are important too. Soda, juice, milk, and anything with alcohol in it has substantial calories in it and you can’t forget to take them into account. Pay attention to the serving size. A 20-ounce soda isn’t one 100-calorie serving – it’s two and a half. That’s a pretty rookie mistake, honestly, but even if you feel it’s an obvious one, don’t assume you don’t fall into the other calorie traps. Multiple studies suggest that most people underestimate how much they’ve consumed in a day by an average of 500 calories. A pound of fat is equivalent to 3500 calories, so it adds up quickly.
Many people focus hard on food quality or type of food they eat (no carbs! whole, plant-based foods!) and while that can be helpful for general health and satiety, overall energy balance (calories eaten vs. calories expended) is THE defining variable for how much fat you’ll have on your body. To complicate things even more, people who start working out often grossly OVERestimate how many calories they burned doing so and allow themselves large meals as a reward, thinking they still burned off more energy than they’ve eaten. Well, surprise! Maybe you burned off 750 calories at a kickboxing class (being generous), but that restaurant meal you grabbed afterward can contain anywhere from 1000 to 3500!
Look, there are plenty of articles out there about how to reduce the number of calories you eat. Every single diet out there: keto, intermittent fasting, low carb, weight watchers, etc. rely on getting you to a calorie deficit; the difference is just in how. But the bottom line is that you have to pay attention, don’t assume anything, and be disciplined enough to stop when you’re less than 100% satisfied much of the time if you want to operate in a caloric deficit, which is what is needed for fat loss. You can go wild on veggies, which don’t have a lot of calories per ounce or cup or whatever you want to measure with. Most other things you have to be careful with.
2) You’re not paying attention to NEAT.
Lots of people assume you can lose weight working out 2-3 times a week, and you can, IF you’re otherwise active. If you are sedentary the rest of the time, you’ll likely reach a plateau very quickly.
NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, and it means the energy you burn up by all your activities that aren’t focused exercise. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator increases NEAT. Sitting all day at work decreases it. I love Fitbits and similar trackers, because it gives us a picture of the movement we’re getting all day long, and can inspire us to up our game.
A trap many people fall into when they’re new to exercise or even when they’ve been working out for awhile is that in response to being tired from working out, they sit more and do even less general activity than before. This can lead to stagnation and even fat gain depending on how severe it is.
On the other hand, you can create a calorie deficit pretty quickly without doing hard workouts if you just make it a point to keep moving throughout your day. It doesn’t even have to be hard stuff. Go for little walks. Take the stairs. Park far away. Set a timer on your phone and get up out of your chair at least once an hour. Take a walk with your family after dinner. Play a game with your kids, or someone else’s kids (don’t steal anyone’s kids though). Stand up and move around when you talk on the phone. Do a few jumping jacks when you wake up in the morning to get your energy flowing. Get up for commercial breaks. You get the idea. You can’t lose fat by not moving except at the gym 2 nights a week. On balance, NEAT may be even more impactful than your actual workouts.
3) You’re not working out hard enough.
Women and men both get caught up in this one, but women tend to be at a higher risk. Every workout picture of a woman in mainstream media is her lifting pink, 2 pound weights. Many women worry about “bulking up” if they lift heavy, which is BS. The truth is that the more muscle tissue we have, the more energy (calories) we will burn even at rest. That’s why guys can eat so much more than women without becoming overweight – in addition to being larger overall, they naturally have more muscle mass (this is in general; everything exists on a scale including masculine and feminine body traits). Women on average have a higher body fat percentage, which is needed for pregnancy, breastfeeding, and our general hormonal balance, but it means we don’t burn as much energy pound for pound. We can change that somewhat by building muscle. It doesn’t have to be huge and bulky, and most likely it won’t be, as most women don’t have the testosterone required for massive hypertrophy (muscle growth).
Then there’s that old gem “the fat burning zone,” which is still printed on half the cardio machines in gyms, telling you to not work so hard because you won’t burn as much fat. Basically, scientists figured out a long time ago that at 55-70% of your maximum heart rate, or about 5 or 6 out of 10 level of effort, people burned more fat vs. carbohydrates in the blood, percentage-wise, than working out at a higher intensity. The problem is that higher intensity (characterized by a higher heart rate and a feeling of more difficulty) will burn much more energy overall, INCLUDING fat. It will also stress the body more, creating an “afterburn” effect as it recovers, thus creating much more of an energy deficit than the slower, easier workout. So, if you haven’t got a heart condition, working out harder and faster will give you greater fat loss results. An easy way to get this effect is through interval training, sometimes called high intensity interval training or HIIT, which alternates periods of easier exercise with periods of maximum effort. There are a million different ways you can do this, but the takeaway here is that easy workouts are not going to be the most effective workouts. They’ll help with your heart health and stress, and they’re absolutely worth doing some of the time. But fat loss won’t happen easily if you keep all of your workouts easy.
4) You’re not being consistent.
Humans are impatient. Especially humans living in first world countries. We want everything now, now, now, and when that doesn’t happen we get frustrated. When we’re talking about diet and exercise plans, that tends to mean we don’t give any program long enough to work. If we don’t see big enough results right away, we get frustrated and often give up too easily and too early, when if we had just stuck it out for awhile we would have seen the desired results.
There’s also a lot of talk about “cheat days,” and people don’t like to maintain discipline on the weekend. It’s incredibly easy to erase the carefully built-up calorie deficit on a work week with a couple of out-of-control weekend meals. That’s not to say you should never have a treat! I’m a huge proponent of building in the foods we like best as part of our sustainable eating plan, but you can’t just forget about any restraint for days at a time and expect fat loss to occur. It just doesn’t work that way.
5) You’re not changing up your workouts.
Consistency is super important, yes, but bodies are efficient machines that adapt to whatever we ask of them. If you do the same routine over and over again, it’s bound to start feeling easier. That means your body has gotten used to it, and isn’t burning as much energy doing it. And that means your body isn’t going to continue changing. What to do? Well, you can increase your intensity (do whatever you’re doing but go faster, or lift heavier, or squat lower), increase your duration (do it longer), or you can change it up. Instead of chest presses do some pushups. Try some compound movements (using more than one muscle group at once, like doing squats and shoulder presses in the same movement). Introduce some new exercises you haven’t tried before, even some you may be intimidated by (burpees anyone?). You have to keep challenging your body if you want it to change, and that’s not happening if you’re doing the same thing all the time. You’ve got to embrace discomfort if you want to make progress.
5) You’re under too much stress and / or not getting enough sleep.
If your hormones are indeed off in some way, stress and lack of sleep are often the culprits, and medication and supplements won’t solve the issue as well as learning to manage your stress and creating some discipline around your sleep routine will. I know, everyone’s life is busy and stressful, and no one wants to put away the electronics before bedtime, but, until you’re able to take the time to address these issues, your physical and mental health, not to mention any goals of fat loss, will suffer.
There are lots of resources out there for working on this, and like anything else you’re not going to reach perfection in the pursuit of a stress-free Zen master life, but you can make progress. And that’s all we can hope for in any life pursuit.
6) You’re not recognizing progress even though you’re making some!
Most people rely solely on the scale and / or BMI to measure their fat loss progress (including doctors, which is a whole other rant!). When you start to exercise, there are many other factors to consider. Your body composition may be changing, building muscle and shedding fat, which may look like no change on the scale (or BMI, which is solely based on your height and weight), but you WOULD see change if you were measuring circumferences (usually at the waist, thighs, hips, arms, etc.), paying attention to how your clothes fit and taking progress photos (this can be an invaluable tool!). If you want to get super fancy you can get various forms of body scanning done. You may also notice things like more energy and productivity, better posture and a more confident feeling, and better blood test results at the doctor’s, which may not be what you’re focused on, but which shouldn’t be overlooked. And sometimes those things precede the visual and clothing size changes you’re looking for.
So! If you have all that under control and you’re still not seeing results? It’s probably worth it to talk to a doctor or other health professional. Preferable someone who is actually a professional and not going to try to sell you overpriced protein shakes or put you on a special diet of exclusively overprocessed foods.
Do you have trouble with any of these or a story about how you overcame an obstacle to meet your fat loss goals? Let me know in the comments.