Similarly, I had a client who was working out regularly, but had plateaued and told me she felt great, had more energy, was stronger, her clothes fit better, and she was really enjoying her workouts, but she was going to stop working out because her hard work just wasn’t showing up on the scales.
It’s not an uncommon thing to hear.
Part of the problem, of course, is the value we place on the numbers on the scale. To my client, all those other positive benefits didn’t offer her enough validation, enough reward, didn’t carry enough ‘weight’ to allow her to say “the weight doesn’t matter, I look and feel fabulous!”
In my experience, one of the big problems is that people expect that their body will change in a very specific way. That their fat will change into muscle. That as they get fitter their fat will just melt away at the same rate that their muscle grows.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Here’s why:
Muscle is a really reactive tissue. It loves to change and be challenged and it is constantly in flux. When you train, you’re growing your muscles in strength and size and stamina. They are going through a state of ‘flux.’ That use it or lose it adage is completely true. When you don’t exercise, your muscles quickly give up their size, strength, and stamina. When you do train, they respond to the challenge nearly as quickly.
Fat, on the other hand, is ‘sticky.’ It hates change. It’s the stodgy old man who WILL NOT use a bank machine, the autistic kid who MUST sit in that chair, the territorial animal who will defend itself to the death to not lose its nesting spot.
So, when you start working out your muscles go “YAY CHANGE!!” and start changing. And your fat goes “WTF!?” and holds on for dear life.
Where you may see change in muscle tissue within a matter of weeks, your fat tissue responds much more slowly. I can’t say exactly how much more slowly, that depends on a zillion things – genetics, diet, exercise, history (cyclical dieting completely screws your body’s ability to respond to these things in a ‘natural’ way) and health.
What I see happen to a lot of people as they start training is that first they will gain weight (due to muscle increase while fat is not budging) and gain size (while muscle bulk increases under the fat layer, which still hasn’t decreased much) because contrary to popular belief, fat does not turn into muscle and muscle does not turn into fat. They are layers – like a cake. And fat is the icing.
So there is a huge source of frustration when people start working out for weight loss. They are trying to get rid of that icing, and it’s just sitting there on top, not going anywhere!
But change is coming!
For most people we start to see that change after about 12 weeks of sticking to a routine, eating a healthy diet that isn’t too restrictive, and avoiding over-training, but that is definitely not a hard-and-fast rule, by any stretch.
What you’re waiting for is the ‘burn through‘, where the demands of your muscle tissue (which burn more calories daily, just because they are there) and your routine and healthy diet start to make a visible dent in the fat layer.
Burn through usually happens on the arms and calves first, where there tend to be fewer fat cells and it’s less ‘sticky’ – with the abs, butt and thighs being last in women. Most men find that the abs come off quickly, and the chest last, for example, but it’s different for both genders and for each individual.
Waiting for burn through is FRUSTRATING as hell!! I know!!
So, how can you make sure you get burn through?
Well, it takes a lot of hard work and commitment, but here’s a few ideas or tips you might not have already heard.
- Make sure you eat enough! Ironically, starvation is one of the best ways to make sure your fat gets even stickier. Eat good healthy whole foods. Okay, you’ve heard that one before. And to drink lots of water. Standard good advice that you really really need to pay attention to. Eat enough, eat well, stay hydrated.
- One thing diet-wise you can try is to have high and low days, to shake things up. For example, on a day when you do cardio, have low carbs and high protein, with maybe 100 fewer calories then you normally would, but on the next day, with weight training, try the opposite, with about 100 calories more. Little shake-ups to your diet once a week or once a fortnight (don’t do that every day) keep your metabolism guessing and make it look for fuel sources elsewhere to compensate for the changes. Be pretty consistent the rest of the time.
- Think of your diet and exercise calories in/out on a weekly basis, rather than a daily one. For example 1400 calories per day x 7 days=9800 calories for the week – 10% = 8820 caloric intake (or 980 calories burned through exercise). Thinking on a larger scale can help you achieve better balance. Rather than freaking out if you’ve had a bit of cake at a birthday party and you’ve gone over today’s limit, you can just look at how you’re going over the week and have a lighter meal or day, or do a little extra exercise – or maybe you’re actually on track and there’s no need to feel guilty anyway! (I think guilt over food is a terrible thing, but that’s a whole other blog post).
- Change your exercise routine. Doing the same thing over and over will get you the same results. Up the intensity, change the pattern, try something new. Your body will respond to the challenge. Your body will do its very best to conserve energy and burn the minimum required to maintain a steady state of exercise. If you do the same thing over and over, it gets to know *exactly* how much you need to burn and will burn that, and no more. Mix it up, just like your diet, to keep your body guessing.
- Lift weights. Muscle tissue ‘costs’ more to be alive. It will burn more energy just by being there. Excessive cardio can actually end up cannibalising muscle tissue! Rebuild your muscle to build your metabolic rate. I promise, this matters!
- Keep going! This isn’t a one-off ‘to-do’ list item, it’s not instant and it won’t last if you don’t stick with it. Focus on lifetime health and fitness goals, not just body image and numbers on the scale and you will reap a whole lot more reward from your diet and exercise. It should be a pleasure to move, eat well, and live in a healthy way!
But I think the best and most important thing to remember is that you are not worthy only if you weight a certain amount. That the scale is only one of a HUGE list of ways to measure how things are going with your routine. Weight is so singularly focused, and it can’t measure health, wellness, energy, size, strength, fitness, confidence or happiness. And it definitely can’t measure self-worth.
I’d love to hear from you, especially if you achieved burn-through! What worked for you? How long did it take?