It’s frustrating when the scale doesn’t reflect your hard work. But favorable body composition changes only happen with a consistent combination of cardio and strength training along with modifying your meal plan and eating habits — so you’re on the right track.
A weight-loss plateau is not uncommon during the initial stages of a comprehensive exercise program; losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time is typically why weight stays the same, even with a reduced body fat percentage and looser-fitting clothes. The scale gives you only one number; it doesn’t tell you how much of that is fat vs. muscle — just like a kitchen scale can’t tell the difference between butter and beef. Your weight is only a single measure of progress; no matter what your weight, improvements in your body composition, waist circumference, energy level, mood, strength, and endurance will confirm that your efforts are paying off.
Here’s the good news — there’s a limit to how much muscle, or fat-free mass, you’ll gain by following standard recommendations for cardio and strength training. Research shows that previously inactive adults undergoing a 10-week strength and endurance training program gained an average of 3.1 pounds of lean weight and lost an average of 3.7 pounds of fat weight. A 6-month study following similar protocols found participants gained an average of 2.2 pounds of lean weight in the first 3 months of the program and another 2.5 pounds in the last 3 months.
So, keep in mind that typical lean weight gain isn’t huge; for most people it’s between 2-5 pounds. At some point, your muscle gain will level off. If you still have excess fat to lose, you should experience weight loss at that point, assuming you’re following both an exercise program and nutrition plan designed to promote a healthy rate of weight loss.
When I work with people who are frustrated by a lack of weight loss, I often find they underestimate how much they’re eating and overestimate their exercise level. Keeping a meal diary and workout log can help; I also recommend consulting a registered dietitian to make sure your nutrition plan is optimized for both weight loss and fueling your active lifestyle. Try weighing in no more than once a week; frequent scale-stalking can be discouraging.
Your fitness plan may need some tweaking, as well — aerobic exercise does burn a large number of calories, but I’m wondering if you’re working at the right intensity and duration. If your health care provider has cleared you for high-intensity exercise, try 1-2 high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts each week. These workouts are especially good for burning large amounts of calories in a short time period, and are very effective in reducing fat. For best results, work with a certified personal trainer.
1. Westcott, Wayne, Ph.D., CSCS, ACSM STRENGTH TRAINING GUIDELINES: Role in Body Composition and Health Enhancement, ACSM’s Health and Fitness Journal,Vol. 13/ No. 4.
2. ACE Personal Trainer Manual, 4 th Edition, American Council on Exercise, 2010.