Have You Hit a Fitness Plateau?

An award-winning personal trainer helps a mom in a workout rut.

From the WebMD Archives

Each month, WebMD the Magazine puts your questions about weight loss and fitness to top exercise and motivational experts. This month, Sarah Null, 37, a stay-at-home mom in North Carolina, asked for help boosting her exercise and weight loss routine. Null is celebrating four years as a breast cancer survivor -- but she’s not so happy about the 20 pounds she put on in treatment. At 5 feet 4 inches, she weighs 160 pounds and would like to get back to her pre-kids, pre-cancer weight of 140. We asked nationally renowned trainer Ben Greenfield, director of sports performance at Champions Sports Medicine in Spokane, Wash., and the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s 2008 personal trainer of the year, for help with Null's dilemma.

Sarah's question: Over the past year, I’ve lost 5 pounds, then gained 2, then lost 1.8 pounds. I can’t seem to get going on consistent losing. Lately, I haven’t gained or lost a single ounce in several weeks (I’m in a “Biggest Loser” competition with my mom’s group and doing terribly). It’s maddening that I lose the same amount of weight -- none -- whether I spend 40 minutes on the elliptical machine or not, drink only water or not, stop cleaning the kids’ plates or not. Help!

Answer: According to Greenfield, “Sarah has a lot of tools she can use to overcome her plateau. By changing up just a few things with her exercise and diet, she can make a big difference.” Here’s how, advises Greenfield:

Pump it up. Instead of 40 minutes on the treadmill, pump up your metabolism with high-intensity intervals. Do four minutes of any cardiovascular exercise as hard as you can; then two minutes of strength-building exercises (using free weights or weight machines). Repeat this “harder/easier” cycle five times. (The magic cardio-to-weights ratio is 2-to-1.) Your post-exercise metabolic rate and fat loss will increase much more than if you exercised 40 minutes steadily at an average pace, and you’re also building lean muscle mass.


Shake it up. Walking doesn’t do much to help you lose weight, even though it’s good for your health. Instead, mix up your cardio intervals by throwing in new things every week: the elliptical machine, the recumbent bike, the rowing machine, the stair climber. Keep your body guessing.

Start it up. The one time when simple aerobic exercise can really boost your metabolism is in the morning. When you first wake up, your liver has burned through your carbohydrate stores, and light aerobic exercise can jump-start the fat-burning enzymes in your liver. So start your day with a brisk walk.

Count it up. You might think you’re not snacking between meals, but it’s easy to miss the bites of your kids’ leftovers you take here and there. For a few days, record everything you eat. Make sure the extra food you take in is accounted for -- either by cutting out your dinner roll or by doing an extra high-intensity interval.

WebMD Magazine Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on July 10, 2009



Sarah Null, Raleigh, N.C.

Ben Greenfield, director of sports performance at Champions Sports Medicine, Spokane, Wash.

Gibala, M. Exercise and Sports Sciences Review, 2008; vol 36: pp 58-63.

© 2009 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


Get Fitness and Diet Tips in Your Inbox

Eat better and exercise smarter. Sign up for the Food & Fitness newsletter.

By clicking Subscribe, I agree to the WebMD Terms & Conditions & Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of WebMD subscriptions at any time.