By Leo Babauta
If you’re like me, you can eat healthy much of the time, exercise a lot, and still find your fat-burning efforts at a plateau.
It seems easier to lose the first 30 pounds than the last bit of fat around your middle.
And if you’re like me, you want to get lean — for reasons that may vary from improved physical performance to better health to better looks. It’s not always easy to get rid of that stubborn belly fat — or any fat, for that matter, as you can’t “spot reduce” just your belly fat.
So I’ve created a list of things you can do to break through that plateau, if you’ve been exercising and eating fairly healthy for awhile but have seen your progress slow considerably. That’s the situation I found myself in recently, and these are the techniques I’ve been using to pretty good success.
Who Should Use These Tips
Again, this post is aimed at those who have been exercising regularly for at least a few months and who already eat fairly healthy. It’s for those who want to break through a plateau and speed up their fat-burning, lean-making progress. It’s for those who are looking for leanness and not hugeness.
If that’s you, read on.
If you don’t exercise regularly, I highly recommend you start right away (assuming you don’t have major health problems) and that you start out slowly. These tips aren’t for you. Start with: get healthy and fit with exercise, and 4 simple steps to start the exercise habit.
If you regularly eat junk food — that’s sugary foods, fried foods, fast foods, fatty foods, processed foods, or refined carbs — this isn’t the place to start. Better to start with the basics — learning to slowly wean yourself from these junk foods and start eating mostly whole foods instead. I’m not saying you can never have sweets or french fries, but you should cut back on them and only have them in moderation. Start here: get healthy and fit by eating healthy.
If you are looking to build massive amounts of muscle, this post isn’t for you. To do that, the prescription is pretty simple: 1) do compound lifts like the squat, deadlift, bench press, standing military press, standing barbell row, power clean, pullup, etc.; 2) lift heavy and continue to progress; 3) eat a LOT, including lots of protein. I recommend lifting 3 times a week, full body routine, unless you’re a serious bodybuilder (in which case, you know better than I do how to reach your goals).
But if you’re looking to get lean, as I said, these tips will help take you from your foundation of healthy eating and regular exercise to your goal of losing that last bit of stubborn fat.
How to Rev Up Your Fat Burning
You don’t have to do all of the following tips — pick ones that will work best for you and give them a try. If they don’t do much after a few weeks, try some of the other tips:
- Lean Your Diet. I typically eat pretty healthy. As a vegetarian, I stick with lots of veggies, fruits, lean protein, nuts, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and good fats. For the most part. But I also allow myself some indulgences, including veggie pizza, some sweets, and other treats. And while I think that’s a good lifestyle to have, sometimes you have to get a little strict with yourself for a little while to achieve your goals. So right now I’m on a self-created diet with only one menu plan — I eat the same things every day. I have a set breakfast, set lunch, set dinner, and set snacks. I’ve taken the choice out of eating, and for me that’s been working. That might not work for everyone. The key is to cut out the junk food and other treats (except for maybe 1-2 cheat meals a week). Cut back on grains for a little while and focus more on lean protein, veggies, fruits and good fats. With a diet like this, you’ll get lean faster.
- Intervals. If you do cardio exercise such as running, cycling, rowing, or what have you … rev it up with higher-intensity intervals. This means going at a little under full speed for a short interval, and then going slow for another short interval. There are tons of great interval workouts, but one of my favorites recently are Tabata Intervals — basically 20 seconds of intense exercise, then 10 seconds of rest … and repeat those intervals 8 times. That’s a total of four minutes — a great workout in a short amount of time. I suggest easing into interval training if you haven’t done much of it before — just pick up the pace for a minute, then go slower for another minute. Don’t overdo it at first. Also realize that if you do intense intevals, you will probably have to cut back on the duration of the exercise.
- Metcon Workouts. These are usually workouts that combine strength training with cardio at high intensities. Generally they’re about 20 minutes (give or take 10 minutes), and they use a combination of exercises with no rest in between. Crossfit is the ultimate expression of this philosophy — typical workouts include doing four rounds of 400-meter sprints and 50 squats (as fast as you can) … or 100 pullups, 100 pushups, 100 situps, 100 squats (as fast as you can). See Crossfit’s “girl named Workouts of the Day” for more examples.
- Hills. If you normally run, add some challenge to your runs with hills. Hills are like strength training for runners. They add intensity and are a great way to rev up the fat burning. I suggest easing into hill running if you’re not used to it. Start by running a slightly hilly course — gentle, rolling hills. Then run a course with hills that are a bit tougher. Then, when you’re good and strong (after a few weeks), do some hill repeats up a challenging hill — run hard up the hill, then go easy down the hill, for 5-7 repeats. You’ll curse my name when you’re done.
- Heavy Weights. If you normally do strength training, but only do bodyweight exercises (which are great) or do high reps with lighter or medium weights, try increasing the intensity. Do this gradually, of course, as you don’t want to overdo it at first. Shoot for 3 sets of 5 reps with a heavier weight, for each exercise you do. This will help you to build more muscle and increase your metabolism.
- Compound Lifts. Combine the above tip of lifting heavier weights with this tip — only do compound lifts. That means no isolation lifts, where you’re only working one muscle group at a time. Be sure that each lift uses two or more joints. Bicep curls are an example of an isolation lift — only the elbow joint is involved. Examples of compound lifts include the bench press (shoulder and elbow joints involved), the pullup (again, shoulder and elbow), squat (knees and hips and back). With compound lifts, you are working more muscles at once, and as a result you’re going to build more muscle overall. Compound lifts are also more functional — they mimick real-world motions. No one lifts anything like they do in a bicep curl, but we squat every day (think of picking something up off the floor, or sitting down and then getting up).
- Extra Activities. If you’re doing all of the above tips, you’re on a great track to get lean. But if you’ve stepped up the intensity and are eating super lean for a month or so and want to take it to the next level, then add some extra activities to your schedule several times a week. These could include anything where you get active for at least 30 minutes: playing sports, going on a hike, doing some yardwork, doing some intense house cleaning (no, the Roomba doesn’t count), going swimming, etc. Just get active, in addition to your regular workouts. This extra activity will help you burn those extra calories and help break through your plateau.