Why Losing Fat Seems More Difficult When You Are Already Fit

The Pink Dumbbells MEGA Challenge is wrapping up week 2 this weekend, and already I am seeing some formerly gung-ho ladies drop off the radar completely or admit to flagging motivation due to their lack of instant results after just one week. Some have lost only a little bit of scale weight. Some have just maintained. Some, myself included, have even gone up a pound or two. And a few others have decided (perhaps wisely) to avoid the scale completely until week 4. We haven’t even reached week 4 yet (the famous milestone marker for the “OMG! I’ve been SO perfect! Why haven’t I lost any weight?!?!” freak out), but women who should know better are starting to lose steam based on just a few digits on the scale.

Now understand that the majority of the challenge participants are not new to healthy eating or exercise. If you read through the sign up posts, you’ll see that the common theme among this diverse group is that almost all of us have been lifting weights, performing cardio, and eating relatively clean for a year or more. We aren’t newbies starting their first Body-for-Life challenges after ten years of being one with our couches and regulars at Mickey D’s.

And therein lies the reason for our lackluster weigh-ins at this early stage.

Our bodies are EFFICIENT.

Efficient is defined as “performing or functioning in the best possible manner with the least waste of time and effort; economical to use.”

Think about that for a moment in the context of our bodies. When you train hard regularly to constantly improve your strength and speed while keeping your clean food intake about the same, you are essentially wiring your body to handle an increasing amount of hard physical work in a more economical fashion when it comes to energy expenditure. A 5k run might have burned off over 450 calories when you were just starting out, but once you are fit that number could drop down to 320 calories just because you are more efficient at it due to lower overall body weight, improved cardiovascular endurance, and better running mechanics.

I believe that those of us who have been working out for a few years just have greater buffer zones when it comes to physique changes compared to men and women who are complete beginners. What I mean by this is that our tolerance for exercise and clean nutrition is higher because we’ve conditioned our bodies to handle much more activity than the average person and to furthermore do so on “premium” fuel/mostly clean eats. We are stronger and have more endurance than we did before we started working out one, two, three, or more years ago. That’s good, of course, but it also means that we are able to lug around any extra poundage we have put on when we slack off for a while with less effort than we would have before.

Here’s what I imagine happens when we sign up for these challenges, boost our workouts (which we were probably doing with 50-80% compliance already) to 80-100% compliance and tidy up our (again 50-80% clean) diets:

Our bodies just shrug and say, “Ah, more of the same old thing. Hmm…can I perform these new workouts on this slightly reduced amount of very high quality food without burning up any of my (needed for 9 months of baby production) stored fat? Yup! Cool beans! No need to shed any of this extra weight until we know this is long-term change. La la la…. Ack! Geez, do I really have to lift THAT much weight again? I think I need to get some work crews and supplies over to the muscle department for an upgrade.”

Don’t underestimate the importance of that “very high quality food” component. If a relatively fit gal has been eating 2000 calories of 50% healthy and 50% junk food, cleaning up her diet to 90% healthy may actually give the body MORE usable quality nutrients and calories for muscle growth even if she reduces her total caloric intake to 1500 per day. At 50% dietary compliance a maintenance intake level of 2000 calories per day yields only 1000 calories of quality fuel. At 90% dietary compliance and 1500 calories per day, that is 1350 calories of quality fuel (very likely quite high in protein) that her body would just LOVE to use to rebuild muscles that have grown a bit soft from a few weeks or months of scaled-back workouts. If you add in the effect of muscle memory which theoretically makes it easier for someone who once achieved a certain level of muscle size and strength to return to that same level with less effort, what you may actually have for the first few weeks of clean eats and consistent workouts is such a favorable environment for muscle hypertrophy that fat loss gets pushed to second place on the body’s list of priorities.

After all, we are now subjecting our muscles to heavy loads on a regular basis again. The natural response of our bodies is to restore our muscles to their previous glory ASAP in order to handle the new physical demands, and what do you know? There’s suddenly lots of good, clean building blocks coming in, ready to make this happen!

We can still make our bodies drop the fat, but it takes either a MAJOR shock to the system exercise/food-wise (think crazy Velocity Diet or a completely different workout plan that we are NOT efficient at performing) or simply MORE time performing a program consistently and with stricter compliance to get the results that we once achieved by simply cutting out regular Cokes and adding chicken breast, weight training, and a few 20 minute HIIT sessions to our week.

Perhaps challengers like us shouldn’t even be allowed to have the classic 4-Week Freak Out; our realistic time-frame would be more in line with a 6- or 8-Week Freak Out.

My advice is to stick to your workouts and nutrition plan and let your body do its thing to get your muscles back up to spec if you’ve been sloppy with exercise and food for a while and know you’ve lost some strength and muscle size. Once it’s finished rebuilding that underlying uber-buff chica structure under the hood in a few weeks, your body will be more than happy to turn its attention to burning off the extra fluff sitting on top.

Oh, and picking out some new exercises that you have never done before or are particularly tough for you to do might be a good idea, too.

Now take that self pity-motivated Hershey bar out of your mouth, hit those planned workouts and meals religiously, and don’t let me hear any more whining until Week 6 at the earliest!

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