We’ve all had that experience of waking up in the morning weighing a certain amount, then stepping on the scale that night only to learn that we’ve “gained 4 pounds.” Yes, your body weights 4 pounds more, but NO, you did NOT gain 4 pounds of mass on your body! You probably ate food, drank water, and haven’t cleared that out of your body yet.
In order to gain a pound of actual body tissue, you’d need to eat a surplus of 3500 calories above what your body burns. Most people I know would really have to make an effort to eat a 1000 calorie surplus in a day. At that rate, it would take 2 weeks to ACTUALLY gain 4 pounds. That’s what it takes to GAIN mass.
So let’s look at what it takes to ACTUALLY LOSE body mass.
Fat loss or body mass loss in general is a 4 phase process:
Phase -1 – GLYCOGEN DEPLETION
You body has sugar (called glycogen when it’s in a stored state) stored ready to fuel whatever work your body does – thinking, staying warm, moving, etc. The average sized human stores up to 300-400 calories of glycogen in the liver and 2,000-10,000 calories in muscles. The liver is like a cup – it’s a fixed sized and can be filled and emptied. The muscles cells are like balloons – they visibly grown and shrink; and the more you exercise, the more the muscles can hold.
As you enter a calorie deficit, your body will initially burn off whatever stores are in the liver, and a small percentage of stores in the muscles. Think about this like spending what is in your savings account. Just like you don’t like writing big checks out of your savings account, your body won’t fully deplete muscles store. After burning a small percentage, then it will look to body fat for additional energy.
Weight loss from glycogen depletion is NOT to be confused with weight loss from dehydration:
There are things you can do to manipulate your body to decrease the amount of water it is storing (dehydrate). Although bloating (storing extra water) is uncomfortable and generally NOT the look any is going for, dehydrating yields results that don’t last and can be dangerous.
Safely speaking, the body will dehydrate a sate amount through the night, then those fluids should be replenished every day. Water is actually required to burn stored body fat, and NOT something that you want to cut out ever when you’re trying to lose body fat.
Phase -2 – FAT LOSS
This is the sweet spot for healthy weight loss. You want to stay here as long as you can until you reach your desired weight. In this phase, you will feel hungry before meals (but not starving) you will have good energy, sleep well, and see a healthy rate of weight loss.
Phase -3 – PLATEAU
Plateau is the phase you enter when you’ve gotten a little bit carried away with creating a caloric deficit, and your body decreases the amount of work (metabolism) it’s doing to preserve energy, thereby sabotaging your fat loss efforts. You could be eating the exact same way you were when you were in the fat loss phase, you body just says, “Enough.”
Think about if you were spending money out of your savings account – going shopping, buying whatever you wanted – then one day you realize you’re spending WAAAY more than you’re making, and panic. So you not only stop shopping, but you shut off cable, cancel your annual family vacation, and take the kids out of gymnastics class. It’s a last resort to not run out of money and go broke. Plateau is your body’s last resort to not run our of energy and die.
I personally enjoy the feeling of being in depletion and fat loss. When you’re in that phase, eating less or exercising more gives a light, euphoric feeling and it’s easy to take it too far.
If your fat loss stops, you are not performing as well during your workouts, and your body actually looks or feels like it’s losing tone, it’s time to get to Phase 4 – as fast as you can!
Phase -4 – METABOLIC RECOVERY
To get OUT of PLATEAU phase, you’ll need to help your body recover your metabolism back to it’s normal rate. It’s like getting back to a normal spending routine – put the kids back into their gymnastics class, turn the cable back on, get back to taking vacations – which requires getting back into a normal earning / EATING routine. As you start to give your body more and more energy (slowly), it will resume normal function over time.
Be WARNED – as you recover your metabolism, your body will rehydrate and replenish glycogen store, and the scale WILL GO UP. This DOES NOT necessarily mean that you are gaining body mass, but it could. Check out How to Heal Your Metabolism with Reverse Dieting for the full guide on healing your metabolism successfully without actually gaining weight.
As a gauge, on the low end, a 5’0” foot sedentary female should work up to 1180 calories without gaining weight.
On the high end 6′ tall active 20 year old male should be working up to 2400 calories to recover metabolism.
All the Phases of Weight Management:
Phase +2: Weight Gain
Phase +1: Maximum Glycogen Stores
Phase 0: Maintenance
Phase – 1: Glycogen Depletion
Phase -2: Fat Loss
Phase – 3: Plateau
Phase -4: Metabolism Recovery
I personally currently bounce back and forth between maintenance and glycogen depletion. I’ve been spending the past month plus making sure my metabolism is FIRED UP so I’m fulled prepped to drop into fat loss when the weather warms up!
What Phase are you currently in?? Please share in the comments – I’d love to know!
Larah Kornfeind, MA, CPT, co-owner of Lift and Live Fitness, Certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist with her Masters in Education and BA in Biology has utilized diet and exercise to help over hundred of others and herself to overcome severe digestive issues post stomach surgery at 18 years old, depression and anxiety in early 20’s, PCOS diagnosed at 23, pre-diabetes at 31, nail biting (since I was a little kid, I stopped when I was 31 as a nice side effect to correcting nutritional deficits), and to create two beautiful boys (currently ages 2 and 4) and nurse each of them until 11+ months of age.