Why Does Fat Loss Stall? Talking Metabolic Adaptation + Plateaus

I talk a lot about fat loss - because that’s what I get asked about a lot. Given I’ve had my own successful fat loss transformation I have quite a bit to say on the topic. I remember when I first started I didn’t really know what a calorie was, or HOW to lose fat/ what the actual fat loss process in the body was. Now after years of personal experience, coaching clients to success and educating myself around the topic, I know a hell of a lot more.

How do we lose fat?

My transformation from 2017 - stage in 2018

My transformation from 2017 - stage in 2018

First things first - how do we lose fat? In order to lose fat, we need to be expending more energy than we’re consuming. Meaning we need to exert more energy through exercise/ daily activity than food consumed. This is called being in a caloric deficit.

There are a few different ways to be in a caloric deficit, and this will also depend on the individual. If you’re brand new to training, just weight lifting alone ‘newbie gains’ from resistance training and increased energy output can create enough of a deficit to warrant fat loss. But for the novice trainer, a better approach is weight training and eating in a caloric deficit (less food than required to maintain our current body weight).

Why do we stop losing fat?

Ok, so now we know the basics of how to lose fat - what happens if we’re doing this, sticking to our caloric deficit, training hard and we stop losing fat? You have just experienced the activation of your bodies defence system. Our metabolism slows to prevent starvation, hunger increases and we become better at storing fat rather than burning it. What was once a caloric deficit for us, has now became the calories our body neither loses nor gains weight on. We need to create another deficit - either by increasing energy output (training, steps, physical activity), or eat less food.

The best way to monitor this is through girth measurements, body fat measurement, photos and/ or scale weight so we know when we need to implement certain protocols.

When our metabolism adapts, we see a decrease in our BMR (rate of energy expenditure), a decrease in our NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis aka incidental movement like steps, fidgeting etc) as well as negative adaptations to key fat loss hormones such as leptin (tells us when we’re full), ghrelin (tells us when we’re hungry) and thryoid function.

The best approach for fat loss in my opinion

This is why a progressive approach to a long term fat loss goal is key. Start with being in the smallest deficit possible on the highest calories possible doing the smallest amount of exercise and movement possible. As your metabolism adapts you can either increase training, or decrease calories slightly as well as implementing diet breaks (bringing calories back up to initial maintenance calories through increased carb intake for a minimum of 3 days to mitigate the negative adaptations that occur from eating in a deficit).

When we plateau is when a lot of people lose motivation and tend to over-eat or reduce training and movement. Rather than doing less which is going to do the opposite to your results, this is when it’s more important to stay consistent and break through the plateau by making a change. Don’t sabotage your hard earned results, be smart about it and continue to achieve what you set out to by understanding how our body responds to what we’re doing to it.

Are you doing cardio right for fat loss?

We want results, and we want them yesterday. There’s not point putting in the hard work, only to find out there was a better or faster route to take us to our goal.

Before we begin the debate, let me explain what each of these acronyms stand for and what each entail:

HIIT: High Intensity Interval Training cardio

Performed with a ‘work’ and ‘rest’ interval period requiring you to work at around >80% of your max heart rate in work periods (how to calculate your HR below) and 40-50% of max heart rate in the rest period. In order to produce the hormonal response (stress) required to make HIIT effective, it’s imperative to push ourselves to elevate our heart rate and induce that ‘out of breath, I’m dying’ sensation - soz. The ‘rest’ period can be active or inactive rest (i.e if we’re doing intervals on the treadmill, the work period will be set at a level in which we’re sprinting, and the rest period would be a slow walk). HIIT shouldn’t be performed for any longer than around 20-30 minutes, as if we’re working close to our max heart rate, we shouldn’t have enough energy in the tank to go for any longer than this - if we do, we probs aren’t working hard enough.

LISS: Low Intensity Steady State cardio

As the name states, this is cardio performed at a low intensity over longer periods of time. I suggest a minimum of 30 minutes for LISS cardio, and personally prefer it being done outside in nature (better for stress management) - however machines also ensure we’re consistent with our pace. For this zone with the goal being fat loss, we want to be in the 60-65% of your max heart rate. When I’m not outside walking, I like to get my LISS done on the treadmill, stair master or X-Trainer. 

Calculating Heart Rate

220 - your age

E.g 220 - 29 = 191

So for LISS 60-65% of your max heart rate would be 114-124

I use my Fitbit to track my heart rate

Alternatively you can go old school and count your BPM (beats per minute)

(BPM = Find your pulse on your neck or wrist with your index and middle finger, count for 20 seconds and x by 3)

Now we’re all on the same page about what’s what, let’s talk about the pros and cons of each cardio method:



  • EPOC - excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, meaning our metabolism functions at a higher rate of burned calories for many hours after the session (as in we burn cals just chillin’ watching me on YouTube after your HIIT session)

  • Shorter duration for more calories burned - 3 times the amount of fat loss in half the exercise time of LISS

  • Variety - there are many different variables you can play with to keep HIIT interesting and make the time fly - I’ve put one workout at the end of this blog for ya babes

  • Increase cardio vascular capacity


  • There is a significant amount of stress placed on the body to get through a HIIT session, so recovery is vital, otherwise the positive effects will be reversed

  • Recovery time between sessions is larger due to the energy required to complete a session, most people need 2-3 days between sessions for recovery

  • Frequency due to these factors should only be performed 2-3 times a week



  • Frequency

  • Duration

  • Low impact - body can go for hours and not get worn out

  • Low stress

  • Increases aerobic base which filters through to a greater ability to withstand more intense cardio and weight training

  • Great for all training levels

  • Doesn’t require specialist equipment or knowledge

  • Can be used on rest days whilst still promoting recovery between weight sessions


  • The body becomes efficient - the more cardio we perform, the more efficient our body becomes as burning calories, aka our ability to burn calories slows down as we adapt, so walking for 30 minutes won’t burn as many calories in week 1 as it would in future sessions (so we need to ensure we’re increasing the duration - but we can only do this for so long. Walking for hours on end? Ain’t nobody got time for that)

  • Isn’t efficient at burning calories - Minimal EPOC meaning we only burn calories DURING our session, not afterwards


So as you can see, both HIIT and LISS have their place in training for fat loss. My advice, and preference from experience getting lean AF for my competition is using a combination of the two. I like to progress my cardio, so if I’m in a 12 week fat loss phase I might do something like this:

Cardio progression in a 12 week fat loss phase

Phase 1: 3 x 30 minutes LISS cardio per week

Phase 2: 3-4 x 45 minutes LISS cardio per week

Phase 3: 3 x 20-30 minutes HIIT cardio per week

Phase 4: 2 x 20-30 minute HIIT + 2 x 30-45 minute LISS per week

Now it’s time to put these words to good use and go get some cardio boo! I’ve written 5 sweaty little HIIT workouts for you to get done - you can thank me later + curse me throughout :) Let’s HIIT it!

Sign up to get your FREE HIIT workout Ebook with 5 free HIIT workouts inside ;)

Wanna join the squad? Get your 8 Week Lean Out Training Program (gym OR home option available).

Struggling with fat loss + building muscle? Try addressing these factors!

Obviously the right nutrition and training programs are super important when it comes achieving your goals - be it fat loss or building muscle. Other than these two things, we need to consider our lifestyle factors that also impact our ability and rate of fat loss.

I’ve written about these lifestyle factors as well as protocols to implement that will help you to improve on them to put you in the optimal position for any body composition goal you have!

1. Diet Adherence

healthy bowl

This is actually the most important factor for any diet or body composition goal. If you’re on a diet you’re unable to stick to… well you’re not going to achieve your goal. Discipline will only take you so far until old habits take over. It’s important to consider what your preferences are for an enjoyable diet. What foods do you want to incorporate, how many meals do you want to eat a day, do you prefer high carb or high fat, are there certain foods you can’t live without, do you need variety across the day or week, do you prefer routine?

For me, I like to have at least 60g of fat in my diet in a day so that I can flavour my food with nut butter, butter and other fat sources - this makes my food a lot more enjoyable and increases my adherence to the diet. Obviously when you start ‘cutting’ phases there mightn’t be as much flexibility when calories are lower, but those times should only be for short periods.

2. Stress

A lot of people think of stress only as highly stressful situations - for instance “I’m really stressed at work with deadlines”, “I’m really stressed about a conversation I have to have with a colleague”, “I’m really stressed about an event I have to host”, “I’m stressed about a Dr’s appointment I have” etc.. 

People actually underestimate the amount of stress they’re under, because they think these situations are the only ones that create stress responses in the body. We also adjust to the amount of stress we’re under and it kind of becomes the ‘norm’. What we don’t realise is that the smallest things can cause a stress response in our body. Stress is basically anything that makes a change in our body. Things like changes in temperature, allergies, intolerances, inflammation, emotional, physical or physiological stress! 

Our Autonomic Nervous System regulates our states, broken into our parasympathetic state known as rest, digest and recovery  and our sympathetic state known as our fight or flight response. We do need some stress in our lives - without stress, there are no adaptations (muscle growth, fat loss) but most people have TOO much stress which leads to the problem. 

How stress affects fat loss:

beach meditation

Over production and constant cortisol in the bloodstream can lead to:

  • Lowered immunity

  • Excess inflammation

  • Down regulation of gut health

  • Lower testosterone and increased estrogen

  • Decreased brain function

  • Reduction of key neurotransmitters, such as Gaba (our ability to be calm), Dopamine (our drive and motivation) and Serotonin (our feel good hormone - the precursor to melatonin which is the hormone that helps us get to sleep).

Now that we feel shit and our sleep has been affected our leptin levels drop (satiety) and our grhelin goes up (hunger) which is going to make us struggle to stick to any diet no matter how enjoyable it is!

Elevated stress levels can also create a resistance to catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine) which are required to break down fat cells and pull the contents out, and then mobilise is to the mitochondria where it’s utilised as energy - constant stress prevents our catecholamines from working effectively and can decrease our ability to pull out free fatty acids from fat cells to use as energy, aka impart our ability to burn fat.

soph active life

Stress and fat storage also correlates with an accumulation of fat around our belly - so people who say they have trouble reducing fat around their abdomen could definitely look at implementing de-stressing protocols to assist this.

Finally, our thyroid which is our key regulator of our metabolic rate slows down - not what we want when we’re trying to lose fat!

All of this puts us in a terrible position for our bodies to be focussing on losing fat.

So what can I do to de-stress?

In order to mitigate the effects of stress, we need to include more activities that put us into the parasympathetic state (Rest, digest + recover).

My favourite things are:

  • Meditation (I use the Waking Up app by Sam Harris)

  • yoga and stretching

  • reading a book

  • listen to music

  • playing with pets

  • listening to podcasts

  • taking a bath

  • going for a walk

  • journaling 

  • calling a friend

Schedule in a few of these each day to help bring your stress levels down and make sure it’s something you’ll actually stick to in order to see the benefits.

3. Sleep

We need sleep for recovery and repairing, it’s particularly vital to those who work out as when we’re asleep is when we are most anabolic, creating the most regeneration of our muscle tissue.

Bad sleep leads to increased cortisol, decreased leptin + increased ghrelin = we are more likely to over eat.

beauty sleep

Poor sleep can also temporarily lead to issues with our insulin sensitivity, which can stop us from utilising carbs as effectively, which can potentially decrease our body ability to lose fat (this doesn’t impact us if we are in a deficit). But it can certainly make it harder to stay in a deficit if we’re craving more sweet things and feel hungrier.

Improving sleep:

In order to improve our sleep, we need to make sure we have a set sleep and wake cycle.

  • Implementing a bed time routine can assist with this as it will signal to your body that it’s time to go to sleep

  • Get into bed 30 minutes before you want to fall asleep

  • Sleep before 11pm - after midnight we can miss out on a large amount of physical repair according to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) the 10:00pm - 2:00am window is considered the best repair + physical adaptation window

  • Cut out stimulants before 3pm (coffee) - as they increase the stress chemicals and decrease your ability to relax

  • Set your room up to be as dark as possible = better secretion of melatonin (the brain thinks it’s day time and decreases melatonin produced due to exposure to electronic devices which helps us get to sleep). Start using blue light goggles or apps (like f.lux + iPhone night mode) to avoid blue light exposure for proper melatonin secretion

  • Ensure your room is well ventilated - fresh oxygen intake + cold temperatures optimise melatonin production

  • Chamomile and lavender aromatherapy will improve gaba sensitivity to allow our body to enter relaxation state

  • Stop working 2 hours before bed

  • Avoid consuming food 2 hours before bed as digestive system will need to focus on digesting food not resting

4. NEAT - Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis


NEAT = Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis which is basically just incidental exercise - fidgeting, steps, movement are all considered incidental activity.

There have been some studies showing individuals that got under 7,300 daily steps drives up ghrelin, the hormone that makes you feel full, which is why my minimum daily steps will always be 10,000!

The more time we spend dieting, the more our bodies try to conserve our energy by moving less, so it will actually stop us from fidgeting, walking etc.. it will be harder to be as motivated or energised to do so. So make sure you’re getting up frequently, getting your daily steps in and ensuring incidental activity occurs even in the depths of your deficit!

Squad goals

Joint the squad and get some badass results with me and my girls! I’ve got gym or home based training programs as well as nutrition programs! Check them out below :)


As some of you may be unaware, I’m currently 2 weeks deep into a mini cut (short period aggressive fat loss phase) to shed some fat gained from my rebound post competition (WBFF Bikini Competition October 2018). In the spirit of sharing every step of the way as I promised to you all over on my Instagram I want to share with you how I optimise my fat loss results through my training systems.

This weeks YouTube!

This weeks YouTube!

Last week on my YouTube I covered how to calculate your BMR, TDEE & PAL (a bunch of fancy abbreviations for figuring out your baseline calories to ensure you’re eating in a caloric deficit). This week, let’s get our heads around training for fat loss (head to my YT if you’d rather listen to me talk about it than read it here). The goal of training for fat loss is to drive up the mobilisation of fatty acids out of where it’s stored in our body through cortisol and adrenaline which increases our calorie expenditure creating an optimal environment for fat loss.

There are different strength qualities that are used when programming for clients depending on their goals. A strength program will look different to a fat loss program which will look different to a program with the goal being hypertrophy. These strength qualities are:

  1. Relative strength 1-5 reps

  2. Functional Hypertrophy 4-8 reps

  3. Hypertrophy 8-20 reps

  4. Strength Endurance (fat loss) 10-20+ reps

Don’t get too stuck with the strength qualities, I’ve lost fat eating in a calorie deficit whilst working in the relative strength - functional hypertrophy strength qualities. Something I’ve recently learned is that you CAN still get strong if you’re working in higher rep ranges (strength endurance). There are a lot of studies out there that prove a certain rep range, rest period and time under tension will achieve certain adaptations in the body. To avoid confusion we’re going to focus on hypertrophy and strength endurance strength qualities. When it comes to fat loss, it’s not just about how many reps you’re doing, the factors I consider are:

  • Number and type of sets (superset, tri-set, giant set)

  • Number of exercises

  • Time under tension (TUT) through tempo, reps + sets

  • Rest periods

  • Progressive overload

* For fat loss, I like to program anywhere from 20-40 sets total

* 6-8 exercises

* Around 1-3 seconds per rep with a moderate speed (tempo)

* 6-30 reps

* Insufficient rest periods to fatigue muscle fibres, preventing full recovery to create more metabolic damage (10-180 seconds)

* Ensuring you’re increasing your weights on at least the A series each week for hypertrophy adaptations (increasing the size of the muscle), as the more muscle mass we have the more optimal our bodies are for fat loss according to studies.

I like to program more exercises as a full body workout for my fat loss clients, as this is an incredibly effective way to mobilise our fat from its storage with a better chance to oxidise (use fat as fuel).

In terms of exercise selection, using bigger compound movements such as squats (all variations), deadlifts, leg press etc.. will allow us to move more weight, recruit more muscle fibres + energy, so I like to start with these for the A and B series, and then finish with more metabolic work/ isolated movements to jack up the heart rate!

Hopefully this has give you a deeper understanding to how/ what and why we should be programming for fat loss. Personally when I understand the science behind why I’m doing something, it pushes me harder and forces me to use my time more effectively.

These are some of the guidelines I use for my programs (see below), along with cardio and step periodisation. Don’t forget, the biggest key to any fat loss goal, is ensuring you'r nutrition is on point and that you’re eating in a caloric deficit! Nutrition programs available too ;)

Thanks for reading, now go get yo sweat on! X

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