What Are The Stages of Losing Weight?

what are the stages of losing weight

Weight loss generally moves through three stages.

While the time spent in each phase may vary, it is essential to understand what to expect in each step and how to manage your expectations of the rate of weight loss in each. 

The three stages of weight loss are rapid weight loss, slow weight loss, and maintenance. Rapid weight loss occurs in the first 2-4 weeks, with slower progress for the next few months. This is then followed by maintenance. 

By understanding the phases of weight loss and how to move through each with success, you can set realistic goals for yourself to lose weight, retain as much muscle and strength as possible, and maintain a healthy weight after your caloric restrictive phase.

Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss

These two terms are often used interchangeably but are not the same.

Throughout this article, I’ll be using the term “weight loss,” but I’m referring to the outcome of losing fat (as this should always be the goal).

Weight loss is the total body mass lost, measured by stepping on a weight scale. This is what most people are talking about when they lose “X” lbs in “Y” days. 

However, the number of pounds lost does not tell you whether that loss came from fluid, fat, or muscle loss. This number can be misleading and often fluctuates based on what you ate that day (food weight and waste inside the body) and hydration (fluid retention and water intake).

Fat loss directly measures how much fat is lost during a weight loss phase. The goal while dieting should be to lose fat while retaining muscle, as this will improve your physique, keep your metabolism high, and improve your long-term ability to maintain your results. 

Weight loss is more likely to occur when you’re in a large calorie deficit, doing tons of cardio, and failing to be consistent with a strength training regime. Fat loss is more likely to occur when you implement a low-to-moderate calorie deficit, eat enough protein, and prioritize strength training. 

Related Article: How to Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle

3 Stages Of Weight Loss Explained

stages of weight loss explained

Below are the three main weight loss stages you will go through when losing weight. 

Stage 1: Rapid Weight Loss

The rapid weight loss phase occurs when you first start reducing your calories and increasing your activity levels to lose weight. This phase generally lasts 4-6 weeks.

I tend to tell my clients that the first four weeks of a diet are full of “data noise” because weight changes are usually a result of fluid loss and food waste. This is not to say that you will not lose fat during this period, but it does mean that most weight loss will come from other factors.

It is critical during this stage to start tracking your rate of loss. Most individuals can expect to lose 4-5 lbs during this stage of weight loss.

There may be weeks where you lose a few pounds and then others where you lose none, so this isn’t anything to worry about. However, you should be seeing 0.5-2 lbs losses most weeks for the first 4-6 weeks to set yourself up for stage 2.

Related Article: How To Plan Your Strength Training While Cutting

Training Considerations For Stage 1

Your training during this phase should not differ at all from your normal training. Your energy levels should remain unaffected and you should not notice any significant decrease in top-end strength or stamina. 

You can be mindful that at some point you may have lower energy levels from time to time, but overall you should focus on training hard, eating well, and recovering as best as possible.

Stage 2: Slow Weight Loss

This slow weight loss phase occurs after the first 4 to 6 weeks of dieting and is the point at which you should start seeing changes in your body composition due to fat loss. When done at a slow and steady pace, this phase has the potential to drastically change your body composition.

During this phase, you will continue eating less than your body needs to maintain weight. You may have to adjust your calorie intake multiple times while in this phase because your body will adjust to the lower intake.

At this point, your workouts should still be going well; however, the longer you are in this phase, you may notice that you tend to tire out a little sooner or have less energy overall. This is to be expected when calorie intake is limited.

Most people can stay in this phase for 8-12 weeks before moving on to stage three. I will typically have my clients stay in this phase until they have lost 8-10% of their initial starting weight.

For example, if someone lost 200 lbs and is now 180 lbs, I would move them into stage 3.

Failure to transition into stage three at the appropriate time can often lead to severely blunted metabolism, diet fatigue, and losses in muscle tissue.

Training Considerations For Stage 2

During this phase, I recommend that you aim to weight train at least 3-4 days a week and train in the 5-10, 10-15, and 15-20 rep ranges to ensure you are maintaining strength while also getting in enough volume to preserve lean mass (muscle). 

You should aim for 50% of your repetitions in the 10-15 range and the other 50% split between 5-10 and 15-20 rep ranges. 

It would be best to keep your workouts short and efficient because dragging them out to 60-75 minutes or longer accumulates more fatigue than it’s worth since the quality of work will also be reduced.

As you get further into this phase (weeks eight and beyond), you may find that you have to shift your goal from increasing weight, sets, or reps each week to simply trying to maintain what you did the week before.

Stage 3: Weight Maintenance

Once you reach your desired body weight or body composition OR have lost 8-10% of your initial body weight, you should transition into a weight maintenance phase. 

This is a crucial phase because it allows your body and hormones to adjust to the new weight and start recovering from the stress of dieting. 

To shift your calorie intake to maintain your weight, you should increase your calories by 5-10% from the final week of your stage 2 diet and monitor your weight loss/gain. The goal is to increase calories just enough to stop weight loss but so much so you start gaining weight. 

This is often where people struggle to keep weight off after they lose it, as they tend to return to their regular, pre-diet calorie intake thinking this is still their maintenance intake, but this would be way too many calories to consume after dieting for many months.

I typically have people remain in stage three for 4-8 weeks to ensure they can maintain their new weight, have established the habits necessary to keep the weight off long term, and give the body and hormones enough time to recover and stabilize to the new norm.

Training Considerations For Stage 3

Training during this time can increase in intensity from Stage 2, as you will generally feel stronger, have more stamina, and be able to recover better (since you have bumped up your caloric intake). 

This is a great time to focus on pushing more volume (total work) to put those additional calories toward muscle growth.

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How To Break Through A Weight Loss Plateau

how to break through a weight loss plateau

Weight loss will come and go; some weeks it may seem like you shed pounds easily, and other weeks it may seem like you’ve hit a plateau. Before making changes, it’s important to determine whether you’ve genuinely plateaued or if you’re just being impatient. 

If it’s only been a week since you’ve seen changes on the scale, then be patient because the following week you may see a larger loss on the scale to compensate for a week of stagnation.

However, if after 2 weeks your weight has not changed, it is safe to say you’ve hit a weight loss plateau. This is normal for stage 2 and tends to happen at the halfway point or near the end of your diet as your body adjusts to the lower intake.

Here are some strategies to implement if you’ve reached a plateau:

Increase Your Daily Energy Expenditure

Increasing your energy expenditure is the easiest way to kickstart your progress during a plateau because it allows you to keep your calorie intake the same (it’s typically easier to move more than eat less).

Increasing your daily energy expenditure can be done by simply increasing your daily step count (non-exercise activity).

If you’re not getting 10,000 steps per day, then start by trying to reach this target every day. You can reach the 10,000-step benchmark by walking your dog, walking around the block, parking your car further away, or just being on your feet more throughout the day. 

If you have been doing 10,000 steps per day consistently and are still plateauing, then move on to the next solution (this isn’t to say you can’t walk more, but you may also want to look at other solutions).

Increase Your Workouts Per Week

Ideally, you’re already lifting weights 3-4 times a week; if you’re not, then this is a great place to start to kickstart your progress. 

If you are lifting 3-4 times a week and still struggling to lose weight, then you must increase your energy output by adding an extra workout (or two). 

You may be wondering why I’m recommending you add more strength training rather than cardio. I push people to lift weights more than doing cardio during a weight loss phase because strength training helps to keep your metabolism high and helps preserve muscle mass, which helps you burn more calories per day. 

Strength training also sets you up for an easier transition into weight maintenance because you won’t lose muscle mass and slow your metabolism as much as you would if you did more cardio.

Adding in an extra workout per week (or two), walking more, and sticking to your diet may be enough to break through your plateau (without slashing calories). However, sometimes, you may need more than that to continue seeing progress.

Eat Less

If you are hitting your step count goal and lifting weights 4-5 days a week (or at least 3-4), but still not seeing progress then you must adjust your calorie intake.

First, it’s important to assess whether you are being consistent enough with your calorie target. If you’re sticking to your diet on weekdays but eating too much on the weekends, you won’t make progress. 

If this sounds like you, then make a point to be more consistent throughout the week before you cut calories. If you can’t stick to those targets, then there’s no way you’ll be able to adhere as your intake gets lower. 

If you’ve been consistent with your intake but you’re still stuck in a weight loss plateau, then try decreasing your intake by 5-10% and maintain this new intake for 1-2 weeks to see if that was enough to budge things. 

Note: Ensure that the reduction in calories is coming from carbs and fats rather than protein.

If this doesn’t work (or you are reading this part and feel you simply cannot eat less), then you should move on to the next solution.

Take a Diet Break

A temporary diet break is a short-term maintenance phase (stage 3), which allows your body to adjust to its new weight and gives you a mental break from trying to adhere to a low-calorie intake.

Like the maintenance phase, the goal of a diet break is to maintain your weight at its current stage for 2-4 weeks. You can do this by maintaining your workout intensity, keeping your step count up, and eating the same or 5% more food.

During this diet break, your workouts should feel a little better (more energy, better strength, and muscle stamina) and you should feel less preoccupied with food.

After 3-4 weeks, you can return to your diet by decreasing your intake by 5-10% and maintaining your other habits (workouts & step goal). Once you finally hit 8-10% of your initial starting weight loss (or until you reach your goal), it is time to transition to stage 3, the maintenance phase.

5 Tips For Maintaining Your Weight Loss

tips for maintaining your weight loss

Now that you’ve reached your weight loss goal, you need to maintain it. Here are my top five tips to help you keep the weight off long-term.

Tip #1: Lose Weight Slowly

If you can lose weight slowly and steadily, you will find it much easier to keep the weight off. This is why it is so essential to master the basics of dieting and to be patient. 

Most people try to lose unrealistic amounts of weight in a short time, only to realize they lost a ton of muscle mass, wrecked their metabolism, and have so little energy and willpower that they regain all the weight they lost (and then some).

Aim to lose .5-1% of your body mass per week for 12-16 weeks (or until you lose 8-10% of your starting body weight). Once you achieve that, enter a maintenance phase, let your body adjust to the new weight, and then plan your next move.

Tip #2: Increase Lean Muscle Mass

Focus on building lean muscle (and not losing it in the future) because muscle tissue increases your resting metabolic rate (the number of calories your body burns at rest), and helps you continue to train hard (burn more calories, build more muscle) so that you can compound your results year after year.

The more muscle mass you have, the more food you get to eat to maintain your weight, which makes it easier to maintain your results.

When people struggle with fat loss, it’s generally because they don’t have enough muscle mass. If they had more muscle in the first place, they could train harder, be more active, and burn more calories at rest (all of which are key for losing fat). 

This is not to say that those without muscle should not try to lose weight, it’s just important for them to recognize that the longer they forgo building muscle, the harder things will be.

Tip #3: Ease Back Into Eating More Food

Once you finish stage 2 and are moving into the maintenance phase (stage 3), it is important to increase your intake gradually rather than going off the rails and eating everything in sight. 

It can be challenging to fight the urge to overeat, especially if you are feeling deprived as you finish your diet. So many people reach their weight goal and then stop paying attention to their calorie intake, which causes them to regain weight rapidly.

Ease back into eating more calories by reverse dieting your way back to a higher calorie intake. 

I recommend you do this gradually by increasing your calorie intake by 100-300 calories each week until you reach 50% of your pre-diet intake. 

For example, if your initial maintenance intake was 3000 calories and you lowered your intake to 2000 calories, then work to increase your intake back to 2500 calories. 

This gradual approach allows your metabolism to increase at a similar rate as your calorie intake, preventing unnecessary weight gain.

This stage will be challenging because your willpower may be low at the end of stage 2, but push yourself to stay on track to make long-term weight management much easier.

Tip #4: Keep Exercising and Stay Active

Exercise and activity outside of the gym should be a part of any healthy lifestyle focusing on weight management, muscle retention, and improved quality of life. 

During the weight maintenance stage, you can shift workouts to focus on performance improvements rather than simply maintaining your fitness level (which was the goal while dieting).

 You can improve performance by training to improve muscle growth, get stronger in certain lifts, or enhance your skill in more advanced movements. 

It is during stage 3 that people will feel more energized and motivated to train and will see better improvements in strength and muscle-building potential.

Tip #5: Recognize and Address Weight Fluctuations 

Everyone’s weight fluctuates; it is part of life. You will have seasons where you will gain a few pounds and others where you will maintain or lose a few pounds. The key is to eliminate the extremes of the spectrum. 

I tell my clients that if their weight fluctuates by more than 5%, they need to stop and have a big heart-to-heart with themselves. They must first recognize that something is happening (good or bad) and then must determine if this is an intentional fluctuation (such as actively trying to gain muscle or lose fat). 

If it is not planned, they need to reel in their eating, get more consistent with workouts, and address the issue before it becomes a landslide (it’s more complex to stop things once they get going in the wrong direction).

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About The Author

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.