Health and Fitness

Beating the Weight Loss Plateau [With Swimming]

If the words “weight loss” make you groan like an 8th grade history class getting a pop quiz, then you’re not alone. This study shows that 50% of American adults wants to lose weight, but only 25% are making serious changes to try to reach that goal. I would venture to say that the percentage of those actually seeing a difference on the scale is even lower. Why is it so hard? What can someone do to achieve the goals they have? In this article we will specifically be paying attention to weight loss related to swimming and how you can overcome the plateau.

We had a customer, *Dave (name changed for confidentiality purposes), who asked Underwater Audio some great questions regarding swimming and weight loss.
Here’s his situation: Dave started a swim routine 6 weeks ago with the main goal to burn fat and lose weight, and hopefully gain more muscle along the way. He saw significant weight loss at first, but hasn’t seen more than a few pounds coming off in the weeks afterward. He counts calories to follow a diet, but has some off days where he consumes more calories than planned. What gives? Is his plateau due to muscle gain? Are his days off ruining all his hard work?
Please Note: We are not qualified to give medical advice. Please talk to your doctor or dietitian before making any major changes to your nutrition and exercise choices.

Weight Loss Basics

We may have all heard the “calories in, calories out” theory before. This phrase basically states that if someone burns more calories than they consume, then he or she will lose weight, and that the inverse is also true; if someone consumes more calories than they burn, then he or she will gain weight.
To lose weight, one needs to create a calorie deficit. This means burning more calories than are being consumed. In general, a larger calorie deficit will yield weight loss faster than a small one. However, there are parameters to keep in mind to prevent your body to actually holding on to calories. A good, healthy goal is usually to lose about 1-2 lbs per week. Since a pound is about 3500 calories, this means that if you cut out and/or burn an extra 500 calories per day, your deficit in a week will be 3500 (a pound!). This is the most simple explanation of how weight loss works.

The problem with leaving it at that definition is that there are many other things that can have an effect on the number you see on the scale. Without this knowledge, losing weight can get very discouraging if you feel you are following the most basic formula. Mayo Clinic states the following: “Losing weight is a balancing act, and calories are PART of the equation” (source). We will dig deeper into what else plays a role in weight loss.


Dave had a great start by reducing his calorie intake to about 1500 calories a day. Though your needs vary depending on your body composition, weight, sex and level of exercise, this is a great place to start.  Keep in mind that someone trying to lose weight should never eat less than 1200 calories per day (your body will go into starvation mode and hold on to calories extra tight), and that typically losing 1-3 pounds per week is a healthy goal. Note that if you are doing very vigorous exercise, you will probably need more than 1200 calories to keep your body out of starvation mode.
The Harris Benedict Equation is great for figuring out an estimate of how many calories your body needs based on your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) and activity level. Though it doesn’t account for lean mass, it usually gives a pretty good number to go off of.

You can find the metric version of this equation here. In this case, sedentary means little or no activity. Lightly active refers to people who do 1-3 days of exercise and moderately active means doing moderate exercise/sports for 3-5 days of the week. In addition, the very active category refers to those who do hard exercise 6-7 times a week and being extremely active means very hard physical activity AND an active job or training.


Most of our calories are burned from our body’s normal functions, or just living. This is called our Basal Metabolic Rate that was found in the equation above. The rate of our metabolism depends on sex, age, weight and body composition.
The most variable way our bodies burn calories though is exercise, because we control how much we do it. This is why exercise is emphasized while trying to lose weight because it will help that calorie deficit you’re trying to achieve while eventually speeding your metabolism and helping you live an all around more healthy life.
Dave went in the right direction by implementing an exercise plan by swimming 5-6 times per week and walking up to 4 miles multiple times a week. He would most likely be in the “very active” category (at least while he was beginning his plan) since he was doing a 1500 m swim most days and walking a lot during the week too.

Swimming to lose weight

With regard to swimming and weight loss, let me just start by saying that swimming in all forms is an excellent workout! It is a great form of cardio that simultaneously tones muscles and minimally impacts your joints. As a runner with past knee injuries myself, this is a great motivator to switch over or add swimming to my workouts.

Burns Calories Like a Wildfire

The combination of cardio and resistance training means usually burning a lot of calories. Now, we knew Dave’s weight, but didn’t have all the specific measurements on Dave like his height and age. Let’s just say, to provide an example, that he’s a middle aged man who is 5’9 and weighs 185. For 45 minutes of moderate swimming, he would burn nearly 400 calories! You can use this online calorie calculator to find an estimate of how many calories you’re burning for exercise.

All Body Workout

Swimming is really great at working many parts of your body at once, and different strokes work various muscles. Take freestyle stroke for instance (this is Dave’s main stroke). It works the deltoids, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, biceps, triceps, gluts, calves, and quads, along with the abs. Swimming works a lot of major muscle groups that you probably couldn’t get all in the same trip to the gym with just weights.
You will definitely get your cardio in while doing swimming, and it can even increase your lung capacity. For some, this may mean preventing or curing asthma. Personal example: my dad was on a high school swim team in San Diego, and after about a year, his asthma dissolved because of his dramatically increased lung capacity.

Adjust Workout EASILY

Another benefit to swimming is that once you have a swimsuit, goggles and a pool to swim in, nothing else is necessary. Even when you’ve reached the point where you need to up your workout to challenge yourself, no new weights or expensive equipment is required. You can easily add in more laps or change up the stroke you’re using to adjust.
So the question now is, if swimming is such a great workout, why can’t we just swim off all the pounds we want and be done with it? Why can’t we do the same with running or other exercises?

The dreaded Plateau

Ahh, the infamous plateau of weight loss. Almost everyone that’s tried to lose weight has run into one in one form or another. It’s when you make a weight loss plan and at first it’s going great! You’re seeing the weight come off fast. There is plenty of motivation because you are actually feeling a difference, and maybe even seeing one, too, in your physical appearance. Then, it seems like your progress just comes to a halt. The pounds aren’t shedding off like they used to, and at a certain point, you may come to feel that this was all just a waste of time.

First of all, know that though this is frustrating, this is normal and means your body is recognizing change. The main reason your weight loss will begin to plateau is because your body is adjusting to this new program.

Muscle Gain and “VAnity LBS”

One part of Dave’s question asked if this plateau could be due to muscle gain replacing his fat weight loss. This could explain some of his weight consistency. Per pound, muscle and fat can weigh the same, but Jillian Michaels reminds us that muscle takes up less space so you will still see and measure a difference in your body composition.
In this article, Michaels also talks about the difference between wanting to lose triple digits vs. wanting to lose 10 pounds (aka vanity pounds). The last 10 will be way more stubborn than those of the person trying to lose 100 because when you have 10 pounds to lose your body is much healthier and doesn’t see much reason in getting rid of a few pounds. It is much more willing to give away excess pounds when there are more to give. Also keep in mind that 10 pounds for someone who weighs 300 lbs is only 3% of their body weight, while for someone who weighs 120 lbs, 10 lbs is more than twice as much of a body weight percentage.

Set Point Theory

This article about body set point tells us that our bodies love homeostasis. They love to be balanced hand at equilibrium. So, when your body is used to being at a certain weight for a while, your body thinks that is where it should be. Then if your weight begins to fluctuate, your metabolism will kick in temporarily and try to “fix” your weight to bring it back to the set point.
For example, if you usually weigh 200 lbs and gain 10 during the holidays, your body will speed its metabolism to try to get rid of the extra weight. This works in reverse for weight loss because if that same 200 pound person loses 10 lbs, your body will temporarily slow its metabolism to try to get back to that set point.
As you continue to lose those stubborn pounds, your body will begin to adjust accordingly and eventually your body will speed your metabolism as you lose fat and gain muscle.

 So what do you do?

We’ve talked about what can cause the plateau, but what do you do now? It will take some patience “waiting” for your body and metabolism to adjust and trust that you’re not going to starve. In the meantime, it’s best to keep a similar calorie deficit and amp up your workout. Pay attention to see how your body reacts. If your change in exercise causes fatigue throughout the day, you may need more calories to keep your body out of the “starvation mode” mentioned before.

other possible road bumps

There are a few other things that could be getting in the way of you and your goal weight. Here are a few things that could be throwing off your plan and keeping a plateau.

Off Days

I am a total believer in eating a slice of cake on your birthday, extra mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving, and a little dark chocolate after finishing a tough final exam at school. Food is to nourish our bodies, but it’s also to enjoy. That being said, though, if you designate a day of the week to “take off”, it gives you license to go crazy and eat everything you’ve been trying to avoid. This is not the best way to go about treating yourself in my opinion, and it breaks the awesome habits you’ve been trying so hard to keep.
The key here is self-control, self-mastery. This is when YOU decide the balance between a treat and staying on track instead of giving into temptation. While deciding this, keep in mind the importance of portion control. 300 extra calories every week or two is okay, and probably won’t mess up your diet plan. One day of 4000 extra calories could throw off your week, though (and not to mention probably not make you feel great physically).
Though Dave didn’t specify exactly how “off” his off days were, this could possibly be one of the reasons he wasn’t moving as fast as he wanted to with weight loss if the calories were excessive and it happened often enough. A really off day does not mean you’ve failed, though. It might set you back a few steps and you may not reach your goal for that week, but it does not mean you can’t achieve your ultimate goal.


This can sometimes feel like a cycle because usually people that are overweight are more likely to develop depression, and at the same time, those with depression are more at risk to become overweight. This creates a whole new level of obstacles for a person in this situation, but none that can’t be overcome.
The same area of the brain that controls hunger also controls emotions. This would make sense, then, that depression and weight loss (or lack thereof) would be linked. When there is a chemical imbalance in the brain, it affects both of these areas, which may also explain that plateau in weight loss.


The Hypothalamus is the region of the brain that controls both hunger and emotions (Image Source).
In addition to your regular plan for weight loss I would prescribe an extra dose of patience with yourself. Talk to your doctor and consider counseling. If you are currently taking medication for depression, be aware that a side effect may be weight gain. This would be something to talk to your psychiatrist about.

Thyroid Disorder

There are a few types of thyroid disorders, but the most common is Hypothyroidism. This condition prevents the thyroid glands from making enough hormones, resulting in a much slower metabolism than usual. Earlier in this article we discussed that metabolism plays a big role in the amount of calories burned, but if this is slowed, it would definitely explain a plateau in weight loss.
If you have an existing case of Hypothyroidism I recommend consulting with your doctor for weight loss options. If you are not diagnosed with a thyroid disorder, I wouldn’t jump to this conclusion first, but it may be worth checking out with your doctor.

Other Hormonal Imbalances

There are a variety of hormones constantly working in your body to keep up its normal functions. If any of these hormones are not working as efficiently as they should, it will cause an imbalance and potentially be throwing off your weight loss. Check out this article for a more in depth description.
Insulin: If insulin isn’t doing its job and regulating blood sugar, losing weight will be much harder. This can be an issue for people with type 2 diabetes and prediabetes.
Cortisol: The same goes for cortisol, your stress hormone. You will start to accumulate cortisol if you are stressed, which causes you to store more fat around your organs, and in turn again, makes it harder to lose weight.
Leptin: It is stored in fat cells and is supposed to regulate when we feel full and satisfied. However, when there is too much of the hormone, we don’t get the signal as often, causing us to feel like we need more food to be satisfied.
Seratonin: This is another “satisfying” hormone that lets us know when we are full.
Melatonin: If you have trouble sleeping, this might make sense to you: less sleep = less melatonin, potentially making it harder to lose weight. Check out this study.
If you have any existing conditions involving an imbalance of these hormones, consult your doctor for weight loss options. If you suspect a hormone imbalance, it may be worth getting tested.

Our Answer to Dave

To make a long story short, we can’t tell you exactly why you’re hitting a plateau. There are many reasons it could be happening, but the most probable one is that your body is still adjusting to the changes you are making in your life! Your metabolism is probably working a little slower in attempt to stay at that set point mentioned earlier, but it won’t last forever.
As for continuing along your path to lose weight,  I suggest making sure your workouts stay hard. Change what you need to as your body adapts. Make sure you don’t go overboard on off days; be careful that they are well controlled and well done. Still, stay within your limits. Make sure you’re getting enough to eat while still creating that calorie deficit.
If you are still far from where you want to be with your weight and you can’t seem to make progress, go meet with your doctor! There may be an underlying condition that is making it harder for you to lose weight and this will need to be addressed a little differently.

Make a Plan and Adjust Accordingly

The mentality of “Whatever you do, don’t give up!” is a good thought in theory. It encourages people to set their mind to something and achieve! When it comes to losing weight though, or obtaining a healthier way of living in general, the best thing to do is to stay in tune with your body. If you make a plan, keep your head down and charge through, you may miss signals your body is giving to you.
If your plan to lose weight works for a few weeks and then you start feeling fatigued, you may not be getting enough calories. Or if swimming a 1500 used to feel like a triathlon, but now it’s a breeze, you’re probably past due to up your mileage or intensity.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s the right thing to do to stick to your ultimate goals. However, the ways you will achieve those may change through your individual course. Make a plan and adjust accordingly.
Let us know what you think! What has helped you lose weight and get past that plateau?

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