Crack the Code of Your Metabolism

The solution to your plateau may lie in a better understanding of the way your body handles energy.

The plateau is, without a doubt, the most exasperating part of physical exercise. It’s like the pain you push through to finish a marathon. Whether you want to gain muscle, lose fat, or improve your performance, the plateau is the most frequently encountered barrier throughout the world of fitness and training. Some of you have already conquered your flatlines. Whatever you do, never cease to tell your story and help others do the same.

The plateau is, without a doubt, the most exasperating part of physical exercise. It’s like the pain you push through to finish a marathon. Whether you want to gain muscle, lose fat, or improve your performance, the plateau is the most frequently encountered barrier throughout the world of fitness and training. Some of you have already conquered your flatlines. Whatever you do, never cease to tell your story and help others do the same.

Others, however, have not reached the end of the plateau. This is where I’m coming from. In my case, it was a halt in weight progression. I had been adding 5lb on average to my deadlift and bench press every week, but had found myself struggling to maintain the same weight on a week-to-week basis. Neither my eating habits nor my overall level of activity had changed, yet whatever I did, I couldn’t move forward, much like jogging in place.

The truly frustrating part is that sometimes, the harder you train, the more you widen your plateau. There you are juggling cardio routines, high-intensity interval programs, picking up oddly shaped weights (kettlebells), or sitting at machines you’ve always been enemies with, but nothing seems to work. It happens to athletes as often as those who just want to maintain an appealing shape, and while this may not be comforting to know, there is something you can do—know thyself.

I know, your eyes are burning from the platitude. But you’ll pardon the triteness if it means you get to know your active and resting metabolism. Having this self-knowledge will help you train smarter, not harder, and push through your plateau. You won’t be following a training program anymore, but your training program. Something made specifically to break and make me? Yes, please.

The Rundown on Metabolism and Metabolic Rate

Widely speaking, metabolism1 is an umbrella term that encapsulates all the chemical reactions involved in keeping you alive. The kernel of metabolism is the organism’s ability to transform food into vital nutrients and energy. For this reason, nutrition and the availability of certain substances (or lack thereof) is closely linked to the current state of an individual’s health and metabolic processes.

The two major sources of energy are carbohydrates and fats. The third type is protein, which can supply energy in extreme cases, but whose main function is as building blocks for an organism’s cells. That’s why we supplement with protein when we want to gain muscle. Although minerals and vitamins are not direct contributors to energy production, some are critical to our wellbeing. Without sufficient resources of calcium, iron, or vitamins C, A, or B2, for instance, we can get into serious trouble, which is why it is important to keep this group of nutrients in check.

The rate and efficiency with which we convert raw food into these three major types of nutrients depends on our metabolism. Some individuals have a fast metabolism to begin with. Even when they watch Netflix, their body burns significant amounts of calories, making it very hard for them to gain weight. The agony. On the other hand, some have a slow metabolic rate. Their body has a low caloric need and stores the excess energy, making them prone to becoming overweight. Others fall somewhere between these two extremes.

For this discussion, I will be dealing specifically with the idea of resting metabolic rate (RMR), or how much we burn when in a steady state of relaxation, and active metabolic rate (AMR), or how much we burn when engaged in physical activities.

When stuck in a plateau, something’s not right. To determine the cause of the stagnation, you must understand your personal RMR and AMR. With professional guidance, you can find out what goes on in your body when you exercise and when you rest. Are you consuming too little or too much of something? Does your body have difficulties properly recovering after a training session? Are your energy needs higher than what you currently give your body? Such questions and much, much more can be revealed by performing a complete metabolic assessment.

The results may fall short of our expectations, as they did in my case. But I learned that you shouldn’t view them as either “bad” or “good,” but rather as the characteristics of your metabolism at this particular point in your life. Knowing your RMR and AMR will give you the missing pieces of the puzzle for breaking that disheartening plateau.

Settle in. The next part might hurt.

Resting Metabolic Assessment

Resting metabolic rate accounts for around 60-70% of the total amount2 of calories you burn throughout the day. This is why it matters if your metabolism is slow, average, or fast. If 70% of the time you are storing calories instead of burning them, burning protein instead of using it to build muscle, or tapping into carbohydrates instead of fat, you may be trapped in a plateau. And this is where it starts to hurt, because the majority of our RMR is dictated by things we cannot tweak, like age, sex, height, hormones, genetics, and physiological functions. Hormonal medical problems can further complicate this equation. If this is the case for you, you should also seek a physician’s advice in addition to the metabolic evaluations you perform.

The one aspect of the RMR equation we can control is our muscle mass. Whether lean or massive, this is one area where change is possible. Who says pain can’t be constructive? Finally, a win.

Where did the remainder 30% of calorie consumption go? Well, a maximum of a third of your metabolic rate is physical activity. Eating also takes up some energy, but it’s usually around 10 percent of the total RMR. There are office-based systems that can help you figure out your resting metabolism with less time and fewer expenses, but they will not be as exact or thorough as the hospital-based equipment that is now making its way into public use via fitness organizations.

The RMR test is usually quite simple, except for a slightly funny mask you have to wear. Sensors in the mask carefully read the composition each breath you exhale. The process is called indirect calorimetry, and it is considered to be a fairly accurate read of the type and quantity of fuel employed by your body. The Weir equation is typically used afterwards to extrapolate the number of calories burned per minute and then, per day.3 Recently, the mask has been adapted to be less complicated and more appealing than what was commonly used in physiology labs, which is always nice.

But before anything happens, you will need to fast for a good nine hours, at least. Some other restrictions may also be advised for the timeframe leading up to your appointment, such as avoiding alcohol consumption. Needless to say, most people prefer to perform their assessment in the morning.

You will sit in a comfortable position, in an environment with a neutral temperature, and odd as it may sound, you will attempt to relax and breathe steadily without falling asleep. Thinking about a future activity you’re looking forward to usually does the trick. Something along the lines of a bohemian weekend picnic by the lake, a couple of hearty days out camping deep in the woods, or a quiet, stout, early-fishing session at dawn.

The output data should reflect your body’s calorie consumption while resting, thus a good contextual reading of your RMR. The higher portion of muscle mass you have compared to your total weight, the better your readings should be. Body fat is also known to negatively impact RMR, so individuals with lower percentages, but same amount of muscle, will have even better readings.4 The RMR test shouldn’t take more than 25-30min.

Active Metabolic Assessment

The strain comes during the active metabolic assessment (AMA). While the name did give me an idea of what was to follow, I would be lying if I said I was completely prepared. The mask returns for the second part of your metabolic evaluation, but instead of sitting down and thinking about the good life, you’ll be on a treadmill.

The good news is that the AMA starts off easily, with a mild and manageable intensity. The not-so-good news is that it’s supposed to work its way up to an intensity of 7-8 on a scale from 1-10, up to your anaerobic threshold and then a little past it. You need to maintain that intensity for several minutes. Overall, it was manageable, albeit a little strenuous.

After everything was done, I found out that this part is also referred to as the “stress and resilience” test. Wish I’d have known that before. They also measure your levels of DHEA, the hormonal marker of your individual resilience, and cortisol, the not-so-good hormone that immediately follows DHEA. For once, pushing myself yielded concrete, visible results.

In one sitting, I found out my aerobic threshold (the intensity at which I could exercise for a couple of hours), how and when I efficiently burn fat for calories (zone 1 and 2 for me), along with my VO2 max. The latter is widely considered a good predictor of individual fitness, since it basically gauges your body’s ability to convert the air you breathe into oxygen, and then deliver it to your muscle fibers. To a lesser extent, VO2 max is also used to predict athletic performance, since higher VO2 max numbers increase the odds for successful physical activities.5 Last, but not least, I became aware of the boundary beyond which exercises become detrimental to my organism, due to significant increases in cortisol.

For me, my plateau was a combination of not providing enough rest for recovery, eating too little calories and over-exerting myself into zone 3 and 4 on a constant basis. If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would have never believed that less lifting can actually lead me to better growth, given my circumstances. As a result, I settled on one zone 4 training per week, while incorporating one zone 3 and a session where I would alternate between zone 1 and 2. I’ve also made some changes to my diet, which, to my pleasure, brought in some more fat; not the bad kind, but rather the fats you’ll find in olive oil, avocadoes, flaxseeds, walnuts, salmon, or peanut butter. PB! Heavens, yes.

Unexpected and Actionable Results

If done by a professional, metabolic testing will almost always indicate underlying health issues, where this is the case. The most frequent issues that metabolic testing highlights are insulin resistance, anemia (related to your ability to deliver oxygen), or hormonal problems related to cortisol and thyroid function.

Should there be any, the red flags will prompt your assessor to refer you to a doctor for further investigations. The most common concerns seem to be very low metabolic rates, which may be an indication of a sluggish thyroid, and an inability to burn fat despite being very healthy, which usually prompts diabetes-related investigations. For men, low testosterone has great impact on their ability to burn calories and fat.6 In this case, there may be several natural ways to increase testosterone without the numerous side-effects of testosterone replacement theory (TRT).

Either way, knowing your RMA and AMA will give you more information about your inner self. It’s important that you keep in mind that these characteristics do not reflect badly upon you, since most of the variables are inherited, as I’ve mentioned before. The results just indicate what you have to deal with, which makes it possible to determine the best way to break your plateau.

More often than not, this personalized assessment is concluded with a definite “you’re working out too hard.” Most people who’ve reached a plateau usually do, whether it’s the cortisol from killer routines, the sheer intensity of their training triggering more carbohydrates, rather than fat, to be transformed into energy, or a combination of both.

The Metabolic Assessment Take-Away

Whether you’re a seasoned athlete looking for an edge, just starting your personal transformation, someone who likes being in shape, or a bodybuilder who’s hit a stubborn plateau, an assessment of your active and resting metabolic rate can be the key to running, lifting, and training better. These tests give you the necessary knowledge to adapt any fitness program to your own conditions, and show which areas might be particularly problematic for your physical health.

Never let yourself be disheartened because you’ve hit a wall in your progression, or because something seems downright impossible. Chances are, you have yet to uncover the bigger picture. With the help of RMA and AMA testing, it’s possible to keep track of your body’s ability to acquire nutrients and use them effectively. We could all benefit from this kind of self-knowledge, because knowing our metabolism empowers us to find the optimal way to reach our physical goals, regardless of what they may be. While metabolic testing is not particularly easy to come by at this point in time, the effort and expense are well worth it. Nothing good ever comes easy.

Photo by Bev Childress

The awesome thing is that, if you follow through with the suggestions from your metabolic test for a period of time, you will improve your RMA, as well as your overall fitness and health. Many of our issues are not overtly manifested in visible symptoms, which is why such testing is sometimes a crucial gauge of what is going on beneath the surface. In my case, looking under the hood helped me destroy the flatline I had encountered, which was already lowering my morale and chipping away at my motivation. It didn’t feel particularly flattering to find out what was going on with my metabolism, but the alternative was to keep jogging in place. So I just took the results, ran with them, and finally pushed through. I wish the same for you.


1. Hans Kornberg, “Metabolism,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 22 November 2017, accessed December 10, 2017.

2. Klaas R. Westerterp, “Physical activity and physical activity induced energy expenditure in humans: measurement, determinants, and effects,” Frontiers in Physiology, no. 3 (2013):90, accessed December 10, 2017.

3. Denise Schwartz, “Resting Energy Expenditure ‘REE’,” VacuMed, accessed December 6, 2017.

4. Mark P. Kelly, “Resting Metabolic Rate: Best Ways to Measure It—And Raise It, Too,” ACE Fitness, accessed December 10, 2017.

5. “Oxygen Consumption,” UC Davis Health, accessed December 12, 2017.

6. Abdulmaged Traish, “Testosterone and weight loss: the evidence,” Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Obesity, no. 21 (2014):313-322, accessed December 14, 2017.