About to throw in the towel? Don't. You may be closer to your goal weight than you think.

By Caroline Hwang and Jay Cardiello
Updated September 10, 2019
Malte Mueller/Getty Images

Spend an hour running every day in hopes of losing weight, but not having any luck? You're not alone if you've been crushing your weight loss journey but hit a frustrating plateau. Here's what science has to say about how to lose the last 10 pounds—the ones that you just can't seem to move past—plus when you should straight-up ignore the scale.

Why You Can't Lose Those Last 10 Pounds

Turns out there's a good reason so many people hit the "final 10" wall. In a word: biology. "All of us have a built-in mechanism that protects against starvation. When caloric intake falls below caloric expenditure, a series of metabolic and physiological responses kick in to preserve and replenish energy stores," explains Barry Levin, M.D., a neurologist at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts. So when you first begin to shed pounds, your metabolic rate slows, your energy use becomes more efficient, and your brain starts sending SOS messages that you're hungry. As for when you want to lose the last 10 pounds? Your body is fighting to recover and will hang on to every ounce tighter and tighter. (Related: Proof That Cutting Calories Like Crazy Won’t Get You the Body You Want)

Plus, motivation is highest at the outset, when the first dropped pounds are mainly water, says Judith S. Beck, Ph.D., director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research in Philadelphia and author of The Beck Diet Solution. "But once weight loss slows or plateaus, impatience can creep in," she notes. What's more, with your last 10 pounds, the finish line is in sight, so you want to sprint.

Don't Fixate on the Number

So what's a frustrated woman to do when trying to determine how to lose the last 10 pounds? Beck recommends reassessing your goal weight; you may not need to lose any more weight at all. (Ahem, have you heard of non-scale victories?)

"Perhaps you can reach your number. But the question to ask yourself is, once you get there, can you maintain approximately the same exercise and diet pace for the rest of your life?" she says.

Instead of aiming for your lowest achievable weight, you might want to shoot for your lowest maintainable weight. "It's not giving up," she adds. "It's being realistic and shifting to a maintenance strategy before you get completely demoralized." (Related: The #1 Thing You Should Keep in Mind Before Setting Weight-Loss Goals)

You should also consider your body fat, not just the number on the scale, Levin says. The simplest test is to see where fat is deposited. "If it's in your stomach, you probably ought to keep trying, since abdominal fat poses a real health risk for everything from diabetes to breast cancer." But if the fat is in your hips and butt, and your body-mass index is within the healthy range (18.5 to 24.9), Levin suggests rethinking your mission to lose those last 10 pounds. "They're probably not medically harmful, and in trying to get rid of them, you'll be triggering all of those protective mechanisms that in turn make it even harder to mobilize the fat," he explains.

Alternatively, measure your waist and hips. "If your waist is bigger, your risk of chronic disease is increased," says Diane Finegood, Ph.D., a professor in the biomedical physiology and kinesiology department at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. In this case, you have medical cause to lose more weight; the same goes if your waist measures more than 35 inches. (Sure, you’ve heard of BMI, but how about BVI? It might be more accurate…)

Finally, there's your body-fat composition, the percentage of your body that is fat. This number is a far better measure of how fit you are than what the scale tells you, because muscle is denser than fat, says Steve Ball, Ph.D., professor of exercise physiology at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

You can determine this number in several ways, but the one method you can use at home is bioelectrical impedance analysis, which calculates body fat based on how quickly an electrical signal moves through your body. Nowadays, it's available as a scale. (A great one is Tanita's FDA-approved InnerScan Body Composition Monitor, model BC533; $110, amazon.com.) What's the number to target? "There's no absolute, but women generally want to be under 35 percent," says Ball. (Here's more on the science of how to build muscle and burn fat.)

How to Lose the Last 10 Pounds

If you still feel you could stand to lose the last 10, experts agree you need to change things up. Here are four strategies.

  1. Scrutinize your diet. It's likely you've become a little loose with your program, Beck points out. To correct this, she recommends writing down what you plan to eat for the day and checking off each item as you go. "Just doing this will often make people more conscious of what they're eating and help them to regain control," Beck explains. (Check out why food journals might just be the ultimate weight-loss tool.)
  2. Slash 100 calories from your daily intake. You may need to cut back more than before, since the lighter you are, the fewer calories you may need. (Also see: Exactly How to Cut Calories to Lose Weight Safely) "When you're on a trajectory of losing weight, you've got to continually reduce intake," Finegood says.
  3. Switch your workout to a different part of the day or go to a different gym. This will make your routine feel fresh again. "Change is stimulating, and it can motivate you to exercise harder," Ball says.
  4. Increase the number of calories you burn. Longer workouts aren't necessarily the solution, says Ryan Andrews, R.D., an exercise physiologist, registered dietitian, and the author of Drop the Fat Act and Live Lean. Try a new activity to work different muscles. "Or bump up your speed or intensity, or do intervals," Andrews suggests.

The “How to Lose the Last 10 Pounds” Workout

If your weight loss has hit a plateau, it may be because your workout has hit a plateau. The answer isn't necessarily to exercise more—but you may need to exercise at a higher intensity instead of logging long, slow sessions on the treadmill or elliptical. To help give your metabolism a boost and keep you from throwing in the towel as you tackle those last 10, we asked Jay Cardiello, a personal trainer and author of Bodyweight Strength Training to create a "How to Lose the Last 10 Pounds Workout." This 10-minute collection of exercises will challenge your mind and your body, and help you push through to lose that last bit of weight. (Also read: Science Found the Best Workout for Continued Weight Loss)

How It Works: For each exercise, perform as many repetitions as possible in 60 seconds. Don't rest between moves.

Burpee Twist

  • Stand tall with feet hip-width apart, arms at sides.
  • Quickly lower hips into a squat (avoiding these six common squat mistakes) and place hands directly in front of feet.
  • As soon as hands touch the ground, kick both feet back into a push-up position. Pause.
  • Jump feet under hips.
  • Jump up, reaching hands toward the ceiling while rotating torso 180 degrees. Fully extend body while jumping.
  • Land facing start position.

Burpee Back Up

  • Stand tall with feet hip-width apart, arms at sides.
  • Quickly lower hips into a squat and place hands directly in front of feet.
  • As soon as hands touch the ground, kick both feet back into a push-up position. Pause.
  • Jump feet under hips.
  • Jump up, propelling yourself backward by driving hips back as far as possible while fully extending body.
  • Land and repeat, this time jumping forward. Continue alternating jumping backward and forward.

Single-Leg Burpee

  • Stand tall with feet hip-width apart, arms at sides. Quickly lower hips into a squat and place hands directly in front of feet.
  • As soon as hands touch the ground, kick back right leg into a pushup position while left leg is suspended in the air. Pause.
  • Reverse direction (with left leg still off of the floor) and drive hands and hips toward the ceiling.
  • Upon landing, squat.
  • Jump left foot back into a push-up position with right leg suspended in air.
  • Continue alternating legs.

Single-Arm Burpee

  • Stand tall with feet hip-width apart, arms at sides.
  • Quickly lower hips into a squat and place right hand on the ground in front of (and evenly between) feet.
  • Kick both feet back into a push-up position. Pause.
  • Jump feet under hips. Jump up, reaching hands toward the ceiling. Land and repeat, this time placing left hand on the ground.
  • Continue alternating between hands.

Half Moon

  • Begin in a traditional push-up position, feet touching each other, hands touching each other.
  • Reach right leg out to the side as far as possible.
  • As soon as your right foot lands, swing your left leg over to join the right.
  • Continue this sequence, turning your body like a hand on a clock 180 degrees.
  • Reverse direction.

Plank Dip

  • Start in a traditional push-up position with feet hip-width apart and hands directly under shoulders.
  • Brace core, lift right hand off ground and lower right forearm to the ground, elbow directly under shoulder. Pause.
  • Come back up to right hand while lowering left forearm to the ground.
  • Continue alternating. (Related: Try Our 30-Day Plank Challenge for a Killer Core)

Break Dancer

  • Begin on all fours.
  • In one powerful movement, swing left leg under hips (as if you were threading a needle) and extend foot fully to the ceiling.
  • As your drive left leg under hip, simultaneously take right hand and reach it to the side.
  • Extend left foot as high as possible and tap right hand to left toes, arm extended.
  • Return to starting position and repeat on opposite side.
  • Continue alternating back and forth.

In and Out

  • Start in a traditional push-up position with feet hip-width apart.
  • Brace core and walk right hand in front of you as far as possible.
  • Pause, then reach out equal distance with left hand so both hands are shoulder-width and side by side.
  • Reverse direction.
  • Continue, alternating between reaching out first with your right and left hand.

Catapult Squat Jump

  • Kneel on floor, glutes resting firmly on heels, arms by sides and hands slightly behind hips.
  • In one explosive motion, swing hands in front of you toward ceiling while simultaneously pressing into the floor with feet.
  • Jump upward, swinging feet off the ground and under hips until they land firmly on the floor positioned slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  • Drop back into the original starting position.

Rockin' the Cradle

  • Start in a traditional lunge position with right foot forward, both knees slightly bent, hands firmly on hips.
  • Lower hips toward the floor and drop left knee until it is approximately 1 inch from the floor. Pause and brace core.
  • Quickly raise hips, drive right knee toward ceiling while simultaneously pushing hips back, shifting all your weight to your left foot.
  • Upon landing, drop back into a full lunge position and repeat.
  • Switch sides after 30 seconds.

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