Weight Gain With Exercise… hint… It’s normal and glorious!!

Posted by Louise Leadbitter on

This guest post is by Dr. Linda Hodges, an American weight loss physician who uses individualized weight loss services that includes coaching, learning to eat real food, and medications as indicated, as part of a long term, mindset changing process.

You can find more about Dr. Hodges' program here. 

Constantly making exercise pacts with yourself?

We're all filled with the best of intentions when it comes to fitness and health. Unfortunately, most don’t last longer than 3-4 weeks in their new regime. (Insert sad face here.) When it comes to beginning an exercise routine, there are several things you need to know for your new commitment to be successful. The biggest thing you need to know is why some folks gain weight with exercise (and, no, I don’t mean putting on muscle), as this is one of the common reasons they quit exercising.

Trauma Alert!!

When you go from being somewhat sedentary to being active – particularly intense activity such as lifting, running, etc – your body will be saying “WHAT THE HECK?!?” It may be in a bit of shock. You’ve just taken it from it’s nice comfy place and introduced it to an entirely different activity and routine. You may be sore, built up a bit of lactic acid, and may even feel swollen and stiff. Think about it… you put your poor, untrained muscles through something traumatic. What happens when any part of your body experiences trauma?

When the body undergoes injury, even micro-tears in the muscle as a result of completely appropriate exercise, it will send fluid to the area to begin repairing the damage. This may sound like you are doing something harmful, but you aren’t! It’s an entirely appropriate response! It’s no different than when you sprain your ankle and it swells because of fluid and inflammation. Your muscles can undergo the same process – the fluid and inflammation bring needed chemicals to the area to begin to repair your muscles and prepare them for your next workout.

This fluid comes from the body holding on to excess water as a response to the new activity. This will contribute to extra pounds on the scale. It’s NOT FAT!

Your Body Wants to Make Exercise Easier!

Your body is impressively adaptive. Now that you are working out, your body will take steps to prepare you for your next workout. This happens independent of the process described above – where your body attempts to repair any micro-damage done by hard workouts.

Your body has the ability to be ready for activity by storing sugar inside the muscles so you have immediate energy for your workouts. It says “okay, I’m gonna be ready next time!” and stores glycogen (the storage form of glucose/sugar) within the muscle.

THIS is when people quit their routine because they weigh themselves after a week and expect the scale to be down. On the contrary! The scale may be up several pounds! Your brain says “this obviously isn’t working!”, so you stop exercising and those pounds go away. I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard people say “I gained weight when I started exercising, but lost it all when I stopped.” We know exercise is good for us – so this doesn’t make sense….but, yet – it happens just this way! WHY??

Glycogen Storage – Your Body’s Gift to You

In an effort to be ready for the next workout, your body will store glycogen (stored form of sugar) in the body as mentioned above. This is great! This enables you to start your workout fairly intensely – as your muscles have an immediate fuel source RIGHT THERE! (Of course, after appropriate warm-up and stretching.) However, glycogen doesn’t last forever. It’s purpose is for immediate usage, not long-term usage. It’s used up rather quickly, actually. Your body then turns to fat to fuel the rest of your workout. Your body works harder to use fat as a fuel source…glycogen is EASY to use! Thus, our bodies WANT to store glycogen for us!

When the body knows you are really going to stick with this exercise routine, it will store more glycogen in your muscles. Here’s the kicker….. To store ONE molecule of glycogen, the body has to store approximately 3 grams of water! Yes! That means you will retain fluid to store this precious glycogen! This will lead to a heavier weight on the scale. This is also dependent on what muscles have been worked! What will store more glycogen?…. your glutes or your forearms? So, yeah – when you work those big muscles (glutes, back, hamstrings, quads) – there’s a lot of potential for glycogen (and thus water) storage! This will reflect on the scale, but it isn’t true weight gain!

Losing Weight When You Stop Exercising

This explains why you lose that weight when you STOP exercising. It’s not true weight loss. It’s simply ‘pound loss’ – you see the number on the scale drop, but you’ve lost absolutely no fat. When you stop exercising, your body does’t need to store that glycogen. So, all that water you retained as a part of this wonderful, natural process begins to leave your body. This results in a lower number on the scale. That’s it.

So, What’s The Answer?

The answer is to just stick with it. Tune into your logical, rational brain and KNOW you are doing what is right for your body. Know that this is what is supposed to be happening! Drink lots of water (counterintuitive, I know…but it’s a must!) and wait for the scale to begin to show your true weight loss. Or, don’t get on the scale at all and just wait for your clothes to fit differently, or for others to compliment you on your new physique. Or, simply focus on your performance. Are you getting stronger? Faster?

So, You Must Have Numbers?

One way to truly measure if your efforts are working is to have your body composition tested before and during exercise. Before starting a routine – get a baseline body composition test. Then, about every 4-5 weeks. This tells you so much more than the scale ever could! I have patients who have been working with me for months and have only lost ONE pound according to the scale. However, their body comp shows a muscle gain of 11 lbs and a fat loss of 12 lbs. There’s your ONE pound net loss, but obviously things have changed!

My office uses an InBody to check body composition. There are other brands out there – simply google your area and “body composition” to see if there’s a way to do this. Personal trainers also can do this via skin-fold methods and measurements. The scale isn’t the only number that you should be looking at!

In Conclusion

You know exercising is good for you – stick with it despite what happens with the scale! This weight gain is protective, normal, and adaptive! It means your body is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Have faith in your body and it’s ability to look out for you.

-Dr. Hodges


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