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Gaining Weight While Working Out? Here’s Why.

exercise weight gain
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Are you working out and unintentionally gaining weight? Keep reading to learn why your new weight loss routine could be keeping you from dropping those pounds.

So you’ve started a new workout routine to see if you could shed a few extra pounds. But a few weeks in, and you’ve noticed the number on the scale going up, not down. What gives?

Trust me, you’re not alone. I’ve worked with plenty of women who, when they started working out or ramp up their activity, started gaining weight instead of losing it.

This can be so frustrating. Especially if you’re following a prescribed training plan that has supposedly worked for other women. You might be wondering if there is something uniquely wrong with your body that you are seeing the opposite results than your goals.

The truth is, this is a common experience for many women. And as more and more quick-fix diet and exercise programs are marketed on a daily basis, the number of women experiencing weight gain from increased exercise is going up every day.

And you could actually be sabotaging your body’s ability to lose weight with these supposedly “ideal” training and diet regimens.

But you don’t have to be stuck in this frustrating cycle. There is a way to exercise that won’t cause your body to store more fat if your goal is to get leaner.

In this article, you’ll learn the top three reasons why you’re working out and still gaining weight. I’ll give you some tips on how to overcome these pitfalls so you can have an effective and rewarding fitness routine that helps you reach your body composition goals in a safe and healthy way.

gaining weight working out

The “bulky” myth of weight gain

Before we get into the reasons why you might be gaining weight while working out, I want to bust a big fitness myth.

Many women falsely believe that lifting heavy weights will make them get “bulky.”

It’s true that muscle weighs more than fat. So if you’re building muscle, regardless of what happens to your body fat levels, you might see an increased number on the scale.

But it takes some serious dedication (plus abnormal or artificial levels of testosterone) for most women to gain significant amounts of weight and muscle mass from lifting.

While you may likely see some noticeable muscle mass development, most women can’t get “bulky” without a lot of hard work, a surplus of calories and protein, and maybe even some hormone therapy.

It’s entirely possible that any and all weight gain you do see is from additional healthy muscle mass that you’re putting on. And sadly, having bigger muscles than before can cause some women to feel self-conscious in a world that often glorifies skinniness over strength or health.

I don’t want you to let the fear of getting “bulky” keep you from a beneficial weight training practice. Lifting weights has so many health benefits and is an excellent way to lose excess body fat in a healthy way.

And if weight loss is your goal, you don’t need to fear that you’ll hold on to those extra pounds if you choose to lift weights as your main form of training. Weight lifting can be a great way to see improvements in your overall body composition without having to devote your life to your training routine.

The high intensity of training with heavy weights actually promotes a greater post-exercise calorie burn than cardio does. Plus, varying your training helps avoid the dreaded weight loss plateau and keeps you motivated.

So yes, it’s highly possible that lifting weights will lead to an increase in the number on the scale. But I want you to remember two things.

One, the number on the scale means nothing about your health, appearance, or how you feel about yourself. It only has the meaning that YOU give it, which means you can choose to be happy no matter what that number says.

And two, if your goal is improved body composition and overall better health, then lifting weights and gaining muscle is far better than trying to keep your muscle mass (and the number on the scale) low.

Now that we’ve addressed this common misconception, let’s discuss three mistakes you might be making in your routine that can cause you to gain body fat despite an increased level of exercise.

gaining weight working out

3 Mistakes that lead to Gaining Weight While Working Out

If you’re gaining body fat from an increased level of exercise, there are changes that likely need to be made to your routine. There are a few common culprits that, once identified and adjusted, can make a huge difference in your ability to lose weight in a healthy way.
 
To lose weight, your body has to feel SAFE. A safe body is one that is well-nourished, not overworked, and has low levels of stress.
 
If those factors aren’t in check, or if your training routine is off, you might not be able to lose weight.
 
The factors that prevent weight loss or cause fat gain are going to be different for everyone. But, here are some of the most common culprits behind gaining weight while working out.
gaining weight working out

1. optimize your diet

To lose weight, your diet has to be pretty dialed in. This means you’re not eating too much and not eating too little. That’s right, you can eat too LITTLE calories to effectively lose body fat!
 
Both extremes in calorie intake can result in weight loss resistance, or even weight gain, despite your best training efforts. Here’s how to know if your total calorie intake is sabotaging your training routine and causing you to hold on to body fat.

Are You Eating Too Little?

Believe it or not, eating too little can prevent you from losing weight and can even result in weight gain over time.

Crash diets and living on nothing but lean protein and nonstarchy vegetables may work for fat loss in the short run. But in my experience, restricting your food intake so severely isn’t a sustainable or safe way to lose weight over the long run.

If you’ve reduced your calorie intake more than 20% below maintenance for more than 8-12 weeks, you’re not eating enough for healthy fat loss.
 
Undereating slows your metabolism, stresses your body, and makes you hold onto the body fat you’re trying to shed.
 
Caloric deficits that are too large or that last too long can cause long-lasting changes in your metabolism. Your body views strict dieting as an emergency food shortage and responds by burning fewer calories, especially if you’re working out on top of a strict diet.

Diets that are too low in calories for your needs actually decrease the number of calories your body burns by as much as 23%. Adding intense training to that causes an additional metabolic suppression effect, along with many other problematic symptoms like impaired athletic performance and mood disturbances.

So, if you’re undereating and crushing yourself at the gym, your body might be holding onto those calories out of fear of starvation.

If you think you’re not eating enough, start by using a calorie needs calculator to determine your body’s maintenance requirements.
 
And if you’re consistently eating more than 500 calories below that number, it’s time to start eating more food!
 
Try slowly increasing your calories at each meal, or even adding in a high-calorie post-workout snack. I know this seems counterintuitive, but an undernourished body is not one that is going to be receptive to healthy fat loss.

Eating more will give your body the fuel it needs to perform better in your workouts AND to start dropping weight if that’s what it needs to be healthy.

(For more help with undereating check out my eBook, Overcoming Undereating!)

cheat day weight loss

Are You Eating Too Much?

To lose excess weight, you have to be able to tap into your stored body fat. And most experts agree that in order to see noticeable fat loss, you have to be in a caloric deficit (and certainly not a surplus).

While some diet gurus say calories don’t count, the fact is that any diet that will lead to fat loss is going to create a calorie deficit, whether on purpose or by accident.

Naturally, our bodies don’t like to be in a calorie deficit and a healthy body will feel somewhat uncomfortable or unpleasant when its caloric needs aren’t being met.

It’s challenging to eat in a deficit, and while there are strategies that can help reduce how unpleasant a deficit can feel, it’s unlikely that an effective fat loss diet will feel “effortless.”

In addition to our general aversion to being hungry, many people who increase their exercise levels overestimate how many calories they’ve burned in their workout, and use their training to justify a larger amount of food intake.

I’ve been there before – you have a sweaty workout and decide to have a dessert to treat yourself, and before you know it any calories you’ve burned from working out have been more than replaced by your food intake!

Or perhaps you’re dieting during the week but letting yourself have “cheat days” on the weekends. Over time, that cheat day might snowball into two, then maybe Friday through Sunday becomes a food and drink free-for-all.

By the time you notice it, your cheat days may leave you eating more calories on the weekends than you ever cut out during the week, which can easily cause fat gain!

This isn’t meant to make you feel embarrassed or ashamed. This is completely normal human behavior and if you’re engaging in it, it doesn’t say anything about you as a person or your ability to stick to your goals.

But having awareness of this tendency can help you adjust your behavior and your choices so that you see progress towards your goals, rather than constantly feeling frustrated or confused.

When it comes to fat loss, calories really are “king”. And if you’re working out but still gaining weight, you could be eating more than what your body needs on a daily basis.

For sustainable, healthy weight loss, most people do best on a 10-20% calorie deficit from their typical maintenance.
 
Any more than that and you put yourself at risk of undereating, and any less may not be enough of a deficit to see any real progress.
 
Most people tend to underestimate how many calories they’re actually eating, so tracking your food intake can be helpful. Only use tracking as a tool if you don’t have any history of disordered eating, and if tracking doesn’t cause any significant mental or emotional distress.
 
Try using an app like MyFitnessPal or Cronometer to record everything you eat for a few days. If you’re consuming more than 10-20% under your maintenance needs, or if you’re actually eating above maintenance, you’ve likely found the culprit behind your weight gain.
gaining weight working out

Check Your Training Routine

If you’re working out but still gaining weight, your training routine could be actually causing your body to hold on to extra fat.
 
Not all training is conducive to fat loss. And in some cases what works for one person might actually result in weight gain in another.
 
Just like with your calories, there’s a training sweet spot that will lead to successful weight loss. And if you train too much or not enough, it’s likely that you’ll have trouble losing weight.

Are You Working Out Too Little?

If you started working out and are still gaining weight, it could be because you aren’t training enough (or in the best way).
 
There are so many factors that come into play for successful weight loss. And because of this, we tend to gloss over the fundamental truth to weight loss – calories burned must be more than calories consumed.
 
The number of calories you burn is dependent on a few factors:
  • The type of training you’re doing
  • Your level of effort
  • The time you spend exercising
  • Your current weight
  • Your current metabolism
 

So, if you’re training too little, whether that be in effort or in time spent in the gym, you might not lose any weight.

Keep in mind, your diet plays a far bigger role than exercise when it comes to being in a calorie deficit. But your training routine can definitely help make that deficit happen while also allowing you to eat more food and increasing your metabolic rate overall.

If you’re not doing much exercise, not only do you have to eat far less to see fat loss happen, you also are more likely to lose muscle and fat at the same rate, leading to a lower number on the scale but not necessarily better health or body composition.

The type of training you choose also matters when it comes to successful fat loss.

Doing tons of calorie-burning cardio isn’t the only way to shed body fat, and it’s actually not even the best way for most women.

In fact, if you hate doing cardio but think it’s the only way to lose weight, that alone could keep you from losing extra body fat. If cardio isn’t something you’ll stick to long term, you’re better off minimizing it or skipping it altogether.

It’s true that you don’t burn as many calories lifting weights as you do with long-duration cardio like running. But you actually get a greater post-exercise calorie burn from a higher intensity training style like lifting compared to long-duration cardio. This increased overall caloric burn can have a bigger impact on your fat loss goals than the calories you burn during exercise.

So, if you’re working out but still gaining weight, ask yourself if you’re training enough or in the right way to burn fat and improve your body composition.

If you’re feeling unmotivated to exercise, try varying your workouts to prevent mental burnout and physical plateau, or pick a style of movement that’s simply fun for you, even if it’s not the most effective fat loss training style.

While diet is the most important factor for fat loss, you can get a lot of benefit from a consistent and effective training routine. Be honest with yourself if your workouts have been inconsistent or lackluster, and think about making small tweaks that can make your training more effective.

running weight loss

Are You Working Out Too Much?

On the other hand, too much exercise, or exercise that’s too intense, can put a halt on your weight loss efforts and even lead to weight gain.
 
Exercise is a stressor on our bodies. This stress, when used properly, is what causes muscle growth and fat loss. But when taken to the extreme, exercise can also ramp up stress hormone production, increase inflammation, and create a physiological environment that favors fat storage.
 
The more stress we add to our bodies, especially in the form of overtraining, the more our bodies will respond with protective fat storage.
 
Overtraining is going to look different for everyone. Your best friend may be able to do HIIT workouts every day and maintain a healthy body composition. But the same training schedule for YOU may be the reason why you’re gaining weight instead.
 
If you’re feeling constantly worn down, always getting sick, having trouble sleeping, and gaining weight while working out, overtraining could be the culprit.
 
Make sure you always have at least 1-2 rest days in your schedule. Try decreasing your workout frequency by 2-3 training sessions a week. Or, if your workouts are particularly intense, switch it up and try some lower intensity training like pilates, swimming, or yoga.
 
You might be surprised that with this decreased intensity, your body responds with more weight loss instead of less.
 
Helping your body feel safe while still maintaining a slight calorie deficit can be all it takes to start losing weight and reaching your goals.
gaining weight working out

Check Your Stress Levels

We all know that stress is detrimental to our mental wellbeing. When we’re under a lot of stress we get more anxious, sleep poorly, and have a harder time enjoying life.
 
And when cortisol levels rise under chronic stress, our body can also respond physically by holding onto body fat and preventing weight loss.
 
If you’re always stressed, whether it’s from a new job, a busy home life, or a diet and exercise routine that’s too demanding, your body will have difficulty losing weight.
 
Chronically elevated cortisol can lead to leptin and insulin resistance.
 
Leptin and insulin are two hormones that play an important role in weight loss. When these hormones are out of balance, your chances of experiencing sustained weight loss are slim.
 
Even if you do tend to be more stressed than the average person, weight loss can still be possible for you. Based on how your stress levels fluctuate, you might be able to find a “right time” to start focusing on losing weight.
 
But if it seems like you’re doing everything right with your training and diet regimen and weight loss still isn’t happening, or you’re seeing weight gain instead, it could be because your body needs a break.
 
Taking a step back and evaluating your stress levels can go a long way in helping you achieve safe and sustainable weight loss. And if your diet and exercise routine is causing stress, you definitely need to re-evaluate your strategy and find yourself a low-stress approach.
gaining weight working out

What to Focus on Instead of the Scale

If you’ve worked through all these factors that could be causing your weight gain and you can’t find a culprit, it might be time to shift your mindset.
 
Maybe weight gain is what your body needs to be its healthiest. By implementing a quality diet and training routine, you’re giving your body the space it needs to find its healthy set point.
 
If that is the case, focusing on some non-scale victories during your fitness journey can be a great boost to your mindset and motivation.
 
Instead of looking at the scale to measure progress, here are some questions to ask yourself as you progress in your training:
  • What is one positive change in your body you noticed this week that you didn’t last week?
  • How does your body FEEL?
  • How is your mood? Are you happy with your current routine and lifestyle?
  • How is your energy level? Can you do things that you couldn’t before?
  • Are you having fun with your exercise routine? Are you enjoying your food?
It’s okay to have weight loss as a goal. But if you’re not seeing the weight loss you’re looking for, you don’t need to give up on taking care of your body.
 
There are so many other benefits to working out. And when you start training for how it makes you feel, you might find that weight loss will come as a pleasant surprise.
gaining weight working out

Next Steps in Your Weight Loss Journey

I know it can be discouraging when weight loss is your goal but you keep gaining even while working out.

Sometimes the smallest tweak to your diet or training routine can be all it takes to enable weight loss. And other times your body needs to hold onto that weight you perceive as “extra” for one reason or another.

If you’re feeling stuck and frustrated, you may want to work with a qualified nutritionist and coach to help you figure out why you’re still gaining weight even when you’re working out.

Getting an outside perspective on your health and current fitness routine can help you get on the right track to not only lose weight but also to better physical and mental wellbeing.

If you want to team up with me to tackle your weight loss goals you can sign up for a strategy session here.

We’ll dig into your lifestyle, training routine, and health history to come up with the best plan for your unique needs. And whether that plan involves weight loss or not, I guarantee you’ll leave feeling more empowered and encouraged about your health than before!

Have you ever started working out only to experience weight gain? Were you able to tweak your routine to start losing weight? Share your experience in the comments!

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