December 11, 2010

Figure and Bikini Competitor Q&A: Initial Weight Gain With Strength Training

Q: I just switched to lifting heavier weights a few days ago. Why am I a pound heavier? Is it normal to have some initial weight gain with strength training?

A:This is a question many figure and bikini competitors have asked after beginning a traditional strength training (i.e. lift a relatively heavy weight for several reps, rest 60 seconds, repeat until muscle group is toast) program either for the first time ever, after a significant layoff, or after having previously “confused” their muscles into doing absolutely nothing via a trendy P90X type program.

I typically use my official short answer: “It’s just intramuscular water (a good thing) which will soon be offset by fat loss”, and I then instruct the client to not focus too much on the scale for the first month or so. Ok, so this advice is lost on most Type A personalities (physique competitors).  Guess I got some ‘splainin to do.

What I thought I would do with this post is present some of the most common mechanisms for this short term weight gain, and explain why it’s a necessary part of developing those nice, feminine muscles that look so good on stage. Here are the 5 main things that are happening during those first few weeks:

Increased Muscle Glycogen Stores. Traditional strength training generally is not as glycogen depleting as a more “endurance” style P90X/Crossfit program (or cardio). Couple this with the fact that your trainer has (hopefully) addressed glycogen replenishment via adequate carbohydrate intake, and not created a counter-productive caloric (and glycogen) “sink” by prescribing excessive cardio, and you have a situation where your muscle glycogen stores are likely higher than they were with your previous program.

Why does this matter? Because water accompanies glycogen at roughly a 3:1 ratio (on average).  More muscle glycogen=more water=short term net weight gain.  Again, this is intracellular (more specifically intramuscular) water, which is a necessary part of building muscle. This is not to be confused with extracellular/subcutaneous water, which is what gives you the dreaded “bloated” look. Intramuscular water actually produces a nice, full look in the muscles, and is actually something savvy figure and bikini competitors look to increase just prior to stepping on stage.

Short-term muscle/water gain is outpacing fat loss. Another factor is the small amount of muscle a “newbie” is capable of building within the first few weeks of a good strength training program. While the additional muscle itself is not likely to amount to anything measurable, the increased glycogen and water that comes with it could be.

This is more likely to be an explanation for weight gained after the first few weeks than it is the for the first few days, but it is a piece of the puzzle nonetheless. If it happens at a faster rate than fat loss (which is likely if training in a caloric surplus or even a slight deficit for beginners), the scale moves in the “wrong” direction for a while and you get mad at your trainer for no reason.

It is important not to let this discourage you, as the rate of muscle gain will quickly slow and fat loss will “catch up”. This is especially true for women, as they don’t have near the potential for muscle gain as men do.

Increased presence of GLUT-4 proteins. Exercise has been consistently shown to increase the amount of GLUT-4 proteins, which are responsible for shuttling glucose into the cells. More GLUT4=more glycogen=more water.

Granted, this has generally been shown to be true with (strenuous) endurance activity more so than strength training, so it would not necessarily apply to someone who has moved to traditional strength training from a more endurance focused program.

It would however, apply to an untrained individual or someone who has switched over from an endurance focused program that is no longer a challenge (improved neuromuscular efficiency from familiar training=less caloric output/glycogen depletion.).

This is very often the case with women who have been convinced to make the leap to (relatively) heavier resistance training, so I feel its worth mentioning.

Typical moderate-high repetition ranges cause sarcoplasmic hypertrophy: Most women just beginning a traditional strength training program will likely (and hopefully) not begin with heavy weights and low repetitions right off the bat.

Even those who have moved on from a P90X/Crossfit type program using exercises similar to those in their new program will likely need to be retrained on technique, which has a tendency to slip a bit during the type of high volume/short rest period program they’ve graduated from.  This is best, and most safely done in a light-moderate weight, moderate-high repetition range.

So what’s the significance of this? Moderate/high repetition training leads mainly to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (as opposed to the myofibril hypertrophy associated with heavier/lower rep training). In English, this means that the fluid-containing sarcoplasm enlarges and…well…holds more fluid.

While this is much less significant than the previously mentioned increase in muscle glycogen/water, it can definitely contribute to that initial weight gain you’re no doubt sick of reading about by now (see, my plan to bombard clients with TMI works!).

This effect will generally subside once repetition range is decreased as weights are increased, although the capacity of the muscle’s sarcoplasm to hypertrophy scales with the myofibril hypertrophy triggered by heavy/low rep training. This is why varying repetition ranges is a good idea for competitors needing to either build or at least maintain muscle (which is virtually all of them).

These are just 5 of the most likely causes of immediate weight gain from a traditional strength training program. Other factors such as exercise induced food reward (see Lyle McDonald’s research review on this…great read), cortisol release (if overtraining), and post-workout uptake of fluid by the muscles for repair can contribute as well. However, these are all either minor, or a result of a piss-poor approach to training/diet, which makes them completely irrelevant for anyone working under my supervision.

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bikini competitors, bloated, caloric surplus, carbohydrate intake, cortisol release, Crossfit, excessive cardio, extracellular water, fat loss, feminine muscles, figure, food reward, glut-4, glut4, glycogen and water, glycogen depleting, glycogen replenishment, heavier resistance training, heavy weight, heavy weights and low repetitions, high volume, immediate weight gain from a traditional strength training program, increased muscle glycogen stores, intracellular, intramuscular water, muscle gain, myofibril hypertrophy, net weight gain, overtraining, P90X, physique competitors, sarcoplasm, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, short rest period, short term weight gain, soft feminine look, traditional strength training, water accompanies glycogen, weight gained

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  1. “Your Scale is Broken. Bring it to me and I will fix it. With my sledgehammer.”

    Love it!! Scales are evil. Great article. I have to say, well I don’t have to but I’m going to, parts of it made my head go “What the….huh…..beep beep beep….shutdown in five, four, three, two……”! I may have to go back re-read a paragraph at a time.

    I actually tend to build muscle fairly quickly for a female. Yay Me! (Boo me because I don’t take advantage of it!) I also notice that after a good session, whether it be weights, running, spin….anything really, I get noticeably “swollen”. I mean, like “Wholly CRAP!” swollen! My legs especially. It goes down, but it’s a bit bothersome at first. Is this normal? Is this a sign that I’m doing something wrong?

    Thanks for all the info. Keep it going.

    “Yeah, I’m cocky, so what.” Ha! You’re also a comedian! 🙂

  2. Hey Lisa

    Yeah, I have to inject a little humor into that type of article 🙂

    Your getting “swole” after you train is perfectly normal. Some of it is inflammation, which keeps water in the muscles for a while post-workout. There is also a fair amount of fluid uptake by your muscles post workout for tissue repair. Its more noticeable in your legs because they’re large muscle groups (and you tend to use them in running and spinning…hopefully), so more capacity to hold water.

    There is also glycogen supercompensation, whereby your muscles hold an increased amount of glycogen (and water @ roughly 3:1 ratio). This happens after significant depletion followed by repletion…so long runs/bike rides can definitely be a factor here. These are the main “culprits”, but again, perfectly normal and necessary.

    Hope that helps!


  3. I just saw this post today. OMG you are a lifesaver!

    I just started training for another show 2 weeks ago with a different trainer and a nutritionist. I have been really good with my diet and been feeling really good with my training as well.
    I’ve always had a bigger lower body so my ex-trainers never let me lift anything heavy for my legs. BUT not this time I’m lifting heavier and less reps. I’m actually feeling good.

    But not this morning… after I put on my dress pants (fits me even when I’m off season) My thighs looked like theyre gonna burst out of my pants. so I weighed my self and found out I GAINED 10 LBS IN 2 WEEKS!!!

    I was panicking. I trust my trainer and nutritionist BUT I was like this is sooooo f’d up! I googled for answers right away and found this.

    Thanks so much for the info! I’m feeling so much better! 🙂

  4. Irene,

    Glad I was able to help! This is a very common occurance and there isn’t really a ton of info on it unless you want to sift through physiology books (yes please!). I actually have a client right now who has more muscular thighs than she’d like and we’re implementing some lower body depletion work followed by moderate cardio (and NO lower body weight training) to let the muscles atrophy. Works really well, but everything has to be just right to avoid overtraining, since calories/carbs are low. Might be something worth looking into if your lower half doesn’t respond better to heavier weights/lower reps than it did to your previous training. Hope the water goes away soon!!!

  5. Oh…must have missed the 10lbs in 2 weeks part…that sounds a bit excessive. Are you prone to big water weight fluctuations? Some of it is likely water from the heavier lifting, but @ 10lbs, I’d be looking at your diet/total calories. See what happens after a couple more weeks, and if there is a difference a couple days after you train legs. 10 lbs is a LOT!!

  6. I know this is a few years after the fact, but you’re the only person who’s addressed this in an article.

    Thank you. I’m type A, and hitting the stage for Figure for the first time (16 weeks out).
    This explains my 2lb weight gain & put my mind at ease.

  7. You’re a lifesaver. Just started lifting moderate weight and noticed a jump in the scale. I’ve always been muscular for a girl but need to loose the fat as well. It’s a game of patience now, results are not instant its all about putting the work in! After just 2 weeks I’m noticing improvement but was discouraged by the number on the scale. This article and my other incessant research is keeping me going forward in my journey.

    Thanks so much!

  8. I love this article! Yes, partially because you made it hilarious while still being informative, but also because I am currently training to do my first figure competition in July. I am doing it ‘naturally’ and have had multiple people tell me I can’t win that way, but it’s how I plan on doing it. I was so excited like 2 weeks ago because I saw my little baby abs for the first time, but haven’t seen anything since, I actually feel like I have gained weight. This article helped me calm down a little, and I really appreciate all the scientific information! I am an exercise physiology major, and I just needed a little kick in the butt to realize that it is only natural. Thanks!!!

  9. Out of curiosity and not pertaining to myself, if you were someone that held a lot of water in your lower body due to soreness and the body trying to help recover..what is the norm on the body later depleting that water? Say a client is holding water in their legs one week prior to stepping on stage? I never really have time to read about a lot of these things I just listen to what I’m told but what if a competitor was over training and cortisol levels were up. What does this typically do?

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