Q: I just switched to lifting heavier weights a few days ago. Why am I a pound heavier?
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 its 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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