Why you’re gaining weight when you’re working out

“The key thing to remember when you’re assessing body composition if you are interested in the scales, it’s keeping that assessment consistent so doing it at the same time of day before exercise, wearing light clothing and not taking too much into account with what’s happening after exercise”

Working hard but still not feeling your best self? We asked Aquanation trainer Lachlan Kewley how to stop analysing numbers on the scales, make your workouts work for you and reach your body composition goals.

If you’re after a blog story about unhealthy tips for weight loss, this ain’t for you. On the other hand, if you’re wanting to really understand your progress story and get equipped with healthy, useful tips then read on friends.

What happens to our body composition during exercise 

If your goals are around weight loss and body composition, there are a lot of factors at play. So firstly, don’t stress so much about the number on the scales if that’s where you’re looking to see where your progress is at because you’re not getting the whole story.

 “There are a lot of processes that do change after exercise, if you take your blood pressure pre-exercise it might be 130/90, but post exercise that usually declines,” Kewley explains. He adds that putting your body through stress “so it’s going to respond in some way, that can cause fluctuations on the scales.”

And the changes don’t stop at blood pressure either. Kewley uses the example of a heavy resistance training session “which may cause some inflammation, and that may show that may not show increase in weight on the scales, or you might have a more high-volume cardio session which may decrease the weight on the scales because of how much you sweat and the amount of fluid you’re expelling.”

For Kewley, it’s super important to remember that changes on the scales are totally normal and part of the process of doing exercise. Still, if referring to the scales there are ways to understand them better, which will also help you gain a better understanding of your progress.

“The key thing to remember when you’re assessing body composition if you are interested in the scales, it’s keeping that assessment consistent so doing it at the same time of day before exercise, wearing light clothing and not taking too much into account with what’s happening after exercise,” Kewley recommends. 

Still, he is remindful that everything is changing constantly with regards to your body composition throughout the day. “The important thing to remember is don’t get deterred by exercise because of what you see on the scale because your body is responding to whatever stimulus you’ve provided,” the trainer adds. He also points out that if somebody was to measure themselves every hour of the day that number on the scales would change every hour. Why? “It’s just us as humans.”

Does muscle really weigh more than fat 

Yes and no. As Kewley explains, “muscle does have a greater density than fat, however, if you have to quantify it into a number they equal the same.”

To demonstrate his point further, the trainer uses the example of a kilo of steel or a kilo of feathers. “They are the same, one just has more surface area. Your body composition itself will provide that detail of what percentage of muscle mass versus fat mass you have, but if you compare a gram of muscle and a gram of fat they are the same.” 

Yep, once again there’s much more to the weight story than the scales show.

How to pick the right type of workout for your goals 

If you’re not finding your workouts are actually working for your goals, it’s worth looking at what exercises you’re doing and how you can enhance them. “While resistance training builds muscle and strength, it can also increase overall bodyweight purely due to increases on fat mass,” says Kewley.

The trainer emphasises his point once again that the number on the scales doesn’t really provide detail on overall body composition. “You may find with resistance training where your goal is to build muscle and build strength that the number on the scales is slowly going up, but at the same time your body composition is changing within that as well,” Kewley explains.

Alternatively, Kewley recommends engaging in various modes of training instead including resistance training, strength training, cardio training, low-impact training, HIIT training.

“All of those types of exercises are going to be really beneficial in the long term for body composition and the commonality between these types of exercises is they all have a desirable impact on fat mass,” says Kewley.

Again, the trainer stresses that a number on the scales doesn’t tell the full story of what’s really going on. “We need to look at body composition holistically and focus on whole numbers rather than weight numbers on the scale.” If you’re not sure how to decipher it all, Kewley recommends working with a trainer to understand what’s really going on.

Is water weight a real thing?

No this isn’t a suggestion to stop drinking water. In fact, as Kewley puts it: “Water is a good thing and is very important and a lot of people need to be drinking a lot more water.” 

However, since we’re on a mission to get the full story it’s good to have an understanding of how that relates to your body composition goals.

“As humans our makeup is 50-60% bodyweight is water, one third of is made up of extra cellular water (fluid outside the cells) and the other two thirds of intracellular (fluid inside the cells),” explains Kewley. Why is this important? Because “it allows molecules to be transported to various sites such as oxygen, electrolytes and it clears waste for metabolic processes.”

When it comes to early weight loss, there is some water weight loss - well sort of. “When it comes to early weight loss, usually between weeks one to three, largely from water particularly in obese people (BMIs greater than 35+),” says Kewley.  He adds that while that eludes to the concept of water weight, “loss in water is due to the depletion of glycogen and water follows with that.”

So while Kewley explains that one gram of glycogen has about 2.7 grams of water that follows with it, his recommendation is not to decrease fluid intake, but increase the exercise that promotes the depletion of excessive fuel sources that retain water.

“So if we eat something and our body doesn’t need it, our body will store it and that is essentially what we’re trying to do is deplete those stores so water will start to deplete as well,” the trainer clarifies.

And call us a broken record, but you should not be restricting your water (or sweating more out for that matter). This is because “we’ve still got the same amount of glycogen in our body and it will crave the same amount of water and your body still needs that fluid,” Kewley stresses.

What if you’re on a health kick? 

The diet industry is definitely fond of fads and detoxes. And yes, some of us have found success with these - but it’s more often than not short-lived.

“If we look at health kicks we typically think of fad diets and detoxes, which are essentially designed to reduce calorie consumption but 90% of those aren’t sustainable because they don’t address lifestyle change,” Kewley advises. He says, more specifically, “as we restrict calorie intake our body reduces metabolic rate so it makes it harder to sustain weight loss - that makes it harder for us to keep weight off if we’re not doing anything else.”

Because fad diets aren’t sustainable long-term, Kewley it’s more important to get the full picture. “Understand what’s happening with you in that moment in time and whether what you’re doing with your diet long term.”

He points out that if you’re restricting calories to a point where you’re not able to fuel daily activity, “that can be detrimental to your goals and weight loss is a lifestyle change and a behaviour change, not a quick fix.”

When it comes to body composition, it’s all about the long game and that’s why fad diets and detox results have such a short shelf life. “Detox diets create really hard compliance problems for someone when it comes to future results because it’s very hard to maintain a detox diet long-term and when they get to the end of the six weeks for example they haven’t learnt the behavioural changes to make real long-term changes,” the trainer warns.

Instead, Kewley recommends a healthy balanced diet and regular exercise, which will have a much greater benefit to your goals long term.