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Working Out But Gaining Weight? Here’s Why

woman frustrated with scaleYou’ve finally made it past the point of wanting to get healthy and lose weight. You’ve not only made plans for eating better and working out, but you actually put those plans into action. It’s been a month now, and not only have you not lost any weight, but you’ve actually gained some! Why?

Working Out But Not Losing Weight

Believe it or not, gaining weight at the beginning of a new exercise program is quite common. Not only is it common, but it is normal. If you have not exercised regularly in months, you can expect to add a couple of pounds at the beginning, but have no fear, this weight gain is good weight gain, and it will do nothing to keep you from reaching your goals as long as you understand what is actually going on.

Increased Energy Reserve Capacity

Let’s assume that your calorie intake isn’t 500-1000 calories above maintenance levels on a daily basis. This is a safe assumption to make, as most weight losers don’t come anywhere close to eating maintenance calories. In fact, they tend to under eat. So then, if your calories are below maintenance levels, how could you possibly be gaining weight – especially if you’ve been exercising too?

Your body stores energy in two main ways – fat and glycogen. Fat storage is fairly linear – meaning it fluctuates slowly based on your current lifestyle. However, glycogen storage can swing wildly on a day to day basis depending on the type of exercise you do, the amount you do, and how long it’s been since you’ve done any exercise.

Glycogen Storage

Your body mostly stores glycogen in the muscles, but it also stores it in the liver. Glycogen comes from glucose, which comes from eating carbohydrates (or protein via gluconeogenesis). When we eat carbs our body breaks them down into glucose. That glucose enters the bloodstream, and any extra is taken up by insulin and stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver.

Here’s the thing though, that glucose is combined with water to form glycogen. In fact, every gram of glucose is stored with about 3 grams of water [1]. Taking that one step further, the average person can store about 15 g/kg of body weight of glycogen [2]. So, let’s do a little math:

  • A 200 pound person weighs about 90kg
  • At 15 g/kg, that person carries 1350 grams of glycogen (15 * 90 = 1350)
  • 1350 grams equals 3 pounds (1350 / 453 grams in a pound = 3 pounds)

That’s right, 3 pounds of glycogen is what this person stores on average in their muscles and liver. If he were going from a sedentary lifestyle to a very active one, the swing in intracellular water weight could be several pounds. Your capacity to store glycogen increases as you increase your work load.

Water Weight and Fat Are Not the Same

You might think that is an obvious statement, but if it were, there wouldn’t be so many people wondering why they’re working out but gaining weight. This water weight is good weight. It is fuel within the muscles for high-intensity exercise. It is going to make your muscles look full, and keep the cells hydrated so they can do their job efficiently.

It is so important that you get over the idea of weight during your weight loss program. You’d be better off calling it a fat loss program. That’s what you’re trying to do anyways, isn’t it? Weight fluctuates drastically even during a small window of time. Fat loss is a much more stable process.

Read more about the difference between weight loss and fat loss.

Before you freak out and quit your fitness program over discouraging scale readings, remember that just because you gained weight, it doesn’t mean you didn’t lose fat. You have to measure fat if you want to know what is really going on.

If you’re not measuring your body fat, you’re navigating in the dark. Measuring your body fat will tell you how much of that weight gain was lean body mass and how much of it was fat. Your scale won’t do that.

Here’s a cheap pair of body fat calipers to measure your body fat with.

Be prepared for a little weight gain at the beginning of your weight loss program, and understand where it’s coming from. Take before and after body fat measurements, and have confidence that you are doing what you need to do to not only reach your weight loss goals, but to be healthy both on the inside and out.

  • niafolla

    This article is very informative and gives me a far better idea of what is going on. From day to day my weight can fluctuate about 6lbs which is huge. I have been on a diet and exercise program for about a month and can say that I have lost a full 5 lbs because i no longer fluctuate that high anymore. This fluctuation makes it hard to gage progress when one day you have lost 10lbs and the next it is only 5lbs. The only solace I have is that the tape measure seems pretty consistent and I know I have shaved 2.5 inches off my waist.

    • Coach Calorie

      If the tape measure is showing progress, you are definitely moving in the right direction. The weight fluctuations can be drastic, especially at the beginning. The more consistent you are with your eating and exercise, the more consistent your water fluctuations will be.

  • Falon

    That’s where I’m ALWAYS confused! I use my fitness pal and it my calorie intake is 1300 per day and I’m 212lbs, I’ve been working out daily .. I think I’m suppose to be eating more but I’m not sure so I stick close to the intake mfp suggests ..

    • Coach Calorie

      1300 calories isn’t much for your weight. I prefer not to eat below my BMR. Do you know your lean body mass? If you do, keep your calories above (21.6 * lean body mass in kg + 370)

      • Falon

        Is that something I would need to get the calipers for? To find out what my lean body mass is? A lot of what you just replied with I don’t understand.

        • Coach Calorie

          Calipers would be the cheapest way to do that. Lean body mass is your non fat mass. Once you find that number you can put it into the formula I showed you to determine BMR. Your BMR is your basal metabolic rate, which is the number of calories you need to perform basic body functions. I would not eat below this number.

          • Falon

            Thank you, I will look into figuring out that number

  • DaniMarie

    I needed this today. Thanks, Coach. I’m in my third week of a clean diet and back into a regimented work out plan…and the scale has gone up a few pounds and not budged since. Thank you for the info and reassurance.

    • Coach Calorie

      Very typical. Make sure you take body fat measurements so you can really see what’s going on, and stay confident that you can’t go wrong eating whole foods and being active :)

  • Leslie Hamstra Snyder

    I’m really frustrated. I have been stuck at the same point for over a year. I get to 157 (I am 5’6) and I will not go past it. I try to keep my calories on workout days to 1400-1600 and still it won’t budge, nor have the meansurements budged. I do sprint triathlons so my workouts consist of about an 60-90 minutes of swimming, biking or running 6 days a week and have started to put in some cross training (sit ups, ,push ups, squats, etc..). I havre tried to make sure I am drinking plain water 64-80 oz a day, still not helping. I have joined a new team so my workout intensity has increased dramaticallyl in the last month, hoped that would help, nope.

    I am stuck and tired of it.

    • Coach Calorie

      Hi Leslie, you do a lot of intense exercise for 1400 calories. Have you ever experimented with bumping up your calories some?

      • Leslie Hamstra Snyder

        I just read your article on doing the 12 x my body weight. I think I may try this out and see if it helps to bump up my calories. I do suspect that I may not be eating enough. My BMR has always been right around 1490 (did the body gem a few years ago and the arm band both came out similar.) I get the thryoid checked every few years and it’s always in line. I had lost 40 lbs 4 years ago when I started tris and ate around 1500 calories and lost the weight. I guess that’s why I expect it to work the same now that I am 40. Unfortunately I got sick for 3 months 2 years ago and gained 15 back, but I cannot get it off.

        • Coach Calorie

          I’d start bumping up your calories 200-300 per day for 2 weeks at a time and remeasuring to see what’s going on. Pay attention to body fat though, as more carbs could temporarily bump up glycogen storage (as explained in the article).

          • Leslie Hamstra Snyder

            thanks! I am going to give it a shot!

  • Michele

    Great article! I have this conversation with so many of my clients. But, I now for them (and for my during my transformation) it was a mindshift to stop thinking like a dieter and think like and athlete!

    • Coach Calorie

      Think like an athlete. I like that ;)

  • Allison

    This is always great to hear. Because of you I put my scale in storage and now go by a measuring tape and the calipers you recommended. Mentally it has made me much more focused. Thank you as always.

    • Coach Calorie

      Good to hear Allison. Losing weight is such a mental challenge, and the scale certainly doesn’t help in that respect.

  • Suzanne

    This is exactly what’s been happening to me! I start eating clean, stop snacking at night and start working out and my weight goes up which causes me to get discouraged and return to my bad habits. I always thought if I’m getting fatter why bother? But now that I’ve read this article I feel better and I will put my scale away and just keep working hard.

  • Coach Calorie

    I’m telling you Suzanne, your frustrations are more common than you might think. That first month of a new lifestyle is practically a transitional phase. The real magic happens in the months ahead. Hang in there!

  • cynthia v.

    I love the idea of taking my body fat. It is frustrating to see the scale not budge or go up. Question: What is your opinion on handheld body fat analyzers. I have one that is battery run by Omron. My body fat measurements from my gym do not match the numbers on my hand held one.

  • ken

    I understand … I started my weight loss journey 6 months ago, and by eating entirely different and changing my lifestyle, I am down 85 lbs so far.. I stopped the ice cream, fast food, eating out, processed food – basically treating my body like a sewer, and started eating leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, juice smooties daily (thick,blended, 12-15 different veggies and fruits with a 3-1 veggie to fruit ratio), elminated almost all high gylcemic foods, high dietary fiber – 40g+ most days, high protien (30% of total caloric consumption from whey protien, eggwhite omlettes, albacore tuna -little to no red meat , chia, flax seeds daily – legumes, nuts — and one cheat day a week that I eat as much of anything I want.

    The thing that is tough, though — is given that my goal is 100lbs down by 2/23 (my birthday) – it is frustrating when I deviate slightly (had one night where I ate quite a bit of carmel corn, and the next day big stirfry with light soy sauce, etc) – yet because I ate even more strict and cleaner than before for 11 straight days before that (not one cheat day, processed food or meal), I gained 14 — yes 14 — pounds in water weight that two weeks later I have only lost 12 of, despite hitting the gym 6 times since, and continuing to eat stellar (no cheat- low sodium days) — Funny thing is, my clothes are looser and looser—

    I guess the point is that the scale can play tricks on you — when I started this at 435 lbs, couldnt move without pain, couldnt walk two minutes without being out of breath- it wasnt easy – my body was in such shock from eating clean that when I ate anything with medium-high sodium I would gain 8 lbs in three hours afterwards — mathmatically impossible… But the end result is I had full blown diabetes, poor good and bad cholesterol, and electrolytes– In 8 weeks all of those things turned around, including the diabetes being gone. 4 weeks later my numbers looked like that of somebody half my size and in good health. Please dont let the scale fool you – judge by the progress that you accomplish

    • Asia Warnock

      wow Ken, you rock! thanks for the encouragement. incidentally, what advice do you follow for ideal grams of protein per meal and per day?

  • Coach Calorie

    I tend to not trust the accuracy of those devices, although I am testing out a body fat scale right now. More than anything, it should tell you an accurate relative change, even if the actual body fat percentage is off. With those devices you need to be consistent with measuring (same time of day after eating similar amounts of food, etc).

  • Coach Calorie

    Great story Ken. Thanks for sharing. Hang in there and keep doing what you’re doing.

  • Maran

    Great article, but I’d like to share an opposite. I’ve never been serious about exercising, but from what I had gathered my eating habits were generally not that unhealthy. I don’t do fast foods and very rarely drink soda (when I do, I opt for the diet variation which I’ve also given up now due to fear of all the chemicals and artificial stuff I read they put in), however, I am still overweight. My BMI was 27. I started counting calories as a new year resolution ( I make sure I get quality calories and try as much as possible to keep it under 1400 – an app called My Fitness Pal suggests I eat around 1700 calories a day). I have started exercising everyday (or at least 6 days a week), I primarily do cardio (walk on the treadmill for about 60 to 70 minutes at an incline of 15, speed ranging from 4.5 kph to 5.5 kph). I keep it low impact because i just can’t keep up running for an extended period of time. Since the beginning of February I have started some light weight training. I’m happy to say I have lost about 13 pounds and look forward to break away from an overweight BMI ratio very soon! I’m almost there!

    • Coach Calorie

      Hi Maran, congrats on the progress! Did you mean you lost 13 pounds since the beginning of January? We are only a week into Feb, so that’s a lot of weight loss for a week :)

      • Maran

        Yes, that is correct Coach! Do you think it’s too much, too quick? My wife seems to think that I’m obsessed with losing weight. I go for a walk after lunch, I go for a walk when my computer at work tells me to take a break (my company insists on us using a software that tells us to take a break every couple of hours or so for ergonomic reasons), I go for a walk every time I can (and that is excluding my daily evening routine on the treadmill)!

  • Angie

    After reading this, I am expecting my body fat caliper to arrive by tomorrow from Amazon. If I’ve been on a diet plan for six weeks which had too few calories (have been at plateau for a month now), is it better to jump right on up to 12x current body weight, or to do this gradually so as not to undo the weight loss I had from the first two weeks?

  • Tracey

    I was hoping you can help me confirm that my ‘fat’ loss program is on the right track. I have been working out 6 days a week for about a year (4 days a week of kickbox and the other 2 days of some HIIT including cardio). On top of these workouts I also walk at least an hour a day. My diet consists of approx 1650 cals a day and are based on avg of 20-25 fat (very little Sat and zero Trans), 30-35% lean proteins, and the remainder is made up of low GI and complex carbs. I haven’t seem to budge on the scale and my body fat% hasn’t changed much either. Last couple of weeks I have shuffled up my cals so that I still avg 1650 a week but I have high and low days. Any tips on what I may be doing wrong? I’m trying not to get discouraged but somedays are tough to maintain my motivation. (I am 5’9, 150lbs, female, age 40)

  • Coach Calorie

    For just over 5 weeks, I don’t think it’s necessarily too much, especially if you’re just getting started, as much of that will be water weight too. Just don’t be discouraged if you don’t maintain that pace. 1-2 pounds per week is much more realistic.

  • Coach Calorie

    I don’t know what calorie intake you’re coming from. I would increase it 200-300 calories a day for 1-2 weeks at a time.

    • rangies3

      The nutrition coach had me on 1200. In the first week, I felt really hungry and had a lot of irritability and fogginess (likely while the processed junk was clearing out, I figured). After 2 weeks, I was down 12-13 lbs. Since then, nothing. It keeps bouncing up and down around the same pound mark. One of your other articles referred to these benchmark levels (I’m not using the right word)? This is one of those points I always hang at, whether it be gain or loss (depending on my habits). I am needing to lose a total of 30-35 lbs, so I still have a long way to go. I’m glad to have gotten off the 12-13, but a month at this weight is playing mental tricks on me now, making me feel like I’m failing.

  • Coach Calorie

    Hi Tracey, what are you eating when you’re not eating healthy, and how often do you have cheat meals?

  • Fiona James

    A very good article!

  • Robin Baker Ives

    Such a great article. I am using a body fat scale by Omron right now and it seems to be accurate. I step on it in the morning first thing. Not every day but maybe once a week. I feel the scale is so not the best way to measure. I have lost only 25 pounds since last year but I am down from an exploding size 12 to a comfie size 6. That is measurement enough for me. I eat about 1600 healthy calories a day – protein at all meals. I do mostly weight lifting and very little cardio. I have never felt better in my life. Love reading this articles!!!

  • Amie Pejcic

    This is a fantastic article. A couple of weeks ago i weighed myself after a month of hard training and eating sensibly, i didnt feel like im losing any weight. im still the same; but my body fat was down, and my clothes are loose. Im getting there with stomach crunches and the plank, but is there anything else i can do to get my stomach a bit flatter, as im sick of people asking me if im pregnant? p/s im 5″7.3″ tall would i look too skinny if i weigh 67kg, as thats my target weight?

    • Coach Calorie

      Your perception of yourself is all that matters. Whether I’d think you’re too skinny is besides the point.
      To flatten your tummy keep your attention on your diet. Can’t spot reduce fat with exercise.

  • Sandy Ellis

    Just eat healthy and train hard, it takes care of itself. Gadgets are a waste of money and weighing yourself every week is a waste of time. Get on the scale once a month or every 6 weeks or so.

    • Coach Calorie

      I wouldn’t go so far as saying gadgets are a waste of money, but I do agree with you on weighing yourself.

  • kendy

    Everytime I get on the scale, I get discouraged. I work out 6 days a week for 1 hr everyday, I eat healthy and when I go on the scale, it still shows that I have not lost or that I only lost 1lb since I started my weight loss journey. I feel like giving up.

  • sbc32wildflower

    wow good to know because I started… didn’t want anything to discourage me

  • Claudia.C

    I love this article. I have a question for you Coach Calorie, i work out 5 days a week for 30 mins. I consume up too 800 to 1,200 calories a day, but i am not losing any weight. I am using the Lose It app, and i eat so healthy and make the right choices when it comes to having a healthy lifestyle. But it seems that i am not losing weight, and the lose it app, keeps saying i consume up to 700mg of sodium a day to 1000mg. Is that the reason why , I am not losing weight. I am getting discouraged and want to give up. I am 5’3 and weight 160 , i have been working out for a month now, and also the Lose It app says i should consume only 1,200 calories per day.

  • Gail

    Year ago I ran a marathon but during marathon training I started to put on weight but calorie intake was around 1100 – 1200 calories (far too low).continued gainingweight ( 10kg).still running 24miles a week , weight train with a personal trainer x1weekly,weight session on my own x1,x1circuit class,x1kettle fit class per week .body media gadget estimates calories should be 1700 with a 1100 deficiet each day.initially 6lb weight loss but all has stopped and weight flunctuates up and down to starting weight ?? Not sure what else todo ??

  • Coach Calorie

    I wouldn’t go any more than 1000 calorie deficit, and depending on your starting body composition, this may be too much. Measure your body fat and aim for .5% body fat loss per week.

  • Cathy

    I did WW hardcore for two years – lost a total of about 25 pounds in the first year, and according to their goal for me, I had another 25 to lose. The last year of doing it I stopped losing, so I started working out intensely. For the next year I did an average of 7-9 hours a week of studio classes (Zumba, turbo-kick, kettlebell, etc.). I gained back about 8 pounds….(and it’s definitely not all muscle! LOL!) Is it possible that the stress hormones of working out too hard for a 48 yr old menopausal woman make weight loss almost impossible? I’m exhausted from dieting and working out for hours every day, and I’m still fat.

    • Coach Calorie

      The weight gain that occurs when you start a new exercise program happens within the first month. If you have weight gain after a year, there are other issues at fault. And no, I think it’s far from impossible for you to lose weight during menopause.
      Have you tried cutting back on the exercise a bit? Overtraining can cause many of the symptoms you’re experiencing. Working out should be fun and sustainable. 3 intense workouts a week mixed in with being active the other days should be plenty. Combine that with a diet that is 90% whole foods and you will see positive body composition changes.

    • Mitchy

      Cathy, thank you for writing this!! I, too am a 48 menopausal woman and going thru the same things!! Us girls gotta stick together. :)

  • Hannah-Rose

    Hello, Would you say a 5lb weight gain in the first month of Resistance, Kettlebell and Circuit Training is normal? You said be prepared for a little weight gain, what quanitfies as a little? :) Thanks HR

  • Coach Calorie

    I don’t think that’s unheard of, but if you continue to gain weight after that, I’d look closely at your diet to make calorie or nutrient timing adjustments.

  • Suzanne

    Are the calipers easy for a person to measure themselves?

  • Coach Calorie

    You definitely won’t be able to do all the site by yourself. Do the sites you can reach and then compare the measurements week to week.

  • angelina me

    I have been exercising 4 to 5 days a week, jog, walk, push ups, arm dips, step ups, squats , lunges, crunches… for 45 mins to an hour, one day a week I do cross fit ,,,,, been doing this for almost 2 months, drinking plenty of water, feeling great but only lost not even 3 pounds, my husband said it looks like I had lost 15 to 20, I can tell things are changing a bit, my stomach, my legs, hips and love handles…. Why am I not losing more weight ??? So frustrated

  • Coach Calorie

    Other than what I explained in this article, you need to also be measuring body fat percentage changes, and if you aren’t already, start counting calories so that you can manipulate them when weight loss stalls.

  • Mitchy

    A huge THANK you for this explanation!! I was getting so discouraged after a month of eating clean, upping my workout regimen, having more energy than I have had in years, and all my clothes fitting great, only step on the scale and gained upward to 5 lbs! I have decided to skip the scale for now, and gage my progress on that favorite pair of jeans I am trying to get in!

  • Beth

    I really needed to read this, I only have around 10lbs to lose but have been stuck in a spiral of eating clean and exercising well for a week, seeing no weight change and so getting discouraged and bingeing on cookies! I’m now going to refer back to this page every time I feel discouraged…thanks!!

  • Louise

    I am really really enjoying your articles and am going to start printing them out and making a library :) My clients are loving it too – thanks so much for taking the time to share all this with us

  • Jenifer Conner

    So frustrating! I hit the gym for about two months straight doing about an 40 mins of cardio and 30 minutes of the work out machines, I gain 12 lbs in that two months and it seemed I was just building muscle on top of my fat, The fat just wouldnt go away, I know I have trouble eating most of the time I just cant seem to feed myself at the right times and now my weight has just got out of hand! I dont know what to do or how to get my self back on track!

    • Tony Schober

      Start tracking calories carefully. 12lbs means you were eating too much. Measure and weigh all your food and then create a calorie deficit.

      • Jenifer Conner

        Like I said I’m not a big eater! I do notice though when I force myself to eat in the morning I tend to lose a little more weight, I have a history of hypothyroidism so I’m wondering if that is still part of the issue? And if that is contributing to my weightloss failure what can I do to overcome those obsticals?

        • Tony Schober

          Big eater or not, you need to start tracking your calories. There is only one way to gain weight, and that’s eating too much for your activity levels. Track everything that goes into your mouth. You might be surprised how many calories you’re eating.

  • Tony Schober

    I recommend anyone that eats under 1000 calories to increase them. Food is nutrition. It is not your enemy. Slowly start raising your calories (50-100 calories per day at a time) each week.

  • Tony Schober

    How about approaching weight loss from the standpoint of health? Weight loss is a side effect of living a healthy lifestyle. Go right to the root of the problem.

  • Tony Schober

    What I’m getting at is to take a deep breath and start thinking more long term. It’s easy to get caught up in day to day details almost to the point that you become obsessive. Try to consistently make healthy choices on a daily basis and work on forming habits that will take you to your goal. Then, be patient. I know it’s a vague answer, but if you’d like details, there are many articles on this site to keep you occupied for weeks. Good luck!

  • Tony Schober

    12 pounds is a bit much to be explained solely by muscle glycogen. Start tracking your calories. You might be overeating and not realizing it.

  • Tony Schober

    Hi Jen,

    If I were you, I’d eat maintenance calories and focus on changing my body composition instead of losing more weight. At your height, 125 pounds is a healthy weight. If you think you have too much fat on your body, consider adding muscle to your frame while dropping body fat, and remaining at the same weight.
    Something around 1800 calories is a good place to start. You can increase or decrease as necessary depending on the results you get, but focus more on body fat than weight.

  • Tony Schober

    If you didn’t change your calories, then I’m sure it’s just a water weight fluctuation. Stick with your plan for another week or two and if you don’t lose any weight, cut your calories some. Also, if you want better piece of mind, consider investing in some body fat calipers.

  • Tony Schober

    The time period after having a baby is highly variable when it comes to weight fluctuations. There are just so many things going on with milk production, hormones, and water retention. I’m not sure if you’re breast feeding, but if you are, you’re likely not eating enough calories. Don’t be afraid to eat, especially right now. But yes, if you eat healthy and stay active, you can make progress.

  • Tony Schober

    Not doing anything wrong. When you go from no exercise to exercise, you gain water retention within muscles, as I explained in the article. The opposite is also true if you stop working out – you initially lose some of that water retention. Make no mistake, it is always a good think to work out. Stick with it, ignore the initial weight gain, and then be patient as it slowly comes down.

  • Tony Schober

    It really depends on how sedentary your lifestyle was before you starting working out, but yes, it is possible. I wouldn’t expect any more of an increase though. If you want piece of mind pick up a pair of body fat calipers so you can see where the extra weight is coming from (muscle, fat, water).