Most of us have gotten the memo: strength training is a must for women who want to improve their health, feel fit and strong, and lose weight. But lifting weights can be an intimidating thing if you’re new to the game. When they first start strength training regularly, some women say they gain weight or feel themselves getting bigger, which can be a turn-off. If that sounds familiar, don’t go anywhere. We chatted with two experts who will explain exactly why that happens and what you can do to prevent it.
“As you demand more from your muscles with weight training, it develops microscopic tears in your muscle,” Joel Freeman, Beachbody Super Trainer, told POPSUGAR. “Then your muscle [is] going to regrow bigger. So with that, it’s going to be heavier.”
“Even though we know muscle weighs more than fat, we see the number creeping up and you definitely freak out.”
This helps to explain why muscle has a greater density than fat, so if you compare the same volume of muscle and fat, muscle would likely weigh more because it takes up less space than an equal mass of fat. If you went from doing zero weightlifting to doing a few sessions a week, the scale will show an increase in weight, because even though your body is becoming leaner, you’re putting on extra muscle where fat used to be. “Even though we know muscle [is denser] than fat, we see the number creeping up and you definitely freak out,” Joel said. “Even my wife deals with it, and she’s been in fitness her whole life. She’s a former gymnast and lifts heavy. Acording to her BMI, she’s borderline overweight, but she is anything but — it’s muscle!”
So the scale actually might not be the best thing to rely on when you’re strength training to get lean. “There’s also minute inflammation when it comes to muscle regeneration, so that might make you feel a little bit bigger,” Joel added. “That’s because your muscles are working and demanding more blood, so you’ve got more blood flowing through your muscles. It’s just a little bit of everything combined.”
“If you’re getting too big, it has nothing to do with your training in the gym. It’s what you eat.”
Magnus Lygdback, a celebrity trainer who has worked with Alicia Vikander, Gal Gadot, and Katy Perry, also chimed in on this topic. “If you’re getting too big, it has nothing to do with your training in the gym,” he told POPSUGAR. “It’s what you eat.”
It’s that simple. If you feel like your body is getting bigger, rather than leaner, as you’re lifting weights, Magnus insists this has nothing to do with your workouts. It’s all about your diet. Easier said than done, we know, because the bottom line is, you get hungrier when you do more strength training.
“It is really easy to be hungry,” Joel confirmed. “That’s how your body reacts when you’re strength training, so it really comes down to making sure that your macros are measured out. Today it’s so easy to measure your macros using apps.”
He recommends following the very simple formula of eating 30 percent protein, 40 percent carbs, and 30 percent healthy fats. This should keep everything balanced and help prevent any extreme weight gain.
“It is really easy to be hungry. That’s how your body reacts when you’re strength training.”
“Food is a big part of life, and it should be enjoyed,” Magnus told POPSUGAR. “I hate the ‘cheat day.’ Seventeen out of 20 meals should be on point, and you should enjoy life three out of 20. So it’s up to you when you want to do those three meals out of 20, but that’s my philosophy.” And it seemed to work for Alicia, because she looks lean AF in the trailer for Tomb Raider.
To sum it all up, if you feel like you’re not getting leaner from strength training, don’t panic. You will inevitably see a little weight gain on the scale, but eventually you will start slimming down. And if you don’t, look closely at what you’re eating, because it’s so easy to overeat when you’re lifting weights. But sticking to your personal macros and following Magnus’s 17/20 rule will certainly get you to where you want to be.
There are two types of exercisers in this world: those who must eat breakfastbefore a sweat sesh, and those that swear it’s better to exercise sans fuel. So who’s right?
To help clear the air, Kristin Speaker, Ph.D, researcher and weight loss coach at Anschutz Health and Wellness Center in Aurora, Colorado, weighed in on the topic. Here’s what you need to know.
Does Fasted Cardio Really Burn More Fat?
In short, yes. Studies have found that exercising in a fasted state can burn nearly 20 percent more fat when compared to sweating it out post-nosh. (Ready to shape up, pronto? Check out Women’s Health’s Ignite routine created by Next Fitness Star Nikki Metzger.)
“The fuel your body uses to burn energy is dependent on a host of factors, the first being whether or not you’ve just eaten,” says Speaker. “Your body likes to burn the fuel that you’ve eaten first. So if you don’t have any fuel because you didn’t eat (meaning you’re in a fasted state), then your body turns to what it has stored away and works to burn that.”
But it all depends on what kind of workout you’re doing. “In general, the easier the exercise, the more actual fat you’re going to burn during the workout,” she says. For example, if you go for a 30-minute walk and cover two miles at a slow, steady pace, then Speaker says you’ll torch approximately 200 calories. If you’ve been fasting, your body will likely burn body fat, because the rate of energy production (a.k.a. how hard you were working) was really low and fat was easily accessible.
On the flip side, if you go for a tough run, then your body starts to burn carbs instead of just fat. “When you go higher in intensity, your body can’t use fat fast enough, so it burns some fat and some carbohydrates,” says Speaker.
That doesn’t mean slow and steady wins, though. Remember that your body only burns more fat during the actual workout when you slow your roll. Numerous studies have shown that high-intensity interval training stokes your metabolism and keeps burning fat long after your routine is done, so depending on how hard you worked, tough sessions may win out after you hit the showers.
But What if You’ve Got No Energy?
It’s clear that busting out cardio before breakfast can be beneficial. But what if you feel like you don’t have enough energy to exercise before you’ve eaten? Well, that’s nonsense, according to Speaker. “You have plenty of energy in your muscle and fat stores to give your body what it needs to exercise,” she says. “Your liver provides glucose for your body, and you don’t really start tapping into that until you deplete the glycogen stores in your muscles. Depending on how fed you were the day before and how trained you are, you have about an hour-and-a-half to two hours before you even dip into your liver glucose.”
In other words, you’re good to do about an hour of cardio, max, while you’re fasted, says Speaker.
Of course, if you’re upping the intensity or going any longer than that, it’s important to start fueling, perhaps with energy chews or gels. But refueling post-workout is what’s really important, so your muscles can start repairing the tiny tears they endure during exercise, says Speaker. One cool upside: Fasting primes your body for the nutrients you’re about to give it. “You’ll better absorb protein, and your body is going to know right where to put it because you’ve used energy, creating space for new energy to go in,” she says. “So protein and carbohydrates will go back into the muscles to help them refuel, as opposed to going into fat stores.”
When It’s an Issue to Sweat Before You Eat
If you’re generally in good health, there aren’t too many downsides to consider so long as you’re doing cardio (it’s a whole different ballgame for strength training), says Speaker. The main issue: Those on a low-carb diet, like Paleo diet followers, may struggle to bust out their best cardio workout because their livers don’t have a lot of fuel readily available, and it’s likely that they’re not fully recovering in between workouts because they’re not refueling their glycogen stores, she explains. But still, that’s not a serious health threat. “You’ll just hit a wall and your body will signal you to stop,” says Speaker.
Working out in a fasted state is a big mental game, says Speaker. “If someone believes they’re going to pass out if they haven’t eaten and they really think they have to get something down before they work out, then I’m going to suggest that they eat,” she says. “It’s not that they physically need the food—they psychologically do. And that’s just as valid.”
With the rise of standing desks, office workers hope to brush off the health risks linked to prolonged sitting, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and early death. But they might do well to walk calories off instead, a new study suggests.
In one of the few studies to carefully count the calories people burn while sitting at a desk, standing, or taking a leisurely stroll, researchers found little difference between being plopped down or upright. Standing for an hour might burn off an extra nine calories or so, about the amount in a single gummy bear. Slow walking, on the other hand, incinerated 2.4 to 2.7-fold more calories than standing or sitting, respectively. If office workers fit in an hour of strolling throughout each day—tallying trips to the bathroom, walks to the printer, or strides on a treadmill desk—they could easily burn through an extra 130 calories. That’s a little more than what previous research suggests could help people keep pounds off, the authors report in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.
“If you’re looking for weight control or just solely at the energy expenditure, standing isn’t that much more beneficial than sitting,” Seth Creasy, an exercise physiologist at the University of Pittsburgh and lead author of the study, told Ars. Of course, calorie burning isn’t the only reason people might choose a standing desk. Being upright could be beneficial for productivity or posture, Creasy said. However, more research is needed to know if those benefits are real because the studies that have been done so far have come up with mixed or inconclusive results.
For energy use, though, the literature is getting pretty clear. In past studies looking into the differences between standing and sitting, researchers found small changes in calorie burningsimilar to those Creasy and his colleagues found. With their new study, they tried to nail those calories down for good and look at more than one single activity at a time. No one gets to the office and sits, stands, or walks for eight hours straight, Creasy explained. People switch positions, take breaks, and move around, he said.
To see if there were any effects of those shifts, Creasy and colleagues set up an experiment with activity combinations. With a total of 74 healthy volunteers, the researchers randomly assigned 18 to sit at a desk with a computer for 15 minutes then stand without fidgeting for 15 minutes. Another 18 participants sat and watched television for 15 minutes and then walked. Twenty started with slow walking—at a self-selected speed of around two and half miles per hour—and then sat and watched TV. And the last 18 stood and then sat at a desk with a computer.
During each 30-minute activity combination, the researchers had the participants fitted with face masks, which basically measured their exhaust. This allowed the researchers to precisely calculate how many calories they were burning.
The researchers were curious if the order of activities changed how much energy participants used overall. For instance, perhaps starting with a walk would rev up calorie burning in subsequent sitting. But it turns out the order doesn’t matter. There was a tiny uptick, but nothing statistically or clinically significant, Creasy said. In the other combinations, the order didn’t matter either.
In general, 15 minutes of walking burned an average of 55.9 calories, sitting with a computer burned 19.63 calories, sitting and watching TV burned 18.66 calories, and standing burned 21.92 calories. There was no statistical significance between the sitting activities and standing, the researchers noted. And even if it does result in a few extra calories burned, it’s unclear if that could result in any measurable health benefit.
Like all studies, this one has some limitations. The study participants were healthy and mostly lean, unlike the general population and perhaps the people most interested in using a standing desk to help lose weight. But Creasy said he expects the general findings to hold up in people who are obese. The study also had people stand or sit as still as they could, so it might not capture any significant variations resulting from fidgeting or shifting around in either scenario.
The study also doesn’t address a fundamental question in the sit vs. stand debate: are the negative health effects linked to prolonged sitting caused by the sitting itself or a lack of activity? Like prolonged sitting, a lack of exercise is also linked to obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. And earlier research has found that those who do sit for long periods but are also activedon’t face the same health risks. But other research has suggested that sitting alone can be bad, causing discomfort and poor circulation. Still, standing for long periods of time may also cause problems such as enlarged veins.
On this bigger question, “the jury is still out,” Creasy said. Researchers are looking into whether exercise can override our sedentary lifestyles, plus whether standing desks benefit productivity, comfort, and other health issues.
A few small studies have come out showing that standing desks can boost productivity, but a few others have shown that they don’t. Others are inconclusive. For instance, in a recent study on the productivity of call center workers who were assigned either standing or sitting desks, researchers found that the standers were as much as 53 percent more productive than sitters. But the study lacked baseline data of how productive each group was to start with, so the results are not conclusive. An interesting find, however, was that in surveys, the standing workers did report less back pain and discomfort than their seated counterparts.
As researchers work out which desk setup might be best, Creasy points out that moving is always a good idea. He suggests getting creative with figuring out ways to add intermittent bouts of walking into your daily routine, such as moving the printer farther down the hall or having walking meetings. He points out that benefits can be seen with just casual, slow walking. This isn’t exercise, he emphasizes.
We’ve been conditioned to think of exercise as a key ingredient — perhaps the most important ingredient — of any weight loss effort.
You know the drill: Join the gym on January 1 if you want to reach your New Year’s weight loss goal.
But in truth, the evidence has been accumulating for years that exercise, while great for health, isn’t actually all that important for weight loss.
To learn more about why, I read through more than 60 studies (including high-quality, systematic reviews of all the best-available research) on exercise and weight loss for a recent installment of Show Me the Evidence. Here’s a quick summary of what I learned.
Exercise accounts for a small portion of daily calorie burn
One very underappreciated fact about exercise is that even when you work out, the extra calories you burn only account for a small part of your total energy expenditure.
There are three main components to energy expenditure, obesity researcher Alexxai Kravitz explained: 1) basal metabolic rate, or the energy used for basic functioning when the body is at rest; 2) the energy used to break down food; and 3) the energy used in physical activity.
What’s important to absorb is the fact that we have very little control over our basal metabolic rate, but it’s actually our biggest energy hog. “It’s generally accepted that for most people, the basal metabolic rate accounts for 60 to 80 percent of total energy expenditure,” said Kravitz. Digesting food accounts for about 10 percent.
That leaves only 10 to 30 percent for physical activity, of which exercise is only a subset. (Remember, physical activity includes all movement, including walking around, fidgeting, et cetera.)
The implication here is that while your food intake accounts for 100 percent of the energy that goes into your body, exercise only burns off less than 10 to 30 percent of it. That’s a pretty big discrepancy, and definitely means that erasing all your dietary transgressions at the gym is a lot harder than the peddlers of gym memberships make it seem.
It’s hard to create a significant calorie deficit through exercise
Using the National Institutes of Health’s Body Weight Planner — which gives a more realistic estimation for weight loss than the old 3,500 calorie rule — mathematician and obesity researcher Kevin Hall created this model to show why adding a regular exercise program is unlikely to lead to significant weight loss.
If a hypothetical 200-pound man added 60 minutes of medium-intensity running four days per week while keeping his calorie intake the same, and he did this for 30 days, he’d lose five pounds. “If this person decided to increase food intake or relax more to recover from the added exercise, then even less weight would be lost,” Hall added. (More on these “compensatory mechanisms” later.)
So if one is overweight or obese, and presumably trying to lose dozens of pounds, it would take an incredible amount of time, will, and effort to make a real impact through exercise alone.
Exercise can undermine weight loss in other, subtle ways
How much we eat is connected to how much we move. When we move more, we sometimes eat more too, or eat less when we’re not exercising.
One 2009 study shows that people seemed to increase their food intake after exercise — either because they thought they burned off a lot of calories or because they were hungrier. Another review of studies from 2012 found that people generally overestimated how much energy exercise burned and ate more when they worked out.
“You work hard on that machine for an hour, and that work can be erased with five minutes of eating afterward,” Hall says. A single slice of pizza, for example, could undo the benefit of an hour’s workout. So could a cafe mocha or an ice cream cone.
There’s also evidence to suggest that some people simply slow down after a workout, using less energy on their non-gym activities. They might decide to lie down for a rest, fidget less because they’re tired, or take the elevator instead of the stairs.
These changes are usually called “compensatory behaviors” — and they simply refer to adjustments we may unconsciously make after working out to offset the calories burned.
We need to reframe how we think about exercise
Obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff has called for a rebranding of how we think of exercise. Exercise has staggering benefits — it just may not help much in the quest for weight loss:
By preventing cancers, improving blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar, bolstering sleep, attention, energy and mood, and doing so much more, exercise has indisputably proven itself to be the world’s best drug – better than any pharmaceutical product any physician could ever prescribe. Sadly though, exercise is not a weight loss drug, and so long as we continue to push exercise primarily (and sadly sometimes exclusively) in the name of preventing or treating adult or childhood obesity, we’ll also continue to short-change the public about the genuinely incredible health benefits of exercise, and simultaneously misinform them about the realities of long term weight management.
The evidence is now clear: Exercise is excellent for health; it’s just not that important for weight loss. So don’t expect to lose a lot of weight by ramping up physical activity alone.
As a society, we also need to stop treating a lack of exercise and diet as equally responsible for the obesity problem in this country. Public-health obesity policies should prioritize fighting the over-consumption of low-quality food and improving the food environment.
Trimming the fat — that’s what fitness is all about. But taking the very notion of slimming things down and applying it to all aspects of your life can be equally as difficult, and equally as satisfying, as becoming more fit and muscular. Imagine if you could trim the proverbial fat from your workday, commute, or any other number of responsibilities? Chances are, you’d reclaim a good amount of time, and be a lot happier.
For the uninitiated, playing the architect and devising a fitness routine can be difficult — so difficult that we’ve trimmed things down to six simple exercises that can get you started on the path to success.
Squats will always be a workout staple. | iStock.com
We discuss squats a lot — and for a good reason. Squats are basically the founding lift or exercise that everything else builds on top of. Squats not only help you build a powerful lower body, but also work your abs, back, and really to some extent, your entire body. You’ll become stronger, faster, improve your range of motion, and your balance as well. There are many, many reasons why squats are integral to a balanced workout, so be sure to get them in.
This is why they tell you not to skip leg day.
Chin-ups and pull-ups are the ultimate display of strength. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Think of pull-ups as the squat of the upper-body. It’s an exercise that incorporates nearly every muscle in your personal northern hemisphere, and forces everything to work in conjunction: your back, chest, abs, and arms. Hell, you’ll even get a little cardio going. Of course, there’s a steep curve for pull-ups, as a lot of people can’t even do one. But that shouldn’t deter you — do what you can, focusing on form. Before you know it, you’ll be busting several out over a few sets.
3. Power cleans
This lift works your entire body. | Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
The clean is an excellent lift, with the only potential downside being they require access to barbells and gym space. Even so, this is one of those lifts that, similar to squats, will get your whole body into action. Not only will you be using your lower body to get a powerful lift off, but you’ll need your back and core, and finally your arms to handle the weight once you get it above your waist. You’ll develop explosiveness and definitely build a lot of muscle by incorporating cleans into your workout. There are substitutes, like rows, but if you can, get your hands on a barbell and some plates for the full experience.
Planks will give you the abs of your dreams. | iStock.com
Here’s an exercise that can be done in a barren fitness center, devoid of any equipment, or even in a hotel room or airport. Planking is so much more than just a passing internet video fad — it’s one of the better exercises that can be adopted into your regimen. Planks will give your core and upper legs a real workout and even help sculpt your abs. And there are a ton of variations you can throw into the mix as well to ensure you don’t get bored.
Lunges are great for your booty. | iStock.com
As if we haven’t given your lower body enough of a run-through, we’re going to add lunges to the list. Lunges, like planks, can be done in a much more convenient setting, and only require a set of barbells — or anything weighty that can be carried, really. Lunges will train your glutes and quads, helping you build explosive muscle that will also help with cleans, squats, and deadlifts. Use them in addition to your other lifts, or if you can’t do anything else, use the simplicity of lunges to your advantage.
Burpees are tough, but they’re seriously effective. | iStock.com
Yes, the exercise you probably hate the most is, indeed, one of the most effective. Burpees are the whole package — they raise your heart rate with the jumping movement and offer strength gains with the squat, plank, and push-up positions. If you’re unfamiliar with how a burpee works, you begin by jumping up and then immediately lowering to the ground to perform a push-up. Once the push-up is complete, hop your feet back in, and jump skyward once more. This is just one rep — do as many as you can in a minute to complete a set, or try out one of these difficult variations.
A new study from Macquarie University has found that people’s perception of their own and other people’s body weight can change in as little as two minutes.
The study looked at how the perceptual mechanisms in a person’s brain adapt in response to images of one’s own or other people’s bodies that have been manipulated to look thinner or fatter than they really are.
“After two minutes of being exposed to images of thinner versions of themselves or others, we saw that the neural mechanisms controlling participants’ perceptions actually adapted to see thin images as normal,” lead author Associate Professor Kevin Brooks explained.
“Original sized body images now looked fatter to them.”
The opposite was also true: exposure to fatter body types made participants see original body sizes as skinny.
The researchers also found that while there were different brain mechanisms controlling a person’s perception of their own body size and the body size of other people, the two mechanisms can also affect each other.
“This means that being exposed to images of skinny people doesn’t just make you feel bad about your own body size, which has been known for a while, it actually affects the perceptual mechanisms in your brain and makes you think you are bigger or smaller than you really are,” said Dr Ian Stephen, another author of the study.
“Duration and frequency of exposure definitely play a role, but the fact that the brain adapts after such a short exposure time suggests we are incredibly susceptible to being manipulated by images of different sized bodies.”
The researchers say that the results add another piece of the puzzle to our current understanding of mental health problems involving body image disturbance, such as anorexia nervosa and muscle dysmorphia, and could potentially be used in the development of treatments for such conditions.
“There is only one way for information to be received by our brains: through the perceptual and neural mechanisms fed by our senses. By unpacking the details of the neural mechanisms involved in body size perception we are hoping to discover more about how the brain deals with this information as a whole, so that we can understand how conditions involving body image disturbance arise,” Associate Professor Brooks concluded.