Part II of Women, You’ll Get Bigger Before You Get Smaller
One of our most popular posts, Women, You’ll Get Bigger Before You Get Smaller, gets quite a lot of feedback. The post currently has over 200 comments and we get emails almost daily about the article.
In that article, Stephanie talks about the transition many women will go through after they start lifting weights. Women will often see muscle gain before fat loss and therefore there is a transition period where women will actually get bigger before they get smaller.
And after talking with hundreds of women and poring through studies, it turns out that there is more to just muscle gaining that’s happening: there’s another reason women are gaining weight.
Exercise (alone) doesn’t work.
Most women we talk to have their training down. I’m talking about women who are lifting 3-5 times per week, barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and heavy. It’s awesome and it’s exactly what women (and men) need. But everyone thinks that the training is the only problem.
Training is NOT the problem. This is what I’m hearing:
My food is great. I just can’t figure out why I’m not losing weight. I’m 5’6 and weight 180 lbs train 5 times a week and I eat mostly whole foods, lots of beans, grains, rice, quinoa, lentils……
I know my food is good. I eat at least 100 grams of protein and only have cheat meals only on the weekends…
I’m 5’4, eat 1200 calories a day–mostly healthy, a lot of yogurt, fruits, almonds, work out for an hour a day each day, all my carbs in the morning, mostly all low fat…
Or the one I love most–which I have been guilty of saying one time too many:
I work out several hours a day. Why do I need to worry so much about food?
Let’s address the last quote first: it’s the easiest.
Many women that we have spoken with feel they can be more relaxed and not worry about their nutrition just because they are exercising more, or because they have started lifting weights and studies all show that weightlifting means muscle growth and muscle growth means food!
This is true. However, it’s not “that” true in the fact that women (and some men) can get away with eating whatever they want. Science will show that most women store glycogen in their muscles (they store carbs!) longer than men. While most men can get away with eating a lot–or even what they want–after training, most women still have to be very cautious.
Exercise is VERY important, however it is NOT the ONLY part of the getting lean equation.
In order to become that lean-mean-fighting-machine you desperately desire, you will need to follow a proper training program AND understand both proper nutrition and how your body responds to various foods.
In a University of Texas study, a group of 100 non-exercisers participated in a study to see how effective exercise was.
The researchers divided the participants of non-exercisers into two groups. Half would continue to not exercise and half would exercise.
The exercising group did three weight training sessions a week and two group fitness (interval style) classes a week for a total of about five hours of training a week.
And neither the training group nor the control group altered their eating habits at all.
So the question became, can exercise alone reshape a person’s body?
The answer: Not really.
After 12 weeks, the exercising group averaged about 1% body fat loss. After 12 weeks of five hours of exercise a week they only lost ONE PERCENT!?!
Nutrition is KEY
There is an often heard quote that floats around the bodybuilding world, which is contributed to many different folks, that 90% of improving your body composition is nutrition.
Most consider this an exaggeration but as this University of Texas study points out, you HAVE to watch what you eat.
Many of the women we have spoken with regarding the You’ll Get Bigger article have done just the opposite. Lifting weights has had little impact on their body composition because they have either not improved their eating, OR WORSE, their nutrition has turned into too many “I deserve it” splurges and cheat meals.
I’m sorry. You can’t just eat whatever you want.
Many begin to feel they have earned the right to eat whatever they want because they worked out. Well this simply doesn’t work. Yes you can earn a cheat meal here and there but in order to see the gains you want, you will have to improve your nutrition first and foremost.
Unfortunately, the body of a woman is too complex. Eating what you want when you want, typically doesn’t bode well unless you have awesome freaking genetics. Some people do. Some are people are born LaBron James. Some people can eat whatever they want. Then there’s the rest of us.
So you’ve got to start looking at your food as fuel for your body, your lifestyle, and your goals. Will eating half a pizza after squat day help you reach the body you’re trying to get? Will a pint of your favorite ice cream work for glycogen replenishment post training? Will a bagel smothered in peanut butter be a perfect breakfast when you know you’re deadlifting tonight at the gym?
The answer? No….and Yes. Here’s how you have to start thinking:
- First, don’t eat half a pizza post training, especially if you’re trying to get lean. Can you have one slice? Maybe even two? Yes…if you really want pizza. (And for the record, if you REALLY want pizza, you should have pizza.) But, can you think through this better? Of course. You just killed those squats. You can’t WAIT for #gainz! So eat something that contains at least 20 grams of protein, and 40 grams of simple carbs.
- Second: ice cream is simple carbs right?! So why not have ice cream post training? Ice cream contains fat. Fat is not good to eat post training. You won’t see your gains. Are you eating foods too high in fat after your workout? This could be a simple fix. Eat 20-25g of protein soon after your lifting with 40-50 grams of simple carbs: fruit, rice, heck–low fat frozen yogurt if you really want your ice cream. It will work! Fat won’t.
- Third: if you’re lifting at 5 pm, why are you eating a bagel at 8am?! Eat your fats (that peanut butter you love) early in the day. Put it on celery and grab a (plain) yogurt, some eggs, or make a protein shake. Save your bagel for an hour or so before training. Whatever carbs you eat in a day, save them for around your workout! Eat them before you train. Save a good amount of them for after. Lifting heavy for an hour or more? Eat some carbs in between lifts to keep your energy up. Carbs around your workout is another easy tweak you can make for better and faster results.
Think about what you’re eating and ask yourself, is this the best time to eat this? You have no idea how these little tweaks can make a world of difference for you.
Let me make this as easy as I can:
- Eat carbs and protein before, during, and after your workout.
- Any other time of day, eat protein, fats, and veggies.
The next problem we want to address is that we’re finding too many women still aren’t eating enough OR are scared to eat more than they’re used to. We’ve written SO much on this and we’re still producing more content. Read these posts if you haven’t read them yet to find out if you’re eating enough food.
- How many calories should I be eating?
- How much protein do I really need?
- How do I know how many carbs and fats I need?
- What are “macros” and how do I count them?
Last, there is one more reason that you may be gaining weight instead of losing it.
Could this be you?
You first started exercising more and eating less in efforts to lose weight. Your body’s response was positive: Your hypothalamus and pituitary sent signals out to the thyroid gland, adrenal glands, and ovaries, resulting in a coordinated hormonal effort that helped you burn fat and possibly gain muscle too. Of course, this was awesome.
Until it wasn’t.
This exercise more, eat less stress was prolonged several weeks and your metabolism began to compensate for this stress: you got hungrier, your energy levels changed, you got cravings for typically “unhealthy” foods, and a decline in your thyroid started to slow down your metabolism. This is where your body started “adapting” to your eat less/workout more strategy, and in an effort to combat this plateau, you began to step up your efforts.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the body’s metabolism slow-down process varies per person. Some may experience nothing during this phase but you? You may have experienced a slowdown of 500-800 calories per day. Your progress has halted or–gasp!–has even started to reverse itself. You’re working harder, eating right, and you’re gaining weight.
This is called Metabolic Compensation.
It hits almost all exercisers at some point if you don’t know how to recognize what’s happening and how to deal with it. Unfortunately, where most people go wrong (myself included) is they reach this stage and think the way to bust through what seems to be a plateau is to work harder and eat even less.
If you continue to step up the game and eat even fewer calories to support your weight loss efforts, metabolic compensation turns to metabolic resistance which, after several years, can turn to metabolic damage.
Metabolic resistance happens to people–women especially–who train too hard, don’t rest their bodies enough, and typically eat too little to support their training. And this typically happens after several years of doing so. It can also be the result of consistent yo-yo dieting in conjunction with rigourous gym activity. Simply, the hormones can’t regulate themselves the way they used to–or were designed to do so.
And full blown metabolic damage can lead to depression, hair loss, food intolerances, dry skin, exhaustion, and certain sensitivities to light, noise, etc.
While the best treatment for metabolic damage should come from a doctor, the good news is that if you think you’re suffering from metabolic compensation or even resistance, you can fix the damage in a couple rather simple ways.
If you think you’re in a metabolic compensation state, you have two options:
- Eat less and workout less
- Eat more and workout more
Pick one, follow this pattern for a couple of weeks (as you feel needed) and then resume as normal. Whenever you feel as if your body is adapting to your routine, pick one of these options and repeat as needed.
If you think you’re in a metabolic restance state, you pretty much have just one option:
You need to cycle between eating less and exercising less and eating more and exercising more. Spend 2-3 weeks eating less and working out less, and then 2-3 weeks eating more and exercising more. Repeat as often as necessary.
The bodybuilding mantra is correct when it comes to aesthetic appearance in the weight room. Unfortunately, about 90% of the way we look will boil down to how we’re eating, how we’re cycling our carbs around our workouts, how we’re consuimg healthy fats and not transfats, and by how we are getting adequate protein to support our muscles–every single day.
I wish I could say that you’ll look the way you want to by working harder in the gym, but to meet your goals, realistically, you’re going to have to put as much time, effort, thought, and planning into your nutrition in order to get what you’re after.
So what will your next steps be?
Will you scale back your workouts for a while and rest a bit? Step up the intensity and healthy food choices? Maybe you’ll sit down and start planning your meals and partitioning your nutrients around your workouts/workout days? Whatever you choose, don’t forget to at least get a little sweat tricklin’ throughout the week. The following SFCWs will be perfect to do if you’re scaling back from lifting OR will be great to add to your plan if you need to step it up to eat it up.
Don’t forget to pin, post, and save!
I don’t know how you always seem to perfectly time these blog posts with what LITERALLY is going on in my training life at this time. You’re magic 🙂 Seriously though, if I had read this a month ago, stuck in my metabolic plateau, I might have side-eye it as just something ELSE that won’t work for me. But in that month, I started doing everything you outlined in this post and lo & behold, RESULTS! This comment is for anyone else reading, who may have been stuck like me…it DOES work. If you’ve jacked your metabolism after a lifetime of “diets” its gonna be harder than you think it should be, but try the reverse dieting, try the nutrient timing, give it a month. Steph and Erik thank you for all the research you do. I truly would have quit months ago if not for your blog, no lie.
Hey Jen, (this is Erik) first thank you so much for your feedback! I will be honest it is the feedback and emails that help us to address the areas that our audience needs help with. Our continued research on this topic is a direct result of all the correspondence that we have had with people struggling with this issue.
And thank you for sharing your results! I really hope other women read your comment and are inspired to stick with it.
Thank you so much for your articles, I am a 28 year old female approx. 25% body fat, I started weight lifting about 3 months ago and eating approx. 1750 cals a day, and I find myself currently in the “getting bigger before smaller” phase and I was just about to give up until I read this, so thank you!!
I do have a question tho, I work out at 6am 5 times a week, is it still ok to eat 40gms of carbs pre and post WO at this time of the day? A Trainer at my gym advised me that eating carbs early in the day will spike insulin levels therefore slowing down the fat burning process? They advised me to eat all my carbs in the evening time, Im just concerned because I work out in the morn and I know Pre and PWO meals are the most important of the day! Please advise? TIA Lorraine 🙂
Stephanie Wimer says
Hey Lorraine…your trainer is correct in the fact that carbs spike insulin levels….they spike insulin levels no matter when you eat them, but the longer you can avoid eating carbs, the longer you can get through the day without spiking your insulin, which is great if your goal is fat loss. HOWEVER–and this is a biggie–working out spikes insulin levels! So if you’re working out in the morning, you’re already spiking your insulin. So eat your carbs in the morning. Avoiding them around your training–especially if you’re lifting weights–will do more harm than good. So thanks for asking and clearing that up for anyone else who may have been wondering. Good question–eat those carbs around your workout, no matter what!
Morgan Tebeau says
I’m so glad I found this blog!! Thanks 🙂
Bethany @ Athletic Avocado says
I am in LOVE with this article! So many women today face these challenges and a surprised to find that they aren’t eating the right things at the right time! Im glad you cleared things up!
Stephanie Wimer says
Thanks Bethany!!! 😀
This post is amazing and came at EXACTLY the time I needed it! I love how thorough and clearly you explain everything!!!! I am definitely concerned I have some metabolic compensation/damage going on 🙁 Is there anything else you recommend besides the 2-3 weeks eating less/working out less & the 2-3 weeks working out more/eating more protocol??
Thank you for such valuable info!!!
Stephanie Wimer says
Hey Lauren, unfortunately, the eat less workout less and eat more workout more cycle is what tends to help the absolute most. In all my research and experimentation, I’ve found that this cycles really will do wonders if the person is willing to seriously invest the amount of time needed to correct the damage. And in my personal experience, I’ve found that starting off with the eat less workout less approach actually helps me the most. And since my metabolic damage is pretty severe, I actually can spend a month or more in the eat less/workout less stage. I actually took a month and a half off the gym last winter because of this and my appetite dropped, I dropped some fat, recovered from some injuries and then gained a lot of muscle when I went back to the gym later. So it definitely works. It just takes time and patience. I believe this cycle is very important, but just as important, I also believe that your happiness plays a HUGE role in your weight and how you carry it, gain it, etc. Much of the research points to finding a hobby or something you like to do outside of the gym that helps you relax, reduce stress, and makes you happy. Whether it’s a yoga class, reading a good book, learning a new skill–find something that’s always been of interest to you and see if you can reduce your overall life stress. This can actually play a big part of balancing everything that’s happeneing on the inside. The happier and more confident you are, the less your body wants to hold onto stress-producing hormones and that in itself will help you shed stubborn weight.
I hope this helps–thanks for commenting and let us know how things work out! Good luck!
I’ve been doing Crossfit for a year and a half. I have not really changed size other than to put on muscle. Same amount of fat is still there. :-/ I’m 5’5″, about 130lbs. I’d like to lean out around my midsection a little. I was primarily wanting to ask about the ‘don’t eat fat directly after training’. I train at 5:15pm and eat dinner when I get home (6:45pm or so). Dinner is pretty much going to contain fat…. My husband does the cooking and I eat what he cooks. He cooks well (meat and veg with some carbs), but meat contains fat. It’s nothing fried or smothered in gravy. Just the fat the meat contains. Is it really terrible to eat in this manner? Making an extremely low fat dinner would mean I’d have to cook myself a different meal. Advice?
Stephanie Wimer says
I wouldn’t want you to adjust your lifestyle much…your hubby cooking a healthy meal for you sounds fabulous! What I would try to do if possible is maybe push dinner back a little bit and have a protein + carbs shake IMMEDIATELY post training. Then wait a half hour or more if possible before dinner.
Another thing you could do is try to time the majority of your carbs directly around your training. If you work out at 5:15, I would try to eat 50-60% of your daily total carbs befre/during/after your training. And if all your other meals are mostly protein, fat, veggies–this may help you wittle away at the fat you’ve been hanging onto. See if a few tweaks like that will help! Thanks for commenting and good luck!
Hello, thank you for this great info! I read that its best to Work out on an empty stomach so the insulin levels are down so fat burning is optimal, so I’m confused about the eating carbs around work out? And when you say to avoid fat after the work out is it any kind of fat? Or just the saturated ?
Stephanie Wimer says
Yes, if burning fat is the number one goal, working out on an empty stomach is your best bet if you can handle that! Some people just prefer a little food before they exercise. If strength building is the number one goal, say for a powerlifter or someone looking to increase his or her max lifts, then it’s best to fuel the body for such heavy demands. That’s basically your difference — the goal of fat burning vs. strength gains. And if your workout is primarily cardio based then you can get away with fewer carbs both before and after training. If the training is strength based, well, the more weights involved and the heavier the lifts, the more carbs are needed to fuel and refuel. I hope that makes sense!
And as far as avoiding fat post training–that’s ALL fat! All fat digests the same way and that’s very very slowly. You want to get nutrients to your muscles SUPER FAST after training. So that’s why carbs and protein work best. The ONLY exception to this is coconut oil. I haven’t done a lot of research on this but I’ve heard and read in a few spots that coconut oil, even though it’s a fat, digests like a carb. So yes, avoid all fat post training; however, if you’re craving something with coconut oil in it, you’re probably ok. Hope that helps! Thanks for your questions!
Thank you so much for all your articles, I’ve been going through the getting bigger phase after 5 years of metabolic damage and huge stress from college and malnutrition. I started heavy lifting a couple months ago and I eat a lot more, but seems like no matter what I do I get bigger and keep a layer of fat! I’ve tried a detox, eating several small meals (leaves me starving), and giving up grains (leaves me tired and starving). I’ve been cutting back my workouts (4-5 intense strength training per week) to get smaller so I can stay in my jeans, because I was starting to just look fat and I was afraid of just getting bigger. Now after reading your info I’m going to stick it out and get stronger!! I don’t care if I have to live in yoga pants for a few months, I choose to be healthy. Thanks to my yoyo dieting, calorie restricting, and over exercising over the past few years, I’ve lost my period and I’m really hungry all the time. I’ve drained my adrenals and don’t have much steam in the tank for intense cardio anymore, even though I’m only 24. So I do mostly circuit and strength workouts. Do you have any advice or thoughts for my situation? Thank you so much!! 🙂
Stephanie Walker says
I’m so happy you’re in the right mind set now! Definitely don’t give up. Even if you live in yoga pants, just remember, A) they’re the most comfortable pants in the world, and B) muscle is more than just strength, it means HEALTHY. The more muscle you have, the more you’re protecting your vital organs, bones, tissues, etc. You’ll age gracefully, and you will be fitter than most. So stick with it for sure! That said, I’d also try not to worry about food too much. I know that’s WAY easier said than done, but sometimes, the less we think about it, the better results we see. Aim for a wide variety of meats, veggies, fruits, berries, nuts, and seeds. Add some whole grains or potatoes for energy around your workout and throw in some beans for fiber and fullness. If you’re eating a wide variety of super healthy foods in decent sized proportions (not skimping but not over-doing it), then you will be fine. It may take your body some time to really adjust and get used to this since you have 5 years of metabolic damage behind you. Just remember, if it took 5 years to get you to this current place, it will take some time to undo the damage. Focus on lifting and intervals to build your body’s overall health — bone, tissue, organs, and heart. Think of nutrition as if you’re fighting disease and boosting your energy and longevity. If you look at this as a way to be healthy throughout your life, you’ll not only see better results but you’ll stress less and become so much happier and gain confidence too. (And of course, give yourself a treat every now and then–we all need a piece of chocolate once in a while for sanity purposes!) Good luck!