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!