You’re eating less and strength training twice a week in an effort to lose a few pounds. You’ve been at a month, but your weight hasn’t budged. Is this because your newfound workout habits have put on muscle weight?
Depending on how you’re training, it is possible to gain a little (muscle) weight. But it’s also possible that your workouts have nothing to do with why you haven’t lost weight.
Let me say first that it's smart to add resistance training to a weight loss program.
Plenty of studies have shown that resistance exercise protects against the muscle loss that typically occurs with dieting alone. Research suggests that as much as 25 per cent of weight lost by cutting calories is from muscle versus fat.
Not good, since the amount of muscle you have is the biggest contributor to your resting metabolism, the number of calories your body burns at rest. Preserving muscle should be part of any weight loss plan.
So, is the reason you haven’t lost measurable weight on the scale because you’ve gained muscle while simultaneously losing body fat?
How much muscle can you really gain?
To find out how much weight you can realistically expect to gain, early on, from resistance training, I turned to Professor Stuart Phillips from McMaster University Department of Kinesiology. He’s a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair who’s published dozens of studies on how exercise and weight loss impacts body composition.
According to Phillips, studies show that women can expect to gain one to two pounds of muscle over the first four to six months of training while men can put on two to four pounds of lean mass during this time.
Some people, however, will gain a lot more and others will gain less or nothing at all due, likely, to their genetic predisposition.
But here’s the caveat: Such gains in muscle weight resulted from doing resistance training three times a week. And the last repetition (rep) in the set pushed participants to fatigue. (A rep is the number of times you perform a specific strength exercise, such as a bicep curl; a set is the number of cycles of reps you complete.)
In other words, if your strength workout is light and/or less than three times a week, you’re probably not realizing much, if any, muscle gain. So, if it’s not muscle that’s showing up on the scale, what’s going on?
Diet blunders that keep the pounds on
If, despite a month (or more) of dieting and exercising your weight hasn’t decreased (presuming you were carrying excess weight to start with), it’s time to reassess your eating habits.
If you’re working out, it’s easy to justify a second helping or a cookie (or two) after dinner. After all, you’re burning those calories off in the gym, right? Don’t be fooled. (More on this later.)
Or, perhaps in your newfound quest to improve the quality of your diet, you’ve forgotten that portion size also matters for healthy foods like salmon, avocado, fruit and salad. Oversized portions of good-for-you foods can be a hefty source of overlooked calories.
Another potential misstep: Consuming too many calories from protein shakes and bars in an effort to recover from workouts.
Yes, exercise does increase protein requirements for muscle recovery, which begins as soon as your workout is over. While supplements are convenient, priming your muscles with protein can be done quite easily with real food.
There’s no need to gulp down a protein shake immediately after working out if you’re eating your next meal within the hour. And the benefits of loading up on protein before a strength workout remain to be seen.
Diet versus exercise for losing weight
If weight loss is your goal, be diligent about what you put in your mouth. Don’t rely only on exercise.
It takes a lot of daily exercise to generate a calorie deficit large enough to impact the bathroom scale.
Since one pound of body fat stores about 3,500 calories, you’d have to burn off an extra 500 calories every day to lose one pound a week. For a 185-pound person, that requires roughly 40 minutes of running (6 mph), 70 minutes of very brisk walking (4.5 mph), or one hour of vigorous weight lifting.
Cutting 500 calories from your daily diet, on the other hand, is easier to do.
As Phillips says, “weight is lost in the kitchen while muscles (and fitness) are made in the gym”.
All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.