Why You May Look a Bit Fatter When First Losing Body Fat

March 10, 2008

There is a total mind game that happens when you first begin to lose body fat. At some point when dropping body fat, it is very possible that you look slightly flabbier than when you first began your diet and exercise program. I have never read about this fat loss principle, but I have observed it so many times that I know it is very common. Lets talk about why this happens, so you know what to expect when you start a strict fat loss plan.
woman measuring her waist and hips
[Meaghan isn’t good with the measuring tape. She always gets a much higher number than her actual measurements for some reason.]

“If I’m Losing Weight, Why Do I Still Look Flabby?”

The best way (and only way) to lose weight is to create a calorie deficit. This means you are burning more calories per day than what you consume. When you are in a strong deficit, your muscles are typically depleted of glycogen (the carb energy stored in your muscles). When your muscles are full of glycogen, they are full looking. When your muscles are depleted of glycogen, they look a bit flat. When your muscles flatten out a bit due to dieting, it can actually appear that you have less muscle in proportion to your body fat…you will actually look like you have gained a bit of fat.

Your Muscles Will Lose Glycogen Faster Than You Lose Fat

Have you ever heard of someone who lost 10 pounds in their first week or two of dieting? Many people claim that this is just a loss of “water weight”. What happens is that glycogen binds to water molecules and the more glycogen in your muscle means more water gets stored in your muscle cells as well. When people go low carb or create a strong calorie deficit, they lose a lot of the glycogen in their muscles as well as the water that was binded to that glycogen. Their muscles lose a lot of volume. In contrast, they may only lose 2-4 pounds of fat in that same time period, so it “appears” that they had a fat gain even though the scale shows that they are 10-15 pounds lighter.

The Weight You Lose From Glycogen Loss is Limited

Your muscles can only store up a limited amount of glycogen, so once your muscles flatten out you will cease losing water weight. This will happen quickly, depending upon how strong your deficit is…it happens even quicker on a low carb diet. Don’t worry about the “apparent loss” in muscle mass as glycogen loss is just a temporary cosmetic thing. You will gain back all of this muscle volume once you go into maintenance mode.

Here is the Point When You Will Look Visibly Leaner…

When your loss in body fat equals your loss in water weight, you will begin to look leaner from that point forward. I like to tell people to not worry too much about what they see in the mirror their first month of dieting. Although they are making progress in losing body fat, the mirror will not show that progress yet. Once they reach a certain fat loss level, that is when things get exciting and dieting becomes very rewarding. It is fun to get visible feedback when you are working hard to get lean!

This Illusion of Being Flabby is Even More Drastic In the Gym

When you lift weights in a dieted state, your muscles will look flatter than normal. If you are used to getting a big pump, then this will be a big change for you. The problem with getting a pump, it that it actually hides a lot of body fat. The body fat stays at the same level while the muscles temporarily increase in volume. A “pumped up” person is tricked into believing they are in better condition than they really are. A person in a dieted down state achieves very little pump, so won’t appear to be in as good of condition as someone who is carbed up. This typically happens the first month of a strict fat loss program, and from that point forward your body will increase in definition each and every workout…you will have a tough time not staring at your remarkable transformation in the mirror.

So What Happens After You Reach Your Fat Loss Goal?

My suggestion is to keep dieting hard until your body looks really sharp in a glycogen depleted state. Remember…you still don’t have the benefit of having full looking muscles. Once you go back to eating at a maintenance level, your muscles will go back to their normal state and you will look even sharper and more lean than you did when you were dieting hard! You muscles will still look hard and defined, just slightly bigger, hiding any bit of body fat left on your body.

Note: This is a strategy I use before going on vacation. I am going to write a short e-book or report on how to prep for a vacation and look outstanding the entire time. I keep putting it off, but I promise I’ll get around to it soon.

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Rusty Moore

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{ 108 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeannie April 13, 2008 at 9:23 am

Okay, I’ll keep that in mind.

Aww thank you Rusty! That means a lot, I’m glad I could be of some help to you as you were such a help and inspiration to me.

Best of luck and wishes. Thanks again as always.

Jeannie

3ller June 15, 2008 at 10:59 am

hey Rusty, is the fat in the love handles harder to burn off than in the midsection cause i have most of fat in there. i do HIIT traing and stady state cardio 5 days a week. i have 30 pounds to lose. i’m still a teen so i’ll have that faster metabolism going for me. oh, and i am on warrior diet
how long do you think will it take for me to loose those pounds?

ps: i’m sai…. decided to use this name since i accidentally thought it up

admin June 16, 2008 at 2:32 am

3ller,

The fat around the love handle area isn’t harder to burn it is just the last to go in your particular case.

At your age and with your drive you could easily lose 30 pounds in 10 weeks (maybe quicker). Most people only lose 2 pounds per week, but I could see you safely losing 3.

The HIIT and steady state cardio combo will do the trick for sure and 5 days a week is perfect. You know what you are doing!

Keep me updated!

Rusty

3ller June 16, 2008 at 3:57 am

Man you’re quick in answering our questions.

Thanks for the confidence. this’ll really motivate me even more.

BTW, really cool theme for the website

I’ll keep you posted 4 sure

Mokwls July 28, 2008 at 9:08 am

Hello,

What is your specific advise for someone very overweight. Should we just do steady state cardio w/o HIIT for a while? Also, should we do the weight routine you suggest? Thanks much for you info. :)

MokWLS

dlove August 28, 2008 at 6:33 am

Rusty I need Help,
I’m getting discouraged …I know you said u may start looking flabbier and fatter before you see any results ……. I’ve been doing tons of cardio, moderate weight lifting 5 to 6 days a week and eating extremely healthy. At 1st I felt a difference but know I’m looking bulky in some areas, also by being heavy chested, I had extra fat on my back and obliques so I’ve been doing weight lifting techniques and my back looks extrmemly fatter/bulkier and un proportioned. How can I reverse this look …… do I need to stop the weight lifting and just do cardio? I’m only 5’1 and 135 to 140, I wasn’t fat but flabby in areas from a prior weight loss….just wanted to tone up get difined muscles but I feel like I’m going in the wrong direction….. any suggestions?

Mitch September 12, 2008 at 4:48 am

Rusty,

First of all, I would like to say that i think your website is awesome. I have been for hours now and I am very impressed. But, the main reason why I am writing is that I need help. I have always been on the fit side but I also struggle with weight (fat) gain. I was in the army, but I had injured and spent some time in a wheelchair. Nevertheless, I gained a lot of body fat. And right now I am trying to get back into the Army, but I have to make the body fat requirements, which means I have to make midsection smaller by about 6 inches in 20 days (from 44.5in to 38.5) in order to meet a deadline. I have lost about 3 inches around my waist in a week while I was in Iraq, so I think it can be done. But lately I have been dieting like crazy, exercising, and taking hydroxycut hardcore and noticed that I am losing weight and looking flatter, but fatter, which your article explained. However I have not lost any inches around my midsection. I don’t care about losing lbs, but inches in that one area. I am fully committed to your ideals and approach to fitness, but right now I need to make that deadline in 20 days. I am tempted to just starve for 20 days. Is there any advice that you can give me? Am I being unrealistic? I am grateful for any help. Thanks.

– mitch

p.s. Your website rocks

Ariel January 24, 2009 at 2:05 am

Hello,

I began weight lifting to try and tone up and found that I was gaining muscle and tone but the flab I had around my stomach and love handle area never really went away….so I started running hard and dieting and I lost A LOT of the muscle I gained…what’s scary is that the flab on my stomach and my love handles look HUGE now compared to the rest of me, which looks like its shrinking…from reading this article above I guess I should continue until the fat begins to come off? I hope I’m not messing up my body by doing what I’m doing…I eat regularly, I’m not starving, but I’m concerned by my flabby state…my skin feels really watery and jiggly…its kinda gross…and before when I was lifting I was harder and less jiggly… any advice would be greatly appreciated!! I am 5ft 8 in and weight about 130lbs…seems low but I do have flab…

myra February 9, 2009 at 10:10 am

hi
i just want to say thanks for all your advice on these bloggs it really helps …. especially when 95% of the staff at my gym are well over weight! i dont bother asking them anything as i feel they aren’t promoting the service or themselves isn’t that sad
.. i have lost from 88.9kg to 70.4kg following your different plans, and im looking alot trimmer now and more toned although i still want to lose to 63kg im just doing the “never fails” plan of eating a balanced healthy diet and fewer cals.
i have advice for all the girls out there… you may like your cake or chocs etc but do you like it enough to wear it on your hips????????? i ask this to myself when im tempted. i also have a rule of treating once a wk this really works as you dont feel like your missing out! but be careful not to overload that day you wont like how you feel next day..! my husband doesn’t help much as he isn’t in to the whole fitness thing he eats like crap too, but it will not stop me getting to my goal i feel so much more energised. thanks again rusty you look amazing and know your stuff xx

Steph February 12, 2009 at 9:42 am

Hey Rusty, I’m 5’4” and female. I’m aiming to lose maybe 20 pounds in the next 3 months. I eat 2 pieces of fruit or vegetable during the day, and my biggest meal is dinner which I try to keep below 500 calories. I do the HIIT program for 15-20 minutes a day, at least 3 times a week, and try to manage weight training 2-3 times a week. Weekends I tend to eat normally though. Do you think I can manage the 20 pounds by then?

Kristy Wallace March 22, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Hi Rusty, I have an anti-eating disorder group on myspace with about 655 members. I have suffered from bulimia for many years, and like many celebrities I have controlled my weight for many years by doing it. I know that there are those that are truly doing it right with personal trainers, but some are doing it with eating disorders as well. I am 5’7 and weigh 112 lbs. I have a nice body but inside I am miserable because of this horrible addiction. Im not afraid to speak out about it, but I can’t stop. I have tried everything but I get weak and cant stick to it, I only wish I could have a live in personal trainer to show me what to eat and what to work out, and to keep me accountable! Any advice for me?

David July 8, 2009 at 2:29 pm

I am going to be vacating for much of the remainder of this summer and I am unsure of what to do:

Keep dieting,

or eat more food and stop dieting so I will retain muscle mass.

While I am on vacation, I will be unable to workout, but I have been dieting for about a month now, so I have yet to see results..

What is your opinion on this, Rusty?

Robin H May 25, 2010 at 9:31 am

hi rusty,
in a response to Shailja’s post, you stated:

5’3″…your ideal weight: 110-125 depending upon your frame

can you share how you came up with that range? do you have a table that would show what a woman’s ideal weight range should be, as opposed to the “healthy” range, according to medical standards which just means you’re not obese or dangerously thin. also, do you think there is an ideal body fat percentage for women? would love to hear your thoughts about this!

Spencer February 10, 2011 at 8:23 pm

I always assumed this effect was due to the fat being broken up since it’s being used by the body. I assumed that the skin takes longer to catch up (shrink) after the fat is gone. Whenever I’m about to loose weight I feel fat and flabby, whenever I am about to gain weight, I feel normal really.

Kristin May 26, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Excellent post! I always wondered what this effect was, because I always noticed it before I look leaned out. It takes discipline to stick with it for a month but it’s amazing once you cross over that point!

sonja August 9, 2011 at 8:01 pm

I am 52 years, 5’4″ weight 156lbs and I am trying to lose 3″ of bf by October 22. I do 40 mins cardio on Tuesdays, and Thursday, Friday and Saturday intensive weight training. My diet on mornings, I eat 2whole eggs and 1 egg white with 1/2 cup of oats. by 10.00 a protein shake with 1/2 cup of fruit, lunch time when training, I have veg, salmon 1/2 sweet potato. I train by 3.30 pm. After training I will have light protein shake. Dinner I will have baked skinless chicken and veg. Before bed I may have 1/2 cup of cottage cheese. I have just started my regime. Will I lose the 3″. Please help, you seem to know what you are abourt.

Nancy November 4, 2011 at 11:37 am

I have lost 12pnds in 3weeks & im very happy for that :) But yet theres no difference in my body yet people & I still dont notice any change in my body & that worries me but this article kinda explains it but hope I keep loosing the weight & soon would start to notice it in my body.

safiya November 20, 2011 at 9:47 pm

I’ve been doing interval training and cardio for the last few months, 4 times a week. I notice that if I am not active for more than two days in a row, I start feeling extremely flabby, like the muscle weight I’ve gained has all become fat again. Is there a reason for this?

Asha Barns November 27, 2011 at 3:27 am

I know I’m a little behind the 8 ball here, like 3 years behind, but just wanted to thank you for your article, I’ve been slowly building up my cardio over 2 weeks from 30 mins – 100mins and gained a kilo.. no loss at all, and my stomach is so bloated, and my legs looks so much worse than when I started (at 67kg trying to get down to 57kg, Im female, 5’7, 20 years old) You have restored my faith in exercise and I will keep at it now! Thank you so much!!!!

Glory Tom December 6, 2011 at 7:18 am

my weight is 105 kg and i am five feet tall, i have been doing fitness exercise for the past three month and my weight is still the same. please advice me on what to do because i really need to loose 15kg weight.

can i feed on vegetables and fruit only while i am pregnant?

thanks,
Glory Tom

Tiffany January 17, 2012 at 12:12 am

29 yrs old 130weight use to be an athlete. now not so much anymore after i had a spinal surgery. i only surf but thats the work out i get to these days. working monday-saturday doesn’t give me a lot of time for it. im trying the tabata protocol exercise but all i have been feeling is bloated and weight has plateaued. I don’t feel healthly at all and most of my friends are telling me i have been looking flabby. this is not good. my diet has been fruits and vegetables during the week with cheat days in between. what’s wrong?

Bria June 20, 2012 at 3:26 am

hey im on a calorie diet and i lost 18 p
ounds but it seems like in the beginning of my weight loss i looked a whole lot smaller but noe when i look
In the mirrior my stomach looks bigger for some reason

Rizz June 26, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Hi Rusty,

I like your article, it explains a lot of what I can expect while I am on Day 3 of carb-depletion. I am 27, female, 110lbs. I am pretty toned in my legs and arms but my tummy can use some weight loss. I’d like to have a flat stomach not really ripped.

Is it safe to go on a carb depletion diet for a week (20g or less) and then gradually work my way up to a maintenance diet. Along with cardio 30 min a day (4 – 5 times a week). But I don’t know if this is beneficial, will work, or if I need to do some other type of exercises for a flatter belly.

Thanks,
Rizz

Namii June 28, 2012 at 7:14 pm

Hi Rusty! I have a quick question:
How… Intense should you jog or run to REALLY start to lose that jiggle. I am almost 17 so im young and i look “skinny fat” as someone here said. I noticed that when i jump up and down or when i walk aster, my fat on my tummy, thighs, arms, even FACE jiggle so much!! I have been exercising and eating very well for about a month and its scary!! When will this skinny fat phase be over with? And may i mention, i dance and seeing my whole body jiggle is very VERY unnattractive xD

Heather July 6, 2012 at 4:24 pm

I am thrilled to read your comments, Rusty. You are down to earth, and understand the exaggerations and myths related to exercise and weight loss. As a weight loss dietician, it is a breath of fresh air! Keep up the good advice!

Leti July 18, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Im a overweight person who started working out 3 weeks ago and it looks like I enactually gained weight but when I step on the scale it says I’ve lost 15. Is this normal

Erick July 18, 2012 at 10:48 pm

Hello, I been working out for two months. For breakfast I eat something really small (ceral or piece of sweet bread or fruits). Lunch (I eat veggies with food like a burger or sandwich etc). Dinner (something really small) but sometimes I eat good when I go out with some friends. I lift weights, bench press, curl ups three times a week. I try to do cardio everyday. But for some reason I see myself fat especially my face and neck but I see a differerance on my stomach. I also realized I gained strength and muscle but I don’t see any difference on my face. I want know if you could please tell me if I’m doing something wrong. Thank you for your time.

-erick

ray July 19, 2012 at 9:52 am

how do i get rid of the fat that is under my arm pit area between my lats and chest

Lyn August 2, 2012 at 9:47 am

Rusty,
I have been dieting and exercising for the past month and it seems I have hit a halt on the scale. I still have 25lbs to go and don’t know what else I should be doing or not doing to get rid of the weight. I work out every morning Monday through Friday. My wo regimen includes a mile run, some ab exercise, then strength training. I have also changed my diet. I have some berries in the morning, a salad for lunch, and one piece of chicken for dinner with veggies as my side. Mind you I am drinking plenty of water through out the day. I do allow one cheat day on the weekend, but I never take it over board as my stomach seems to feel full much quicker.
Do you have any suggestions to help promote my weight loss in a quicker manner? Your time and assistance is much appreciated!

Eric August 5, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Lyn, you’re not eating nearly enough. Figure out your maintenance calories and consciously begin to eat a few hundred below that number. Once you know what these cals “look like” in a day, continue to adjust and lower them as weight comes off. Carb up once a week if low carb is the option you choose during the week.

denise August 9, 2012 at 3:03 am

help i am really trying to up the ante with exercise i could briskly wAlk 6 miles and cycle 7 alternate days with circuit workiut and 2km jog then aqua aerobics feel much bigger. clothes are tighter and scales are up i have a bad back and reslly doing as much as i canpls help getting so upset

Lindsay September 25, 2012 at 11:20 am

Hi there! I just have a quick question. I have about 50lbs to lose and I recently started taking kickboxing classes (4 days per week min) and I have actually gained about 6 pounds in the last three weeks. I look flabby and bigger than when i started! Any thoughts?

Colleen October 9, 2012 at 6:55 pm

Hello Rusty! Two years ago, all I did was run and became very very thin. I needed to gain some weight so I did…. And got a little carried away.. I am now a lot bigger than I have ever been. I have always kept running, but recentlty I have started doing kickboxing, pilates, and some weights… Well I am still trying to work on my eating (I still probably eat too much) But I feel larger than ever. I have worked out more than usual this week and my stomach feels extremely fat. Not muscle, but I feel like fat is sticking out. And it’s gross and I am more self conscious than ever. I have looked everywhere for an answer and I’m hoping you can help me with some advice. I’m tired of gaining weight…

Minerva November 12, 2012 at 10:28 pm

This is about the millionth time I am being convinced that sport sucks in the “thin ‘n sexy department”! I started running and playing with (5 lb at first, now 10 lbs) dumbbells after being an anorexic before I was 27 (BMI 16 and wanted to lose even more) and gained like 25 lbs (no no no, its not all muscle. I started eating it all! Healthy and crap – sugar). I want to be real skinny and bony again and can not stop working out, because every day I want to burn off the extra calories from the prior day. My appetite has never been this monstrous. And I used to be sexier when I was skinny. That’s right, sexier. I felt like I could fly through the air. Now I feel healthy and fat (as a swine)! My BMI is now 19. I tried fasting for a couple of days recently and then started eating again. I am so going to fast again and finally break this nasty cycle of FAT.

Ed November 15, 2012 at 7:01 am

The first few weeks of working out again is usually very disheartening for people, especially if you are working out hard! The body stores glycogen and retains water, which gives the you a puffy look. But stick with it, this will change and as Rusty states, there comes a point where you will start looking much better each day you workout.

I have always worked out for aesthetics, but now I realize that the goal is futile in itself. Workout for a better sense of well being and the aesthetics will fall in place. I recently started going hard again, working out for 2 hours 5 times a week, 1 hour of cardio and 1 hour of heavy weights. I am probably eating at the point of thermodynamic balance. Despite the staggering weight gain of 10 pounds, I feel much better, stronger and healthier, and this should be the goal of working out. The art of challenging oneself each and every workout is much more satisfying than simply looking good. Good luck to y’all!

Charlie August 10, 2013 at 5:01 am

This article helped a lot, thank you.

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