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.

----> (New) Facebook Comments..."Cause all the cool kids are doin' it!"

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

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.

Catherine October 25, 2014 at 5:44 pm

The scale says I’ve lost 13 lbs in 2 weeks but my hips and stomach are just getting so much bigger!! I exercise every day( I’m a soccer player) and I don’t know what is going on! Any advice??

breanna January 1, 2015 at 4:06 pm

Rusty,

Here’s my problem…i lift, i do some cardio, and i eat pretty strictly. A about 200 cals for breakfast, maybe 300-400 for lunch and maybe 400 at dinner. I will onkly touch diet anything and i do drink water. I use sugar free things as well. I work out for about an hour/ hour and 15 mins 4-5 days a week. I used to be so faithful and hit it hard with my muscles. I recently have not had time to go about the past 3 weeks. The last 3 days I started back and hit it pretty good but I feel almost fatter. My lil pouches look fatter, and especially my tummy area. But Ive done ab work outs too. What the hecks going on? Is it because im eating too much? Or just because I am pumped up a little from this week? Youd think I feel great hittin git hard again for the past 3 days but I feel like crap! Any advice helps!

Jade April 1, 2015 at 4:25 pm

Great article! I’m about 122 lbs, 5’5″, athletic figure with the exception of a couple problem areas..”banana rolls,” lower abdomen and love handles. I do a lot of Pilates, started endurance/cardio style crossfit have a depleted calorie intake. What is your advice on the banana rolls that are beginning to appear a lot more as saggy fat around the upper posterior thigh, and can you kindly provide a link to your article on prepping for Vaca? 🙂 I know I’m way late on this post but you sound very knowledgeable and hope you’re still blogging!

Thank you!

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