Fitness Workouts

A Dirty Little Secret (That really shouldn’t be.)

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I’m going to tell you guys a little secret. It’s something that the fitness industry frustratingly fails to really explain or even address at all- especially to women starting a lifting program for the first time. And it’s pretty understandable, because, you know- I get it. It can be sort of a turn-off. Some women, after starting a lifting a program for the first time, experience swelling, “puffiness,” and an overall uncomfortable bloating phenomenon for the first few weeks/month or two going into a lifting program. Yes, what I’m telling you is, at the very beginning, you may feel a little bigger. Your clothes may fit weird. You may get discouraged. But I promise you- and this is the most important thing you need to take away from this– it goes away if you stick with it. Let me explain what’s happening here.

  • When you begin a lifting program for the first time, it’s a huge stressor on the body and it causes mild inflammation. Your body is simply reacting to something new! And that causes some unusual swelling/water retention.
  • When you first build muscle, it’s going to build underneath whatever fat layer you may have on your body. Of course- this is all dependent on where you body naturally stores fat/builds muscle first, so it may appear more prevalent in different areas, but a lot of the time this is what makes women think they’re getting “bulky,” when in fact it isn’t the muscle that’s making them that way, it’s just the fact that the muscle hasn’t burned off the fat…YET.

Now, let’s think of the process of building muscle and how it burns fat for a second.  When your body builds muscle, that muscle that you develop turns into a fat burning furnace for you. Basically, when you build muscle, it will need to be fed to maintain itself. And if you’re eating enough calories (but not overdoing it!) then your muscle will feed itself from the fat stored on your body. This is a good thing. This is what you want to happen. But unfortunately, sometimes this process takes time.  And before the muscle starts doing it’s thang, you have to just be patient and endure a little bit of swelling. I know that it can be hard. I know it doesn’t make much sense in our society that pushes things like “LOSE 10 LBS. IN DAYS” miracle diets at us. It seems like a counter-intuitive thing to do. I get it. “WHAT?! LIFT WEIGHTS SO I CAN GET SWOLLEN AND GROSS!? EWWWW I’M JUST GOING TO DO A JUICE CLEANSE AND RUN 10 MILES A DAY LOL”

But guys. Trust me on this.  There will come a time that seemingly overnight, if you are lifting heavy and consistently, and placing an emphasis on eating a high protein, whole foods based diet-  that swollen weirdness WILL go away. The difference between the women who “tried lifting once” and didn’t like it because they felt “weird,” and the women that get lean and “toned,” is that the latter didn’t give up. This is so important, guys. You know how in life, it seems like things get worse before they get better? That life seems to test you before things start going your way? Lifting is the same way.

So I don’t care if you feel like the freakin’ Michelin Man. DON’T GIVE UP. You know, I really wish more people wrote on this topic, because I think it’s rather common and I understand how it can be very discouraging. This issue alone probable prevents women without a knowledgeable support system behind her to continue lifting whenever this happens. I know I was discouraged when it happened to me. Thankfully I had my boyfriend  (now husband!) get me through it and remind me I needed to stick with it because it WOULD go away. And it did!

And I’m not sure if EVERY SINGLE person experiences this really- it’s all dependent on your system/body. I didn’t do an extensive research study on this, this is based on my personal experience as well as other women that have told me they’ve experienced the same thing. Now, I know what you’re thinking- “Why don’t you just reduce your calories while you’re lifting so that doesn’t happen?” or, “Why don’t you just do lots of cardio at the same time?” Well, we want to build muscle right? Don’t you want to burn calories ALL THE TIME, even when you’re not working out? Do you really want to be limited by the stupid calorie counter on the treadmill and input every morsel into My Fitness Pal? (I know I don’t!)

If you really want to build that muscle that will do work FOR you at rest, you have to make sure you are eating enough to fuel your training. That means eating enough so you can lift heavy. If you’re eating 1,200 calories a day, you’re simply not getting the fuel you need and you won’t progress on your lifts, aka you WON’T build muscle. Also, if you’re doing too much cardio, it will eat away at that precious muscle you are trying to build! Let alone possibly seriously injure yourself in the process. (Too few calories + exercise = injury central. Check out this article on that topic. It’s amazing.) So don’t overdo it. Trust the process. Here are some things you can do, however, to reduce the effect a little bit:

  • Add a few HIIT sessions- HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) Uses type 2, explosive muscle fibers in your body. These short bursts won’t eat away at your muscle like long distance running does, so incorporate a little sprinting into your routines. But again- don’t overdo this. No more than 2 or 3 fifteen-minute sessions a week are really necessary to get the effect.
  • Reduce foods that cause bloating, such as super salty foods.
  • Drink tons of water!

I have to emphasize this again: If you’re on the fence of whether a lifting program is for you, don’t let this deter you. Because here’s the thing-  you have a choice: 1.) Possibly endure just a little bit of bloating and uncomfortableness for a short amount of time, then go on to lose fat, build muscle, get toned, and not have to “diet” for the rest of your life while helping to develop functional strength and cultivate feelings of empowerment – or- 2.) Give up on lifting weights and keep going on the merry-go-round of fad diet after fad diet, slaving away on the treadmill for hours and still not losing the weight all the while hating yourself and your body from here until eternity. I know what I’d rather pick. Don’t give up. Stick it out. Eat enough healthy, whole, high protein food. Focus on your lifts getting better and on getting stronger and I promise you that your body will catch up with you. I’d love to hear feedback on others on this topic. Did this happen to you too? How did you deal with it? Comment below and let me know!


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4 Comments

  • Reply fromtrextotigress June 30, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    Thanks for posting such important facts. I hope this puffiness won’t discourage women from lifting. In the initial stages, we all want instant results.

  • Reply moforwardmotion July 2, 2014 at 1:21 am

    The “stuffed sausage” phase is like a right of passage for female lifters. For me, I gained about 10lbs in the first two months of lifting and thought I was going to explode. Nobody had told me about this phenomenon, but luckily I was training solely for strength and didn’t care that I bloated like crazy. A year later and I’m still about 5lbs up from when I started, but I look and feel tighter and stronger and smaller than ever, and I’ve dropped close to 8% bodyfat.

    This was a refreshing post to read, and absolutely spot on. I hope every woman who tried lifting once, or wants to try lifting, or has reached this point and is freaking out reads this.

    • Reply janinecdemichele July 2, 2014 at 1:53 pm

      Thanks SO much for your input! :) Yeah, I hate that it’s such an under-discussed aspect of what we do, because I think it can be extremely discouraging. People need to be told, “it gets better! Don’t stress!”

  • Reply Paula Bates August 1, 2014 at 9:22 pm

    Thank you so much for posting this…I found you on reddit and followed a link to your blog. I love it! Your progress is really inspiring to me because I look a lot like your before pictures (but shorter and chunkier) and want to look like your after pictures :)

    I started Stronglifts 5×5 in June, but I’m struggling with my gains and also struggling with some pretty bad self image issues. I’m eating at a calorie deficit because I’m afraid I will get fatter– but I think it’s hindering the entire process. I’m eating between 1000 and 1300 calories per day and literally not seeing any results. So frustrating!

    Do you have any specific advice for getting through this stage? I don’t want to give up, but I’m just so discouraged!

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