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Why Do I Look Fatter After Working Out? The Sad Truth (1 Week Rule)

Weight Loss & Diets | Written by Nathan | Updated on 6 August 2022

A common question asked after exercise is “Why do I look fatter after working out?”. The sad truth is people expect immediate weight loss results after only going to the gym once or twice. Various factors, including increased blood flow, temporary hypertrophy, fiber increases, and carbs and/or glycogen entering muscle structures can all cause temporary swelling after exercise. 

The good news? There is truth to the “1 Week Rule”. After maintaining workout consistency for one week, assuming other lifestyle factors are also in a healthy pattern, individuals should quickly start to see results shown on the scale.

Is it Normal to Look Fatter or Fluffier After Working Out?

Following the reasons above, feeling bloated or noticing an appearance of weight gain is completely normal. Unfortunately, this small feeling of discomfort can impede progress and add to the long list of excuses for not working out that aspiring exercisers fall victim to.

By trusting that this feeling of fatness is a temporary phenomenon, those who desire to lose weight will be much better equipped to not give up. Perseverance in the face of setbacks, however minor they may be, has been shown to contribute to not just initial but also sustained weight loss over time.

Why Do I Look Fatter After Working Out? Reasons Why

The 1 Week Rule suggests newcomers can overcome the initial swelling that comes with working out. If it has been longer than a week, then wiggle room of at least a month should be considered due to genetics, metabolism, and more.

Whether an individual feels they have lost weight but look fatter, or haven’t lost weight at all, there are many possible contributors to the question “Why do I look fatter after working out?”.

It is important to build an awareness of the reasons that could be behind a continued struggle to achieve one’s desired body composition. 

Inconsistency in the Gym

If average exercise rates of Americans are a clue, inconsistency in the gym could be one of the biggest reasons why progress seemingly stalls for many. According to a cross-sectional analysis of the American Time Use Survey, men and women commit to, on average, only 24 and 14 minutes a day of devoted physical activity respectively.

Those who have achieved sustained weight loss commit to much higher exercise rates. Studies show that individuals who have maintained at least 10% body weight loss for at least one year are committed to being physically active for at least an hour per day.

Too Many Calories

While a commitment to physical activity is important, exercise alone is never enough. To lose weight, the energy balance scale needs to be tipped in favor of a caloric deficit. This means that energy expenditure (exercise) must be greater than caloric intake. 

In addition to an hour a day of devoted physical activity, sustained weight loss achievers demonstrate multiple energy intake-reducing behaviors. These include limiting calorie-dense foods and sugar-sweetened beverages, paying attention to appropriate portion sizes, a commitment to consistent eating patterns, and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Poor Sleep

Those who have committed to exercising and proper nutrition and are still thinking to themselves “I will never lose weight” might need to focus on one of the most underrated aspects of health, which is sleep.

A woman with an eye mask on, beer in hand, and on an uncomfortable sofa getting low quality sleep due to poor sleep hygiene and thus, ruining her progress in the gym.

Sleep and weight loss go hand in hand. It has been suggested that lack of sleep, as well as poor sleep quality, may lead to metabolic conditions, weight gain, and an increased risk of obesity and other health conditions. While cause and effect are still being determined, experts use sleep to improve the treatment of obesity and agree that it is an important part of a weight loss plan.

Stress

Similar to sleep, stress can take a toll on every aspect of health. Some reactions, like feeling tired and overwhelmed, can be noticed immediately. But resistance to weight loss, or even weight gain, can be harder to recognize as stress causation.

Dialing in on natural stress relievers or relaxation techniques can be especially important when asking “how long does it take to get a perfect body?”. For those who specifically struggle with their stomach looking fatter after workouts, it is important to note that calories consumed in the excess of cortisol-a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands-are more likely to be preferentially deposited around the midsection.

Glycogen Stores

Glycogen is the broken down carbohydrates, otherwise known as glucose, that are not needed for immediate fuel. New athletes often increase their glycogen stores at the onset of training because they need more carbohydrates to function effectively. 

Endurance training can also enhance the body’s ability to store more glycogen, which is a good thing. The more glycogen storage an endurance athlete has, the better their performance because their body can have a continuous bank of energy to pull from.

Unless someone is blatantly overeating, increased glycogen stores are typically a healthy weight gain, since the body is adding water weight and not fat. 

Water Retention

The great thing about water retention is that it can be a normal, healthy answer to the question, “Why do I look fatter after working out?”. In addition to the water retention from increased glycogen stores, there is retention caused by strength training as well as sodium intake. 

As individuals start to actively lift weights and engage in exercise, stress is added to their muscle fibers. This results in micro-tears and some minor inflammation, which can lead to added water retention in the body.

The retained fluid, while adding a little bit of water weight, aids in healing the temporary muscle inflammation. Because the healing process is often short, this water retention is a common contributor to the 1 Week Rule, where patience beyond one or two workouts is needed for the feeling of being fatter or softer to fade.

Sodium also plays a part in the exercise. It contributes significantly to hydration levels and is released when we sweat. If sodium levels are too low or high, this can lead to imbalances and increased water retention. Most commonly, individuals will overdo their sodium replenishment by succumbing to a diet full of processed foods. 

Type of Training

Because of initial water retention, those focused on strength training or powerlifting may initially wonder whether their weight loss goals will come to fruition.

This worry is unfounded because research has shown that resistance-based exercise programs significantly reduce body fat percentage and whole-body fat mass for overweight individuals. The results are even more effective when paired with a caloric restriction.

A loss in body fat percentage, however, is linked with body recomposition and not always tied to weight loss on the scale. Muscle carries more weight than fat, which can mislead people into thinking they are not making any progress.

Should resistance training be dropped altogether? If muscle increase is desired, then no. Cardio is great and can definitely burn some fat, but doesn’t help much with body recomposition or lead to strength gains many desire.

A woman performing a barbell squat to work on building muscle and body recomposition through weigh lifting.

Bloating

Bloating and an overall feeling of heaviness are common post-workout feelings. This uncomfortable condition can be caused by water retention, overhydration, dehydration, heat, muscle inflammation, and the release of the stress hormone cortisol.

Nutrition and water intake have a significant role to play in many of the above factors, so a proper plan is a key to avoiding the feeling of one’s stomach looking fat after a workout. While many diets exist, there are also a lot of foundational tips that are less overwhelming for beginners to implement at the onset of their journey.

Is There Correlation Between Working Out & Gaining Fat?

Normally, working out will be more likely to lead to just a generalized feeling of increased weight or some minor additions to the scale – not necessarily an increase in fat. However, if exercise has also led to more hunger and a subsequent caloric surplus then it can cause fat gain even though it’s rare.

It is common for workouts to be an unwarranted justification for splurging on a fast-food excursion or saying yes to an extra serving of dessert. But if a workout routine pairs with equal parts food indulgence, a caloric deficit will never be achievable.

Overeating struggles can be addressed with simple mindfulness exercises or complex plans such as an intricately detailed nutrition program. No matter the nutritional strategy, consistency is key. Even though anything less than perfection can make people feel like giving up on weight loss, a 12-month study of 1,000 nutrition clients showed that those who were just 50% consistent with their program were still able to lose between 5-6% of their total body weight.

Why You Might Gain Temporary Weight After Lifting

Sometimes it is less a question of “Why do I look fatter after working out?” and more a question of “why did I gain weight after lifting?”. As previously mentioned, glycogen stores, as well as water retention for micro-tears, are two contributors to weight gain after strength or resistance training.

Temporary hypertrophy and fiber increases can also lead to a slight jump in the scale. Hypertrophy refers to muscle gains, and when looking at singular workouts, is most often seen with the temporary muscle inflammation that leads to water retention. This inflammation can lead to temporary muscle increase and a subsequent notch on the scale.

In addition, more fiber-rich food intake is likely If a health pursuer’s exercise regimen pairs with a dedication to a nutritious diet. This nutrient increase can lead to added weight as the fiber works through the body. Fiber aids in water retention in the colon and results in the body having better digestive health. Stool becomes easier to pass because of its increase in water content, but it also becomes heavier, thus adding a factor to temporary weight gains.

Muscle and fiber increases, as well as water retention, should not be something to worry about. It is also important to note that the scale is not the only measure of progress. Many positive scale-free signs can highlight the results of a healthier life, including increased energy, better sleep, better fitting clothes, and enhanced mood, confidence, and strength.

Why Do I Feel Fatter After Eating Healthy & Working Out?

If someone has trusted in the 1 Week Rule, as well as given it the flexibility of an extra month, and is still feeling fatter, it is time to dive below the surface-level feeling of being fat. Feeling fatter is different than looking fatter, though the psychological impacts can be equally detrimental to a person’s sense of well-being.

To start, feeling fat does not always mean there has been weight gain, and there are many options for how to measure body fatness besides the scale. The scale can in fact be misleading due to its inability to distinguish between body fat and lean body mass. Whatever measurement method is used for fat-loss progress, it should provide more data than a subjective inkling that one might be getting fatter. More often than not, many health pursuers experiencing weight gain discouragement are simply experiencing muscles beginning to rise, which is always cause for celebration.

If concrete fat-loss measurements support the hypothesis that fat has increased, it is necessary to assess and adjust the health plan moving forward. Assuming working out is a consistent habit, a more structured nutrition plan might be needed. Sometimes individuals feel they are eating healthy foods but have not taken into account the caloric intake of their meals. Others might have a nutrition sensitivity or intolerance, for which bloating is a typical symptom. 

If exercise and nutrition are on point, sleep or stress management can also be other focus points to add to one’s regime. Since all individuals have different bodies that require unique plans, there is no singular right decision (besides the decision to never give up) that will be the perfect fit for everyone.

It can be easy to lose the perception of one’s starting point. Body measurements, progress pictures, focuses on sleep and stress and a continued focus on health eating can all lead to positive psychological effects to counteract the feeling of fatness. The feeling of health should never be tied to fat perception alone.

Achieve Your Weight Loss Goals by Dialing in the Fundamentals

The more factors under one’s control, the more likely one will achieve their goal. Beginners might benefit from an initial list of 3 focus points, 2 of which should be watching what they eat and some type of exercise – even if that means walking more throughout the day.

A strong mindset focus is also a key component to whatever fundamentals are chosen. Trusting in the 1 Week Rule is a great first step, followed by a trust in the flexibility of a month to feel confident the initial post-workout puffiness has gone. A saner mindset for weight loss will always be better than a laser focus on fat perception.

Suggestions to switch to this mindset include avoidance of short-term crash diets and focusing on behavior instead of weight-loss results. A commitment to focus on consistency with small changes over time instead of attempting giant lifestyle turnarounds all at once has also shown to lead to more sustained progress.It is an oversimplification to state that working out will lead to weight loss. By having a knowledge base on the reasons why weight might increase after exercise, the question “Why do I look fatter after working out?” can bring rest instead of immediate frustration.

About the Author

Nathan

Nathan has been a fitness enthusiast for the past 12 years and jumps between several types of training such as bodybuilding, powerlifting, cycling, gymnastics, and backcountry hiking. Due to the varying caloric needs of numerous sports, he has cycled between all types of diets and currently eats a whole food diet. In addition, Nathan lives with several injuries such as hip impingement, spondylolisthesis, and scoliosis, so he underwent self-rehabilitation and no longer lives with debilitating pain.