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Is it possible I’m getting bigger but not fatter?

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A client recently emailed and asked, “Is it possible I’m getting bigger but not fatter?”

My response was, “it’s very possible. You have to get serious with dieting because you respond well to training (add muscle), if you don't start working on the fat loss, you won't get smaller.

I get this question primarily from clients that are carrying excess body fat who begin training and find their already tight clothes getting even tighter. It lends well with the myths surrounding training programs and diets for women in particular, that being women should lift light weights, perform high reps and do lots of cardio. From a trainer’s perspective, that’s easy money because you don’t have to change their behavior and mindset, and there are no performance metrics. It fits with all the misinformation out there on the internet and, well it’s easy. Who wants to lift hard if it’s only going to make them bigger? The hidden downside for the client is you have to spend a lot of time in the gym lifting light weights and doing cardio to maintain the smaller size. At some point, life (work and family) gets in the way and one slowly gains the weight back because the program is unsustainable, ending up with less muscle and more fat than when they started. There is a big difference between what happens in the first 6 months versus the next couple of years of a health and fitness transformation program. Short-term change is easy, long-term maintenance is not.

Now let’s examine the reality side. As illustrated in the picture of fat versus muscle, pound for pound, fat is less dense than muscle (occupies more volume per unit mass). Lose 5 pounds of fat and gain 5 pounds of muscle, no change in scale weight and you’ll lose inches, simply mind boggling! Moreover, you’ll increase your metabolism (burn more calories a day without even having to move) and possess more metabolically active tissue (good for disposing blood glucose), and muscle gives the body shape. A skinny-fat may look good in clothes, but naked or in a swimsuit, ummmm, no. Losing muscle is easy, losing fat is not.

Many of my female clients don't experience huge changes on the scale yet they are down 2 – 4 sizes, and they always look lighter than they really are. Ask yourself, would you rather have someone say you look 145 when you weigh 130, or someone say you look 130 when you weight 145? Let’s be honest, we are not self-conscious about our weight because it matters to us per se, but how we think others perceive us based on a number. Really, it is just a number, like comparing fit subjects to unfit subjects using BMI, same BMI big difference in how one looks, functions, and scores on risk factors for CVD, diabetes and certain cancers.

Remember, one doesn’t get fat overnight, nor is one going to lose the fat overnight, it takes time. Build the muscle, increase the metabolism and get your dietary intake in line with a maintainable fat loss and a realistic endpoint. Genetics and life will dictate the final outcome. Stray too far from your genetic set point and you’ll snap back hard. If you add muscle easily, accept it, if you struggle to lose fat, keep at it and be realistic. Accept who you are and stop trying to be someone else.

Leave “I think”, “I believe” and “I feel”, out of the decision making process when it comes to health and fitness goals. Base your exercise and dietary choices on scientific fact, and use measureable outcome variables (QOL/ADLs, iDXA/Bod Pod, VO2max and performance times, strength and endurance, and flexibility testing) to assess progress. You’ll be less likely to make poor choices or get sucked into programs that may provide short term emotional resolution but end up being longer-term problems.

Lastly, before you judge the merits of a program, ask yourself, are you really doing what it takes to change, are you following the program as prescribed or modifying based on feeling, thinking and believing? Excuses and inconsistency with diet and/or exercise will not help you achieveyour health and fitness goals. You may think, feel or believe you're doing enough to change, but in reality, you are not.

You can lie about the numbers, but the numbers don't lie.




  • Audrey Johnson
    Audrey Johnson Monday, 29 April 2013

    I have gone through this on a couple of different occasions. It is a process, and you have to change your way of thinking and your mind set. This change of mindset comes about gradually and you have to stick with the program, trust the process, and be consistent with training and diet or I like to think of it as eating for life and for a real life. It is very possible, especially women starting out, you might find clothes fit either tighter all around or at least tighter in some places. Pants seem tight on quads, shirts seem tight on arms or lats or shoulders. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a lot of clothing out there designed for women with biceps and triceps or hamstrings and quads and this can be a very disheartening thing. It's the exact opposite of what you think should be happening. Don't get discouraged, don't give up because you are in fact on your way. You're developing lean mass and because of that you're boosting your metabolism. Keep being consistent, get your diet under control and it will happen. I've been through it. I've ripped both a shirt and a skirt during this 'phase'. I lived. In fact, I sowed up the skirt and I still wear it years later to this day. Another perk.. salads don't cut it anymore, you get to eat!!

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