Beginning a strength-training journey is quite possibly one of the most empowering things a person can do. Not only do you gain literal strength (which can help you do a trove of things in life with more ease and efficiency), but you walk out of the gym with a heightened mood, too. In fact, research has actually shown that resistance training can trigger the production of a host of feel-good chemicals in the brain.
Empowerment, unadulterated joy, and a better quality of life aren’t all strength training has to offer, either. Picking up a pair of dumbbells or hoisting that barbell can also help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight and avoid chronic disease. One study published in Adipocyte, for example, found that strength trainers’ increased lean muscle mass boosted their metabolisms, reducing their risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease in addition to supporting a healthy weight.
The thing is, using the scale to track success can sometimes be a disheartening experience, because the number you see on the scale might actually go up over time. Here’s why you shouldn’t sweat it.
The Scale And Your Health
Some important general info to clarify here: The scale is far from an end-all-be-all way to measure health, because it can only tell you your total body weight, and not much about what that weight consists of (like body fat, water, or muscle). Case in point: Some of the world’s best athletes are considered obese based on their BMI, which only measures the ratio of your weight to your height.
Plus, you can gain or lose weight for a variety of reasons that are unrelated to your diet or exercise. Certain medications (especially those that treat depression, diabetes, and blood pressure), for example, can make you put on pounds. You might also gain or lose weight based on your genetics or as the result of a hormonal issue (like polycystic ovarian syndrome). Another major weight gainer? A menstrual period, which can cause water retention and swelling in roughly three-quarters of people.
The point here: Though it’s understandable to feel frustrated or confused about the number you see when you step onto the scale, it is a far less rigid representation of your health habits than you might think.
In fact, even if the number on the scale moves up, you can absolutely be fitter, leaner, and healthier, says trainer Holly Roser, C.P.T.
Why Your Workout Routine Can Cause Weight Gain
If strength training is a regular part of your weight-loss journey or overall health and fitness routine and you notice the number on the scale creep up, don’t panic. “When you begin a weight-loss program through strength training, you create micro-tears in your muscle fibers and build muscle,” explains Roser. “Don’t be alarmed—this is a good thing!”
Especially as you first get started, your body undergoes a series of physiological changes (all good, by the way), one of which is often weight gain.
First, the physiological stress placed on your muscles by your workouts causes those fibers to become inflamed. This can make them heavier (and cause them to retain more water) and is especially common when you’re just starting out and gains occur more rapidly, Roser explains.
Another factor: As you start strength training, you might also find yourself hungrier. “As your metabolic rate rises [due to increased muscle mass], your body needs to adjust to the additional calories you’re burning—which means you’ll probably want to eat more,” Roser notes. “Your weight will probably creep up one to two pounds at first.”
Those extra calories are important since they fuel your training and recovery so that you can build muscle over time. And as the amount of muscle you have grows, your metabolic rate improves, which ultimately allows you to burn more calories at rest, helping your body to replace pounds of body fat with pounds of muscle.
How To Measure Progress Without The Scale
Given all of the variations that could be at play, should you skip the scale entirely when tracking your fitness progress? According to Roser, it depends.
“A scale is beneficial if you have a large amount of weight to lose,” she explains. Check in with your healthcare provider about your health and weight to gain clarity about your goals.
If you choose to continue using the scale, focus on the bigger picture instead of day-to-day fluctuations, says Ridge Davis, C.P.T., a personal trainer with Sweat Factor. “I like to look at the average weight each week and just make sure that [it is generally] going down [over time],” he suggests.
But if you want to kick the scale entirely, that’s okay, too. Since the scale can’t tell you anything about how much fat you’re losing, Roser prefers a skinfold measurement device to analyze fat content. Davis, meanwhile, is a fan of measuring your waist circumference, as extra fat carried in the abdomen ups your risk for cardiovascular disease and even premature death. These methods both help you more effectively understand your body composition (how much fat versus muscle you have) so you can stay motivated on your journey.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, there is so much more to your health than the number you see on the scale, which is influenced by a number of different factors and fails to provide specific information about your body composition.
Given that, if you notice some weight gain despite consistent healthy eating and exercising, don’t be alarmed. Strength training, in particular, can cause weight gain for a number of reasons, none of which are cause for concern and which, in fact, can indicate that you’re seeing results and building muscle.