Last updated on March 2nd, 2023 at 04:26 pm
You’ve just finished a fantastic workout.
You look in the mirror and are shocked by what you’re greeted with.
Even though you’ve just finished working out you actually look fatter than before.
How can this be and what does it mean?
It’s not unheard-of to look (and feel) fatter after working out. The most common reason for this is due to water retention. More specifically the muscles require glycogen to fuel them during your workout. However, glycogen needs to bind with water to help the muscles work efficiently. With that being said, dehydration can also be a factor. If you haven’t taken on enough fluids during your workout, the body will hold onto water in order to combat dehydration. Additionally, extremely intense exercise will cause your cortisol levels to rise, which in turn will increase glucose in your bloodstream.
You’ve Retained Water
The main reason you look fatter after working out is because your body is retaining water.
In fact, all the other reasons I’ll get to in a moment are down to some form of water retention as well.
This is actually completely normal and it’s your body’s natural way to aid the recovery process.
When you perform intense exercise this will cause tiny microscopic tears in the muscle tissues.
Once again, this is completely normal.
This is typically why you feel sore after a very hard workout.
These tears will repair themselves naturally and this is how you get more muscular and stronger.
The body will transport fluid to these damaged muscle tissues, which is part of the recovery process.
Furthermore, your muscles need glycogen to fuel your intense workouts.
Glycogen is a carbohydrate that is stored in your liver and muscles.
However, glycogen needs to bind with water in order to produce the best results.
So, once glycogen and water are mixed together, your muscles have the required energy and power to complete whatever type of workout you’re doing.
You’ll find that when you’re fairly new to exercise you require more glycogen (and water) to fuel the muscles.
But, over time, as you start to adapt to exercise, say after a month or so, your muscles won’t need as much glycogen and water.
This is also why many of you may look or feel fatter in your first month of working out.
I think it’s important to realise that this is only a temporary measure.
You’ll often find that within a few hours of working out or the next day your body appears more “normal”.
However, if you’re holding onto water for longer this simply means that your body is still going through the recovery process.
You can help this process along with adequate rest in-between workouts and nourishing your body with the nutrients it needs.
Plus, as weird as it sounds, you need to ensure that you properly hydrate your body too.
It sounds a little strange to be talking about water retention and dehydration in the same sentence.
However, dehydration is definitely another reason why you may appear fatter after your workout.
In fact, many people state that they definitely look fatter after an intense or prolonged cardio session.
They can’t work out why they have perhaps been on a 10k run, which should realistically make you lose weight, and yet they come out the other end looking fatter.
If you ever see marathon runners they will usually look more puffy and bloated once they’ve finished the race.
You may even notice that these seasoned pros with extremely low levels of body fat seem to be sporting a bit of a belly after a race.
Don’t worry, this again is perfectly normal.
Dehydration makes it sound as though your body lacks water.
However, what actually happens is the body retains more water when you’re dehydrated.
In effect, your body’s natural instincts go into survival mode.
So, yes you definitely need to take on fluids when you are dehydrated, and this will allow your body’s systems to return to “normal”.
Your Cortisol Levels Have Increased
Something else you should be wary of is the stress hormone, cortisol.
And it is cortisol that is to blame for those of you who seem to be working out harder and longer.
Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone, so whenever you feel “stressed” cortisol production will increase.
We tend to think of stress as in the mind, but your body can certainly experience physical stress too.
This is also why you’ll find that shorter and intense workouts seem to have a better impact on your body composition than long, arduous workouts.
Cortisol will increase glucose in the bloodstream.
So, in effect, all these glucose molecules will take glycogen away from the muscles and push it into the bloodstream.
Therefore, you’re removing the muscle’s fuel and not using it as efficiently.
Your body’s glycogen stores will typically be burned up after around 60 minutes, which will then stimulate the release of cortisol.
High cortisol levels are associated with the need to take on my carbs and sugar, which can obviously lead to actual weight gain.
So, if you’re regularly working out for 60 minutes or longer, even at low-intensity, this will explain why you look fatter after your workout.
In fact, regular cortisol production will actually make you fatter and gain weight.
Your Muscles Are “Pumped”
I guess this is what you were waiting to hear.
We all try to achieve “the pump” when working out.
Basically, after an intense session you literally look twice the size as when you started.
This is simply water and blood accumulating in the muscles when you’ve worked a particular muscular group.
In fact, professional bodybuilders will often use a pair of dumbbells to perform exercises like lateral raises, bicep curls, and tricep extensions literally seconds before they step on stage.
Their aim is to get water and blood rushing to the muscles to make them appear bigger.
Exactly the same thing can occur to you after a workout.
You may also have experienced that lactic acid “burn” when you’ve performed a high volume of work.
Once again, this will draw water into the muscles.
You should also remember that your body will be much warmer after a workout, so the “heat” will typically make things expand.
So, you’ve got increased blood circulation, more water being drawn to the muscles, and an increased body temperature.
All of these things will certainly make you look bigger following a workout.
Remember, these are all part of the recovery process, and your body will return to “normal” fairly soon.
- If you “look fatter” after working out it’s likely that you’re retaining water, which is perfectly normal and will aid the recovery process.
- Water retention can also be a sign of dehydration.
- Your “swollen” appearance could actually be down to experiencing “the pump” after your training session, as opposed to water retention or being fat.
- Be wary of very long workouts, as this will increase cortisol production. Not only will this make you look fatter, but it can also lead to weight gain in the ling-term.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.