Exercise Weight Gain

First and foremost this is not me telling you to stop working out! What I am going to teach you is to work smarter not harder and reach your goals much faster. While the connection between exercise and weight gain can of course be attributed to increased muscle mass, if you’re feeling like working out is becoming your second job and you’re spending hours in the gym and not seeing much progress the problem could actually be the solution.

To help supplement the information here hop over to my other post explaining my personal experience with stress and weight gain.

How Exercise Causes Weight Gain

Let’s delve into the positive and negative causes here first just to be sure you clearly understand which group you fall into.

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Photo Credit: fitfatherproject

Increased Weight From Muscle
Many of you may have heard “muscle weighs more than fat”, but what exactly does that mean. This image is very popular in the fitness industry to give visual representation of this concept. Both the fat and muscle shown weigh 1lb, but because muscle is a dense living tissue, and fat is nothing more than insulation and an energy source the actual size of the 1lb of tissue is very different.

So why is this information important? Knowing this makes it easier to see your progress objectively. When incorporating strength training into your routine it’s not uncommon for my clients to either gain weight or maintain their current weight. This is when circumference measurement trump the bathroom scale. So before deciding that your routine isn’t working, check your measurements, take progress pictures or pay attention to how your clothes fit. Regardless of what the scale says if you’re dropping inches and/or your clothes fit differently (in a good way) more likely than not you’re burning fat! If this sounds like you congrats! You’re on the right track so just keep trucking along. However, even if you are seeing positive progress I encourage you to continue reading because hitting plateaus happens to everyone including personal trainers, athletes and every other fitness professional you’ve ever met.

Ok, so what about the other cause, the negative cause that actually brought you here. This can be broken down into many different branches but for our purposes today let’s just identify what it looks like. If you feel that your progress has been painfully slow no matter how many extra hours of cardio you do. If your weight isn’t moving or is going up and so are your measurements no matter how much more cardio you do or how many hours you spend in the gym then yes your progress may be have been halted too much exercise. Now for the sake of simplicity I’m primarily using weight gain as an example but too much exercise can have a negative impact on everything you’re trying to accomplish; strength increase, muscle gain, athletic performance, etc. So look at your entire program and goals to really recognize if there may be a problem

How Is Too Much Exercise Even Possible?

All fitness progress can effectively be stopped or slowed by stress, and that means any type of stress. Most people have heard this by now but don’t take into consideration that physical stress still counts. In extreme cases it can come in the form of “Over-training Syndrome” but what most people see long before this is little to no progress or a plateau. But why does this happen? In short it’s evolutionary, you see we may know that we’re an advanced civilization with technology but our body still works very similarly to that of nomadic ancestors. So whether we’re stressed at work to reach a deadline, stressed about our weight, or running on a treadmill to stay fit, our body thinks you’re running from something trying to eat you!

So let’s think about this like we were living in those times. You’re running from a predator, your stress spikes, fight or flight just kicked in and your body’s only concern is keeping you alive, what might it do?
Perhaps it would hoard it’s resources & any incoming resources, it would ration fuel sources to allow you to keep running as long as you need to, it would shut down or slow any lesser bodily function (for example: metabolism) not vital to survival.

Resources = food & water
Fuel = fats & carbs


Fat is your body’s most efficient fuel source. Energy from carbs gives you a quick spike but burns off fast, fats can keep you moving for quite a while. So it makes since that your body, when running from a predator for who knows how long, will hold on tight to those fat stores and whenever possible burn any available carbs first before dipping into more valuable sources. It’s a really effective and intelligent system really and the reason we’re alive today.

But here’s the problem

You’re not running from a predator, you’re not at risk of being killed or eaten and you’re not at risk of running or hiding indefinitely with no access to food or water. You’re just on the treadmill trying to drop a few pounds and you’re going to have a salad in about an hour. Unfortunately your body has been in overdrive for so long it works differently now, it’s burning carbs before fat at all times, it’s hoarding fat to keep you alive and it’s unknowingly fighting everything you’re trying to accomplish.

So how do you fix this?

What to Do When Exercise Causes Weight Gain

By now this is probably starting to sound like working out at all is a bad idea, which of course is not case. However, we do need to start working smarter not harder. There’s nothing wrong with triggering fight or flight, that’s really all exercise is supposed to do in order to stimulate rapid recovery and muscle growth, however, it’s important to let your body know it’s brief. This means effectively relaxing after each workout as well as incorporating both rest days & active recovery days. (See my article on Active Recovery for more guidance).

This is the point where we’ll start to see variance from person to person. 6 days in the gym, regardless of activity is way too much for many people but for a competitive athletes it’s just enough. Some avid gym-goers can even handle this frequency. Assuming some of those days are light/recovery days and they started at a much lower frequency and eased into this routine slowly. Going 0 to 100 works briefly if at all before you burn out.

So where should you start?

The first thing to keep in mind is that you have to meet your body where it is & baby steps are the key to this. So if you suspect you’re experiencing a plateau due to the intensity of your program take it one step at a time. Let’s say your routine looks like this:
Day 1: Strength training & light cardio
Day 2: Group fitness class & light cardio
Day 3: Strength training & light cardio
Day 4: Group fitness class & light cardio
Day 5: Strength training & light cardio
Day 6: 1 hour of cardio
Day 7: light group fitness class 1 hour of cardio
All done before going to work.

To some people this may seem unrealistic but this is a routine I’ve come across many times when meeting new clients. It’s easy to see how you could get there. You start working out, you see progress so you add a day or 2, then another. Suddenly, progress slows so you add cardio, then more and more and here we are. And you don’t get out of this by just dropping back to where you started from, that would be too much too fast and you would inevitably see even less progress or worst case start going backward. Instead start small. Replace one of those weekend cardio days with a light yoga or Pilates class. After a few weeks, trade one of the group fitness classes for a steady state, moderate intensity cardio day (no more than an hour unless you’re a marathon runner or triathlete). A few weeks later make one of your cardio days a complete rest day. Lastly, take cardio off the end of one of your more intense strength training days. Each time allow a few weeks in the new routine before changing anything to give your body ample time to adjust. You’re left with a routine that now looks something like this:

Day 1: Strength training & light cardio
Day 2: Group fitness class & light cardio
Day 3: Strength training
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: Strength training & light cardio
Day 6: 1 hour of cardio
Day 7: Yoga/Pilates

Doesn’t that look nicer? And you could easily keep tapering off from there until you find your personal sweet spot both in scheduling and progress. Now there’s one last thing to address. The habits surrounding your workout. In my aforementioned post about stress you can learn more about lifestyle & mindset adjustments, so for the purpose of this article we’ll just discuss post-workout adjustments. So now you have a routine that’s a little more effective & well rounded for you but how can you ensure you don’t get stuck in fight or flight after you leave the gym? The answer is simple, you have to actively recover after every single workout. Stretching of course is one important component of this, but mentally relaxing is another. This means taking your mind out of “GO” mode. This can entail brief meditation, spending time in a steam room or dry sauna if you have one, or simply practicing some deep breathing. None of these activities will take more than 5mins if that’s all you have, but all of them will make a world of difference in your progress.

If you’re just getting start and you want to ensure you build a routine from the beginning that’s well rounded you can use this guide from Precision Nutrition to organize your activities.

active recovery, exercise weight gain, workout routine, workout program

Now you have all the tools to reassess your routine and make adjustments. So go forth and Work Smarter not Harder!

Online Personal Trainer
Cassie Therrien | Certified PT Nutrition & Life Coach

“Strength doesn’t come from what you can do. It comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t.” – Rikki Rogers If you enjoyed this post about exercise and weight gain provide your email below for exclusive resources to help you get on track
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