Healthy Weight Loss Tips

Why Am I Losing Inches But Not Weight?

“Why am I losing inches but not weight?” “Why am I losing inches but gaining weight?” These are common questions I’ve heard throughout my more than two decades as a personal trainer and health and weight loss coach. People are baffled because their clothes are fitting better, but the number on the scale hasn’t budged. 

One client recently told me she had lost 3 inches off her waist but her body weight had actually increased. That came as no surprise to me. I prescribe a strength-training regimen to all my clients. Building muscle is key to weight loss. She had been following my plan religiously, and that is exactly why she was losing fat but not weight. 

Losing Inches But Not Weight 

Lots of people — far too many, actually — measure weight loss success by a number on the scale. This is a huge mistake. If you’re following the most effective weight loss plan, which includes regular exercise — cardio and strength training — and a healthy diet, then bodyweight is not an accurate measure of your success.  

The number you see on the scale encompasses not just fat, but also muscle mass, bones, organs, and water. A change in any of these can change that number. 

When you start exercising as part of your weight loss program, you are gaining muscle mass. You are also burning calories and fat. Pound for pound, muscle and fat weigh the same — a pound. Just as a pound of bricks and a pound of feathers weigh the same.  

However, muscle mass is dense and doesn’t take up much space. Fat is more expansive and takes up much more space. A pound of feathers also takes up more space than a brick.  

Take two 40-year-old women of the same height. One has a healthy body fat percentage of 26 percent. She eats healthy, works out at the gym 3 days a week and bikes on the weekends. She’s lean and toned.  

The other women is considered overweight, with a body fat percentage of 35 percent. She sometimes eats healthy, but indulges in unhealthy foods more than she should. She rarely exercises and is noticeably overweight.  

However, both women weigh the same amount. How can this be? Simple — the first woman has more dense, lean muscle mass, whereas the second women as more voluminous fat mass.

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The Importance of Resistance Training for Fat Loss 

At this point you might be thinking of ditching your strength-training program. After all, you’re trying to lose weight, not gain it!

Just stop right there.  

We need to stop talking about “weight loss” and start talking about “fat loss.” People get so hung up on their bodyweight and frustrated when the scale doesn’t budge. They don’t understand the difference between fat loss and weight loss.  

I always make sure my clients understand this concept right from the beginning. In fact, I tell them to stop weighing themselves — just toss the scale! It’s so important.  

Gaining muscle mass is one of the best ways to lose fat. Muscle mass is more metabolically active than fat mass. When you strength train regularly, your rate of protein turnover — protein breakdown and protein synthesis — is elevated.  

This cycle takes a lot of energy, in the form of calories, for the body to maintain — way more than fat. In fact, muscle maintenance makes up 20 percent of the average total daily energy expenditure — the number of calories you burn in a day from all activities and body processes. Fat only accounts for 5 percent!  

Therefore, the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you will burn throughout the day, even when you’re not doing anything.  

 

losing fat but not weight
Strength training is the main reason you’re losing inches but not weight.

The Type of Training Matters 

When you’re first starting out, any kind of exercise is good for building strength. If you’ve previously been sedentary, just walking at a good clip with a slight incline on the treadmill is going to start building some muscle in your lower body. 

But it’s important to train all your major muscle groups — your arms, shoulders, back, chest, core muscles and legs. You can do bodyweight exercises at home, practice vinyasa yoga, do Pilates, or head into the gym to lift weights. Those are all good options for starting to build lean muscle.  

After a few months, it’s time to take things up a notch. In order to continue building muscle, you have to continually increase the amount of stress you place on them. Muscles grow by adapting to demand; the harder the workout, the stronger they have to get to withstand those stressors in the future.  

If you keep doing the same program for months on end, you’re going to plateau at some point.  

The other factor is intensity. High-intensity exercise — whether that’s doing sprints, taking a challenging circuit training class or lifting heavy — taxes the body more than less intense exercise.  

In the period following your workout, your body must work even harder to repair and recover. This is referred to as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. During this period your metabolism is elevated and can stay elevated for up to 24 hours post-workout.  

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Won’t Weight Training Make Me Bulk Up? 

Ladies, let’s just shatter that myth right now. Strength training does not make you bulky. Remember why we’re here and talking about this: You’re actually losing inches. You’re strength training and your midsection, arms, and legs are actually getting smaller in size.  

Let’s take those two women from the earlier example. They both weigh the same, but the woman with more muscle mass is leaner and noticeably trimmer than the woman with excess body fat. Yes, she definitely looks muscular, but she’s not bulky. She’s strong and healthy.  

Getting bulky from weight training has more to do with gender, body type and diet. Men are more likely to bulk up from strength training, although not necessarily. Getting massive muscles takes a very consistent, intense strength training program, a careful diet and, often, supplements.  

Keep Track of Losing Fat But Not Weight

Your body fat percentage is one of the best measurements for tracking your weight loss progress. Reducing your body fat if you are overweight greatly reduces your risk of a number of health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancer, digestive issues and sleep apnea, among others.  

If you are going to measure your success, I recommend getting quarterly body fat scans. These are more expensive but more effective than manual measuring with calipers that some personal trainers will offer at the gym. They are less expensive and less accurate than hydrostatic weighing, which often needs to be done in a lab setting.  

Body scans, called dual-energy absorptiometry or DEXA — are a good combination of affordability and accuracy. A quick scan will tell you how much of your body mass is lean and how much is fat. It will also tell you how much bone mass you have — an important thing for women to know, especially after age 30 when you begin to lose bone mass.  

So what do your results mean? Here’s a chart showing body fat percentages in the low, normal, overweight, and obese ranges.  

body fat percentages for women
Don’t worry if your body fat percentage is going down but not weight.

Your goal should be to reach and stay in that green area, which is different depending on your age. Rather than weighing yourself every day, go get a quarterly scan and see how much progress you’ve made lowering your body fat and increasing your lean muscle mass.  

losing inches but gaining weight.
Losing inches but not weight is a good thing.

Other Ways to Track Your Progress 

There’s a cheaper way to measure your progress that you don’t even have to leave home for. How do your clothes fit? Are they getting looser? You’re making progress! What do you see when you look in the mirror? How do you feel?  

Weight loss progress is often a feeling, not just a number or an image. You should feel lighter, more energetic, better in your own skin. Especially if you’re following a program of healthy eating, regular exercise and other important lifestyle changes for weight loss. You should start to feel pretty darn good, and that’s the best measure of progress! 

I also coach my clients to keep track of their eating habits and workouts. I don’t mean record every little thing you ate; I mean keep track of when you did well and when you didn’t. Put an X on the calendar every day you completed your workout.  

How are you doing with meeting your goals? Are you hitting your target 50 percent of the time? Or 60, 75, 95 percent of the time?  

Since successful weight loss is more about habits than anything else, these numbers are going to tell you a lot about your progress.  

Track this for the long-term. Each week and month, look back and see how you did and look at your overall progress. Heck, make a line graph or bar chart, if you’re nerdy like that. How have you progressed with creating healthy habits and sticking to them? That is going to be a much better measurement of your current success and a predictor of your long-term success.  

Your weight on the scale can fluctuate every day; your ability to create healthy habits, stick with them, and change your lifestyle leads to long-term stability, successful weight loss and successful weight maintenance.  

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Jody Braverman, NASM-CPT, NASM-FNS, PN1

Jody Braverman is a certified nutrition, fitness, and weight loss expert who has been working in the health & fitness industry for over two decades.

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