The Truth About Weightlifters and Body Fat: Why Do Some Athletes Carry Extra Weight?

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From personal experience, building muscle and strength in power/weightlifting is a bit challenging. It is a long process that takes a lot of time and patience. Everyone wishes to obtain a perfect physique easily in no time and with no effort but unfortunately, things don’t work like that to reach your dream physique and get big you need to be able to be “fat” and sacrifice your look for a while in order to gain size before sculpting your body in a process what we call “cutting”. 

Now let’s discuss four reasons why are weightlifters fat:

  1. To Gain Muscle at a Faster Rate
  2. Less Energy Expenditure
  3. Overeating By Overestimating Requirements
  4. Supplement use  
Weightlifting sessions

To Gain Muscle at a Faster Rate

Because “mass moves mass,” some powerlifters deliberately aim to consume too many calories in an effort to gain more muscle mass. According to research, an aggressive bulk makes it simpler to build muscle mass more quickly; nevertheless, the drawback is that we would also gain more body fat using this approach.

Aggressive bulking may increase our absolute strength—strength that is independent of size—by putting on muscle mass, but it may decrease our relative strength—how strong you are in relation to your size—by putting on fat mass. This could be harmful to our performance because powerlifting is a weight-class sport.

Bodybuilders, powerlifters, and athletes go through periods of intentionally gaining weight. Bodybuilders call it their offseason, powerlifters call it a “massing phase,” and almost everyone else calls it “bulking.” These bulking phases are designed to help people build muscle while minimizing fat gain, and they’ve been a popular way to build muscle for several decades now.

Some interesting things happen when we gain weight:

  • Muscle growth is a result of ingesting more calories than you expend. For every two pounds of fat a person gains, they typically add one pound of muscle. Naturally, this leads to a worsening of their body composition. They put on weight. But folks can still put on quite a bit of muscle even without doing weights or consuming enough protein.
  • A calorie surplus may increase testosterone, IGF-1, and insulin. However, this seems to hinge on remaining fairly lean, as higher levels of body fat can reduce testosterone. So when you’re bulking, you should be resistance training, eating enough protein, and getting enough sleep. That way your gains are more likely to be lean. Furthermore, these small increases in anabolic hormones, while nice, may not lead to extra muscle growth.
  • A calorie surplus enables us to consume a lot of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, all of which can aid in muscle growth. The fact that there is a surplus of energy that may be used to fuel muscular growth is the most obvious advantage of eating more than calories. That’s the ideal combo for muscle growth because eating protein and hypertrophy training increases muscle protein synthesis.

Overall, a calorie surplus creates a favorable hormonal environment, muscle protein synthesis is revved up into overdrive, and we have an abundance of calories and protein to build muscle with. As a result, weightlifters/powerlifters tend to gain more fat in the process.

Now let’s dive a little bit into the different styles of bulking

A Woman Weightlifter practicing weightlifting
  • Dreamer bulking: It is when someone bulks so poorly that it appears they are accumulating only fat. Although this type of bulking is the most easily criticized, most people who are big and strong have bulked at least once unintentionally. I have, for sure.

    Typically, we gain some strength, pick up some important lessons, and develop some muscle. Once the additional fat has been burned off, it frequently proves to be profitable in the long run. However, you shouldn’t deliberately do it.
  • Dirty bulking: This is frequently accomplished by following a “see-food” diet, which is eating as much greasy junk food and sweets as you want without keeping watch of your calorie intake.

    Even if you generally choose healthy foods, you could still overeat and gain weight erratically and quickly. Some individuals are fortunate and see lean gains while dreamers bulk. Nonetheless, it frequently leads to a dreamer bulge.
  • Bulking cleanly: It means avoiding junk food. Foods like chicken breast, broccoli, rice, oats, whey protein, ground meat, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, olive oil, almonds, and fruits make up the traditional “clean” diet. There’s a reason why these foods are so well-liked: they’re all excellent bulking foods.

    Yet, you don’t have to follow a “clean” diet to achieve successful bulking. It’s okay to occasionally indulge in dessert if the majority of your diet is composed of whole foods.
  • Lean Bulking: Bulking while attempting to minimize fat gain is known as lean bulking. This is frequently accomplished by keeping strict track of calories consumed, making informed dietary decisions, engaging in effective hypertrophy exercises, and consuming a modest calorie surplus.

A lot of fitness experts choose their least favorite definition and then criticize bulking as a whole. Maybe you’ve heard that kind of argument before. Here are some examples:

  • Bulking individuals put on an excessive quantity of fat. More lean muscle mass is preferable. The problem is that putting on lean muscle is still bulking. It is referred to as a “lean bulk.”
  • Individuals who (dirty) bulk consume a lot of junk food, which is unhealthy and results in a lot of unnecessary fat gain. Consuming a diet richer in nutrients is preferable. Nonetheless, maintaining a healthy diet while bulking is still bulking. This is known as a “clean bulk.”
  • Bulking (aggressively) doesn’t work for anyone but skinny novices since it causes people to gain weight far faster than their bodies can build muscle. It is preferable to acquire weight more gradually. Again, this is a criticism of too-rapid bulking rather than of bulking itself.

Less Energy Expenditure

Powerlifting requires less calorie expenditure than other sports, hence powerlifters may also be overweight. This is especially true for those who don’t have an active lifestyle outside of training and who exclusively train the competitive lifts (which I don’t advise).

A casual observer might assume that all weightlifting routines are the same, but there are a variety of ways you can use them. The two main categories are lifting, also known as submaximal lifting, and maxing, also known as maxing out.

Maxing refers to workouts where your main objective is to perform each exercise with the highest weight possible for only one repetition. As a result, the exercises involve few repetitions but a lot of resistance.

Frequent lifting sessions involve performing a variety of repetitions with weights that are less than your one-repetition maximum. These exercises involve a greater number of repetitions with less resistance.

You can use an online calculator to determine your one-repetition maximum based on your normal lifting routines. For example, if you can perform five repetitions at 225 pounds, your one-repetition max would be 253 pounds.

Although lifting with your one-rep maximum or just below it is intense, the lower volume of work means you’ll burn fewer calories during your workout compared to lifting lighter weights for a higher volume.

Research published in the December 2009 issue of the journal “Diabetes Care” found that study participants who lifted heavy weights with fewer repetitions burned significantly fewer calories than those who lifted less heavy weights for higher numbers of repetitions.

Meanwhile, participants who lifted a moderate amount of weight for a middle-range number of repetitions burned more calories than the max group but fewer than the high-repetition group.

Overeating By Overestimating Requirements

Overeating By Overestimating Requirements

Lifters frequently accidentally overeat because they believe they expended more calories during a workout than they did.

When it’s time to “re-fuel” after training, our objective is to refill our energy reserves and promote muscle protein synthesis, which is the process of developing muscle in response to exercise. Yet, because we overestimate our energy expenditure during the activity, we frequently eat more food than our bodies truly need afterward.

Research tells us that in general, lifting burns an average of 75-100 kcal for a lower volume session in women, roughly 150 kcal for a lower volume session in men or a higher volume session in women, and around 300 kcal for a higher volume session in men.

These numbers are not set in stone, as energy expenditure will change depending on the amount of total work (sets x reps x load) performed during the training session; but it’s probably not 900 kcal like a fitness tracker may suggest.

Calories in minus calories out are the key to managing weight. But if you’re tracking your diet and activity but aren’t meeting your objectives, there may be some errors in the calculation.

It is challenging to achieve those weight-loss objectives because we frequently overestimate how many calories we have expended and underestimate how many calories we have taken. Even if you meticulously monitor your meals and exercise, you can use less energy than you realize.

1. YOU’RE OVERESTIMATING YOUR WEEKLY BURN

It’s important not to approach every day thinking you can indulge with your food because you’ve put in a big, calorie-torching workout — or assume every gym day will yield a big calorie deficit.

An hour of strength training could end up burning around 200–300 calories, compared with about 500 calories burned during a long run. It could be helpful to think of your daily calorie burn as a weekly average. Going into the week, it’s a good idea to know what workouts you’ll do and factor those calorie burns into your eating plan.  

2. YOUR EXERCISE EQUIPMENT MIGHT BE LYING

You hop on that treadmill, elliptical, or cycling machine and watch the “calories” number tick up. Before you celebrate with a cheeseburger, remember these machines are often inaccurate, especially if you don’t input your weight before you start the workout. Everyone burns calories at a different rate depending on weight, heart rate, and form, which means your favorite exercise machine may tell you you’re burning way more calories than you are.

Supplement Use

A certain amount of weight gain following exercise may also result from using post-workout meals or supplements. Activity depletes the body’s glycogen, especially long-duration endurance exercises like running or cycling.

Consuming carbohydrate-containing post-workout supplement beverages is particularly popular among trained athletes. Carbs aid in replenishing muscle glycogen. Yet, the body holds onto three grams of water for every gram of glycogen.

The outcome? Is a rise in water reserves and potential weight gain due to water after exercise. Supplementing with carbohydrates does not account for the entire post-workout benefit.

Following your workout, even the carbs you eat for meals and snacks will be turned into glycogen and stored with water. You shouldn’t strive to prevent this process of recuperation because it is normal and good.

Some substances may also contribute to weight gain following exercise. Many ardent exercisers utilize the supplement Creatine, which can increase muscle mass or promote fluid retention, which can lead to weight gain.

Over the years, Creatine has been the subject of in-depth research. Although there is conflicting evidence on its efficacy, several early research suggested that taking creatine supplements can increase body mass and total weight. Researchers hypothesized that higher water retention was to reason for these increases.

More recent studies have investigated creatine’s potential to increase muscular strength and muscle mass, with some evidence showing that it may provide a benefit. However, the mechanism by which it provides this benefit is not fully understood.

In short, being “fat” as a weightlifter is nearly inevitable if you want to get big. It is part of the process and people should understand that. Several factors play a role in this weight gain, divided into muscle and fat tissue. In the end, you cannot gain muscle naturally without putting on some fat but you can control how much fat you gain in the process.

References:

Associations of exercise-induced hormone profiles and gains in strength and hypertrophy in a large cohort after weight training—PubMed. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22105707/

Deliberate overfeeding in women and men: Energy cost and composition of the weight gain—PubMed. (n.d.). Retrieved February 13, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3479191/

Forbes, G. B., Brown, M. R., Welle, S. L., & Underwood, L. E. (1989). Hormonal response to overfeeding. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 49(4), 608–611. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/49.4.608

Predicting Energy Expenditure of an Acute Resistance Exercise Bout in Men and Women—PubMed. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30768553/

Serum sex steroids and steroidogenesis-related enzyme expression in skeletal muscle during experimental weight gain in men—PubMed. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24792219/

Why You Shouldn’t Trust Calories Burned on Exercise Machines | Weight Loss | MyFitnessPal. (2017, July 5). MyFitnessPal Blog. https://blog.myfitnesspal.com/why-you-shouldnt-trust-calories-burned-on-exercise-machines/

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