Water Retention in Muscles After Exercise

When you first start an exercise program to lose weight, it can be frustrating to see the scale moving upward or not at all. One cause of weight gain may be water retention after working out. There can be other factors at play, too.

One cause of weight gain may be water retention after working out. (Image: Maridav/iStock/GettyImages)

Stick with your workout routine, eat the right foods and watch your caloric intake, and you should start to see progress. Keep in mind, the best measure of your weight loss isn't necessarily the number on the scale. Likewise, any water retention after working out is temporary and it's simply a part of the process when building muscle.

Causes of Muscle Fluid Retention

When you work out, micro-tears form in your muscles, and there may be inflammation around the muscle fibers, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Throughout the recovery phase, your body may retain water around the muscle. Basically, muscle fluid retention is a healing response to the micro-trauma.

You may also experience water retention after working out as your body becomes more efficient at fueling your muscles and other tissues. When you begin exercising regularly, your body hangs on to more glycogen — which gets converted to glucose to be used as an energy source. Because glycogen is stored in water, it's normal to experience muscle fluid retention as a result of this bodily process.

Within about a month of starting a workout routine, your muscles will become more accustomed to exercise. Your body will need less glycogen to maintain its energy levels, and the associated muscle fluid retention should dissipate to a certain extent.

Expect Some Muscle Soreness

Water retention after exercise relates in part to delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. This soreness results from micro-tears to your muscles. Especially with any kind of new exercise, DOMS is a normal part of the muscle recovery and growth process.

DOMS occurs around 24 to 48 hours after a workout, according to the American Council on Exercise. If muscle soreness lasts longer than two or three days, though, it may indicate you're overtraining or putting yourself at risk for injury.

There are several different ways you can reduce DOMS after a workout. An April 2018 meta-analysis published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology sought to reveal the most effective recovery techniques, including active recovery, massage, compression garments, immersion, contrast water therapy and cryotherapy.

Of the methods tried, massage appeared to be the best strategy for reducing DOMS and perceived fatigue. If you lack the time or money to get a professional massage, foam rolling or self-massage can be a good alternative. It may also help reduce water retention after exercise.

Other Reasons for Weight Gain

Water retention after exercise is just one possible reason you're seeing rising numbers on the scale. Another potential explanation could be an increase in lean muscle mass. That is, you may gain weight as your muscles grow, explains the Cleveland Clinic. In the meantime, your body will be working to lose fat.

Although it can be difficult to be patient as your body responds to your new workout routine, keep in mind that this process takes time. You didn't put on unwanted pounds overnight, and you won't lose them overnight, either. Likewise, muscle growth won't happen immediately — expect it to take at least a month or two to add lean muscle mass.

Stick with your routine, however, and you should start to see an overall reduction in body fat as you gain muscle, along with a drop in the numbers on the scale. Moreover, adding lean muscle mass will make your body more efficient at burning calories, even at rest, notes the Mayo Clinic.

Don’t Rely on the Scale

Adding lean muscle will change your body composition because muscle tissue takes less space than fat, explains Baylor College of Medicine. So while a pound is a pound, it's the distribution of that pound that impacts the way you look.

Think of it in terms of being able to slip on your favorite pair of jeans more easily. Maybe you didn't drop a lot of weight according to the scale, but you gained muscle and your body became tighter and more "compact."

As such, measuring body fat will likely give you a more accurate picture of your health than simply stepping on a scale. Some gyms and medical offices have body composition analysis machines that will digitally estimate your body fat and lean muscle mass percentages.

You can even buy a scale for home use that will estimate your body's composition. There's also the caliper method, whereby a small clamp-like device is used to take skinfold measurements at various spots on your body.

Determining a healthy range of body fat depends on your age and gender. The percentages are higher for women than men, and they also increase with age.

For example, women age 20 to 39 are considered within a healthy range at 21 to 32 percent body fat. For men of the same age, it's 8 to 19 percent. Work with your doctor or fitness trainer to determine the ideal range for you.

Fuel Your Workouts and Recovery

Aside from water retention after working out, another possible reason for weight gain could have to do with your eating habits. Even if you're working out religiously, it won't do much for your weight loss efforts if you are eating more calories than you're burning.

To fuel your workouts and recovery while losing fat, aim for a diet rich in lean proteins, whole grains, vegetables, fruits and healthy fats. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends the following ratios of macronutrients for an active person trying to build muscle:

  • Protein — About 10 to 35 percent of your total calories should come from lean meats and dairy, lentils and certain grains, such as quinoa.
  • Carbohydrates — About half your calories should come from whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits and vegetables.
  • Fats — About 20 to 35 percent of your calories should come from heart-healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil, avocados, walnuts and almonds.

It's only natural to want to "reward" yourself with a big meal after a hard workout. Keep your goals in mind even after the workout is done, however. That way, you might find it easier to choose the healthiest foods in the proper portions and eat less to lose weight.

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