Why Am I Heavier Than I Look?

You’re killing it on the treadmill, mixing it up with some strength training, eating more of the right foods and less of the wrong ones, and staying honest by tracking your meals and workouts. In some ways, all your hard work is paying off. You feel stronger and slimmer. Muscles that have been MIA for ages are finally peeking out, creating new definition in your arms, legs and abs. Maybe your energy is soaring, allowing you to accomplish more than ever before (and have more fun doing it!). Your clothes are fitting a little better, and overall, you like what you see in the mirror. So why is the number on the scale higher than you’d expect?
In short, you're heavier than you look.
And you're not alone. Plenty of SparkPeople members have been baffled by what seems like a disconnect between the number on the scale and the image in the mirror. Member KHUTCH44 posted her dilemma:
I'm 5'8" and weigh 200 pounds. My closest friends—and even my boyfriend—don’t believe that (people have asked to pick me up because they didn't believe me!). My own [doctor] was surprised by my weight at my first physical with her. Everyone has always guessed that I am 20 to 40 pounds lighter than I am. It's a compliment to be told that I don't look like I weigh 200 pounds, but it's also frustrating. If I don't look it, why the heck do I weigh so much?
Ever since middle school, K-NANA has noticed that she weighs 20 to 30 pounds more than she appears, but it's never been a real issue for her. "I just figured it was something unique about me," she says. "As I'm trying to set goals for being healthy, it's clear that we're not all cookie-cutter, and I've accepted the fact that I might never fit into a healthy BMI (but will look like I do)."


Is Strength Training Making You Heavier?

If you've recently started dipping your toe (or your triceps) into strength training, that could have something to do with the discrepancy between the scale and the mirror. While it's a myth that muscle weighs more than fat—after all, a pound is a pound—it is denser, which means it takes up less space in the body. This may explain why you look slimmer but the scale hasn't budged.
Water weight could also be a factor, according to strength and conditioning coach Brandon Mentore. After physical activity—strength training in particular—water retention is activated to compensate for what has been lost through exertion and sweating. "In combination with the muscle’s uptake of water during training, this can cause you to weigh a couple pounds more post exercise," Mentore explains. "The more intense or strenuous the exercise, the more pronounced the effect can be."
Fitness trainer Alex Haschen has seen a lot of his clients struggle with this at the outset of an exercise program, as they tend to want to quantify all their hard work by seeing a certain number on the scale. "Generally speaking, most people looking to ‘get in shape’ are referring to losing weight," Haschen says. "When the scale shows a smaller number, they consider that an accomplishment, and it is, but the scale is far from the only way to measure healthy successes."
SparkPeople member ARCHIMEDESII experienced this when she started strength training. "[As a result of strength training,] I carry a lot of lean muscle," she says. "The difference is in volume—muscle is dense and takes up less space on the body than fat [...] A person could lose one to two clothing sizes with strength training and still maintain their current weight [...] So, I may be heavy, but I'm not fat."


How to Measure Progress off the Scale

According to Haschen, the best way to gauge progress in the gym is to monitor your body fat percentage (BFP). "Lowering your BFP not only helps you get the physique you desire, but it also drastically improves your overall health," he says. There are many different ways to measure your body fat percentage, some more accurate than others, but as long as you use the same method consistently you can get an idea of your progress.
Tyler Spraul, a trainer with Exercise.com, recommends taking periodic progress photos as a visual record of the changes to your body. "Even if the scale isn't budging, you will be able to see some changes happening that you probably would not notice if you didn't have a record," he says. "There's so much going on when you start to strength train, including building up of muscle tissue, strengthening and reinforcing bones and connective tissue—all kinds of positive growth that is paving the way to a stronger version of you."

If progress photos aren’t your cup of team, there are plenty of other ways to measure progress off the scale:
  • Try on the same pair of pants each week to see if they’re fitting you differently
  • Use measuring tape to determine inches lost
  • Monitor your cholesterol, blood sugar, triglycerides and/or thyroid levels
  • Pay attention to how you feel—your energy level, confidence and overall wellness
  • Focus on new things you can do that you couldn’t before, like pushups, pull-ups or running a mile
If you find yourself frustrated by a number that doesn’t seem to represent what you see in the mirror, resist the urge to move on to the next diet, workout or cleanse. Next time you start to wonder, "Why am I heavier than I look?", remember that your health, strength and self-worth are about much more than what’s on the scale display.
Have you ever felt like you’re heavier than you look? Did it bother you, and how did you get past it?