The Mysteries of Water Retention & How They’re Stopping You Getting Bigger & Stronger


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You’re looking to get bigger and stronger, you’ve got a decent base to do it from.

But you don’t seem to be progressing.

When you first went to the gym results came pretty fast, you got noticeable stronger almost every session and after a few months it was obvious you’d packed on muscle.

1. You try to bulk up but end up looking fluffy and have to cut down soon after.

Even if you do this slowly, after a couple of months you look in the mirror and are dissatisfied with what you can see. You’ve only put on maybe a couple or so pounds but your abs have gone, you’ve got puffy and so you decide enough is enough and you go onto a diet again.

2. You try to gain strength but you end up looking small and so change your focus back to higher rep work.

Even though you’re using your muscles, and pushing them hard, for whatever reason you look visibly smaller and that doesn’t sit well with you. The thought of losing muscle you have spent years building is not a good one, so you go back to your old higher rep work to get the muscle back.

The problem is you end up not getting stronger, or any bigger — you don’t stick to the plan and follow the process. It’s not like you’re being silly, you have your reasons, but I am here to tell you today that your reasons are false, or rather, not what they seem; they are down to the mysteries of water retention.

I am going to take you through both cases and explain the mysteries of water retention.

You Look Fat Soon After Embarking on a Bulk

Right OK so you’re lean, have visible abs, a body you’re proud of, but you want to add more bulk to it. You know the right way to go about this isn’t to stuff your face with food, but muscle gaining is a slow process that takes a small surplus. So you carefully plan out your lean gaining diet, being sure not to put yourself into too much of a caloric surplus.

After a number of months you see small increases in scale weight, and your lifts are going up in the gym, but you’re not happy. You look in the mirror and already your abs have gone, you look less defined, and feel like you’ve put on fat.

“I can’t have put on this much fat…I’m lean gaining!!!”

You’re mega frustrated, you followed your diet to the T and gained weight nice and slow, you shouldn’t have lost your abs and definition surely? So you decide to go back onto a diet…and in a couple of weeks your shreds are back, ‘hello six pack’….but now you don’t want to go back to gaining, because you lost your cuts. So you never get bigger.


What’s really going on? Why do you lose your abs so fast when you embark on a bulk? On paper you’re doing everything right for slow lean gains. The problem here is not understanding water retention.

You increase your calorie intake to push your body into a small surplus, so it has the energy required to build new muscles. This is a calculated small surplus, not so much that you’d add a bunch of fat too. However, what you don’t realise is that with this increase in total calories there will be more glycogen and water held within the body.

[bctt tweet=”When your calories increase your body will hold onto more glycogen & water”]

You see when you’re dieting you are fairly glycogen depleted, when you increase carbohydrate intake your muscles store this as glycogen and it ‘fills you out’ as for a gram of glycogen to be stored it must also hold 3 grams of water. [1] This is why when people are ultra lean and going for a bodybuilding show or maybe a photo shoot they carb up to fill out their muscles, this is called ‘peak week‘.  You may notice sometimes when you’re dieting you eat a bunch of carbs and look bigger, this is exactly the process that is going on.

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However, when you’re not dieting and actually in a caloric surplus you don’t get this same look. Your muscles are full to the brim with glycogen and water most of the time, and you have what would be referred to as a ‘spilled over’ look. This is why after a couple of months you think you’ve lost your abs and gained a bunch of fat, but it isn’t fat covering your cuts, its water.

[bctt tweet=”When you’re in a calorie surplus you may look a bit ‘spilled over'”]

If you truly lean gain, which for the average intermediate lifter is at a rate of about 0.5% to 1% extra bodyweight every month [2] (so for a 180lb male it would be 0.9lb to 1.8lbs added a month) you’re not leaving much room for adding fat. So the fact is, you need to get your head round not looking peeled all the time, and have the knowledge that after a few weeks of lower calories you would drop that water weight and have your abs back. You need to trust in the process.

I see it all the time with my clients, we’ve successfully taken them through a fat loss phase, they have abs and are happy with how they look but want to add some layers of muscle. So we enter our lean gaining phase, as said normally aiming for 0.5% to 1% of additional bodyweight per month. A few weeks in and they’ve gained maybe a pound, they’re already saying:

“Steve I look noticeably less defined — I think I’ve put on fat”

Normally I come back to them saying:

“You’re in a tiny calorie surplus & gained hardly any weight, eat up!

Obviously this is the time I normally have to explain the above, and then once they understand this they continue onwards and get bigger. You however may not be in the fortunate position to have a well-educated coach, and thus may keep spinning your wheels, doing short gaining and cutting cycles — getting nowhere.

You Look Small while Training for Strength

OK so you’re pretty big already and you’re after building some strength. Plus you know a stronger muscle can be made bigger, so it makes good sense to lift some lower rep, heavy stuff to continue forward. You’ve been lifting quite some time, so you know you need to periodise your training and make sure you have a specific focus on strength.

OK so you have planned out a Strength Block, you’re focussing on lifting in the 80 to 90% rep range and aren’t doing a tonne of assistance work. It’s all about prioritising a few main lifts and lifting at a high intensity. You’re 3 weeks into your programme, you’ve gotten stronger that’s for sure, but you look in the mirror at the gym and can’t help but notice you’re looking smaller.

“I look deflated & small — I’ve lost muscle!”

Your arms are flat, your shoulders don’t look very 3D and you’re not getting very vascular. You love looking big, and don’t like the idea that you might have lost muscle mass. It’s playing on your mind so much that you start adding in some higher rep assistance work, you get the pump back, but you’re so tired from all the extra volume your lifts start going south. You’re no longer getting stronger.

[bctt tweet=”How often do you see Powerlifters doing high rep bicep curls?”]

The thing is, you’re not losing muscle at all, the mysteries of water retention strike again. You see when you train with lower reps and not doing your typical bodybuilding type work i.e. moderate to high reps with limited rest periods, you don’t get a pump. This ‘pump’ is known in sports science as ‘cell swelling’ and occurs as your muscle cells fill up with blood, and this results in an accumulation of metabolic byproducts which cause fluid to be drawn into the muscle cell. [3] Furthermore, exercises that maintain constant tension maximise the pump. When you’re doing something 3 sets of 4 reps at 82.5%; the reps are low, your rest periods are high and you are not keeping constant tension at such high loads. — No pump in the look smaller.

Have you actually lost muscle mass though? No. There is something called ‘Training Residuals’ and these are essentially how long training qualities hang about. Sure don’t use it, you lose it…eventually, but it’s not like you’re not using your muscles, they’re just not getting as pumped. In fact muscle size can be conserved indefinitely with only strength and no hypertrophy training. [4]

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[bctt tweet=”Muscle size can be conserved indefinitely with only strength and no hypertrophy training”]

In fact if you drop your strength training you’re actually not only going to prevent yourself getting stronger, but you’re also halting your size too. One of the three mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy is Mechanical Tension; the heavy weight disturbs the integrity of our muscles, these are then converted into chemical signals that ultimately enhance anabolic signalling. The more weight you lift, the greater the amount of tension that is produced. This tension is considered to be the most important factor in muscular development. [5] Plus once you have made a muscle stronger you can lift more in every rep range, which is going to promote your ability to further grow muscle.

[bctt tweet=”A stronger muscle has greater potential to be a bigger muscle”]

So remember when you’re training for strength focus on getting strong, that is the main goal after all. Don’t look at yourself in the mirror, look at the weight you are shifting on the bar. The muscle you’ve worked so hard for over the years will not disappear and the strength you’re gaining will only promote more muscle growth in future. By never letting go of the pump and higher rep work you will never fully allow yourself to get incredibly strong.

Focus on The Process & Forget Water Retention

I am sure many of you can relate to the above two situations, and if it has stopped you continuing and sticking to the process I hope I have helped soothe your concerns so you do stick it out. The thing is we cannot be or do everything all the time, sure you want to look stage ready year round, sure you want to look pumped walking down the street, the problem is you can’t. Ever heard the phrase ‘Jack of all trades master of none?’ that applies to many aspects in fitness and here is one of them.

[bctt tweet=”Don’t be a Jack of all trades & master of none”]

Trust the process and you will see fantastic results, stop trying to be and do everything at once. Take time to develop different qualities of your physique, understand they are necessary and that once you have a foundation it doesn’t just disappear overnight. Your abs will come right back and you’ll be doing your pump work and looking jacked again in no time, in fact you’ll be bigger and stronger than ever before.



  1. John Berardi & Ryan Andrews. The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Precision Nutrition 2013. 
  2. Eric Helms et al. Muscle & Strength Training Pyramids. 2015
  3. Brad J. Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras. The Muscle Pump: Potential Mechanisms and Applications for Enhancing Hypertrophic Adaptations , Department of Health Sciences, Program of Exercise Science, City University of New York, Lehman College, New York, New York; and 2 Department of Sport Performance, Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand
  4. M, Israetel. J, Hoffmann. C, W, Smith. Scientific Principles of Strength Training. 2015
  5. Schoenfeld, B.J., The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2010. 24(10)
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