Once a month, I love to feature a client who has a healthy mindset, who does a great job of following their training program, who implements the nutrition tweaks I suggest, and who (as a result) experiences tangible change.

This month, that client is Michelle!

Michelle, 44, is a busy high school vice principal who recently lost weight on her own (prior to working with me) through running and smart nutrition changes. She came to me for coaching a few months ago because – as she approached her mid-40’s – she found that her body composition post-weight-loss wasn’t as good as she wanted it to be. She was religiously running five miles a day, but wanted to take her results to the next level.

Plus, it’s smart to start thinking about more than just weight when you’re in your 40’s. Although 40 is the new 30 and (in my opinion) is still quite youthful, issues like strength and bone density should begin to get your attention.

It’s not just about keeping your weight as low as possible – it’s about powering up your metabolism and your vitality with muscle gain. Often, this means mixing up your cardio routine with vigorous strength training.

However, this shift in perspective – from weight to body composition – can be really challenging for women, and it can be especially mentally difficult for people who have lost a lot of weight and are trying to keep it off. For overall leaner people, muscle gain can look like weight gain on the scale, and obviously this can pose an emotional threat to staying the course.

I was soooo excited to introduce Michelle to a solid strength training routine!

Since she wasn’t strength training at all previously, Michelle experienced almost instant body composition change results from incorporating a resistance training workout 3-4 times a week – based on weight and measurements, I would estimate that she put on five pounds of muscle in about 10 weeks (which is fast). Despite the scale going up, waist and hip measurements stayed the same… which is usually highly indicative of muscle gain (and why I like women to do measurements in addition to, or instead of, weighing).

Michelle gained about five pounds, but her waist and hip measurements stayed the same – this strongly indicates muscle gain!

There are two reasons, I believe, that Michelle was so successful with seeing results from her efforts:

  • She already had a good foundation of exercise habits and a high-protein diet
  • She was unbelievably excellent at following instructions and sticking with a plan

If you also want to see a change in body composition, I recommend incorporating these six strategies:

  • #1 Gently increase carbohydrates, especially near workouts
  • #2 Don’t be afraid to increase calories overall
  • #3 Be calm and patient about “weight gain”
  • #4 Focus on sleep routines
  • #5 Get your strength training in
  • #6 Continue to include exercise you enjoy

Now, let’s explore each one in depth…

#1 Gently increase carbohydrates, especially near workouts

Michelle was already eating a very high-protein diet when we started working together, so I’m going to focus on increasing carbohydrates in this post.

This strategy can make people uneasy – won’t carbs make you regain the weight you lost? Won’t it spike your blood sugar? Won’t it cause cravings?

The reality is that carbohydrates are a valuable source of energy, and help with exercise performance and recovery. Every person is different in terms of how their individual bodies handle carbohydrates (and how active they are), but the bottom line is that clustering modestly higher carbohydrate intake around workouts should help, not hurt.

When you’re more properly fueled, you have the capacity to work harder, which helps with muscle gain (and protects against muscle loss, too).

If you eat a very low-carbohydrate diet for non-medical reasons, I recommend increasing carbohydrates very gradually, for both physical and mental reasons. The goal is to find a “sweet spot” where you feel like you’re performing stronger, but aren’t experiencing blood sugar spikes and crashes (or increased cravings). For some people, it may not be an issue at all, but for others, changing things slowly can help to ameliorate concerns.

With Michelle, we literally added 1/4 cup of oatmeal (dry) to her morning overnight oats, and recently I also recommended that she add more carbohydrates to her dinner to help with sleep. By increasing carbohydrates by small amounts, we have prevented what initially concerned her about carbohydrates: increased hunger and cravings. She is putting on muscle, seeing strength gains, and maintaining the healthy dietary pattern that helped her lose weight.

Carbs get a bad rap, but they are not responsible for every diet ill.

Here is Michelle’s favorite breakfast, which she splits up into pre-workout and post-workout portions: overnight oats with Greek yogurt and chia seeds. Carbs, protein, and fat – check, check, and check! Here’s a recipe online if you want to try something similar.

Psst… If you haven’t quite gotten the protein thing down yet, check out these blog posts that can give you a boost:

#2 Don’t be afraid to increase calories overall

This is a logical step from the first strategy, but if you add carbohydrates, you’re probably adding calories… and this is okay.

For someone like Michelle, adding in the carbohydrates absolutely raised her calories, because she was very careful about her diet from the outset. In fact, I intentionally made sure that fat and protein were not offset – I wanted that slight caloric surplus for building.

This is important because of a poorly-understood topic in fitness nutrition – “low energy availability.” LEA occurs when someone is highly active, but is eating as if they were not. This is very common when people are weight-conscious or health-conscious – they tend to respond fastidiously to public health campaigns about moving more and eating less (or eating “clean”). People who have lost weight and are trying to keep it off are particularly vigilant against overeating.

But in low energy availability, the body effectively goes into low-power mode, and isn’t as efficient at building muscle (or even burning calories or losing fat) as it would be with a higher caloric intake.

And this can happen to normal-bodied people… not just the super duper lean.

It’s counterintuitive, but sometimes it helps with a body recomposition journey to add more food. You give your body more building blocks to play with, and sometimes the bump up in calories helps to restore normal, healthy hormonal function (which then helps with metabolism).

For so many of my clients who tend to eat “defensively” against weight gain, the key shifts include:

  • Eating before workouts
  • Eating after workouts
  • Replenishing calories after endurance cardio
  • Eating carbohydrates at each meal (in some form)
  • Not skipping meals

Sometimes, a helpful tool in changing dietary habits is simply following a meal schedule that is planned ahead.

As Michelle says, “I like routine, so once I find something I like, I’ll stick with it. I’m in a groove with meal prep.” If you don’t have to constantly make active decisions about your food, a plan is easier to stick to.

#3 Be calm and patient about “weight gain”

It wasn’t easy, but Michelle has been really wonderful about trusting the process and sticking with the lifestyle tweaks even though the scale has gone up.

“I also struggle with my body image and have since I was a little girl. Your post about what mothers say being repeated by daughters is very true for me. I’m still working on telling myself positive things more than negative things. I truly believe that what you focus your mind on is what becomes your reality and that’s not necessarily what is real and true. My reality is a choice I make, and I’m working on making it a positive one.”

Incorporating strength training can be challenging if you struggle with body image, because muscle weighs something, and it occupies space! But because it’s so dense, five pounds of muscle gain doesn’t cause the same changes in body shape that five pounds of fat gain would. Check out this post of mine about body composition for more information.

Plus, once someone is eating more athletically and is strength training more vigorously, it’s also possible that more water will be retained as part of muscle glycogen (energy storage).

It may not always result in weight gain, but for many people it translates into slower weight loss or more plateaus, because the body is defending against muscle loss.

So if you tend to immediately restrict food when you see an undesirable number on the scale, then my suggestion would be to focus exclusively on the nutrition and exercise changes that will give you a healthy roadmap to success, and not use weight as a consistent metric. Granted, this is easier if you’re working with someone than if you’re trying to go it alone.

#4 Focus on sleep routines

Another little-known fact about body composition change is that muscle is built when you’re sleeping, not when you’re working out. The restorative power of sleep is truly miraculous. Plus, high-quality sleep helps to regulate the levels of leptin (the fullness hormone) and ghrelin (the hunger hormone) – these levels get out of whack when you’re not sleeping well, causing cravings and prompting you to reach for higher-calorie comfort foods.

If you know your sleep could improve, trust me – it’s one of the best changes that you could make to your lifestyle. It’s an important part of self-care.

Try strategies like:

  • Following a consistent sleep schedule (within reason), waking up and going to bed at roughly the same times every day – even weekends
  • Not keeping tech in your bedroom at all
  • Having a wind-down ritual that starts 1-2 hours before bedtime
  • Not using caffeine in the afternoon or evening
  • Not drinking alcohol 4 hours before bed (and drinking less overall)
  • Keeping your bedroom dark and cold

These habits, done consistently, can dramatically improve sleep, and translate into much better results from workouts and nutrition changes.

#5 Get your strength training in

Resistance training has many benefits even if you never gain or lose a pound, but it is by far the most important thing you can do for changing your body composition. It helps to defend against muscle loss when losing weight, and it helps your body “organize” your calories better when you eat, pushing more of your food into muscle gain instead of fat gain.

The key is to find an approach to resistance training that works for you, and then adapting (instead of ditching) that approach as your life and schedule may change.

In terms of minimum effective dose for muscle gain, research suggests that vigorous strength training at least twice a week will work. In Michelle’s case, we started off with three days a week (working around travel and vacations), and then increased to four times a week (using an upper/lower split) once she was back to her office routine. Now that the season is changing and she will begin to have more evening commitments, we are going to drop back to three times a week.

“Since I do have a lot of variety in my work schedule (some nights I’m off at 4 PM and some nights I’m off at 9 PM),” Michelle says, “I plan my week in advance so that my routine isn’t broken – it’s just adjusted.”

Her advice for sticking with workouts? “[I] make my workouts a ‘must do’ and I literally schedule them in my calendar and my day. I have literally made time and called the afternoon sessions appointments. Working out has become a mental health thing for me, so it’s set pretty high on the priority list.”

From the very beginning, I coached Michelle on weight selection, urging her to choose weights that pushed her to an “8/10” or “9/10” level of difficulty on each set, even if she needed to grab heavier weights (or do more reps) than the ones I had written into her workouts.

Recent research suggests that this level of intensity really is the key – you need enough repetition, but you also need it to be hard enough. Unfortunately, too many people interpret “intensity” as being out of breath and ready to vomit (thanks, fitness classes). But when it comes to muscle gain, we really need to reframe intensity as struggling to complete a set (i.e., you could not do 1-2 more reps without being unable to perform the move), whether we are doing leg presses or bicep curls.

But keep in mind this doesn’t always correlate with heart rate. You might walk out of the gym after an hour of hard working out, check your wearable tech, and feel disappointed that you didn’t burn 600 calories. But like I said about sleep, once you hit that level of intensity, the work begins after you leave the gym.

Michelle’s favorite muscle-building exercises? “Squats, deadlifts, lunges.”

Me too, Michelle! Me too.

#6 Continue to include exercise you enjoy

Finally, even though I am constantly promoting resistance training as a key component of body composition change (and long-term physical health and function), we also have to be human. Maybe you know you should strength train, but you really enjoy cardio (or something else) more.

This was certainly true for Michelle. She was religious about doing my workouts, but she truly loved running (partly for the endorphin benefits), and was excited to return to a 3x/week schedule for strength training so that we can incorporate more running again this fall. In fact, I am working with her to prepare for an adventurous half marathon next spring!

Seeing strength training as part of your exercise portfolio – instead of as an all-or-nothing proposition – can help dramatically with adherence. My advice? Create an exercise schedule that leaves time for the activities you also enjoy, whether that’s running or yoga or swimming or something else entirely!

I know that for Michelle, despite the gains she’s made at the gym, the goal that she is most excited about right now is her half-marathon!

Final word of wisdom from Michelle:

“The biggest thing I’m working on is to be a better friend to myself. I would never say the negative things to my friends that I say to myself. I continue to work on being compassionate, forgiving and motivating to myself just as much as I try to be to my friends.”

Having this self-caring, open-minded, insightful attitude is perhaps the most ingredient to success.

Do you have questions about strength training, body composition, weight loss, or lean muscle gain? Set up a free consult with me (one-on-one for 30 minutes) to discuss your goals and your questions!

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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