By Alice || Edited by Go Ask Alice Editorial Team || Last edited Mar 01, 2024
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Alice! Health Promotion. "Why isn't my weightlifting resulting in muscle definition?." Go Ask Alice!, Columbia University, 01 Mar. 2024, https://goaskalice.columbia.edu/answered-questions/why-isnt-my-weightlifting-resulting-muscle-definition. Accessed 24, May. 2024.

Alice! Health Promotion. (2024, March 01). Why isn't my weightlifting resulting in muscle definition?. Go Ask Alice!, https://goaskalice.columbia.edu/answered-questions/why-isnt-my-weightlifting-resulting-muscle-definition.

Dear Alice,

I am a 22-year-old male who began weight lifting two years ago to get into shape. The problem is I'm still not in shape. I can lift huge amounts of weight, but instead of having a chiseled body, I still look like a fat guy. I mean, I'm big and strong, but I look like I was sculpted from lard (I'm 5'11 and 215 pounds). I do roughly 30 minutes of aerobic activity and about 90 minutes on the weights. Should I change my activity and diet to get leaner?

— No desire to be lard-boy

Dear No desire to be lard-boy, 

Your achievements in weightlifting are quite an impressive feat! While it sounds like you’ve made quite an accomplishment in the strength department, it seems you’re not getting the visual results you were hoping for. There may be many reasons as to why this is happening such as genetics, lifestyle, or emotional health. Read on to learn more. 

You mentioned that your exercise routine mainly consists of weightlifting. Note that weightlifting emphasizes strength training and building muscle and muscle weighs more than fat. This may be why it appears you’re not getting leaner because you’re building up muscle instead. Because of this, you might consider that being a heavier weight and being fit can, in fact, co-exist. 

If you feel there’s something larger at play than just the types of workouts you’re choosing to do, it is possible that other causes of weight gain or the inability to lose weight may be at play. These things might include: 

  • Genetics. Medical conditions like Prader-Willi syndrome or certain genes can make individuals more susceptible to weight gain or influence how your body stores fat. 
  • Health conditions. Cushing syndrome, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and hypothyroidism are conditions that can affect hormone levels, which might lead to weight gain. 
  • Medications. Steroids, antidepressants, antipsychotics, blood pressure medications, seizure medications, medications for diabetes, and hormonal birth control may cause weight gain or prevent weight loss. 
  • Emotional distress. Stress can cause changes in hormone and energy levels that may cause some to crave fatty or sugary foods. Stress is also linked to restless sleep, which prohibits hormones that control appetite and metabolism from properly releasing. 
  • Race or ethnicity. Race or ethnicity may predispose certain individuals to having more muscle or weighing more. 

As you’ve mentioned, weightlifting and aerobic exercise can be a great way to boost your fitness and possibly lose weight, if that’s what you’re interested in. In addition to these exercises, you can also try biking, jumping rope, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), swimming, hiking, stair-climbing, and Pilates. For other exercise alternatives, you may also choose to meet with a personal trainer or medical professional to find out what would be most useful for your specific goals. 

As you’ve also mentioned, diet might also influence your body weight. Before making any changes in your exercise routine or eating habits, it might be helpful to speak with a health care provider or dietician. They can help you choose a meal plan that works for you, based on what nutrients you need and fitness goals. They may also recommend that you start off slow in these changes to ensure your safety. 

Another possibility a dietician or health care provider may offer is a body composition assessment to measure what percentage of fat, bone, and muscle are in your body. A body composition assessment is a more accurate measurement of your total body mass compared to the outdated body mass index (BMI) scale. This is because the BMI scale only measures height and weight. A body composition assessment can also distinguish how much of each type of fat—non-fat or fat mass—there is in your body. Non-fat mass plays an important role in allowing your body to properly function, while fat mass—also known as stored mass— insulates or cushions your body and is often used as energy. 

All this to say, everyone has their own unique body type, which can look different from the stereotypical ‘chiseled body.’ And while weight loss and sculpting may help you make positive lifestyle changes, there’s a fine line between exercising for health and compulsive exercising. Compulsive exercising describes exercise with an emotional component, in which some may feel the need to exercise due to low self-esteem or body image issues. This level of exercise can be harmful, as it has the potential to cause emotional distress if exercise isn’t completed. It can also interfere with daily activities and contribute to further body image issues and body dissatisfaction. Negative self-talk is also often associated with compulsive exercising. This form of negativity can cause mental health issues, stress, perfectionism, and even reduced success. 

Addressing challenges related to body image and self-talk may be difficult to work through alone. Oftentimes, people don’t recognize the harmful things they’re saying to themselves until someone else points it out. Working with a mental health professional may help you to navigate the root of these feelings and ultimately help you discover healthier coping strategies. Finding what works for you in addressing your perception of yourself may even lead to a more compassionate understanding of the different forms your body may take on. 

Here’s to embracing yourself just the ‘weigh’ you are! 

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