Ask the Expert: Why Do I Gain Weight When I Work Out?

Trainer Parker Cote debunks mysterious weight gain.

Welcome to our Ask the Expert series, in which our panel of health experts answers your wellness questions. Here, trainer Parker Cote discusses mysterious weight gain. Got a question of your own? Email


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Whenever I start working out, I gain weight after about two months. I actually stop fitting into my clothes, start feeling self-conscious, and definitely don’t look and feel like I’m gaining muscle. I don’t think I’m eating more, and I don’t really want to start counting calories. Three times a week for about an hour, I use the elliptical, do some running, and do a tiny bit of weight lifting. Am I doing something wrong? —M.H., Boston


Though it’s impossible to say for sure without an individual assessment, Cote says diet is likely the culprit, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

“Regular exercise is going to increase your appetite,” he says. “My guess is, without noticing, you were eating more during those workout phases.”

Cote says it’s important to scale your food choices to your activity level. On a non-workout day, for example, you should eat fewer carbs, because your body doesn’t need the energy. On a workout day, however, you’ll need to fuel your efforts with healthy carbs such as brown rice, sweet potatoes, and old-fashioned oatmeal, and eat fast-digesting carbs after a workout to recover.

Cote also recommends drinking plenty of water, and eating mostly high-fiber foods (such as fruits and vegetables), lean protein, and a few healthy fats (such as avocado and salmon). If you do so, and finish each meal when you’re “almost full but not stuffed,” you should stay satisfied without packing on the pounds—and without needing to count calories.

“If you’re counting stuff, maybe it’ll work for the short term, but I’m about longevity,” he says. “I have no clue how many calories I take in per day.”

Finally, Cote recommends adding more strength-training, and replacing the elliptical with a more effective cardio workout. Those swaps will maximize results, he says.

“In the first half hour, do some resistance training, focusing on compound, multi-joint moves [such as squats, lunges, push-ups, pull-ups, and dead lifts,]” Cote suggests. “During the resistance training, you’re going to be burning muscle glycogen. Once that’s low, body fat’s going to be more of a source of energy, so you can use body fat as a source of energy during cardio.”

And speaking of cardio, Cote says the elliptical isn’t giving you the best bang for your buck.

“It just doesn’t really do that much,” he admits. “I personally would switch from the elliptical to a StairMaster or an inclined treadmill walk.”

Parker Cote

About the Expert: Parker Cote is a personal trainer and the owner of Parker Cote Elite Fitness. As a fitness model, Parker has appeared on 24 magazine covers across the globe. He has also been featured in more than 250 magazines including Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, GQ, Cosmopolitan, ESPN, and Maxim, and on the Today Show with Kathie Lee and Hoda. He is a writer and fitness expert for Men’s Fitness, and has written dozens of articles for major fitness publications worldwide.

He is passionate about teaching clients how to make fitness a fun part of their lives. His goal as a trainer is to help people experience the benefits of a fit and healthy lifestyle while maintaining balance in all aspects of life. He has certifications from the National Academy of Sports Medicine and the International Sports Sciences Association.

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