Anybody who is into health and fitness for amateur or professional reasons has experienced the feeling of being puffy, bloated, and having no definition.
While your body fat percentage is a large determining factor in this as well, to a much lesser degree water under your skin can also cause these symptoms. Water retention is rarely something we want especially when we are interested in developing/improving our body composition.
Luckily there are many ways to decrease the amount of water we retain subcutaneously (under the skin), and in this article, we will be going over how/when to put them into practice to show a noticeable difference in your definition, overall feeling, and joints.
Calories And Carbs
Not surprisingly our diet is very important for controlling water retention. For anyone who has researched or gone through a semi-serious diet probably knows of the existence of glucose and glycogen, and their roles as the active and reserve energy stores for our body. In a daily caloric surplus, we can usually use the glucose already circulating in our system as energy for our lifting or cardio workouts.
Depending on the length of the workout or in a daily deficit though, we usually don’t have enough glucose to energize us, which is when our bodies release the stored glycogen in our cells that can be then used for energy.
What does this have to do with water retention? Quite a bit, as every gram of glycogen stored in our liver/muscles, has three grams of water molecularly attached to it. This doesn’t seem like a lot, but depending on your weight you can hold around 350-500 grams of glycogen when their stores are full.
Doing some quick math this equates to 1-1.5 kilograms (2-3 pounds) of water. This explains why at the beginning of a diet you can easily lose about 2-3 pounds in the first few days, and suddenly lose nothing for the rest of the week.
All of this weight loss is because of your calorie deficit and depletion of your glycogen stores. Usually, this happens at the beginning of a diet and explains why it won’t have much of an impact on your definition/vascularity, as you most likely will be at a higher body fat percentage than needed for a proper definition to show.
Applying this principle to someone late into a diet though, who is sub 10% body fat (as a male) and sub 20% (as a female), it explains why after a cheat day they will appear noticeably puffy and not as lean. Because they ate so many carbs in one day, they effectively restored their glycogen as well as the water molecularly attached, leading them to wake up bloated, not as lean, and a few pounds heavier.
Simple solution with a lengthy description: cutting out carbs and depleting your glycogen stores with a calorie deficit will shed 2 or 3 pounds of pure water weight off your body, and stay that way as long as your glycogen stores stay relatively low.
Hydration And Electrolytes
Glycogen stores and their fullness are definitely the main culprits when it comes to water weight, but it certainly isn’t the only one. To a lesser degree, electrolytes and your hydration habits will have an impact on how much water you retain. Sodium particularly, is an essential electrolyte that when consumed in excess will not only raise your blood pressure but will dehydrate you because it makes you retain water in your cells.
The daily recommended limit for sodium is between 2,000-3,000 milligrams, which is much less than you might think (about a teaspoon of salt). Unfortunately, a typical 21st-century diet can easily double or triple this recommendation on a daily level, between eating out, an excessive use of table salt in home cooked meals and simply how much sodium is added to most processed foods. This excessive sodium intake will most definitely make you retain water weight.
There are a few good ways to counter this issue, the first being, of course, make an effort to consume less salt! Eating out less, limiting processed foods (including deli/cured meat), and swapping out added salt at home meals with a potassium-based alternative will all help.
Sweating will also benefit your sodium lower efforts, which is why exercise is always recommended, but this can also include saunas (as long as you understand you will burn way more calories lifting weights or doing cardio). More on potassium, this electrolyte has basically the opposite effect on the body when it comes to fluid balance. Which means if salt retains water in your cells, potassium sheds this water. Unfortunately again, the typical 21st-century diet while high in sodium is also very low in potassium as it comes from less desirable/delicious sources.
In addition to working towards limiting sodium intake to the recommended limit, you should also try and eat the same amount or more potassium (2,000-3,000 mg) a day. Good sources of potassium include avocados, sweet potatoes, bananas, beans, dark leafy greens, nuts, soy, and as mentioned earlier a potassium-based table spice that can be found in most grocery stores.
Lastly, hydration also has a large impact on how much water you retain. It might be surprising, but the more water you drink on a daily basis, the less water you will retain. This is because water can flush out excess sodium in the diet. To put it into a number amount, drinking your bodyweight(in pounds), in ounces of water a day will most definitely be enough to limit water retention(or 60 millilitres per kilo of body weight). Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone, which is why the old adage of drinking enough water to keep your urine straw yellow or clear will always be accurate.
Besides simply water though, certain compounds found in drinks will also help you shed water weight, most notably caffeine (known as a diuretic). This is why after having a cup of tea, coffee or an energy drink you have to urinate more than usual.
If needed you can utilize these drinks in moderation (200-400 mg of caffeine a day depending on tolerance is recommended) to shed water weight, with the additional recommendation of sticking to drinks that are either unsweetened or sweetened in a calorically insignificant way (i.e. artificial/natural sweeteners) to limit your sugar intake.
Take Home Message
There you have it, three comprehensive ways to lessen your blot inducing, definition hiding, and joint stressing water weight.
Most of these recommendations are usually basic additions to anyone beginning a diet but knowing the mechanisms behind why they will also affect how much water you retain is very important to understand whether you are simply trying to lose a few pounds or planning on competing in a bodybuilding show.
The best part of these tips is that they are safe, healthy, and sustainable no matter your goals and/or lifestyle!