Tips for dealing with water retention and weight loss

In the past few months I’ve covered the most common weight loss and diet topics such as caloric restriction, macro-nutrients, cheat meals, refeed days and so on and so forth. If you’ve been reading all these articles you should know already what to do when you’re not losing weight anymore.

You know that you need to look more carefully at calories, revisit your macro distribution and make sure you are in a correct energy deficit. You know that you need to include refeed days in your diet from time to time, or even take a break from the diet and you probably know how to implement the right workout plan and cardio training in order to achieve the negative energy balance you are aiming for.

If you are doing all that and you are still not making any progress there is probably just one more thing you can look at – water retention – which is a commonly overlooked issue and very little known topic by most people struggling weight loss.

Before we start off on the topic of water retention just let me tell you that if you just started dieting and you are not seeing any progress, most likely your problem is not water retention. Water retention is most of the times the last thing you need to check or take into consideration, so before even looking at it make sure everything else is in check.

Now that we agreed on that let’s cut to the chase.

How to know that water retention is the issue

Long story short if you are seeing large body weight variations over a very short period of time most probably water retention is the issue.

You can do your own little experiment with water retention to see how this works. Go ahead and have a salty dinner, without necessarily eating more calories than you usually do though, and weigh yourself the next day in the morning.

Your body weight should increase with as much as 3-4 pounds than your normal body weight. Go back to eating as you normally eat (no extra salt) for a couple of days and your body weight should go back to where you were at before this little experiment.

There is no way in hell you can lose 3-4 pounds of fat or put on 3-4 pounds of muscle overnight. That comes solely from the water your body holds due to the increased amount of sodium intake. In this case it’s quite obvious there’s a water weight issue.

The tricky part is when the fat loss is offset by the water retention. Meaning that even if you are constantly and steady losing 1-2 pounds of body fat per week, this is actually ‘hidden’ by the water weight you are holding, and as a result you are seeing it as a fat loss plateau.

In fact this is not a fat loss plateau; it’s just a body weight loss plateau triggered by the water weight your body holds on to.

In this particular case is not that obvious that the water retention is the issue though.

If you are not very new to dieting and have been cutting for at least a few months you probably been in a situation where you’ve been stuck at a certain body weight a week or even longer and then all of a sudden, in one glorious morning, you wake up 4 pounds lighter and look more defined than ever. That’s the effect of water weight loss, also called the whoosh effect.

What are the causes of water retention?

In fitness and bodybuilding, overnight weight loss triggered by flushing away the water retention is commonly known as ‘whoosh effect’ and weight gain caused by water retention is known as ‘bloating’.

What is the science behind these body weight variations triggered by water retention? How can you prevent or fix water retention? Read on and find out the answer.

There are two main source problems that trigger water retention:

  1. Cortisol

The first one works at hormonal level and has to do with something called cortisol – which is in fact a hormone that is produced by our bodies when they are put under a lot of stress. The more stress we put ourselves to, the more cortisol we will have inside our body.

When I am saying stress I’m not referring only to things such as your job, your business or other psychological causes of stress, but also to physical factors which are very common in bodybuilders – long caloric restriction periods when cutting/dieting or overtraining.

All these combined will make your body produce more cortisol which will then make your body hold more water than it normally does.

If you’ve been reading my other articles you may remember that I’ve talked about another important hormone in the past which is leptin – which is more or less inversely proportional with the level of cortisol.

Leptin is the hormone which is responsible with making us feel good, rewarded and relaxed. Leptin levels are increased when we are feeling good, when we are in our comfort zone and as a result speeds up the metabolism a bit. On the other cortisol decreases when we are feeling good, relaxed and a result the excess water is flushed out from our organism.

Long story short, high levels of cortisol means you are retaining water, low levels of cortisol means you are whooshing – getting rid of the water excess.

  1. Sodium / Potassium

The second trigger for water retention is high sodium intake and/or low potassium intake. As you guessed already in this case the diet is the issue – just as in the salty dinner experiment we’ve talked about in the very beginning of this article.

Here’s how the magic works.

Sodium is a mineral that carries the water to the cells. In everyday life sodium comes in the form of the table salt we are using in the kitchen. Eating salty foods will increase the amount of water your body will hold; therefore your body weight will increase even though you actually don’t get fatter.

On the other hand – potassium has the exact opposite effect – it takes a way the water from the cells and flushes it out of the system. That’s why eating foods high in potassium helps in this regard.

The issue with sodium and potassium is that most nowadays most foods as are super high in sodium and quite low in potassium. If you don’t believe me go ahead a track your sodium and potassium intake for a couple of day and compare it with the health institutions recommendations.

For the average adult, the sodium intake should be 2.3 grams – which is just 1 table spoon of salt and the potassium intake should be around 4 grams a day.

Anyways, water retention is the smallest of the problems triggered by an increased sodium intake, or high imbalances of sodium/potassium. I’m sure you are aware of the health risk of high sodium intake, but I am not a doctor and I will not go into more details about this.

How to fix water retention issues?

Alright, we now know what causes bloating and what causes whooshing so let’s list a few things you can do in order to get rid of the extra water in your body.

For the average guys and gals out there who are not lifting weights and are not dieting, the problem is most of the times a high sodium intake and it can be fixed by cleaning up your diet and by drinking lots of water. Cut back on salt and include in your diet foods that are high in potassium such as: potatoes, beans, bananas, yogurt, vegetables and salmon.

But for most people that are into fitness are eating quite clean is not the problem – therefore the sodium intake shouldn’t super high. Here are some ways you can fix water weight issues.

Have refeed days

This is probably one of the most common reasons for experiencing overnight weight loss or the whoosh effect. Even though it may seem strange to lose body weight that after a high calorie refeed day, we have science backing us up.

It has to do with the cortisol we’ve been talking about earlier. Cortisol levels will increase during long caloric restriction periods. That’s why many people who follow very aggressive diet plans or stay in a high caloric deficit for long periods of time tend to hold more water weight.

However, this does not happen for everybody. It usually happens for people that have been dieting for a long time and have reached fairly low body fat percentages – under 10% body fat for males and under 15% body fat for females. Only in these cases the cortisol levels go high enough to have such an effect.

Have cheat meals

Another easy way to boost leptin levels (which regulates metabolism) and to lower cortisol levels is by having regular cheat meals. These works pretty much similar as refeed days, they are just a more permissive version of the refeed days – meaning that you can eat literally everything.

The potential downside of cheat meals is that if overdone they can offset your weight loss progress. So, be careful and don’t overdo it or the effect will not be the one you are expecting.

Don’t over train

This is another common issue in people who are trying to lose weight. Burning too much calories in the gym or doing too much damn cardio and under eating will put your body under a lot of stress, the cortisol level will sky rocket and you will hold a lot of extra water.

Instead, cut back on cardio – 1 or 2 hours per week is enough and make your weight training is high intensity (use heavy weights) and moderate volume. One hundred reps per body part per week should be sufficient.

This way you won’t burn off yourself and the water retention will be minimal.

Don’t eat too little

Caloric restriction periods puts our bodies under a lot of stress which has a direct impact on water retention. You do not need to restrict more than 20-25% of your calories each day. If you do, not only that you will hold more water weight, but you will also lose muscle mass.

I’ve been talking about this a lot in my previous articles, yet I see so many people doing this mistake. Track your calories daily and don’t cut more than 20 to 25% of your maintenance level.

Drink enough water

I’ve found that drinking more water than usual actually helps with getting rid of the extra water weight. It flushes away the sodium from your body after a salty meal at the restaurant, lowering the water content from the cells.

If you’re an active person, exercising 3 or more times a week, you should be drinking 1 gallon (3-4 litters) of water each day. I know it looks like a lot at first but try it once. Do it for a week and it will become a habit.


Reducing any form of stress will help. Clear your mind, do stuff you like, forget about the problems at work, go out, take a walk in the park, listen to good music, watch a movie, or hang out with your friends.

Do anything that makes you feel relax and try to live a stress free life. This will help a ton on all levels – getting rid of the water retention is just one of the small side effects.

This is how I recommend getting rid of the extra water weight. What’s your opinion on it? Let me know in the comments below.

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