PCOS and Weight Loss

I’ve talked a little about my weight in the post My Story, but I wanted to talk a little more in-depth here about what I’ve found to work and not work.

This is not meant to be a weight loss blog, but being overweight is one of the hallmarks of PCOS.  Many of us need to eat far fewer calories than a BMR calculator will tell us, and sometimes that can drop into the unhealthy range.  It’s difficult to get the nutrients your body needs if you’re eating less than 1,200 calories a day.  If you’re a smaller person looking to lose a bit of weight with PCOS, the real number of calories you need to lose weight by dietary intake along might dip below 1,200 calories a day.

Powerlifting and PCOS

That lower BMR means it’s harder to gain muscle without gaining fat very quickly.  I gain fat quickly eating around 1,500 calories a day, which is enough for me to gain muscle at a pace I’m happy with, but also enough to make me gain 15lbs of fat in a month.  I was not able to lose that fat while maintaining my newfound strength.

The difficult issue here is finding that balance of enough calories to gain muscle, but not gain massive amounts of fat.  I have been unable to do this on my own.  I tried everything I could find, and I gave it a solid try for 5 years.  I’ve been unhappy with my progress, and didn’t realize why until a friend of mine referred to women with PCOS as hardgainers.  Yes, yes we are.  That’s exactly the problem, here.

Hardgainer is a term used to refer to a person who has difficulty building muscle.  People called hardgainers are usually slim men that don’t eat enough calories to build muscle at the rate they’d like, or at all.  Before that conversation, I’d never heard the term applied to a female, much less myself.  I’m a hardgainer because if I eat enough calories to be as strong as some of my female lifter friends, I’d end up morbidly obese.  While it is a stereotype that powerlifters can be very obese, not all of the strong powerlifters are.  It’s not my goal to be strong at all costs, I’d also like to be reasonably healthy.  Note here the difficulty, all the articles and blog posts by women who have slimmed down and improved their bodies through heavy lifting talk about eating over 1,800 calories a day, often over 2,000 calories a day.  That spells disaster when my maintenance BMR hovers around 1,200.  Again, I COULD do that.  I just wouldn’t be happy with myself or very healthy if I did so.

Losing the Weight

I’ve done a LOT of research on weight loss.  Intermittent fasting, carb cycling, carb backloading, low-carb, keto, gluten free, I’ve even tried two of Lyle McDonald’s diets.  I get tiny, tiny amounts of fat loss for vast amounts of work and depriving myself.

I don’t have it all figured out yet.  What I finally did recognize is that I needed help, which is why I’ve gone on Metformin.  It’s been two months now, and I’ve finally dropped below 200lbs again.  Unfortunately I’ve become weak and I haven’t been able to eat enough.  I get dizzy when I squat, to the point that I can only do 2 or 3 heavy squats at 135lbs and then I have to sit down and pop a glucose tab.  I don’t know the cause of this, but will be talking to my doctor about it when I go in next month.  I can’t compete like this, I can barely work out like this.  Anyway, enough about current frustrations.

The best results I’ve had so far while unmedicated were with workout based carb cycling.  I’d keep my carbs in the 30-100g/day range on off days.  On workout days, I’d eat some carbs about an hour before my workout, usually some fruit or hot cereal (I hate cold cereal) in addition to a protein shake with creatine and beta alanine in it.  If it wasn’t after 3pm, I’d have some caffeine and possibly a Bronkaid.  About halfway through the workout, I’d start sipping my post workout shake – alternating every other sip with water, usually finishing it off after the workout.  I felt healthy and strong during the workout, and then would have a nice filling meal shortly after, but very few carbs after that meal.  I gained strength slowly and steadily on this plan, without gaining fat.  Most of this was newb gains, but it worked reasonably well for a couple of years.

Plain keto used to work for fat loss, but it was very slow and I couldn’t lift without getting sick.  My body simply couldn’t handle it, though it’s possible yours could.  Lyle McDonald’s Rapid Fat Loss worked, but my lifts again went down.  16 hour intermittent fasting is a lifestyle for me.  I tend to be nauseated in the mornings, so I only eat breakfast when I need to work out in the morning.  I tried alternate day fasting last winter with mixed results.  I didn’t lose any weight on it, but found it to have positive effects on my appetite, self control, and cravings.  I’d suggest a 16-24 hour fast to anyone that can’t seem to get their hunger and cravings under control, just be sure to drink lots of water.  (Not a juice fast, an actual fast.)  Do NOT try to lift while fasted for more than 16 hours.  For goodness sake, do it on a rest day.

Ultimate Diet 2.0 was a huge amount of effort for very little fat loss.  I believe this is related to the way my body handles sugar.  Cheat mode doesn’t make me gain weight, but I also don’t lose any on it.

Cardio

I hate most forms of cardio.  I love swimming, but don’t have the ability to do it on a regular basis right now.  Cardio can help you burn fat, no question.  Doing SOMETHING every day or almost every day will help get your calories down while still allowing you to eat within a healthy range.

The easiest answer is walking.  The hardest answer is HIIT.  I’ve done both, and both work, so does the in-between stuff like jogging and biking.

How about you?

Are there any other PCOS lifters out there?  What worked for you?  What didn’t work?  Any kind of heavy lifting experience will do, weightlifting is just as valid to this discussion as powerlifting is.

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8 thoughts on “PCOS and Weight Loss

  1. Hey there so ecstatic to stumble on your blog! I too am a lifter (Power Lifting) as well as have struggled with PCOS and Insulin Resistance… while I consider myself to be in remission if you will from it. Its been a solid year since I’ve changed my way of eating… I went “Paleo” and it was the absolute BEST thing that I have ever done to begin HEALing my body. I was always fit.. well… lets says active and went to the gym, but then I found CrossFit and from there I found POWER LIFTING. Between the nutritional and fitness I’ve lost a solid 50lbs with inches off the waist which means FAT LOSS… I shy away from the scale… especially since I began PL… Im stronger than before and while I still have a ways to go.

    I too was prescribed metformin, and for mySelf I made the decision to leave it alone and started to turn to food as a way to HEAL my HEALth afflictions. I’ve had ahhmazing results over the past year, and while I am still learning what works for me I look forward to what the coming year will bring.

  2. Hi there
    I have PCOS as well.
    I am still in the process of figuring out what works for me. Right now I am doing Keto in order to lose weight. I am struggling to find my best level of calories though.
    Did you increase your calorie intake on workout days? I dont know if I should do this – I mean I know we as PCO’ers gain easily and thus should have a lower calorie intake than the average. Right now I am eating 1200 cals a day at 5”5 and 176 lbs. (And I dont add calories to my daily intake when I exercise.)
    I also lift heavy, 4 times a week and do 2 sessions of HIIT.

    Did you experience yout Keto diet to result in slow fat loss? Did you like Rapid fat loss better?

    TIA

    Sienna 🙂

    • After trying two of the RFL type diets, I’ve determined that the type of carb cycling that they use don’t work for me. When I eat a lot of carbs like that, I end up feeling really sick and don’t get the quick weight loss that’s described by others.

      Note that I’m currently on Metformin.

      I have discovered that my lifting sessions go MUCH better if I have some slow release carbs the night before (like oatmeal) and some fruit pre-workout. I can lift considerably more and can go longer when I do this – especially if I have some chocolate milk halfway through my workout. Note that I normally only do this on days that I both squat and deadlift, the halfway carb-up is overkill for upper body work for me at the level I’m at right now.

      I eat until I am full after a really hardcore deadlift session. In this case, I listen to my body and do what it says to do. This is something that comes along maybe every 2 weeks right now – the sessions where you wipe yourself out so bad you have to drag yourself to the shower. I try my best to keep it to meat and veggies, depending on what’s available to me at the time. I don’t gain weight from doing this, even if I end up eating some bread or rice. A few weeks ago I really went all out and had a double bacon cheeseburger, a piece of pizza, and some cake in the evening after a workout as my only post workout meal for that day. When I weighed myself before bed I’d lost 2 lbs off my pre-workout weight – presumably I lost water weight. My weight stayed steady the next morning.

      Back before I was on Metformin and doing keto, I discovered that carbing up before, during, or after a hardcore workout would still leave me in ketosis the next day. I never tried all three, though 🙂

  3. Hi!

    I’m no lifter. I only do circuits with lighter weights, yoga and sometimes martial arts & kickboxing. I agree that with PCOS, you can be hard gainer. I’m underweight – 45 kg for 5′ 4.5″, I eat 1600-1900 cal per day. I am strong (thanks to extra testosterone) have healthy body fat but I have ultimately low muscle mass.

    I’m planning to start lifting in a month or so after I gather all the weights and stuff needed.

  4. I know this is a really really old blog, but this is perfect! You’re not a hard gainer, it’s the wrong term. Most women can hardly gain muscle, even with excess calories. We with PCOS are able to gain muscle but it’s controlling the FAT gain that is the issue.
    I’ve seriously found the solution, it’s incredible. HIIT cardio before every session. If you do it in the morning as a split session, that’s even better! You don’t need to do a lot, I’m talking 10-20 minutes depending on how you’re feeling, but do it on every day that you do weights. I dropped 30 lbs in 4 months after struggling for YEARS. I did cardio for 45min to an hour often, I lifted heavy, but I had the same issues you’re having that I’d get too big too quickly.
    When I say HIIT, I mean you run on a treadmill as fast as you can for 30 seconds that you may fall off, one minute catch your breath, repeat. The time flies when you’re only doing 10-20 minutes. Sometimes I switch it up and run hard for a minute, walk for 30 seconds. You have to be sweating but I swear this nearly targets stomach fat specifically and I shrunk so quickly. I stopped the HIIT after my wedding and put all the weight back on despite my diet being on point and still weight lifting heavy.
    It’s not easy, but you can do it 4/5 times a week for 10-20 minutes. It’s worth it! 🙂

    • I’m glad you’ve found something that works for you!

      This unfortunately wouldn’t work for me because HIIT completely wipes me out. If I do it, it’s either at the end of my workout or it IS my workout. I usually do 4 2 minute rounds of something with a barbell (like squats) or hill runs – going all out each time. I’ve never been able to manage more than twice a week. This may or may not be related to some breathing problems I’m having.

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