There are at least four situations wherein your body composition is improving while you feel “squishier.” Be aware.
1.) You are finally crossing the barrier between maintenance/gain and actual fat loss:
Your body is loathe to change. Most people are walking around with a stockpile of energy in the body which ISN’T fat. Thanks to a functioning liver, every time you burn off blood sugar, you will make more EVEN WHEN YOU HAVEN’T EATEN. There is an unknown threshold for this. That is, you can even deplete muscle stores of glycogen and those in the liver, and your body will still make more EVEN WHEN YOU HAVEN’T EATEN.
As the muscles get depleted of readily-available energy, they are less full and literally occupy less space without losing any tissue, making the skin by comparison “more”. Congratulations. You finally are crossing the resistance toward obligating the body to use SOME fat.
2.) You are oscillating across the barrier to fat loss:
This situation is similar to the first. However, if you aren’t doing very strict progressive strategies with nutrition, or strict ketogenic nutrition or extended multi-day fasts, you will replete then deplete, replete then deplete. Every time you cross the baseline, the skin will feel comparatively greater than it did while depleted.
This phenomenon is actually utilized in body building, where you attempt to time maximal skin dehydration DURING maximal muscle repletion, making the skin comparatively thinner and tighter than it was even hours prior. It’s tricky, because, in the same way, the bodybuilder’s physiology will have “spillover” at some point, possibly on the way up, making the skin puffier. Individual timing and repeated muscle contraction disproportionately engorges skeletal muscle versus skin retention.
3.) You are nutritionally so low that your effect from strength training has decreased:
This is tied into the technique bodybuilders use for contest or photo shoot prep, except the opposite. Your weekly “pump” is decreased. That is, as you diet progressively harder, you are decreasing the frequency of intensity such that muscles run “flat.” This is essentially the first situation, but persistent. Your overall program is in fact running you at a deficit sufficient for fat loss. The rate of depletion is consistently outstripping the repletion rate AND there isn’t a lot of blood volume available for acute muscular swelling.
Insulin is low, so sodium retention and blood volume drop (along with blood pressure). You’ll feel “extra skin” which may even persist after goal, depending on individual and total loss. Until the fat loss is substantial enough to dramatically thin the skin, this state is a constant. I jokingly refer to it as “the sweet spot” because it is a state where you keep getting wrong intuition signals all the time; and it can be emotionally and psychologically defeating. You simply have to persist until you get shredded enough that there is no squish.
The good news is that when sleep and nutrition are on point, you won’t really lose any muscle here. But for advanced athletes in particular, I find they pretty much self-sabotage at this stage because it “feels” like they’re getting worse. And when they began a cutdown effort fatter than they were willing to tell themselves, this period can last weeks. That is, when you think you have 20lbs to lose, it's probably more like 40. When you think you have 100lbs to lose, it's probably more like 150-200lbs. People grossly overestimate how much lean tissue is in the body. And we really only discover how little is left when you've stripped off all the extra subcutaneous and visceral fat.
4.) unrelated/related inflammatory cascades and biorhythms:
There are a lot of these. But I’ll try to catch four common themes.
a.) Females have a much higher propensity toward stress-induced fluctuations in fluid retention. And they have the added frustration of a hormonal backdrop aimed at surviving famine and holding on to everything possible. When stress hits, they tend to respond more with a growth signal than a loss signal. As more stressors come in, their bodies (on average, mind you) try to get bigger. As such, they have a far higher propensity toward thyroid insufficiency and metabolic downturn with even “normal” dieting and exercise.
That all said, I have had female clients lower on DEXA scan and skinfold caliper pinches WHILE weight was up from a fluid retention episode based on an emotional fight the day prior.
This obviously leads us to the next issue.
b.) Periods - both in the classical sense AND there are hormonal cascades and cycles which continue occurring directed by brain and other tissue even with IUDs or in peri/post/menopause.
The classical monthly cycle is easier for the layperson to understand. Your body fat can be low; but your body can create enough hormonal cascade to retain fluid in an amount in excess of the fat loss.
But, wake up call: there is basically no such thing as a classical monthly cycle. Extreme regularity with low and consistent symptoms is RARE. So you can imagine (and yes, I realize that I can only imagine) that for many many women the unpredictable and variant nature of hormonal fluctuations makes skin “squish” totally unreliable as a marker of progress or compliance. They simply have to work steps in a dark hallway sometimes. And that itself is a stressor tied into note a.). It’s also why I spend most of my coaching time focused on mindset and physical capability versus body composition. Extreme stress mongers may not be in a position in life to safely pursue major body comp changes. But we are all always in a position to work productive steps.
c.) food sensitivities/allergies
I know. You don’t want to admit you have them. You’re thinking, “It’s a fake pseudoscience concocted by beatniks in Portland.” I wish that I had the incredible luxury you have to continue believing that. And make no mistake: if you so won the genetic lottery that you are still able to dismiss food sensitivity, you do indeed live a luxurious life wealthier than some billionaires.
If you have even the slightest openness in your mind, I’ll leave it at this: go eat poison berries. No seriously. Go eat them. What even makes them “poison”? They look, smell, taste, and even chemically are very similar to edible berries. What’s a’ matter? Scared?
The obviousness of this subject is ridiculous at this point in human history. We know that the tiniest alteration on the periodic table is the difference between life and death. Move just a few subatomic particles, and oxygen is fluorine.
There are foods you eat which will make the skin squishier. In fact, they may make you in totality squishier. I know almost no one who went from overweight to absolutely super lean without removing grains and dairy at the end.
Lookup published scientific research on foods and endocrine impact. They affect our hormones. End of debate.
They’re in food. They’re in packaging. They’re in your soaps. They’re in you. I’m mystified at the willful ignorance some people display on this one. I’ve heard the exact same person in the same hour blame weight gain on a prescribed medication while also scoffing at the notion that additives in packaged food or laundry detergent could possibly affect them at all. See c.).