The Paleo Principle

So what happens when you go to the gym for your workout and bi-weekly weigh in, and you discover you've gained 4-5 pounds in just a few days?

First, you forget that the scale means everything. It means something, of course, but it's merely one of many numbers. There are other important numbers:

  • waist circumference
  • chest circumference
  • chest, arm, and leg circumference
  • how much fat you can pinch in various places
  • how much weight you are lifting, pushing, or pulling in various exercises
  • how do your pants fit? 

Shall I go on?

As you may have gathered, this was my experience today. Yep, it's hard not to feel some measure of discouragement, but be careful: you may actually be chastising yourself over...PROGRESS.

See, in the mundane world of carb faces, added weight means that 75-90% of it is fat (piling on fat also stimulates some new lean growth to carry around the extra tonnage). And even in the realm of advanced paleo diet and fitness, fat stores fluctuate. But so does water retention and just plain old metabolic dynamics.

This is a good time to check your premises, by which I mean to assess the principles you're operating from. The true and fundamental appeal of the paleo approach is that we are attempting to operate pre-neolithic, i.e., in a manner our bodies and minds evolved to optimize, which is the role of natural selection. Keep in mind that prior to the advent of the neolithic 10,000 years ago, that man had evolved to the epitome of fitness within his environment, which of course can vary depending upon your genetic lineage (dark, yellow, red, white,  and the general corresponding latitudinal regions, et cetera).

Let me make it more simple: we're allowing our inner animal to flourish.

So, that raises two questions:

1. do animals in nature have weight fluctuations up & down?

2. If yes, is that odd only when it's an increase, or is it necessarily odd at all?

The point I'm getting at is that if you are pretty paleo in diet, are hitting the gym for brief and intense exercise 1-3 times per week, and are episodically skipping 1-3 meals in a row 1-3 times per week, then you're living the life of the animal and you CAN NOT FAIL.

Listen: it's going to take just about 100% of people about 100 times longer to get the washboard abs than they would prefer. They say that Rome wasn't built in a day. Well, what if it took 20 years to destroy Rome? Should we be too fretful that it takes 2-3 years to rebuild it?

My own downward slide began in 1992. It peaked in 2006, 14 years later at 230 pounds. I'm now in the 180s and within real reach of my goal of 10% BF, which I shall achieve. But that too is a number. I have already achieved everything necessary; so, it's just icing on the cake.

So, what happened in my case? I suspect two things, and it's probably some of both. Since that allergy attack of the weekend, I have been constantly thirsty. That ended this morning, but the last couple of days I have consumed at least a gallon of water each day. I just could not drink enough. It was weird, but I just listened to my body. So, there may be some water retention issues with that much going in.

Second, my workouts have changed dramatically. As an example, I did only three exercises today: incline bench press, dumb bell bent-over rows, and back squats (not on the Smith). I used to do a dozen exercises, most isolation movements, and at three sets of ten repetitions each. Now, reps are rarely more than 5, and I don't even count sets. I just keep piling on weight. It's far less structured, and I love it.

On the bench, I worked up to and managed a couple of reps at 185, then a couple negatives over 200. I hadn't tried the incline in a long while, as I always had trouble with stability, even at 135. It's comforting to go back and smack off 8 reps at 135, wondering what the hell your stability issues was about, before.

The rows were interesting, too. I haven't done them for years, and I recall only getting up to 40 pounds. Today, warmup was at 50, and then I did multiple sets at 80, and 80 is one damn big dumb bell.

Oh how I love back squats. This, along with dead lifts and bar bell bent-over rows, is truly the king of exercise. When I had asked my trainer about doing them quite some months ago, we went over to the Smith machine, which turned out to be a mistake. My lower back just didn't feel comfortable, which I now know was improper foot position. But if you do them just free, you don't have to worry about that, and I have yet to have the slightest back problem.

For the last 2-3 sessions, we worked mainly on technique, as it's a curiously graceful exercise in terms of what you've got to do with balance. So, after a couple of sessions, I was up to about 115 pounds. Well, today, he let me lose and I did multiple sets of 5 reps at 215. I was blown away. I have no idea of what a practical goal would be.

Maybe I'll email Keith on that.

I love it, and so the weight gain, whether water, the big weights I'm hitting, or a little of both, there's no discouragement here.


  1. Practical goal for the squat? Depends on the rep count. As per "Practical Programming," a squat of 1.5x bw would be "intermediate." The authors also note that most people and athletes won't ever have a practical need to go over that level.

  2. Another angle – sodium causes the body to retain water, as you probably know. When I eat out at an Indian Restaurant I consume both more water than usual and more salt than usual – often gaining 5lbs in a single night. My weight then returns to normal over the next 48 hours….

  3. Joe Matasic says:

    I have the same problem with the weight gains, usually over the weekend from either sub-par eating or drinking too much. Usually it goes away really quick. Doesn't seem to be as much of a problem lately. Wonder if it's got to do with the fasting.

    I'm going to move to either slow burn or regular lifts in my next phase, but definitely going higher weight lowers reps. I may have finished my current phase lifting yesterday, need to enter the data and find out today. Then I'll try something new. I only have a Smith machine, no power cage, so I either have to use that or clean the weight, then jerk overhead and onto back. Which over course limits what I can do. Though it definitely seems more natural. Deadlifts will probably stay in the exercises. Thinking about adding standing overhead press to work on the shoulders. I know there is a tear in there. I've felt it for years on bench, overhead and incline presses.

  4. That's great. I found that everything became much easier when I got my stance just like he showed his subject.

  5. Michael Bender says:

    I too suffer from allergies. My experience is the same.

    allergies = inflamation = water weight gain
    allergy medicine = water retention = water weight gain

    As for your training goals – Keith is spot on. Big lifts like deadlift and squat – 2x bodyweight for a single. 1.5x bodyweight for 3-5. Smaller movements like military press – body weight single (both arms) or 1/2 BW with dumbells/kettlebells. These are guides, much like the paleo philosophy, so adapt them to your needs/goals.

  6. Thanks Keith (and all the others) for your keen insights.

    This is all very interesting. Though I had dabbled with weights in years past, it was never more than for a few months at a time. In May, this will count for two years of consistent weight training in the gym. Though I probably could have begun this way from the outset, it may just have been too intimidating, particularly with squats, cleans, snatches and so forth. However, after this two years of largely isolation moves, it seems I have a pretty decent base for really making things interesting.

    Plus, it gives me a lot better perspective for how the beginners might ought to go about it, particularly if they're on their own and not with a trainer, which will be most of them.

    1.5x, eh? That certainly seems doable, which would be 270. The 215 was actually pretty easy from a raw weight perspective. I was able to do a couple of sets of 5, and one at 3, I think. I see the challenge being more with the geometry and technique. Well, let's take it in stages. I'll aim for 250 first.

  7. Patrik says:


    I suggest Rippetoe's Strength Standards for use in making and judging strength goals:


    BTW have you or your readers ever read "Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival"? I just started it and it is fascinating. While I think the author makes a few minor error of logic and the writing style can be a bit hyperbolic at times — this book definitely attacks health/weight loss from an evolutionary perspective. My brief description won't do the book justice, but in sum, the author argues that due to cheap/inexhaustible light, we are living in the evolutionary equivalent of eternal summer, therefore we aren't getting enough real sleep in real darkness, which has massive ramifications on our hormonal states i.e. melatonin, dopamine, serotonin, INSULIN, ergo on our overall health.

    Richard, I think you would appreciate most of what the book argues and recommend you read it, if you have not done so already.

  8. Patrik says:


    Rippetoe is showing his "low-bar" (the bar is quite a bit lower on the back and back is much less vertical) back squat method in the video. Your trainer may not be familiar with this and may freak out. Amongst my fellow CrossFit compatriots, there is much discussion about the relative merits or lack of his technique.

    I personally like it.

  9. Skyler mentioned the 1.5 x BW goal for the squat, and I've also heard the 2x BW goal floated — but the truth of the matter is that there is so much in the way of bio-mechanical difference between people as to make these numbers next to useless. For instance, I'm built for, and much more proficient in, all of the "pulls" (deadlifts, bent-over rows, pull-ups, sprints, etc.) than I am in the "pushes" (squats, military and bench presses, etc.); I think I may have reached a 2x BW squat a time or two in my career, at points when I really concentrated on working the squat. Athletically, though, having a relatively "weak" squat never held me back. I guess the points I'm trying to make are these:
    (1) your aim should be to become "strong enough" in any given exercise so as to maximize your instantaneous power output in a similar movement. In this case, the squat would be somewhat analogous to, say, a vertical jump. Increases in squat poundage — to a point — will definitely help to produce a better vert. A point of diminishing returns can (sometimes) be reached, though, in advanced trainees. This is where bio-mechanical differences/preferences will really begin to show.
    (2)I treat goals as a sliding scale phenomena. What do I suggest your goal be in any given exercise? 1 rep and/or 5 pounds more than you did in your last outing of the same exercise variant. Also included here could be "1 fraction of a second faster" or "1 fraction of a second more". The point is — and to throw out one of my favorite Arnold quotes — (and in a heavy, Austrian accent), "Stay hungry".
    (3) FWIW,(and in consideration of points 1 and 2 above) I have never reached, nor do I expect to ever reach, any of my fitness/athletic goals :)

    Stay hungry —

  10. Patrik, a reader and frequent commenter over at TTP, posted this video clip link recently of Mark Rippotoe (author of Starting Strength), making a valuable point about coming "out of the hole" in the squat. It's good stuff — and spot-on, btw.

  11. Yea, he watches for even a slight dip forward at the waist. What I've found is that if I make sure to keep weight on my heals, I don't dip forward at all and have zero lower back strain. If I get too far forward, I feel a slight bit in the lower back. I'm anxious to try it with the bar a bit lower on my shoulders.

  12. Richard,
    Have your trainer teach you the front squat. You hit different portions of the quad/posterior chain complex with each of the major squat variants: front, low-bar "power" squat (as in the video example) and high-bar "Olympic" squat (sounds like this is the version your trainer is teaching you now). It's good to become proficient in all three. Although they are all "squats", they are totally different from one another in terms of feel and effect.

  13. I've done some front squats on the smith, so next step will be free.

    How about some dumbell snatches? Think I'll try some today.

  14. minneapolis J says:

    Richard, Keith is right about squats. Aim for 1.5-2 times body weight anything more is not necessary. The vertical jump is especially useful because it measures power output efficiency which is a more practical impressive way of measuring performance ability.

    As far as body weight goes, pay strict heed to body comp. I just found a really cool way to burn fat without terrible stress. It goes along with what
    Devany says about caloric restriction/intermittent fasting. Two days a week, space outa 24 hr wait between eating like you were doing. but on on those two days calorie restrict(eat less than normal). Then on your other 24 hr wait(your second fast), eat light before the fast but as heavy as you want after. basically what I am saying is 2-3 days a week you lean out a bit without losing much lean mass.

    Did you ever think of trying interval training, sprint 1 min, jog 1 min for 12-18 turns?

    these are just suggestions and I am sure you already heard them by now. just thought I'd bounce some ideas, but I am sure you were already aware of them :)

  15. Hadn't heard of the book, but it just went on my list which is growing just now. Keith Norris just gave me about five. I'm currently reading _The 10,000 Year Explosion_, _It Takes a Genome_, and a second read of GCBC.