Tracking Progress: Don’t Let the Scale Deceive You

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Your alarm goes off. Time to get up. You’re a little sore from yesterday’s workout but you manage to pull yourself out bed and walk to the bathroom. There, sitting on the floor is your best friend and worst enemy: the scale.

You gingerly step on, closing your eyes as your weight is calculated. You feel confident. You worked out hard these last few days. You hit your macros spot on. You’re sure you’ve lost at least a couple pounds!

You slowly open your eyes. Much to your horror and shock, the number is the exact same as last time; even a few ounces heavier. What gives!? All that hard work with nothing to show for it. You’re in disbelief, frustrated, angry…

If the above situation sounds familiar, it’s because it happens all to often. Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight knows of the never-ending battle with the scale. Some days you love it, others you hate it. It’s a vicious cycle.

But it doesn’t have to be.

In this article, I am going to discuss why the number on the scale doesn’t mean as much as you think, and give you some other ways to measure progress so that you can get a clearer, more complete picture of how your dieting efforts are going.

Why the scale is not the best way to measure progress

Before we talk about why the scale isn’t a great way to measure overall progress, we must first define what progress actually is.

In the context of a fat loss program, progress is somewhere in the neighborhood of a loss of 1-2 lbs per week for the average person. Very overweight people can expect to lose a little more (3-4 lbs/week) and very lean people can expect to lose less (.5-1 lb/week). Any more than this and you are likely losing lean muscle tissue as well (a big no-no).

A pound of fat roughly equates to 3,500 calories. That means to lose a pound of fat per week, we need to create a deficit of 3,500 calories per week, or an average of 500 per day (3,500 calories/7 days = 500 per day).

And just like you need to eat 3,500 less calories to lose a pound of fat, you need to eat 3,500 more calorie to gain a pound of fat. So if you are following your diet program, counting calories, macros, etc, and the scale goes up 3 lbs one week, don’t freak out. Unless you went way off your diet and ate an additional 10,500 calories, it is extremely unlikely you gained 3 lbs of pure fat.

So what causes these weight fluctuations? One thing the scale is very good at is measuring our total body weight. Well, duh right? But what it can’t tell you is where that weight comes from and how it is distributed. The scale measures the total contents of your body: your fat tissue, muscle tissue, organs, everything in your body the moment you step on. Here are some of the factors that can influence your weight:

  • Stomach Contents – This is a big one, especially if you weigh yourself later in the day after a few meals. Any food sitting undigested in the stomach will count towards your weight. Foods that are more whole and unprocessed (like you should be eating) are digested slower and therefore will sit around in your stomach longer as opposed to highly processed, high sugar type foods and liquids.
  • Bowel/Bladder Contents – Similar to your stomach contents, any waste you have sitting in your body that has not been expelled is going to be counted toward your weigh-in. This is why the best time to step on the scale is first thing in morning, AFTER you use the bathroom and BEFORE you eat or drink anything.
  • Carb Intake – This is another important factor to consider. The higher your carb intake on a given day, the larger the fluctuation you will see in your weight.  This is because when carbohydrates are stored in the muscles as glycogen, they bring in water to the muscles as well. In fact, for every gram of carbohydrates stored, up to three grams of water is stored as well. While this is only temporary, it’s probably not a good idea to step on the scale the morning after a high carb meal because the increased water retention will cause your weight to jump.
  • Sodium – Much like carbs, sodium also can cause water retention. The difference is sodium water retention is based on your body’s individual sodium intake level. So say your normal sodium intake is around 2,000 mg and one day you bump that up significantly (due to a high sodium dinner or something) and you consume 3,000 mg or more. That is going to cause some water retention. Keep this in mind when you step on the scale.

As you can see, due to a variety of factors, the number on the scale may not always represent your true weight. That is why the scale should not be the only way you measure progress. By having more than one tool with which to measure your progress you will get a much more accurate picture of your results; something the scale can’t give you.

Here are other ways you should be measuring your progress:

1. Body Tape Measurements: This is one of the best ways to track progress. The number on the scale may not always move, but if you are losing fat it will show on the tape measure. At the minimum, you should be talking measurements at the following spots on a weekly basis:

  • Chest, at the nipple line
  • 2” above navel
  • At the navel
  • 2” below navel
  • Hips, at the widest point

Always measure in centimeters because it is easier to see progress that way.

Just like with the number on the scale, the rate at which you lose centimeters will vary based on how much fat you have to lose. The more fat you have, the faster your initial losses will be and vice versa. Where you lose that fat from is also dependent on the individual. Some people will hold more fat on their abs while others hold more on their hips and buttocks.

2. Strength: Tracking your strength numbers in the gym is another great way to measure progress. Stats like how much weight you lifted or how many reps you did go a long way towards measuring progress.

On a fat loss program, one of the main goals of your training is to maintain lean muscle mass. Did you increase the weight from your last session? Or did the weight stay the same but you did more reps? Both are indicators of progress! And while your strength numbers don’t directly tell you how much body fat you’re losing, they will tell you if you’re on the right track.

3. Progress Photos: This is another crucial area of measuring progress. Progress photos will help tell the story of your transformation. And while it may be uncomfortable for some to take these photos, they are great at showing your progress month-to-month. Photos also eliminate errors like you may see on the scale or with the tape measure. You can’t hide anything in a photo, so it is the truest way to measure progress.

To ensure accuracy, photos should be taken under the same conditions once a month. Take three photos: front, back and side. Don’t slouch, stand up straight and stay relaxed. Men should take their pictures in nothing but shorts, and women in a sports bra and short shorts. This is best for measuring progress when comparing photos.

4. Clothes: This one is pretty easy to measure. How are your clothes fitting? Do you need to go to the next hole on your belt? Are your shirts starting to get baggy? Even a drop of 1-2 inches off your waste is going to make a noticeable difference in how your clothes fit. And having to buy new clothes because your old ones are too big is a good problem to have!

5. Other People: This one isn’t necessarily measurable and it doesn’t exactly provide the most accurate results, but it is often the most rewarding and satisfying.

Lets face it, we see ourselves every single day, multiple times per day. Because progress happens slowly, it’s tough for us to see the changes on a daily basis. But many of our friends or even family don’t see us on a daily basis, or weekly for that matter. And because they don’t see you as often, it’s much easier for them to notice changes in your appearance.

So they compliment you on it…which makes you feel good about yourself. Then maybe you go home, look in the mirror and think to yourself, “Yeah, I see what they mean!”  Then you gain confidence in yourself, confidence in what you’re doing and you feel motivated to keep going.

 


On their own, these methods are not great for getting a complete picture of your progress. That’s why we need to use all of them! Tracking progress is one of the most important aspects of any fitness regimen. It tells you if what you are doing is working or not, and allows you to make adjustments when needed.

But it’s also important not to stress out about it either. Progress doesn’t happen overnight, and measuring or weighing yourself too often can be detrimental to your results. Again, change happens slowly, so checking your progress every day or every couple of days is going to stress you out more than anything.

By using more than just the scale, and more importantly not freaking out about the number we see, we are able to get a clearer view of what’s going on with our dieting and training efforts. Its this attention to detail that will keep you focused, moving in the right direction, and ultimately, will give you the results you want.

 

(Photo courtesy of Flickr)

 

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