Anyone who’s ever made a concerted effort to diet for fat loss has experienced the following scenario.
The first few weeks on your diet, you’re motivated -- crushing your workouts, getting in your cardio, and sticking to your nutrition plan. And, as a result of your diligent efforts, you step on your bathroom scale, and you are rewarded with a pound or two of weight loss every week.
But, inevitably, after a few weeks of rigorous dieting, your progress not only slows, but it seemingly comes to a grinding halt.
So, you give it a week or so, thinking maybe it’s just an aberration. Maybe you had a bit too much sodium the day before and are holding onto some water weight.
The next week comes by, and again, and, not only has your weight not gone down, but it actually went up by a pound!
Is the scale broken?
Have you hit a weight loss plateau?
Has your metabolism stalled?
Is it time to panic and try the keto diet?
No, no, no, and no.
You see, while the number on your bathroom scale can be used as one tool to measure progress during your transformation challenge, it is not the only tool you should be using.
Why the Number on the Scale Isn’t Everything
The scale is a rather “blunt” means for assessing progress. The reason for this is that the scale just reports your overall weight. It doesn’t take into account how much of that weight is water, fat, bone mass, or lean muscle.
It just calculates how much total mass you have.
For example, if you have a high sodium meal (pizza, Chinese take-out, etc) the day or two before your weekly weigh-in, your body could be holding onto a considerable amount of water weight (5 pounds or more!). Moreover, during their monthly menstrual cycle, women often retain more water than other times of the month. While you can understand this, the scale doesn’t. It lacks this level of nuance when assessing body composition.
Another example is bone mass. The average person’s bone mass accounts for 15% of their total body weight. However, the average person isn’t all that physically active and does little-to-no resistance-training.
However, if you do lift heavy weights regularly, you will likely have a heavier skeleton than a person of similar features. The reason for this is that resistance-training increases bone density, and things that have greater density will weigh more. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have more body fat.
Finally, scales do not differentiate between the amount of muscle mass and fat mass you have.
Yes, it’s true that a pound of muscle weighs the same as a pound of fat. However, muscle is more denser than fat, which means it takes up less space on your body. But, as you trade muscle for fat during your transformation challenge, your measurements will change, but the scale doesn’t recognize this and it may report the exact same number from one week to the next.
So, Is the Scale Completely Useless?
No, not by any means.
In fact, there is some research showing that people who weigh themselves daily generally have greater success losing fat and keeping it off than those who don’t.
It’s just that the number on the scale isn’t everything.
Remember, it is but one tool you can use to assess your progress during your body transformation. It’s great for tracking changes that occur over a prolonged period of time, but not necessarily the best for day-to-day tracking.
In addition to the scale, there are a number of other means you can utilize to assess body composition changes.
How to Track Progress During Your Transformation Challenge
Fat loss and muscle gain are a relatively slow process, and the changes that happen from one day to the next (or even one week to the next), might not be very apparent, especially if you look at yourself in the mirror every day.
Taking a weekly progress picture helps document the progress you make from one week to the next. While the pictures from Week 2 to Week 3 might not be that different, the differences between the way you look in Week 1 and Week 12 will be astoundingly different, all the more so if you’re stuck to your diet and training plan.
In addition to progress pictures, it can also be helpful to keep track of a few key measurements during your weight loss journey.
Some of the big ones to keep track of each week are waist, hips, thighs, biceps, and chest.
If your waist and hip numbers are going down, and your bicep and chest numbers are increasing, you can know with relative certainty that your both losing fat and gaining muscle in the right places.
Body Fat Calipers
While calipers aren’t the most exact tool for determining body composition or body fat percentage, that’s ok. Like the scale, they can be helpful for tracking changes over time. So long as the number on the fat calipers is going down over the course of your transformation challenge, you can rest assured that you’re losing fat -- even if the number on the scale stays the same.
DEXA stands for dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry. It is one of the more accurate methods for tracking body composition, but it’s not the cheapest option. And furthermore, many people don’t readily have access to a DEXA machine.
And, like bod pods and bioelectrical impedance devices, DEXA machines aren’t 100% accurate. But of the three, DEXA is the most reliable, for what it’s worth.
The occasional DEXA scan can be interesting to get, especially if you’re prepping for a physique competition, but for the average fitness enthusiast looking to lose fat and build muscle, you can get everything you need from progress pictures, calipers, and a tape measure.
One of the easiest (and cheapest) ways to see if you’re losing fat on your transformation challenge is how your clothes fit. If your pants feel loose around the waist and require a belt and suspenders to keep them up, whereas before your transformation they were bursting at the zipper, you know you’ve lost weight.
The scale may not notice this change (on account of you losing fat and building muscle at the same time), but you’ll certainly notice by the way your clothes fit.
The purpose of this article isn’t to get you to throw your bathroom scale away. It’s to give you some perspective on how you should approach your weekly weigh-ins.
The scale is but a tool in your arsenal for assessing changes in body composition during your transformation, but it is not the only tool you should use.
Progress pics, calipers, measurements and the fit of your clothes also can (and should) be used to track your progress. And, for those that may not be interested purely in weight loss, you can also use your performance in your workouts as a measure of progress.
Bodyweight exercises like pull-ups are an especially great way to see if you’re improving your strength to weight ratio. The stronger you become and the more fat you lose, the easier pull ups, push ups, inverted rows, and bodyweight squats become.
Remember, just like fitness, you don’t need to confine yourself to only one option, use any and every tool at your disposal to help you achieve your best body ever!
- Steinberg DM, Bennett GG, Askew S, Tate DF. Weighing every day matters: daily weighing improves weight loss and adoption of weight control behaviors. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015;115(4):511–518. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2014.12.011