A Sat Nav uses the global positioning system (GPS) to pinpoint exactly where you are on the planet. It detects signals from at least three satellites in a constellation of around 18-30 constantly orbiting the earth to triangulate your position. This allows the sat nav to determine your position with extreme precision. This approach can teach us a lot when it comes to monitoring body composition and, therefore, progress in a fat loss or muscle gain phases.
Ditch the overreliance on one marker of progress:
So often we become married to one method of measuring progress. Typically, this is the scale. While it is undoubtedly a useful tool, the bathroom scales do not give us a full picture when it comes to body composition.
This is especially the case with newbies. Even more so with newbies who want to drop fat and are lifting properly for the first time in their lives. When someone starts their weight training and fat loss journey they are capable of achieving incredible re-composition (muscle gain and fat loss).
They start lifting and following a nutrition plan and all of a sudden they build some muscle and lose some fat. BUT, the scales show no change. Or, even worse, that they have gained weight. I have seen this many times with clients. It can be extremely discouraging for them. The crazy thing is that they say the look better in the mirror and their clothes fit better. Yet, they focus 100% on the scales. This IS the marker of progress for them and they are completely oblivious to others. If the scales don’t move they have failed. Sound familiar?
This mindset is flawed. Instead we should be triangulating data points like a sat nav to check we are going in the right direction.
The two measures that I mentioned above (looking better and clothes fitting better) are excellent. After all, most of us have some degree of vanity driving our fat loss and muscle building goals. Essentially, we want to look better naked. So, what better marker of progress than looking better? It is literally the exact goal we are striving for. Yet it is discarded and we feel discouraged and even depressed because we place so much store in one method…the scales.
A far better option is to use 3 or more tools to help your to triangulate your position and check progress.
All of you reading this will have a set of scales, a mirror, and a wardrobe full of clothes. Enough to triangulate your position and give you a fuller picture of the rate of progress you are making.
Put these tools to use.
You will also have a phone. Use this as a more objective measure of the ‘looking better’ progress marker. Have a friend or your partner take pics of you in your underwear once per week. Can’t find a reliable cameraman or women? Take a selfie. Problem solved.
When taking these pics aim to take them on the same day of the week, at roughly the same time of day, in the same location with the same lighting. This will allow for a fairer comparison. Once you have taken these pics for several weeks you will have an excellent marker of progress to look back on.
I find the pictures to be a far better measure than simply relying how you look in the mirror on a day to day basis. They allow sufficient time between photos for noticeable progress to have been made. I have found that clients often don’t realise the progress they have made when relying on the mirror. They see themselves in the mirror every day, probably several times a day and thus, the tiny day to day improvements aren’t noticeable and their most recent comparison is too recent to allow time for a noticeable change. Several times I have had clients bemoaning their lack of progress and then I present them with their progress in pictures several weeks apart and it blows their mind. They cannot believe how they used to look. It is almost like they constantly save the most recent image over the top of previous ‘copies’. This means they forget how far they have come.
Clothes fitting better is also a fantastic marker of progress. You almost certainly have some jeans which are a bit tight round the waist, a tee-shirt with sleeves you’d love to fill out better or a shirt which is tight in the wrong places and loose where you should have muscles. If overtime, you start fitting these better then it is a sure sign your training and nutrition efforts are working. Think of it as looking better with your clothes on and opposed to looking better naked. When all is said and done you just look better!
So far, I have discussed three options for measuring your progress which you can all do yourself.
1. The scales
2. The fit of your clothes
3. Progress pics
There are a few more options for which you might require some help.
The Tale of the Tape:
Firstly, the tape measure. To be honest most of you will be able to take measurements yourself at most key sites on your body. The accuracy of these measures will likely be improved if somebody else takes them for you though so, I would suggest you try and get someone else to help if possible. For fat loss clients, I tend to just go with waist, hip and thigh measures as the best indicators. With my muscle gain clients I will add chest and arms to this. Some want to bring up their calves too so we measure these.
Long story short…if your waist, hips and thigh measures come down then you have almost certainly lost fat. If the thighs, chest and arm measures have gone up then you should have gained muscle as long as the waist and hip readings haven’t gone too haywire.
Can You Pinch an Inch?
The second method with which you will need help is taking skinfold measurements with the calipers. These can provide a reasonable estimation of your body fat percentage. They are limited by the expertise of your tester but, assuming they are good at taking the measurements will provide some valuable feedback on your gains. Sure, there will be some tester error but, this will be consistent from week to week. Because of this it is essential that you get the same person to take your measurements each time.
I use skinfold calipers with all of my in-person clients. For fat loss I take them every two weeks and for those aiming to gain muscle every 2-4 weeks.
Don’t have access to someone who can take your skinfolds?
Then use this tip I picked up from John Meadows. Simply buy some calipers yourself and track the progress on your two most stubborn sites. In most cases this will be your abdominal and suprailiac (stomach and hip) sites. If the readings go up or down overtime then you can be pretty certain that body fat is going up or down accordingly.
Are calipers a perfect tool? No. But, they are yet another valuable tool in the toolbox.
I find that knowing they will be measured greatly enhances a client’s training and diet adherence. This alone makes them very useful for coaches. But, for those newbies I was talking about earlier they are also fantastic. When a new client comes in panicking that they have not lost as much as they’d hoped it really seems to help put their mind at rest if the calipers are showing some progress.
So, the scales aren’t the be all end all!
Two for the Price of One
Talking of scales…many of them offer an additional measure of progress. The all singing all dancing modern scales can tell you all sorts of other info. For one, they can estimate body fat through bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA).
BIA isn’t perfect. In fact, it is somewhat flawed and cannot be considered a “gold standard” measure of body fat. It can, however, provide some additional useful data to track progress. Research shows that BIA is reasonably accurate for tracking body composition in an individual over time. A one-off BIA reading is likely to be of little use or accuracy. Following the trend over the longer term will, however, give you some insight to progress. If, over time, the trend on this measure is down then it is yet another good indicator you have lost fat.
The Weights Don’t Lie
Finally, take into account your gym performance. Scales showing little change yet you have added noticeable weight to all your lifts? Yep, you probably built some muscle and dropped some fat. Sure, some of the gains might be CNS and technique driven but, if this continues to happen for a period of time then some of it will most likely be due to bigger muscles. This is especially the case if your performance noticeably increases in the moderate rep range (8-12 reps). Same weight and bigger muscles = less body fat.
So, you now can add the following markers of progress to your scales.
• How you look in the mirror
• Progress pictures
• How clothes fit
• Tape Measure
• Skinfold caliper
• Gym performance
With the scales you now have 8 easy indicators of progress at your disposal. Consistently, use as many of these as possible. If they are all going in the right direction then pat yourself on the back for a job well done and keep on going. If most of them show signs of progress but, one doesn’t then don’t panic. It is just one ‘bad’ indicator. Instead wonder whether this could be explained by a re-comp effect (e.g., tape measure circumferences down, caliper readings down, clothes fit better but scales show no change). If the measures are roughly 50/50 in terms of progress (or worse) then start to wonder if your actions are actually taking you closer to your goals or not. Most likely, some tweaks to your training and nutrition are required to remove any ambiguity and put you in a position of making progress.
So, quit being lazy with tracking your progress. Triangulate your methods to triangulate yourself.
P.S. This wasn’t intended as a war on scales or a suggestion that you should ignore them. Simply, that they are only one marker of progress. They are usually very accurate at doing what they claim to do…assess your relationship with gravity AKA tell you how much you weigh. They are also a very good indicator of long-term muscle gain or fat loss. Once you are past the newbie stage, have consistently trained hard and smart, and have dialed in your nutrition then the scales will have to drop for noticeable fat loss to occur or go up for you to have built any distinguishable muscle. Just don’t place all your store in them. There is a better way.
P.P.S. Yep another article referring to triangles. Turns out I bloody love triangles!