This article was originally posted on my blog at www.samkwhitaker.com
Weighing yourself is probably the most common way people measure progress when trying to lose weight. Granted, if your goal is specifically weight loss, the scale is the only method to measure progress. But I bet the majority of people reading this don't really care about weight loss per se. What they're bothered about is losing fat.
The terms weight loss and fat loss are often used interchangeably, although they're not the same thing. And while the bathroom scale is a good tool to use, it should be used in conjunction with at least one other method in my opinion. I'll discuss some of these other methods below.
This is important when first starting to eat better and exercise because it's quite feasible that you're increasing your lean body mass at the same time as losing body fat. This can also apply when you start training, what I would describe as, properly.
I've known people who had been going to the gym for a while and eating reasonably stay a similar weight yet still lose body fat once I've put them on a well structured plan. So it doesn't just apply to complete newbies.
The old question, 'Does muscle weigh more than fat?' is a silly question. Or at least a silly way of asking what you're actually wanting to ask.
A kg of muscle weighs the same as a kg of fat; a kg... obviously!!
But the point is that muscle is denser than fat, so takes up less space. So you could weigh the same, but if you have more muscle and less fat than you used to, you'll look different, even if you weigh the same. And most people's goal, (or at least one of them), is to look better. So that's why it's important to focus on more than just the number on the scale.
Sometimes it can be difficult to see in the mirror, the progress you're making on a day to day basis. Because progress is fairly gradual, it's hard to see much difference from day to day. This is where pictures become very useful.
It's possible that the number on the scale might not be going down, and that could be disheartening if that's the only way you're judging progress. But, if you're increasing your lean body mass while losing body fat, you'll look different, even if your weight's not changing.
If you want to use pictures to track your progress, I'd suggest taking a picture every 4 weeks or so and comparing each new one to the previous. Doing this, your progress will be more visible.
Take the pictures at the same time of day, wearing the same clothes, standing in the same place, same lighting etc. This way, the photos will be comparable.
Using a tape measure to measure key sites around the body will better show how much fat you're losing as opposed to just weight. And as I touched on above, losing fat is what that goal should be, if you're wanting to look better, (and improve health of course).
For men, the one site I'd recommend to measure is around the waist. As I'm sure you've noticed, men tend to store fat preferentially around the abdominal region. So if your waist measurement is going down, you can be pretty sure you're losing body fat.
Don't cheat though!
I'd advise to not look at the measurement until you've got the tape measure in place, (just above your belly button), because it can be tempting to pull the tape a little tighter just to get a certain measurement. You're not cheating anyone but yourself!! (I bet your mum told you that when you were a kid!)
For women, it's probably worth taking a few more measurements.
Women tend to store less fat than men around the abdominal region but more on their legs and bum, so I'd advise to measure these spots in particular.
You'll know yourself if you've certain parts of the body that hold body fat more than others, the areas you're self-conscious of. Perhaps it's your thighs, perhaps it's the back of your arms. If you have an area you're self-conscious of, it would be worth measuring there to track progress, if you feel comfortable doing so.
Some area's to consider measuring for women;
- Upper arms
Guys might want to measure these spots as well but they're more relevant to women.
It'd only be worth measuring every four weeks or so, as any more frequently, differences could be hard to measure. Doing it first thing in the morning will give you the best reading. Ideally, you'd get someone else to do it for you, to rule out the temptation to cheat.
How clothes fit
This is really just a passive version of the above.
Noticing how clothes fit will tell you the same thing as using the tape measure, just with a little less work. Granted, it can be a little more subjective, you don't get a number to quantify things. But it's a lot easier because, everyone wears clothes!
Well, apart from 'Ugly Naked Guy'. (If you get that reference, sending you a virtual high five)
For guys, who store a lot of their fat around the waist, simply noting how your belt fits and what hole you're using can work really well. This is how I first started seeing progress on my weight loss journey. But any piece of clothing can work.
Perhaps you have a favourite shirt or something that used to fit you better than it does now. Simply try it on every four weeks or so and pay attention to how it fits you.
For women, it could be a favourite pair of jeans or a dress that never really fitted as well as it could. It can be hugely motivating to see it fitting better and better each time you try it on.
Body Fat % testing
Body fat % testing can be a really good way to measure progress, because lowering your body fat % is what you're ultimately wanting to do, despite the obsession by some over the number on the scale.
It can depend on the method used as to how good it is. I'm not a fan of the BIA, (Bio electrical impedance), method of tracking body fat %. This is the method some bathroom scales use to measure body fat. However, it can be quite unreliable as it depends on how hydrated you are. So unless you can be pretty consistent with your hydration levels, I wouldn't really recommend putting too much confidence in this method.
Probably the most accessible method is caliper testing. Which is where you pinch an area of fat and get a measurement in mm's, then use a formula to estimate body fat %. You can buy calipers online and do it yourself if you desire but just make sure they're calibrated and you're consistent with how you use them.
Ideally, you'd get someone else to do the measuring for you, so you don't cheat. If you do use this method, I wouldn't really bother working out your body fat % per se. Just take a note of the measurements and compare to the previous ones.
There are other methods of estimating body fat %, DEXA, under water weighing, MRI etc, but I won't go into them as most people won't have access to them. I'll just say, as with any method of estimating body fat %, that it is an estimate! Don't take the results as gospel.
The best way to use body fat % as a way to track progress, is to just compare previous readings with the current one.
And don't compare results from different methods to each other, as they're not comparable. Different methods give different readings, so pick one method and stick with it.
Why am I telling you this?
I want to help people realise that there's more to tracking progress on a diet than weighing themselves. While it can be a good tool to use, it should be used in conjunction with at least one of the above.
Just using the scale to track progress won't always give you a clear picture of how your diet is going. If you get too hung up on how much you weigh, without using any other method to track progress, you could get disheartened if it doesn't give you the number you're wanting.
Take home points
- Realise that fat loss is your goal, not just weight loss
- When first starting out, it is possible to gain muscle at the same time as losing fat. Therefore, progress might not show on the scale
- Pictures give a good visual representation of your progress, that you might not see on a day to day basis
- Using a tape measure to measure certain areas will give a good indication whether you're losing fat or not
- Paying attention to how clothes fit is an easier but more subjective way to see if you're losing body fat
- There are various methods to measuring your body fat %. Some more accessible than others. Whichever you use, be consistent. And just compare current measurements to your previous ones, rather than take them as definitive values
This article was originally posted on my blog at www.samkwhitaker.com