To Weigh or Measure
Choosing whether to use a scale, the measuring tape, or some other method should be an easy decision when deciding to measure progress. There are a large number of people with physique or “feel good” goals that are feeling down about their journey because they don’t understand the how to effectively select and use the different methods. Some of the decision comes down to your goals with the rest being personal preference and mentality. There are two basic methods for keeping track of progress with data, weight or body fat.
Weight has limited utility. Unless you compete in a weight-class sport or have a job with specific weight requirements, the weight is just a number. As a society, we associate our weight with how we look, typically ignoring the reality of muscle volume versus fat volume versus bone structure. Change the frame sizes (long leg versus long torso) and two people of the same weight can have entirely different looks. The weight and the associated BMI are not the epitomai of health markers, but they do provide a way to track progress.
For weight, any scale will do as long as it can be re-zeroed.
Body fat has been the “magic” tool lately and much like weight, fat measurement has a limited purpose. No athletic events are judged on the number from a body fat scan. No, not even physique competitions. No job asks for your fat level on the application. Physique competitions are based on looks and having a low body fat may show a better physique, it is not a guarantee. One person may be vascular at 12% while another needs to be under 8% to have the same appearance. Like other measures, it can provide a way to track progress through trends.
***While there are more than enough devices that “measure” body fat, it’s fairly well known that scales, hand-held monitors, and calculators are inaccurate. Even the expensive tests like BodPod and DEXA have margins of error that can disguise progress.***
Simply measuring around a specific part of the body. This is the one that nobody really talks about because there are no agreed-upon standards. Like body fat and scale weight, it’s about consistency. Measuring with the same tape, in the same place on the body, with the same level of flex is key. Relying solely upon circumference tells us nothing about composition or weight, only that the measure of a body part has changed or not. Unlike scale and fat measures, it can take considerably longer to see the tape measure move even 1 mm.
For circumference measures, the most important part is a flexible tape measure, preferably with measures down to the 1/8th of an inch or the mm.
I’m not talking insta-model or facebook posing champion. These are the not-so-flattering progress pictures taken in at least three positions (front, side, back). Because we see ourselves every day (and so do our co-workers and many of our friends) physical progress is hard to notice until a significant change has occurred. Again, there is debate over whether the picture should be taken flexed or unflexed, and the lighting can completely change the way a picture looks.
I like to recommend taking photos at least every other week in the same location with the same lighting. Make sure the camera is the same angle and same height each week to make setting up the comparison easier.
Does any of it really matter?
As an Average Joe or Jane, the scale, the fat percentage, the measures of your different regions, and your progress pictures are pretty meaningless. They can be used to indicate progress and help determine what is and is not working. They all tie together to provide a fuzzy glimpse of health and outward appearance. Beyond that, they are not an indicator of who a person is, what they have been through, and where they can go. Personal value is not tied to a bunch of numbers or a few photos.
While the methods have significance and can be useful, none of them matter if you don’t “feel” good doing your daily activities. There is a great benefit in being able to step back and look at the numbers and pictures as exactly what they are, data points that help adjust progress towards a goal.
**For health purposes, a doctor may suggest a certain weight, body fat, or waist to hip ratio because there is a higher correlation with diseases and medical conditions based on specific ranges. Playing the law of averages is the name of the game.**
How to Weigh-in:
There are some basics, no matter how often you weigh yourself, that need to be followed:
- Same clothing – typically just underwear or none at all.
- Same time of day – right after waking up is best.
- Same conditions – after the bathroom, before eating or drinking anything. I never recommend after the day has started because what’s eaten, drank, and even a quick shower can affect the scale.
Weighing-in once per week:
I have some major issues with the once per week weigh-in, mainly that there are too many factors that contribute to a scale weight and combining them can result in HUGE swings on the scale. Eat a salty meal, train hard, have some extra drinks, or, for the ladies, have a visit from T.o.M. and the scale can jump 3+ pounds with no problem.
This method is the one that leads to more “It’s not working” panics than any other and I hate how it affects the people that use it. If you’re willpower, dedication, and psyche lives and dies by a number on the scale, this is the absolute worst method for you to choose.
Weighing-in multiple times per week:
Instead of relying on one day to provide accuracy, getting on the scale two, three, or four times is much better. As long as the days aren’t all consecutive, for example, Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, the effect of one meal or training day doesn’t hit as hard. It allows for a broader picture of what the body is actually doing over the week instead of just the day before.
When doing multiple weigh-ins, it is preferable to write the weights down and then take the average at the end of the week. Many people have swings throughout the week from eating healthy and controlled Monday through Friday and then splurging over the weekend. With the averages, the trend makes it possible to see gain and loss over time, which is what really matters.
Weighing-in every day:
This is my favorite method but takes more effort. Every morning, under the same circumstances, getting on the scale, recording it into a spreadsheet or into one of my new favorite apps, Libra (Android iOS) gives the ability to quickly see trends, progress over time, and even estimate when a weight goal will be reached. When you pair your average weight with your average calories consumed, you can develop and adjust caloric goals much more accurately.
The one caution I have about daily weigh-ins is that adjusting your eating habits daily can seriously challenge the ability to make intelligent adjustments. Undereat one day and compensate by way overeating the next and instead of finding a level weight, it will just swing the opposite way.
Never weighing-in at all:
If somebody really struggles with their identity being linked to the scale, don’t get on the scale. It isn’t much harder than that. This is a perfectly acceptable method if the physique goal has nothing to do with weight. For some clients, this is the best method because it gives them the peace of mind to just listen to how they feel and use the pictures.
How to check body fat:
There are several methods.
Probably the least accurate, but it hits one major checkbox, consistency. As long as the girth measurements are taken in the same locations and same conditions, the result of the formula will be consistent. When looking for trends, consistency is the most important factor.
The easiest way is to use a BIA device like a scale or handheld. You’ll need to do these much the same as using a scale, under the same conditions, in the same position (standing, sitting, arms extended, etc) to be consistent. Keep in mind that BIA devices are affected by hydration, sweat, exercise, etc., and can vary tremendously in even a 5 minute time period.
This requires somebody else to help you out in order to get the skinfold measurements. These measurements can vary greatly based on the caliper, the skill of the person taking the measure, and hydration. If the goal is a trend, this may be the one to avoid. The potential for human error is just too great in my opinion.
BodPod and DEXA
Both are said to be more accurate than any other method but come with an increased cost. Again, if consistency is important for trends, using one of these methods may be the ticket if you can afford it.
Using a tape measure is an effective way to show the progress that isn’t seen on a scale. For those that have a strong emotional tie to the number on the scale, changes in body circumference can show progress when the scale might read the same. The challenge with the tape is precision, making sure to measure at the same point on the body each time. Measuring at different angles, different flexes, etc., can change the results drastically. Remember, your body isn’t going to grow or lose inches in a week so it will be more beneficial to use mm as the unit of measurement instead of inches.
How to measure your body:
If you don’t want to take the time to use a tape, you can use how your clothes fit (unless you always wear super-baggy or skin tight). The hardest part of this is consistency. Keep in mind that some clothing will shrink and some will stretch depending on how it is cleaned or how the fabric ages. My go-to clothing is a pair of jeans and a few of my training shirts. The arms, shoulders, back, and stomach are all marked by the shirts and the jeans mark the hips, glutes, thighs, and calves.
This tends to be the eye opener and the reality check for a lot of people. The secret is taking the picture in the same location, same clothes, same lighting, and at the same angle. Instagram models know how to manipulate light and contort their body to create a particular image. That isn’t the goal here. The goal is to have an accurate record of progress. For most people, I recommend taking a video every two weeks and taking still photos from the video. Progress can happen in one week, but for many of us, we can’t see it until it is more pronounced, which is why I recommend two weeks. After the pictures are done, combining them into a collage for side by side comparison is a great way to see what has changed and what still needs improvement.
- Find a method (or methods) that you can use and be consistent with
- You are not the numbers
- Track the data for trends, not instantaneous results
- Listen to how you feel throughout the day
- Use the averages to make adjustments