Slay the scale fixation. Then make real progress.
Editor’s note: Authored by Rebar co-founder Abby Clark. Re-published from Fitness Magazine, April 2015.
One of the single biggest obstacles to making progress is using the wrong tool to measure it.
Let’s say you have been working out consistently for a few weeks now and your nutrition has been on point. You feel better, your clothes fit looser, and you look leaner. People are complimenting you on your progress and life is great!
Then you decide to step on the scale and your world crumbles. You are devastated to see that you’ve gained weight. You ask yourself, “How could this be? I feel better. I look leaner.” Unfortunately, we have all been there. We have all allowed the scale to dictate our mood and gauge our progress.
So what happened? Why did you gain weight when everything else indicates that you have lost body fat?
This confusion stems from the fact that weight loss and fat loss are not the same thing. Although they are commonly used interchangeably, decreased weight on the scale does not necessarily mean decreased body fat! So, what gives?
When you step on the scale you are measuring your total body weight, which includes your lean mass, fat mass, and water. The scale is not capable of discerning between the different types of mass in your body that contributes to your total weight. So using the scale to track your body composition progress, which when exercising more will often include positive changes in bone and muscle mass, such one-dimensional information can be very counterproductive to your progress.
The scale does not tell the entire tale. It is merely a tool that measures your total body weight…nothing else.
How to measure body fat loss
The best way to measure the actual change in the composition of your body, while discerning between changes in fat mass and lean mass, is to use skinfold calipers. By measuring skinfolds, you are measuring the thickness of your skin and the layer of subcutaneous fat that resides immediately underneath your skin. Since the thickness of your skin typically does not change much, a net decrease in your skinfolds is a strong indicator of overall pure body fat loss, irrespective of weight loss or gain. By plugging your skinfolds and weight into a special formula (discussed below) you will get your body fat percentage. Then, with a simple excel spreadsheet you can track your changes in fat mass, lean mass, and overall body fat percentage.
These numbers allow you to paint a more complete picture of your body composition changes over time and empower you to judge your progress more accurately. By monitoring your overall body composition, as opposed to just your weight, you will have meaningful insight into the success of your training program and nutrition. Instead of going months in the wrong direction, you can make immediate changes based on the numbers. You will also become less attached to the number on the scale and not allow it to control your emotions as much.
Putting the data to work
Like many great journeys, the first step begins with a conversation. Discuss your goals with your personal fitness mentor and get your initial measurements taken before starting any new program. Ask them to measure your body composition by taking skinfold measurements with high quality calipers. You will be measured in 3-7 different areas of the body and then your mentor will use the Jackson-Polluck Formula to calculate your body fat percentage.
Once you have your body fat percentage, you can use a simple chart to track your progress:
|Date||Body Fat % (BF%)||Fat Mass (FM)||Lean Mass (LM)||Change in BF%||Change in FM||Change in LM|
|Initial||Weight X BF%||Weight – FM||————||————-||————-|
(Courtesy of Rebar Fitness, LLC)
The key to successfully losing body fat is consistency. A healthy range of fat loss for women is .5-1 pounds of fat mass per week, which is the equivalent to a decrease of .25-.50 percent body fat. This of course varies depending on your starting point. There may be times when you see no change at all or even regression. Do not worry, it happens to all of us and is part of the process. What you want to look for is an overall trend of decreased body fat and increased lean muscle.
The chart below is one of the most commonly used body fat charts from American Council and Exercise (ACE):
Other methods to supplement tracking your progress include:
- Girth measurements
- Before and after pictures
- How your clothes fit
I’d like to share my transformation story with you to try to help you better understand the powerful impact of tracking your body composition versus just weighing yourself on the scale. When I started working my nutrition in 2010 I weighed about 130 pounds and my body fat percentage was about 22%. After about a year my weight was 135 lbs. and my body fat percentage was 15%. If I had only relied on the scale to measure my progress I would have been very discouraged and probably would have given up!
So, you may be thinking, why did the scale increase if my body fat was decreasing. How did I transform my body so much but end up gaining weight? The answer is my body went through what’s called “re-composition.”
What is re-composition?
Re-composition is when you change your body composition by simultaneously adding lean muscle and losing fat. There are four scenarios when you can “re-comp” your body:
- You are new to strength training
- You are returning from an injury or a break from training
- You have a large amount of body fat to lose
- You shift from a low protein diet to a higher protein diet
Eventually your re-comp will plateau and the rate of simultaneous muscle gain and fat loss will slow down. It is extremely difficult to continue to drop fat and gain muscle at the same rate once you reach a certain percentage of leanness. When this happens you will have to decide to focus on either fat loss or muscle gain and make the appropriate adjustments to your nutrition to support your goal.
Today I weigh about 140 and my body fat percentage is 16%. Even though my weight is much higher than my initial weight back in 2010, I am stronger, more defined, and significantly leaner.
By tracking your progress with methods better than the scale alone you will be able to move past weight fixation and strengthen your resolve to make a lasting transformation.
In strength and balance,
SFG / RYT / Pn-1
Co-Founder + Trainer