Why Measurements Trump Scales

Scale weight is one the most temperamental measurements of body composition.

Depending on what time of the day you weigh in, how many meals you have consumed, your carbohydrate intake, your fluid intake, your sleep quality, your hormonal profile at that period and even that time of the month for female trainees, will massively impact the numbers you see staring back up at you!

To this end, in this article we will look at:

1) If you are going to stick to scale weight, then give tips optimise your accuracy

2) Other metrics by which to judge progress

3) Realistic expectations for body composition change for both scale weight and other metrics, and the best time frames to measure progress within.

 

The Scale Weight Analysis:

It is entirely possible to be making tremendous progress in the weights room while still having your scale weight flat line. A perfect example was a female trainee I recently encountered. She competed in a 3 week challenge and was disheartened at losing only 3 kilograms of scale weight despite her massive efforts in the gym. Upon hearing these numbers I first consoled her that 3kgs was a fantastic result, but I also encouraged her to get follow up measurements done post challenge as well. To her amazement, she had lost a massive 22cms since her measurements we taken in week 1! 

This phenomenon is known as a ‘recomp,’or recompositioning period, whereby muscle is being built at the same time as fat being burned.

The overall compositional improvement is profound, but with the proportional difference in sectional density of adipose vs skeletal tissue, the numbers shown on the scales often don’t move.  This is exactly what has happened in the afore mentioned example; the trainee in the 3 week challenge has lost a tremendous amount of body fat as seen by the 22cms lost, but due to the relatively dense muscle tissue built in its place, the numbers did not reflect the true nature of the change to her physique. Essentially, the scales had little use to indicate total body changes for this challenge other than to indicate a general downwards trend in weight. But this isn’t to say scales don’t have a use.

Now I understand that scales are the simplest, quickest and most convenient method of measuring body compositional progress. Every man, woman and child has a set of scales at home and a sound idea of how to use them. But not everyone has a measuring tape or someone to consistently apply that tape to your physique!

To this end, and as promised previously, let’s look at what can be done when scales are your only and/or preferred option for measuring progress and what tips can be utilised to ensure that your results are as consistent as possible!

How to Best Use the Scales:

1) Always weigh yourself fasted, first thing in the morning, with no clothes.

2) Weigh yourself on the same days each week (ie. Every Monday)

3) If you have had an irregular amount of exercise on a particular day before or after a weigh in, take note and take into account for any fluctuations that may occur consequently.

 

Additional Metrics of Body Composition Improvement:

There are plenty of complimentary metrics to be employed to measure body compositional progress. So without further ado, let us look at the more comprehensive and reliable methods of tracking progress!

  1. A) Skin Folds using Callipers:

Skinfolds can be obtained very simply and with considerable reliability if it is done by the same person each time or by ensuring the exact same sites are measured each time. The most basic protocol for Callipers is a 3 point skin fold, measuring sites on the Chest, Abdominals and Quadriceps. However, the more widely endorsed and accurate measurement is the 7 point test which includes:

1) Chest,

2) Abdominals,

3) Quadriceps,

4) Triceps,

5) Midaxillary,

6) Subscapular, and

7) Suprailiac  

The importance of an accurate skinfold is ensuring every measurement is done in the EXACT same location as the previous measurement, and if this is adhered to, then you can expect a very decent representation of your true changes in body shape and composition. When combined with scale weight, this is a great way to get a thorough understanding of what is happening with your progress. Skinfolds are also a great way of monitoring fluid retention as the person measuring your sites can inspect each pinch point for subcutaneous fat storage vs extracellular water.

 

  1. B) Measurements:

Much like skinfolds, measurements can be an excellent way to monitor physical changes in your physique IF the exact same protocol is utilised each time. Again, with measurements you will see true changes in body shape by recording your changes over time. For example, if you are losing weight and you are dropping centimetres from your midsection and waist, then it is safe to surmise that fat loss is occurring, not just generalised weight loss which can be the result of shifts in fluid retention, glycogen storage, or hormonal changes.

  1. C) The Mirror:

Perhaps the most relevant method of tracking compositional changes, the mirror doesn’t lie anywhere as much as many other metrics can. No matter what the scale or tape says, over time spent in the trenches of your physique transformation journey, you will begin to learn your body and how it responds, using the mirror as one of your most powerful tools.

 Whether you are looking smooth and watery, your musculature is looking full and vascular versus flat and drained, all of these visual indices are giving you feed back. They are telling you how your body is responding in real time to your training load, your levels of glycogen depletion, your current hydrations or water retention, all of these factors are coming in to play in your reflection. This feedback is invaluable and is how you learn to listen to your body’s biofeedback.

Many may snicker at the vanity of the gym shark catching his reflection on his walk past the squat rack mirror, but take the time to consider that he may well actually be looking for signals from his body for everything from hydration to depletion, to just checking in on that filthy pump!

Take Home:

The scale weight of the average trainee can and does fluctuate 2-3 kilograms from morning to evening. This is in response to food, water, training, stress, work load and a huge variety of other biochemistry that takes place 24/7 to keep you alive!

Now this would make you question then whether it is worth while taking a measurement at all if it is going to be accurate within a tolerance of 2-3 kilograms whether its breakfast or dinner time. But hopefully with the tips I have outlined above, we can start implementing some consistency that will over time, assist in obtaining the most accurate results from your scales possible.

Finally, to compliment these standardised scale weigh-ins, the most accurate picture you could hope to paint regarding your body composition would also include skin folds and/or measurements done in the same sites each time for maximal consistency.

It truly is the perfect storm combining measurements and/or skin folds, scales and the mirror! Before long these metrics will teach you to start to listen and learn how your body is responding to the stimuli of your training load and nutritional regimen and very accurately track progress as your either build muscle or lose fat!

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