So you have decided to lose weight or perhaps you already started…
It is only natural, that you want to have a good understanding of the progress you are making. Sadly, how to keep track of weight loss is not as easy as you might think.
Perhaps you have already realized that because your scale weight keeps jumping up and down. The problem is that you simply can’t rely only on your scale weight for accurately measuring progress.
If there is only one thing you take away from reading this, then I want it to be this: You can’t rely on your scale weight alone to keep track of weight loss.
Changes to your scale weight depend on many things other than the fat you are losing. The major things that affect your scale weight include the volume of food you are eating especially sugar and salt levels, bowel movement, hormonal levels and cycles, stress, and hydration.
Basics of Weight Loss and Retaining Muscle Mass
This post is about tracking weight loss, and it will only have practical value for you if you already understand a number of other things. This is namely:
- Understand that losing weight will take some time.
- Understand that losing weight is a question of a negative energy balance.
- Know how to properly lift weights to retain your muscle.
The Dangers of Relying On The Scale
If you are weighing yourself every day, you will quickly realize that your weight fluctuates. One of the major reasons is that the water you hold in your body changes.
The water that is held in the body is determined by a number of factors that include the volume of food you are eating and its salt and sugar content, stress, hormones, hydration and glycogen storages (energy fuel stored for immediate use).
Another interesting fact is that when your body fat is burned off for energy, the fat cells are slowly filled with water as the fat content is emptied. Sometimes the body holds on to that water for some time.
Initial Weight Loss
Water is not only going to make your scale weight fluctuate as mentioned above but when you are starting out the reduction in water weight will also be responsible for some of your weight loss.
When you are in a calorie deficit the body slowly depletes the glycogen storages (energy storages). These storages hold a lot of water, somewhere around 3-4 times the amount of glycogen. As the storages deplete the water is flushed out, this can account for a lot of weight.
Additionally, when you are in a calorie deficit, in most cases you will be eating a smaller volume of food. This, of course, affects your scale and can be easily be mistaken for progress in fat loss.
However, this means that you also should expect some weight gain due to water increases when you stop your fat loss diet and start eating more food.
If you are new to working out or an intermediate, and follow a proper weight training routine and eat right, you will be gaining muscle at a fast rate. It will most likely be so fast, especially for beginners, that it will negate some weight of the fat you lost. This results in a smaller change in your scale weight.
If you are experiencing solid progress in your lifts over a longer duration e.g. one month, weight increase due to muscle gain should be expected and can be significant.
For beginners who are men, it could potentially be close to 1 kg, and up to 0.5 kg for women. However, it is most likely going to be less than that because your potential of gaining muscle is reduced when in a calorie deficit.
All in all, fluctuations in your scale weight is perfectly normal, but it presents a challenge to tracking your progress, especially when you are also gaining muscle mass.
It can become a real problem if you rely on your scale weight only to make decisions regarding your diet. E.g. lowering calories or increasing exercise because the change in your scale weight is very small.
Tracking Weight, Waist Circumference, and Gym Progress
Tracking your weight and waist circumference daily is a relatively easy process but yields a great insight into your body composition. I recommend you make this a habit of yours, but you should always do it when you are dieting to get a more accurate insight into your progress.
The thing about waist circumference is, that if it is decreasing it means you are losing body fat. It is especially powerful for men since most fat is stored in this part of the body, but is also great for women.
As I mentioned above in the small section on muscle gain if you are new to lifting weights or an intermediate you can potentially gain a lot of muscle.
Gaining muscle will result in a weight increase, so you need to properly track all your lifts so you can see what kind of progress you are making. If you are making good progress, you should expect muscle gain.
I recommend keeping a workout log either a physical notebook or on your phone and have it with you every time you go to the gym.
I can’t give any better estimate than what I mentioned above to how much muscle you can expect since there are simply too many factors involved, but this is also not necessary.
Because when you are looking at your scale weight together with waist circumference and gym progress, you have the metrics that are powerful enough to reveal progress in your weight loss or I should say fat loss.
Here is an example that can easily explain the utility of tracking gym progress, waist circumference and scale weight.
Let us imagine you are a beginner to lifting weights and that you have been in a good calorie deficit for one month. However, the change in your scale weight is frustratingly small. So, if you are focusing on the scale weight only, it looks like you only lost a little bit.
Luckily you have also been tracking waist circumference and all your workouts and the individual lifts. The data from tracking your workouts clearly shows you have had good progress and become stronger.
Your waist circumference also decreased a good bit, and this is not only the measuring band that tells you this, most of your pants fit more loosely around your waist.
What has happened is your scale weight only changed a small bit because you both gained muscle and burned fat. The fact that you lost fat is obvious because of two things, 1) decrease in waist measurement and 2) because you have been in a calorie deficit for a long time.
The muscle gain is clearly evident because you have become stronger across all your lifts and that your scale weight only changed a little bit while there was a significant decrease in your waist measurement.
It should also be mentioned, that if this example explains your situation it is time for celebration! Because you have successfully achieved what most people want, that is building muscle and losing fat at the same time. In this post, I go more in-depth about how it is possible(link)
In a tough process as dieting, when the scale is changing very little even though you are putting in good effort it can be very demotivating. Because of this, it is very important that you pay attention to the details!
Do Not Focus On Day-to-Day Measurements
Because your body is changing all the time and stuff simply fluctuates, your day-to-day measurements are going to reflect that as well.
An easy solution to this is to do weekly averages of your measurements and then compare those instead. General trends will of course also reveal any progress, but I recommend weekly averages as the better solution.
More Metrics for tracking weight loss
If you want to add more data points to increase the accuracy you can get a body fat caliper. These are not too accurate in measuring your fat percentage, but they are good for tracking changes.
Another thing is to take photos of yourself weekly. If you make sure the lighting stays the same and you do same poses it can work well to keep track of progress. Obviously, you have to at least half naked to make it work.
I have a separate post where I talk about the power of tracking and how you should do it.
The “Whoosh Effect”
I mentioned very briefly above, that as your body fat is burned off for fuel, the fat cells are filled up with water. For different reasons, your body might hold on to that water even after all the fat is burned off.
If you are dieting for a longer period, it is likely that you at some point will experience a complete halt to your weight, even though you were making great progress up until this point and you did not make any changes.
This can be extremely frustrating and can mask progress for up to a whole week or sometimes even more. If you are experiencing this, it is important to just keep on going and not make any changes. Because decreasing calories or increase exercise might have detrimental effects that are unnecessary and simply based on a faulty conclusion.
When the water finally leaves your fat cells, it is usually flushed out together and your progress is finally revealed. You might wake up one morning suddenly a lot lighter. This is known as the “whoosh effect”
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