Most of us just jump on the scale to check our weight status because it’s quick and easy, but it isn’t necessarily the best way to measure fat loss or fat gain. Before I explain why, however, let’s back up a bit…
I feel there are two different types of people in the world: the ones who prefer to weigh themselves everyday and the ones who have a love/hate (or just hate) relationship with the scale, and rarely jump on. Jeff is the former and I am the latter. Jeff will eat a two-plate Thanksgiving dinner plus his body’s weight in pie and still want to weigh himself both that night and the following morning! When I ask him why in the world he would want to do such a tortuous thing, he simply says, “I just want to know.” I, on the other hand, will wait at least a week or two after Thanksgiving before even entertaining the idea of getting on a scale. Reason being, I prefer using other methods of measuring my body status that allow me to stay much more sane. Which brings me to the first of the three best ways to measure fat loss and fat gain…
- Go by the way your clothes fit. Seems pretty obvious, I know, but just hear me out: People often get obsessed with the digits on the scale. A number that is less than satisfactory has the potential to ruin a person’s morning or entire day. (Been there, done that.) No one needs to start their day out with that craziness, especially since there are several things that can affect that scale number other than fat. Instead, turn to your closet.
The key here is to find just one pair of pants or jeans that represent your ideal weight (or one step closer to your ideal weight) and that do not stretch once you put them on or after wearing them for a couple of hours. If you try them on and they’re uncomfortably snug or impossible to button, take them off, put in a little extra effort to make great choices for your health that week and then give those pants another shot a week later. Keep in mind that the changes might not be drastic from week to week; you’re just looking for subtle differences that ultimately lead to big differences after a month or two or three of great health choices. But if those pants DO fit well with the first try, then give yourself a big high five!
- Take your body measurements. This is one of my favorite methods because you’re rewarded with not just one number (like with the scale) but with several numbers due to the fact that you’re measuring several spots on your body. Plus, we’ve all heard the saying, “Muscle weighs more than fat,” right? This is actually ridiculous since one pound of muscle weighs the same as one pound of fat.
One Pound = One Pound
I believe the idea behind this saying is that it’s best to keep in mind the possibility that you may have put on some muscle as a result of your workouts, which would affect your scale number. But the bottom line is, one pound of muscle is more dense than one pound of fat, and thus takes up less area on your body than one pound of fat does. Therefore, taking your measurements is a great way to gauge fat loss progress. Otherwise, in the case that you have put on muscle and lost body fat, your jeans will fit looser yet your scale number may have hardly moved. This is incredibly confusing and frustrating, to say the least.
So here’s what I do: every two to four weeks while in the midst of tackling a fitness goal, or, just aiming to maintain my weight, I take body measurements from the following places using a cloth or vinyl tape measure…
- The widest part of the right arm
- Around the widest part of the chest/back (keep in mind this isn’t just measuring “the girls” or “pecs” – the upper back is part of this equation, as well.)
- The smallest part of the waist
- Around the hips (right at the hip bones)
- Around the widest point of the glutes
- Around the widest point of the right thigh
- Around the widest point of the right calf
In the past, I also included measurements of the neck and the widest part of the belly for my male clients if they had a significant amount of weight to lose. However, both men and women are welcome to add these places to the list if they feel they apply. You’re also welcome to measure everything from your left side; there’s no real reason why I go with the right!
- Test your body fat. When you have your body fat tested, you’re able to find out what percentage of your body is made up of solely fat. Ideally, you want your body fat percentage to go down at a steady pace as you lose weight. If your body is getting smaller yet your body fat percentage is hardly moving, chances are you’re losing a good amount of muscle, as well. Here’s the most common reason why this happens:
Often times, when a person goes full throttle with a weight loss goal, both fat as well as a little bit of muscle will be lost no matter what. Weight lifting two to four times a week will help prevent this from happening as drastically because you’re then frequently telling the body that you still need those muscles, so please don’t let them wither away. Taking in high quality calories that are loaded with nutrients and a decent amount of protein will help spare that muscle mass as well.
If you’re working hard to get in shape, measure your body fat every two to four weeks. Here are the three most common methods for doing this:
- Hydrostatic body fat testing (aka underwater weighing) – This is said to be the most accurate way to learn how much fat your body is carrying. Unfortunately, it’s not the most convenient method since finding a place that does this type of testing can be tough. If you’re interested in giving it a shot, though, do a search online for a gym or facility that does hydrostatic testing near you. In some major cities, mobile hydrostatic testing is now available where the experts come to you or to an area near you with a tank in a truck all ready to go. It’s like a food truck except not really.
- Skin Calipers – This method of body fat testing is also believed to be very accurate, as long as it’s done correctly. For this reason, I recommend asking an experienced fitness trainer or physician to do the testing for you. In fact, you could probably walk into any gym, pay for a one-day pass, and then ask if there’s a trainer available to test your body fat via skin calipers. Nine times out of ten I’m betting the answer would be “yes.”
This type of body fat testing is done by pinching the fat in 3 to 7 different spots on your body and using the calipers to measure the thickness of those pinches. It sounds like an awkward and embarrassing experience, but just take comfort in knowing that fitness trainers do this for their clients all the time… And on people of all shapes and sizes, too. It is possible to buy a pair of calipers and do the pinching yourself (calipers tend to be pretty cheap!) it just takes a lot of practice to get consistently accurate readings.
- Body fat measuring scales or handles (aka bioelectrical impedance) – This is where a machine, such as your home scale, includes body fat analysis capabilities.
There are also handheld versions, as well.
This way of testing body fat is by far the most convenient, but the results aren’t usually as accurate as some of the other methods. Regardless, if you stick with one machine to do all of the testing week after week and consistently test yourself at the same time of day, even if the number isn’t 100% accurate, it should still give you an overall idea of whether or not your body fat is going down. Keep in mind one thing, however: Muscle contains more water than fat, so if you’re retaining water due to physical stress (such as a heavy weight lifting session or an intense deep tissue massage), or due to a super salty, fatty, sugary or an alcoholy meal you had the day prior, your body fat percentage may appear lower because that water retention reads as muscle. Ladies – this should also be taken into consideration during a certain time of the month when we tend to be more bloated.
So there you have it! Continue doing traditional weighing if you must, but please consider using a pair of pants, a measuring tape, or have your body fat tested too! Any of these will help keep you grounded and more informed, and out of the loony bin for the ‘scale obsessed’!