How to track your fat loss progress
When we start training hard and following a clean diet during a fat loss program, we simply can’t wait to see the fat melting off our bodies. Here are some of the best ways to help you measure your progress and make sure you are on the right track.
One of the most common mistakes is obsess with your weight on the scale as a means of your progress. Our body is made of water and different tissues, including muscle, fat and bone. Our weighing scale gives an overall reading of ALL these measurements combined and is unable to determine if weight lost is from water, fat or muscle. It may actually demotivate you from continuing with your fat loss journey.
Our weight will fluctuate and be inconsistent, whether we weigh ourselves daily, weekly or monthly. Influencing factors include your hydrations levels (losing or gaining water in the body, your digestive tract (timing of your last meal) and your bowel movements (how recently you visited the toilet). These factors will affect your weight on a DAILY basis and you will discover that you may gain or lose a couple of kilos within the hour. Women in particular have monthly changes in water due to their menstrual cycle and increased water weight will mask any fat loss progress.
It is not an accurate measurement of fitness
The scale is also extremely unreliable when it comes to weighing athletes or fitness enthusiasts. Anyone who trains with weights will have a significant amount of muscle mass. Muscle weights MORE than fat and will always give heavier readings on a scale. One popular weight management system is the body mass index (BMI) which measures your height and weight to determine if you are underweight, overweight, healthy or obese. The BMI scale will actually predict that an athlete with extremely low levels of body fat is obese!
Beginners and the scale
When somebody initially starts training with weights, they lose a lot of carbohydrate and water from their body. This will make them weigh significantly less in a short amount of time. Eventually their weight will become more stagnant on the scale. This may cause a beginner to think their fat loss has stalled and will make them feel incredibly discouraged.
So how do you weigh yourself on the scale?
As you will never receive accurate readings, if you decide to weigh yourself, do so at the same time (morning, afternoon or evening), dressed or naked, before or after a meal, pre or post workout and full bladder or empty bladder. One recommendation is to weigh yourself first thing in the morning, unclothed, before breakfast and after using the toilet.
As readings will never be accurate, it is ideal to weigh yourself following all of the above every day and take the average reading at the end of the week. If you weigh yourself once a week, you might weigh yourself during a fluctuation (gaining or lose a significant amount of weight due to factors mentioned above) and will not have enough accurate information to compare to the next week if ANOTHER fluctuation occurs. Having an average reading at the end of the week will give you the most consistent and accurate reading of your ideal weight.
As already elaborated, the scale should NOT be a measure of your fitness levels or fat loss progress. If you choose to weigh yourself, do it to have a general understanding of your total body weight.
Real life experience with the scale
I will give you a real life experience of myself. When I started exercising and following a clean diet, I was a jeans size 29 (a US size 8). Today I am a jeans size 24 (or a US size zero) and in the last year I have GAINED five kilos. I am leaner than I have ever been before, and my weight has actually increased. This is because I have gained muscle which weighs more than fat. Don’t discourage yourself and believe you haven’t progressed when in fact; you might be halfway towards changing your life.
Losing weight on the scale
If you choose to weigh yourself, make sure your scale readings are slow and gradual. If you notice you are rapidly dropping weight, do not feel triumphant. A super-fast rate of weight loss might indicate you are losing muscle and will almost guarantee you will gain everything back. If you notice you are dropping fat but your scale readings are quite stagnant, this would be a good sign that you are maintaining your muscle mass. As mentioned, the fittest, thinnest and most athletic bodies will still be quite heavy on the scale!
Body fat testing
One way of measuring your body fat is through body fat testing. This is simply a measure of the amount of fat in your body. There are many different ways to do this and unfortunately, many of these tests may also be inaccurate.
One of these tests known as the bioelectrical impedance test involves placing electrodes on the body, including your foot, ankle, wrist or hand. Electrical currents travel through your body and determine your percentage of body fat. Muscle contains more water than fat, meaning electricity is conducted at a different rate. This machine is non-invasive and offers fast results on the spot.
If you follow a cardiovascular program for 12 weeks, bioelectrical impedance may actually overestimate your muscle loss and underestimate your fat loss. The reason for inaccuracy is because the bioelectrical impedance machine is sensitive to your level of hydration.
Our body stores around 400-600 grams of carbohydrate in our liver and muscles, and the more lean muscle mass we have, the more glycogen we can store in the body. By definition, glycogen is stored carbohydrate which is used for water. Every gram of glycogen is stored with water. A strict diet with frequent exercise will cause the levels of glycogen and water to drop. The bioelectrical impedance units measure the amount of glycogen and water as lean muscle mass, which may actually appear as if you have gained fat simply because of changes in glycogen and water levels. If we also follow a high-carbohydrate diet for a few days, a rise in glycogen and water levels may cause your body fat readings to appear as you have lost fat. Although skinfold testing was similar to hydrostatic weighing, there are also several flaws.
Another popular method of testing body fat is through skinfold testing. This involves use a device known as calipers to measure the thickness of fat under your skin and estimate your overall fat percentage. Several different locations on our body will be measured before estimating an overall percentage of fat.
One of the most common errors in skinfold testing is that reduction in skin thickness during weight loss may differ in various sites. For example, fat may be lost quicker in some body parts, meaning an estimate of skinfold readings may be misleading.
Another error is that the readings of skinfold testing assumes that the distribution of fat stored under the skin and internally is the same for everyone. Other factors such as our gender, age and body fat levels mean different distribution in fat storage deposits throughout the body. Also, skin fat tests are unable to track internal body fat which means it can be unreliable to accurately measure overall changes in body fat. Skinfold testing uses different equations to estimate your body fat percentage, however the equations may not be equally valid for everybody
Body fat scales
Many different body fat scales exist to measure your body fat. These are widely used in sports centers or health clubs. Some scales may be purchased and used in the comfort of your home. You’ll come across scales, hand grippers or a scale with hand grippers for fat testing. Some of the popular brand names include Tanita and Omron.
Body fat scales highly depend on your hydration levels and will also yield the same errors as the bioelectrical impedance test. Another common error is that scales generate more dominant readings of the lower body whereas hand grippers are more dominant with the upper body. One example of this is that someone who stores fat in their lower body will notice a higher level of body fat if they measure themselves with a scale and a lower percentage if they use a hand gripper.
I have personally experienced MAJOR inaccuracies with body fat scales. I was measured in one of the biggest gyms in Singapore and the scale estimated me to be 25% (yikes!). A few weeks later, another scale predicted that I was 13%. What a major difference!
Hydrostatic underwater weighing – the most accurate measure of body fat to date
According to research, the most accurate measure of body fat is through hydrostatic underwater weighing. This test involves weighing you underwater and measures the difference in density between muscle and bone. An individual with higher body fat levels will weigh less underwater, whereas if you are lean with a high muscle mass, you will weigh more. The test is performed where the person is first weighed on land and then weighed underwater to measure total body fat levels.
Although this test IS accurate, not all sports centers will offer this and it is also very inconvenient to be dunked underwater on a weekly basis to track your measures of fat loss. There is no evidence (according to my extensive research!) of this test being available in Lebanon to date.
Choose one method of body fat testing and stick with it
The best way to track your body fat is to choose one method and stick with it. Although the readings may not be entirely accurate, if you keep measuring your body fat percentage with the SAME test, you should eventually notice it is starting to decrease. Don't stress over the numbers as they might not be entirely accurate.,
How can you track your fat loss progress?
Other than body fat testing, here are several other ways to track your fat loss results.
I believe there is no better measure of fat loss than how your clothes fit. Your jeans will never lie. Even if you feel like you are not losing weight, if you notice that your clothes are getting looser, this will be evidence that you are on the right track. This can also help you detect weight gain. If your clothes are getting tighter, it would be time to take control.
Another way to measure your progress is to measure the widest circumference of your arms, chest, waist, hips, inner thigh and calves. Write down your measurements and compare them on a weekly basis.
Take photos of yourself in shorts (for men) or in a bikini (for women) on a weekly basis and place them in a folder on a computer. Take photos of you from the front, side and back. When you compare your first week to your fourth week, you should notice visible changes in your body. Seeing physical changes in your body will be evidence that you are progressing!
The mirror and other people
Sometimes you will notice physical changes in the mirror. If you work really hard, you will even see changes on a weekly basis. The opinion of other people will also give you a clearer picture. If you haven’t seen someone in a month and their jaw drops when they see you, then you’ll be sure the fat really is coming off.
As you lose fat and get fitter, you should notice your energy levels are increasing. You will feel that you are stronger, can lift heavier and perform more intensive cardio sessions. For example, an overweight person might barely be able to run and may soon run for up to 20 minutes within the same month of progress.
Aim for slow and gradual results
Fat loss should always be slow and gradual in order to be permanent. Rapid fat loss will indicate loss of muscle and water and will almost guarantee you will gain everything back. Be patient, lose fat the right way and you can celebrate maintaining it for a lifetime. Expect to commit to hard work for no less than two to three months to see the most drastic changes in your body.