Josh Hillis: How to Gauge Weight Loss Progress

Excerpted from Chapter 10 of Fat Loss Happens on Monday.

Gauging progress in a weight loss program is always a touchy subject, and for good reason. How you choose to gauge your progress determines how you’re going to treat yourself, and whether or not you’re going to be happy or sad about the changes to your body.

In the same way society and the media didn’t teach you how to train well or eat properly for results, they also didn’t teach you how to correctly gauge your progress.

Let’s start at the most obvious spot—the scale. The scale is both deified by the public as the ultimate measure of success, as much as it’s demonized by ‘enlightened’ trainers everywhere. Like everything, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Here’s a simplified way to think of it: scale weight equals calories consumed and bodyfat percentage equals the quality of food . . . we know exactly what the scale means. Barring terrible hormonal issues or metabolic syndromes (if you have these issues you need to see a doctor), if the scale is too high, you’re eating too much.

Where this starts to get fuzzy is this: Most women assume the scale is too high when it isn’t. A woman who strength trains will probably be about 10 pounds heavier on the scale than she looks. All her friends will think she’s 119 pounds when really she’s 130 pounds—or whatever . . . you get the idea.

This doesn’t happen just some of the time, this happens all of the time.

This leads into the muscle versus fat conversation.

1) Fat is the part that’s jiggly. It takes up more space per pound than muscle does. That’s why extra fat makes you look so much bigger.

2) Muscle is the part that’s lean and tight. It takes up less space per pound than fat does. That’s why people who have muscle look toned.

There is no long, lean muscle versus big, bulky muscle. There’s just muscle or fat, and you get to choose which one you want more of.

Skinny Fat and the Matrix of Fat versus Muscle

It should be obvious that the goal is to add muscle and not gain fat. But still, there are plenty of women who got sold on the super old-school ‘muscle is bulky’ idea. And hey, everyone thought that back in the ’90s—it’s not just you. But now we know better: There’s only muscle or fat.

There’s nothing magical called “toned” that is somehow neither of those. Likewise, we don’t have “long, lean muscle.” Muscle is lean. Fat is bulky. If someone isn’t long and lean, it’s because of fat.

The toned look most women want is just less jiggly fat and more firm, tight muscle.

And for guys, this is why it takes so long if you want to get huge and jacked: Muscle takes up so little space. It takes a few pounds of muscle to take up the space a single pound of fat would have taken up.

Please, I Beg You, Learn from these Clichés
When you see someone who looks hot, remember that looking hot means more muscle and less fat.

But people still don’t get it. The most cliché thing in the world is a woman who’s completely skinny fat, and thinks she needs to lose five pounds. In reality, she doesn’t need to lose weight—remember the skinny part of skinny fat? The reason she doesn’t look hot is because even though her scale weight is low, it’s all fat and no muscle. The only way she can get the lean and toned look she wants is to gain a little muscle.

The second most cliché thing in the world is the guy who’s 50 pounds overweight, but says he needs to go on a muscle-gain program. No.

He’ll look more muscular if he loses fat.

Girls always think the answer is to lose weight. Guys always think the answer is to gain muscle. Newsflash, again: The answer is in the middle for both of them. They both need the opposite of what they think they need if they want to look hot.

Measuring Progress
Let’s talk about measurements. Measuring your progress is something that’s key to coaching yourself. If you measure your progress correctly, it can be a window into how well you’re tracking.

Tracking your food journal is going to tell you everything you need to know about how to become strategic about the future—what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong.

There are three things we track in terms of the results we’re measuring.

  • I want you to measure your scale weight.
  • I want you to measure your bodyfat percentage, and I’ll explain why in a minute.
  • I want you to measure your circumference measurements with a tape measure—waist at the belly button level, hips at the biggest spot.

My preferred interval for taking all of these measurements is three weeks. In fact, I’d like for you to rotate through these measurements. One week measure your scale weight. The next week measure your bodyfat percentage. The week after, measure your circumference measurements. Then, start over with the first measurement.

A lot of people freak out when I talk about scale weight. On the flip side, there are a lot of people who are invested in scale weight more than they should be. My whole perspective on scale weight is that it’s probably the least important measurement.

But scale weight does tell a story. It tells you, ‘How much did I eat this week or this month?’ or whatever interval you’re measuring. It tells you, ‘In this time interval, did the quantity of food—the calories—go up or down?’ That’s important to know.

Because the scale tells us about quantity of food consumed, it can be useful in terms of clarification about the numbers we get from the other measurements.

The next measurement is bodyfat percentage. I am a big fan of caliper measurements. If you can have someone else do it for you, I like the Durnin and Womersley method of caliper bodyfat measurements.

If you’re doing it yourself, you can do the one-site measurement at the iliac crest. If you’re doing it on yourself, instead of going to where the iliac crest is located, just go to the biggest or fattest spot on the belly. You won’t be getting an accurate bodyfat percentage, but you’re getting the most accurate measurement of your progress.

Essentially, you’re just getting a millimeter number. If that number goes down, you know something good happened. If it goes up, you know you probably did something that was not effective.

That’s how I like to measure bodyfat percentage. Even if you’re doing the Durnin and Womersley method, I still like to get a measurement on the biggest or fattest spot of the stomach. It’s not because it contributes in any way to an estimate of bodyfat percentage, it’s probably the best way to track progress in that area.

Here are a couple of other thoughts about the caliper measurements:

  • If you aren’t used to doing this or you’re not really good at it, take each measurement three times and averaging the three. I always take the stomach measurement three times and take an average because it’s the most important. It’s also the hardest to get an accurate number.
  • The next thing about bodyfat percentage, especially with calipers, is take the result with a grain of salt. There are a lot of things that can mess this up. It’s a measurement that is majorly prone to human error.
  • Even without human error, the results can be weirdly mercurial. Sometimes people can eat something and have a bad reaction and it will gauge weird. When you’ve just worked out, your skin might be a little too “tough.” The fat literally will not be as slippery and it will gauge a little fatter than you normally are.

I don’t stress too much about the bodyfat caliper test, but it’s something I like to have. Just don’t use it like it’s the absolute truth; use it to see how things are trending over time.

If everything is rocking, we can see a three-percent bodyfat change from month-to-month. If things are semi-rocking, we usually see a two-percent bodyfat change. If we see a one-percent change or less, there’s something missing. We’re doing something wrong in terms of quantity or quality, or possibly the ratios are contributing to this—or possibly the lack of preparation. We go back into the food log. We look for a strategy of what we can alter in the future.

If you want a really accurate bodyfat measurement, I’m a big fan of the DEXA scan. If there’s a hospital in your area with a bone density wing, you can often get a DEXA scan for about $75. It’s something worth looking into and is probably the most accurate bodyfat test available.

The last measurement is a really cool measurement because it’s one of the easiest to get correct. It’s hard to mess up the circumference measurements. With the circumference measurements, you basically just use a tape measure, wrap it around yourself and get a measurement.

When I worked at 24-Hour Fitness, we started at the top and worked down. We did the neck, biceps and wrists (although I don’t know why we did the wrists.) We even did the forearms. We did the stomach at the belly button level. We did the hips—basically the biggest spot around the butt. We did the thighs seven inches up from the knee. We did the calves as well. This would be one way to do it.

If you want to go a little more minimal, you can get a pretty good idea of what’s going on from just the stomach and hips. Typically, we measure the stomach right at the belly button level. We don’t go for the natural waist, which is the smallest spot, because that isn’t where we store fat, so that’s not as useful. If you’re on the leaner side, the belly button is a good landmark for measuring your belly. If you’re bigger, just measure the biggest spot.

Think about it like this: Whatever the biggest spot is, that’s the spot you want to reduce, so that’s what you should measure.

With the hips, we’ll go around the butt at the biggest spot.

The most important thing with all these measurements is not to think of the measurement as the truth, but that you are measuring it with some degree of accuracy to track changes over time. You then get some information to work with to see if things are trending better or worse.

Remember, bodyfat percentage is always going to be the quality of food, plus the quality of your workouts. Scale weight is always going to be quantity of food. Circumference measurements are probably the best combination. Circumference measurements are great because they even everything out.

Scale Weight: Quantity of food you eat (calories)
Your Bodyfat Percentage: Quality of food you eat and how strong you are
Circumference Measurements: Combination of quantity and quality of food

That being said, I never take any of these measures as the absolute truth.

One of the reasons that I like getting all three is because you’re going to get funky measurements sometimes. Sometimes you’re going to get a measurement that doesn’t make sense. Don’t stress about it! Just hang out. Wait a week and take the next measurement.

Then you can check in: Does this next measurement say the same thing as the last measurement?

If you get two measurements that say you’re losing fat, believe them! If you get two measurements in a row that say you’re gaining fat, believe them!

If you get two measurements that don’t agree, hang out for a week and take another measurement. Go with the two out of the three that agree.

  1. If your bodyfat percentage measurements are all over the map, but your scale weight and circumference measurements are going down, you’re losing fat. You just suck at taking bodyfat percentage measurements.
    2) On the flip-side, if your scale weight is staying the same, but your bodyfat percentage and circumference measurements are going down, that means you’re gaining muscle and losing fat.
    3) Now this should be obvious: If everything is going up—scale weight, circumference measurements, and bodyfat percentage—you’re eating too many calories.

In general, the measurements are either telling you things are working or things are not working. If we get one measurement where things aren’t working, I don’t typically stress out at that point unless the food journal is a total mess, and then I’ll know things aren’t working.

However, let’s say we’re doing everything right. The food journal looks great. You’ve been honest in the food journal. The quantity is right. The quality is right. The ratios are right. Everything is cool.

If we get a crazy measurement that makes it look like things aren’t working, I don’t stress out that first time. I wait another week and take a look at the next measurement. If the next measurement says things are still going backward, then I’ll start taking a look. If it looks right in the food journal, then maybe the food journal is not accurate, and we go from there.

I just don’t want you to break down into tears when you’ve done everything right, but when you measure that week, it comes back that you gained fat, your scale weight went up or that the circumference measurements are up. For whatever reason, sometimes things just don’t measure correctly that week, but that’s okay. Just look for the trend over time. You want the trend over time to be going the right way. In general, you want most of the measurements going the right way.

This is the biggest thing to understand about measurements. Really look at the measurements. It’s like a grade, but on any one day they can be wrong. However, over time they are the law. If over time everything is trending in one direction or the other, you’ll know that things are either working or not working.

Regardless of what you may perceive to be the right amount of food or enough quality of food, the measurements over time will let you know the reality.

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