Exactly How You Should Measure Your Progress When Trying To Lose Fat
It was a breezy Sunday afternoon and I found myself with a cider in hand, chatting to my friend about a client of mine who recently underwent an impressive transformation. Of course, with he himself wanting to lose some pesky belly fat, he asked,
"Well, what did he do?"
"His secret?" I answered, "He wrote everything down."
If you are serious about making progress you must be tracking the key areas of your body, training, food and feelings.
Tracking doesn't mean stepping on the scale every day and freaking out about your weight increasing by 100 grams. It can be a little more methodical than that, and today you will read those exact methods.
There are a few main reasons you must keep track of different areas of progress:
The scale is a liar
It can be your best friend one day and worst enemy the next. Weight fluctuations happen daily due to a variety of reasons and the scale should never be the only tool in your arsenal.
You can tell if you're on track
It's important to know that what you're doing is in line with where you want to be.
You can tell if you're getting stronger
As the Spartans said, "appearance is a consequence of fitness.” Increasing your strength, muscle mass, endurance and physical capacity is the method you take to transform your body. Consistent improvements in fitness will lead to improvements in your image.
The data tells you the whole story. It knows if you've been slacking and knows where you can tighten up.
What gets measured get managed
You can never KNOW if something works unless you measure it, you can only GUESS.
But make sure you don't measure too much, too often. You never want to get caught up in the measurements, becoming OCD with numbers flying at you from everywhere, like serious Rainman stuff.
You want to be able to take a step back and notice the discernible difference from the last time you measured or to see the trend over time.
Like with training, progress must be tracked consistently.
We are going full inception here. Measuring progress is in itself a form of progress.
The act of measuring in and of itself makes you more aware of your decisions.
Convinced this is what you need to be doing?
Good! Here's how.
Click here to get your 'Ultimate Progress Tracker' document to easily track everything in this article and start making progress today.
You and Your Bod
As I stated above, the scales lie, but they still give you a valuable piece of data being 'how heavy you are right at that particular moment'. By itself, one measurement isn't very important, but when you compare it to the 10 measurements before, it becomes interesting. You can see a trend!
Above is my own weight, bulking over the winter and then cutting down for summer. You can see for yourself the fluctuations (sometimes 2-3 kilos between weight ins) but it's the trend that matters which let me know what was happening over time.
Weigh in every 3-4 days, in the morning before food, after the toilet, in the same pyjamas (or butt-naked).
Even better than the scale is the trusty tape. Even if the scale isn't moving, using a tape to measure the circumferences of body parts can let you know if weight is shifting from the less desirable places to the more desirable.
Measure every 4 weeks, attempting for similar circumstances. You want the circumference of 9 key areas:
Chest (nipple line)
Right arm (tensed up in a bicep pose)
Left arm (same)
2" (3 fingers) above belly button
2" below belly button
Hips (widest point)
Right thigh (standing up and tensing)
Left thigh (same)
Body fat %
Another very good tool in your toolbox to ensure progress is in the right direction. Even if nothing else is budging, body fat measurements will be able to (find out) if you are putting on muscle and losing fat (which is ideal!).
A couple of options here are:
Handheld/standing scales - the least accurate as they rely on sending an electrical signal through your body which is heavily influenced by your hydration status among other things.
Body fat callipers - having someone experienced at using callipers will give you a better estimate at your current body fat level. This still has a margin of human error and is usually accurate to + or - 3%.
DEXA scan - the most accurate and also the most expensive.
Body fat measuring rules
Measure every 6-8 weeks, attempting for similar circumstances.
As opposed to a mirror, photos offer a greater degree of detachment and the opportunity for you to see yourself in a new light. Most of the time during body transformations, progress is slow and you may not notice the changes in the mirror. Snapping pics will give you an objective look at the change in your body shape (as well as something to be proud of in the future). Below is me at 96kg and then at 92kg - arguably looking bigger.
Take a photo from the front, side and back every 4 weeks. Try and use the same lighting and distance from the camera for accurate comparisons.
You and Your Training
There are a couple of ways to measure progress in your training, but the single best thing you can do is keep a log so you always know what you did in the last session, 6 weeks ago or even a year ago.
Tim Ferriss (Author of the 4-hour Body) is an intense training log keeper. He is able to look at a former picture of himself and decide he would like to look like that again, and then go into his training logs and see exactly what he did to get in that shape.
The weight on the bar is an obvious way to see progress. A month ago you only bench pressed 60kg for 5 reps and today you did 70kg for 5 reps? That's progress!
Another way to see progress is looking at your training volume. Either the reps at a certain weight you can do or the amount of sets you do at a certain weight. Last week you squatted 3 sets of 6 with 90kg and today you did 3 sets of 7? That's progress!
This refers to the amount of work done in a certain amount of time. Did you do the same weight, sets and reps on the lat pulldown as last week but only rest 60 seconds between sets instead of 90 seconds? That's progress!
Otherwise known as the rate of perceived exertion. This is how hard you feel like your body is working. Use a scale of 1-10 and rate each exercise. It looks a little like:
10=no reps left in the tank - last was a grind!
9=one rep in the tank probably
8=two possible more reps
7=could have done roughly 3 more
As you can see, it's purely subjective but can give you good feedback to where you're sitting strength-wise. Two weeks ago your deadlift set was a 10 and this week you feel it was an 8? That's progress!
Training log rules
Using a paper diary, phone notes, excel sheet, or the numbers app on apple products (what I personally use) you want to record these 4 variables.
Sets and reps
The more information you have, the more chance at seeing progress you have.
This also gives you plenty of room to improve as now you don't always have to progress by adding weight to the bar. Now you can also add another rep to each set, add another whole set, decrease rest times between sets or even attempt to lift the same weight with better form for less perceived effort.
You and Your Food
Measuring food intake ain't so fun, but if you're serious about any body composition progress, then it's pretty damn important.
Are you aware of how many calories you are eating on a daily basis? If not, you really have no idea what you are putting into your mouth and it becomes a guessing game to whether you will lose weight or not.
The most important thing to remember is:
You can't out train your fork.
You can get away with sub-optimal training if your diet is on point, but if you're consuming too many calories day-by-day, weight loss won't occur, no matter how much training you do.
Tracking your food
Tracking what you eat isn't actually that hard, it just requires a little effort on your end.
I would never tell you to track your food forever. It's just not an exciting lifestyle. You only need to do it for 3-5 days or until you feel like you know how to proceed. Calorie tracking is used mainly for two reasons.
1. For knowledge.
Most people eat the same few meals over and over again. If you are aware of the calories these meals contain you will always have a good idea of how many calories you are at for that day.
2. For when progress stalls.
Ever gone on a diet, lost a few kilos over a few weeks, and then it suddenly screeches to a halt? What do you do in that situation? You reassess how many calories you are consuming and make the necessary adjustments. How? By tracking your calories.
Every single calorie counts. Now, a strong reminder here. The handful of liquorice bits from the work jar, that small slice of Sally's choc-fudge birthday cake, the 3 Tim Tams you snuck in with afternoon tea and the half bag of Doritos you had watching Game of Thrones. IT ALL COUNTS.
I know exactly what you're going to say next. "Writing everything down is a pain in the ass." Luckily, technology is on your side, with apps like myfitnesspal or websites like fitday.com making it laughably easy.
You can just check out my post on calorie counting here - which also shows you how to use myfitnesspal.
It doesn't really have to be 100% perfect but tracking your calories to the best of your ability for even just a few days can be an extremely eye opening experience.
Just write it down.
Food tracking rules
Track your food intake (every single calorie) for 3-5 days straight and compare your calorie intake to what it should roughly be to lose weight.
Use tracking to learn the calories of your most common foods so that you can have an idea of your daily calories in the future.
Do this at regular intervals or whenever progress stalls.
You and Your Feelings
One last thing you should keep track of is how you are feeling. Measurements here are again subjective but can let you know how you are doing in relation to your current life situation.
There are 3 areas which you should keep a note of:
Every 2 weeks rate your perceived sleep, stress and fatigue from 1-5 (with 5 being terrible).
Being able to take a step back and look at your situation can be a nice reminder that progress doesn't need to be made quickly or even week to week consistently.
Have you stalled on the same body and training measurements lately but sleep, stress and fatigue have jumped from 2 to 5? You better believe you're smashing it! Most people would go backwards in this mentally draining period.
My first thought after writing this article was,
"Yeah, that's a lot to track, I'm not doing that."
And I still agree, it definitely seems that way. Some people can easily take this to the next level and start tracking anything and everything. That's not the goal. The goal is to track measure what needs to be measured at regular intervals in order to manage progress.
But anyway, let me do a quick breakdown:
Often - every training session, weight every few days
Every 2 weeks - feeling
Every 4 weeks - tape measurements and pics
Every 6-8 weeks - body fat % (or when you feel you want an update)
When needed: Food tracked for 3-5 days straight and adjustments made where necessary.
Seem reasonable? I believe so.