How Much Attention Should You Pay To The Scales?

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You only have to look across many magazines and the online fitness world to see that as a society and industry we are so often obsessed with weight and how much weight we can lose, or even gain for those focused on muscle growth… but should we be THAT focused on the scales?

What actually is weight?

To answer this I think it’s important to understand what weight actually is, and one thing weight does not always equal is fat. When we jump on the scale, that often terrifying number staring back us does not necessarily reflect body fat and the fact that it does not represent just body fat means that the amount of focus we place on scale weight should be put into perspective.

The number of the scale represents muscle, fat, bone, water weight, your internal organs and undigested waste, some of which can have a huge impact on day to day fluctuations in weight. For example it is common for a woman’s water weight to fluctuate over 5lbs over the course of the menstrual cycle and this is completely unrelated to changes in body composition. A person could have potentially lost 2 lbs of fat over the course of this phase of their cycle but the scales might be 3 lbs up on their previous lightest weight at a given time. Even a meal out that might have more salt than we are used to consuming could cause increased water retention of a good few lbs the next day!

Muscle growth

So weight alone is simply not the entire answer to map progress for weight loss and this is also the same for muscle growth. Muscle growth is a slow process; most people would be lucky to gain a few kg per year after they get their initially ‘newbie’ gains. Therefore, the scales can be a difficult measure of muscle growth because even if the scales are going up this doesn’t mean that it is always going to be muscle tissue being laid down… in a calorie surplus, we would expect some increases in body fat as well.

Increasing body fat is almost essential for most people to maximise muscle growth, to ensure we have enough calories and energy to fully support the process. We would therefore expect the scales to increase over time, however how do we know that this isn’t just unwanted fat and when we strip it off we’re not just back to square one?

Measuring Progress

Well, much like for weight loss, we need to take into consideration other more specific measurements. The most important one, in my opinion, is to assess improvements in strength across whatever exercises and rep ranges we train. Muscle strength is related to muscle cross-sectional area; if we are getting stronger then there is every chance you are building muscle because you are progressing the training volume and increasing the stress on the body week on week which is essential to keep forcing the body to adapt and grow.

If our strength stalls then we might look to increase our food or look at other ways to adjust our training volume, to ensure we keep encouraging hypertrophic (muscle building) adaptations. This is why a training log book becomes our best friend for building muscle because if we can ‘beat’ it week on week there’s every chance we’re building muscle too.

It is also important to note that for those looking to lose weight, body re-composition can take place. It is entirely possible to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, so again the scales can lie! This is especially true in the early stages when taking up resistance training as this can increase glycogen storage in muscles and lead to an increase in scale weight.

However, we do sometimes need to place into context the relative rates of fat loss and muscle gain. It is (unless you are an exceptionally genetically gifted individual) generally quicker to lose weight than gain muscle so for those who are trying to lose weight then the scales should, over time, start to shift in the downward direction.

For lean(ish) people trying to just take off a few extra lbs of body fat then the scales can become more problematic as a tool because at this point fat loss will be slow and muscle building can take still potentially take place in small amounts. It is in these situations that the scales MAY become less important and pictures and measurements become more important. Pictures and measurements should always be our major indicator of progress over scale weight in pretty much every situation.

Is this to say weighing isn’t important? No, scale weight is still an important indicator of progress but the notion that the weight on a specific day should define our success or failure and how we view ourselves is not what the use of this one metric should do. Some people may be better avoiding weighing altogether and stick to focusing on measurements, performance and other more subjective feelings of success such as are they feeling healthier and more confident.

A slightly controversial approach to weighing can be to weigh every day in an attempt to break the obsession with scale weight. This may sound counterintuitive but it can be of benefit for some people. For example if checking weight once a week or a month, any number of things could happen to influence scale weight (like we’ve discussed previously), which may not reflect true weight loss on the scale. However, daily weighing shows these fluctuations for what they are, fluctuations in water and waste, and then a person can look across periods of time to see that the scales are heading in the right direction and not focus upon the dreaded weekly or monthly weigh in day.

Whether a person chooses to weigh daily, or never, is really down to an understanding of a person’s own relationship with the scales, their goals and how best to approach how to measure progress. From my perspective weighing isn’t good or bad, it is one metric of many we can use to measure progress but the important thing is to understand the limitations of weighing and not let one number, that is influenced by so many factors, define success or failure in one finite moment of time.

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