When people embark on a fitness journey, whether that be to lose body fat or gain muscle mass, the common tool to track their progress people use is how much the number on the scales changes over time. However, is this the most accurate way to track progress towards body composition goals? Just like most questions relating to health and fitness, the answer is- it depends.
The first thing to remember is that scale weight is the total weight of all the tissues in your body and not just muscle and fat. Therefore, it is not the most accurate measurement when it comes to measuring body composition. Other methods include skin fold callipers, a cheap tool which measures body fat percentage. However, despite its low cost, the skill needed to take an accurate measurement makes this a fairly inaccessible method of measuring body composition. The gold standard of body composition measurement in a DEXA Scanner. Although, this is a very expensive piece of equipment, only really seen in medical facilities due to its use in also identifying bone density and helping diagnose patients with osteoporosis. Due to other methods being inaccessible, scales are by far the most common tool used by the general population to assess progress in their body composition goals, so what can be done to ensure you are getting the most reliable and accurate changes to body fat and muscle as you can with scales?
Any tool is only effective when you know how to use it and scales are no different. Weighing yourself on Monday at 7am and then again on Sunday at 8pm will not give an accurate measurement for how your weight has changed over the course of the week, due to factors that will be discussed in this article. Therefore, if you are to use scales accurately, I would recommend taking daily measurements, first thing in the morning each day and then calculating the mean average each week and compare each week’s average from the last, to get a more accurate measurement of how much your weight is changing due to changes to fat or muscle tissue.
So, what factors can influence the weight on the scales besides from muscle and fat tissue? Firstly, there’s water retention. The amount of water our bodies hold will hold will change throughout the day, as well as day by day. Reasons for this include carbohydrate and sodium intake, which cause our bodies to hold more water- not add on fat tissue (a common misconception in, the case of carbohydrates, spread by the misinformed and keto zealots). Therefore, if your diet is more heavily carbohydrate based for a few days, then you may add some weight. However, this will be due to the added water retention from an increased intake of carbohydrates, not an added amount of fat tissue.
Next, there’s the amount of food you are currently digesting. First thing in the morning, is when you have the least food in your digestive system as it will have been 9-10 hours since your last meal. Therefore, food being digested cannot influence your scale weight, unlike if you weighed yourself shortly after a meal.
Besides from keeping these variables at bay, what else can be done to improve the reliability and accuracy of scales measuring body composition? Firstly, you could also use a measuring tape and measure your Hip to Waist Ratio. This is productive because most people hold the majority of fat around their Waist area. Therefore, if you are trying to gain muscle mass and you put yourself in a calorie surplus and put on weight, you may believe you are getting closer to your goal. However, if you take measurements are realise your Waist measurement is increasing at a faster rate than your Hips, then this indicates you are putting on fat faster than muscle mass. This information can then lead to you making productive changes to your training and/or nutrition.
Next, it’s important to ensure you are setting yourself up for success. One way to do this is to ensure you are consuming enough protein and tracking it. Ensuring adequate protein intake with a suitable resistance training programme and sleep will ensure that any weight loss will not be due to loss of muscle mass. Alternatively, when gaining muscle, will ensure you are adding as much muscle mass as you can in the calorie surplus you are in.
In conclusion, scales are far from perfect when it comes to measuring body composition goals. However, with the correct information, it can be a very useful tool to help you stay on track when pursuing your goals.