As you’ve probably noticed, there are 2 very opposing camps when it comes to tracking your progress.
One believes that scale weight is everything and that we should be measuring it every day, without fail.
The other believes that scale weight is a lie and never tells the full picture. The common advice from this group is to focus on other measures of progress to avoid the emotional rollercoaster that can result in looking at a dancing number every day.
I wanted to address what we think and how we approach scale weight in our own training and with our clients because our system has served us and worked for years with 1,000s of people.
First, I want to clarify something. I’m a big believer in the old adage “what gets measured, gets managed”. To some people, the approach we advise may come across as restrictive and neurotic but we consider our approach to represent a cluster of simple tasks that, when consistently performed, facilitate the flexibility and mental freedom that so many people seek and crave while trying to balance fat-loss with the rest of their lives.
The approach we recommend for tracking lag indicators (evidence of progress or lack thereof) is really very simple but it does of course require a small amount of consistent, daily effort.
Track your morning scale weight every day and track a 7-14 day average.
Whether we like it or not, scale weight is one of the few opportunities we get with health and fitness to look at a cold, emotionless piece of data. Yes, there are factors that affect scale weight which we don’t care about or that don’t represent what we’re trying to influence but this is PRECISELY why we NEED to measure every single day.
There are three attitudes you can take with scale weight:
a. Weigh in every day under comparable conditions
b. Weigh in with another frequency (weekly, monthly or when you fancy it)
c. Ignore the scale
Option c is akin to saying, “I don’t like looking at my bank account, I just paid my bills and haven’t been paid yet”, ok…that may be the case but it doesn’t change the reality of the situation.
As an overly simplistic way of looking at this, we can think of scale weight as being impacted by two factors: recurring change and persistent change.
Recurring change is anything that we don’t accumulate or deplete linearly. This can include subcutaneous or intra-cellular water, glycogen, undigested food and yes, you guessed it….poo. All of these factors influence what you weigh but they will not move your weight in one direction linearly. If you believe this to be the case then you have far more pressing concerns than reading the rest of this article, seriously.
Persistent change therefore is anything that we’re trying to influence, broadly speaking this is fat mass and muscle mass.
So, if we weigh ourselves every day and look at an average over time instead of one isolated number, we start to spot the trend and pattern caused by the underlying persistent change, instead of the daily fluctuation that can be driven by the recurring factors. Most people have a relatively consistent schedule week to week and this means that an average weight for 10 days or a fortnight tends to be very comparable to another period of the same length.
And suddenly, as if by magic, we can get an objective measure of our progress!
A guide to managing your weigh ins
Hopefully from the above you’re sufficiently convinced that morning weight is a valuable variable to measure. Precisely because of this, it is extremely important to ensure that this is as accurate as it possibly can be.
As I’ve explained above, there are quite a few factors that can make your scale weight higher or lower than we’d otherwise expect and we need an approach that minimises this. Here is the approach that I suggest to everyone we work with:
Develop the habit of weighing yourself first thing in the morning. I’ve been doing this for 5-6 years now and I still have days where I forget. Establish this as a habit so that you weigh in as many days as possible. Set a reminder alongside your morning alarm and make it a priority to weigh in every day.
Weigh in after using the toilet (if needed) and before you drink or eat anything. Remember, 1L of water weighs 1kg. When you consider this, you start to appreciate how much factors like this can affect your weight.
Aim for a comparable time. As an experiment, try weighing yourself at 7am and then again at 8am (not eating/drinking in between) you’ll notice that your scale weight has dropped in just that one hour window. Every minute that you’re alive and not consuming fluid/food, you are dropping weight via different mechanisms. The key thing to remember is that the number on the scale ONLY means something when held in the context of other comparable numbers. To improve this comparison, weigh in at the same time as much as possible.
Consider the night before. If you eat/drink later or earlier than normal, this will affect the number on the scale each morning. I’m not suggesting that you start to live like a robot, just that you should be aware of and consider these factors.
I recommend that EVERYONE who is interested in managing their diet in any way at all keeps track of the following numbers on a daily basis:
Morning weight (kgs/lbs)
Time weighed in
Notes relevant on the day
In the notes column, I would mention or note any of the following:
Meals eaten on that day which were different than normal – at a restaurant for example. A change in sodium balance will have a notable impact on scale weight and if we are looking to explain a change in weight, factors like this matter.
Hunger, mood and energy levels. All three contribute to the decision of adjusting calories.
Adherence and accuracy. Often your perceived accuracy doesn’t match reality. To develop your skills as a dieter, it’s crucial to improve how accurate you PERCEIVE your tracking to be versus how accurate it is.
To many people, this will seem neurotic and overly complex. A lot of people have no interest in the above approach but see no problem in only eating 9 foods in rotation or following a strict meal plan.
I perceive keeping a daily log of the above variables as the minimum effective dose implementation that allow you to be flexible when it really matters. When you can view your weight change over time at a moment’s glance and determine by how much and WHY your weight has changed, it is incredibly easy to make decisions about what’s working and what isn’t.
When you can take a bird’s eye view like this, you start to worry much less about the odd untracked meal, eating our or drinking alcohol (for example) because you can view progress from a high level rather than being caught up in the day to day flux.
What happens if I gain muscle in a calorie deficit or lose fat in a calorie surplus?
Of course, you could ask what would happen if you gain muscle in a calorie deficit of lose fat in a gaining phase. I’ll start by outlining that apart from a few very unique populations, this is rare. However, we do use other measures to account for this (covered in a later article)
What happens if I don’t need the toilet when I wake up? Should I wait until after I’ve been?
In short, no. Some days you’ll feel nature calling and some you won’t, don’t overthink this and don’t worry about it. Weigh in at the same time each day as often as possible and remember that you don’t linearly accumulate poo. These things will all come out in the wash eventually…
My scales keep giving different readings when I weigh in a few minutes apart, what gives?
Scales can break and of course, it would be useful to know whether or not the number we’re recording is accurate or not. What I like to do is weigh a full 2L bottle of water 3 times on a scale. As 1L = 1kg we should get a constant reading of around 2kg. If not, a new set of scales are in order.
I weigh myself each morning and forget to make a note, anything you’d suggest?
This used to happen to me all the time when I started weighing in daily. I’d make an effort to weigh myself and them immediately jump in the shower and get ready for work. Before I realised, I’d forgotten what the number was.