Why the scale misleads you (and what to do)

written by Philip Stefanov  |  MARCH 8, 2022

If you’ve ever tracked your body weight consistently, you’ve likely noticed that it tends to fluctuate for no good reason. You step on the scale one day, see a value, step again a couple of days later, and you’re suddenly three lbs heavier.

As such, you can probably appreciate how frustrating it can be to track your progress based on weigh-ins. But what else can you do?

Why Weight Fluctuates (And What You Can Do About It)

There are numerous reasons for weight fluctuations. For example, consuming a bit more sodium than usual can cause you to retain some water and see a temporary weight gain. Similarly, going through some stress or not sleeping well can lead to elevations in cortisol, the stress hormone, causing you to retain water.

Even under normal circumstances, your weight will likely fluctuate, but there are two things you can do:

  • Don’t put too much stock in any given weigh-in. Accept it for what it is and move on with your day.
  • Weigh yourself multiple times per week (but only once per day), calculate the average, and compare from week to week. A single weigh-in can be skewed, but the trend will be much more accurate over the weeks, even with weight fluctuations.

Two Alternatives to Weigh-Ins That Can Give You Even More Information

1. Progress photos

Progress photos are an excellent way to track your visual changes, regardless of your primary goals. The reason is that we see ourselves in the mirror daily, and it can be difficult to spot changes. But, by looking at ourselves from weeks or months ago, differences become more noticeable.

We can also combine progress photos with other tracking methods for more in-depth data. For example, let’s say that you weigh yourself frequently and take progress photos every few weeks. If weigh-ins stall but you see yourself getting leaner on progress photos, it means that you’re on the right track.

Progress photos can also keep you honest during a gaining phase. Too many trainees believe they are gaining mostly muscle, even when their gaining rate exceeds several lbs per month. Taking photos consistently and comparing how your body looks can show you if that is true or if you’re simply getting fat.

The best way to use progress photos is to take an initial set where you use various poses. Then, take pictures of your front, back, and side every two to four weeks and compare. Ensure accuracy by taking photos in the same light, at the same time of day, and using the same poses. Ideally, you should take poses in the morning, on an empty stomach, and while standing in front of a window. You should also avoid taking selfies. Put your camera on a stand or chair, or have someone photograph you.

2. Circumference measurements

Circumference measurements are the second tactic you can use for data, and they work exceptionally well when combined with weigh-ins and progress photos. The idea is to take a simple tape measure and determine the circumferences of key body areas:

  • Upper arms
  • Chest (at nipple level)
  • Two fingers above the navel
  • At navel
  • Hips
  • Thighs

You should wrap the tape measure snugly, but not too much, as that can compress fat tissue and show an inaccurately low reading. When measuring areas where the tape goes behind your body (such as your chest), be careful not to let the tape get twisted, as that can also impact your readings.

Always take the measurements at the widest point to ensure accuracy (e.g., bicep peak), write your results down to 0.1 of an inch or centimeter, and repeat the process every two to four weeks. In addition to progress photos and weigh-ins, these measurements will provide you with even more useful data.

For example, let’s say that your weight has stalled, but your progress photos show that you’re leaner and your waist circumferences continue to decrease. In that case, you can confidently conclude that you’re still moving forward and shouldn’t change course.

Thank you for taking the time to read! Until next week,


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