28 Apr How to Track Fat Loss Progress
Do you remember doing science experiments in school?
Maybe not… but stay with me, this isn’t going to be a science lesson.
In a science experiment, you make a hypothesis, then test it out by collecting and interpreting data to form a final conclusion.
Your own fat loss journey is a science experiment.
You are the subject.
The hypothesis is that you will lose fat if you follow a particular diet and training program.
How do you make a conclusion that it’s working for you or not?
You test it by measuring your fat loss progress. This means collecting data about yourself, whilst consistently following your plan.
Data is essential! If you’re not collecting data then you’ll miss progress that you’re making and likely give up too soon. OR, you won’t know what you need to adjust, and by how much, when you plateau.
One of the most under-looked parts of a fat loss journey is the act of measuring progress and making adjustments. That’s why I’m dedicating this entire article to data- what you need to collect for tracking fat loss progress correctly.
Why you can’t just use body weight as a measure of fat loss progress
I wanna tell you a story…
The other day I weighed myself- I was the heaviest I’d EVER weighed.
It was totally unexpected. I’d just come back from a 6 day trip where I’d been deliberately eating in a calorie deficit the entire time. I was super accurate with my tracking so I knew this weight gain couldn’t be fat gain. But it still wasn’t nice to see such a high number!
The next day I weighed myself and I was 1.3kg lighter!
You CAN’T lose 1.3kg of fat overnight!!
You CAN lose that much water weight overnight.
Body weight fluctuations are NORMAL. Usually they’re a result of holding onto extra water. This can be for so many different reasons. For example:
- Eating a high carb meal the night before (this increases the amount of glycogen and water you store)
- Inflammation/ illness
- Consistent lack of sleep
- Water retention related to menstrual cycles (if you’re female)
In my case it was due to stress. I had been super, super stressed like never before in those days I was away. Stress causes cortisol to go up which can result in water retention.
The quickest way to stuff up fat loss is to only look at body weight as a measure of progress.
Yes, you want to see a downward trend in many cases, but not all. For example if you’re skinny fat and need to build muscle as well, then scale weight might not change at all during your fat loss experiment.
Body weight is important, but it doesn’t tell the whole story…
How to Measure Progress Properly
To measure fat loss progress properly you should be tracking:
- Body weight
- Body circumference measurements
- Strength and performance in the gym
- Progress photos and visual assessments
Let’s go through how to measure and interpret them all correctly.
Despite the normal body weight fluctuations you’ll experience by being human, you can’t just “screw the scale” if you want to make fat loss progress.
The key to using body weight as a reliable indicator of fat loss is to measure it daily and average it out over the course of each week. This allows you to see a trend over time. You should also take body weight at the same time each day (in the morning after going to the toilet is best), and make sure the scales are placed on a hard surface.
Body weight will fluctuate daily, but the trend over time should go in the direction of your goals:
– If the trend is going down, this means you’re losing weight (could be muscle or fat or both).
– If the trend is going up, this indicates weight gain (could be muscle or fat or both).
If the scale is not moving, it DOES NOT mean that you’re making zero progress.
It means that you need to do some investigating! It could be that you’re losing fat and building muscle at the same time. It might also be due to you being inconsistent with your nutrition plan. It could be due to stress or illness. Or, it could mean that no progress has been made.
To know for sure, you need to consider what else is going on, by looking at more data.
Body Circumference Measurements
When you’re losing weight, the aim is to lose primarily fat, not muscle. The best way to know which one you’re losing is to look at your body circumference measurements.
The most important measurements to be taking are your hip and waist measurements.
These should be taken weekly. I would take your waist measurement in three spots:
- Waist #1 (directly around belly button)
- Waist #2 (2 inches above belly button)
- Waist #3 (2 inches below belly button)
- Hip (measure around widest point of hips- around your bum)
If you want you can also measure other areas of your body which can be indicative of fat loss or muscle gain depending on your starting point:
- Chest/back (measure around middle of chest at nipple line)
- Arm (take it in middle of shoulder and elbow)
- Thigh (take it at the thickest point)
Your waist circumference is a great indicator of fat loss progress.
Generally, if your waist is decreasing in size then you’re losing fat.
This can be reassuring if body weight goes up unexpectedly like it did in my story. It’s also reassuring for skinny fat people who might not experience any change in body weight during a fat loss journey. In this case, waist measurement can provide proof that progress is still been made and help with motivation.
If body waist has gone up, it may not necessarily indicate fat gain- especially if body weight hasn’t gone up. It could be due to bloating and inflammation.
Strength and performance in the gym
This is one of the best ways to assess muscle growth!
Each time you go to the gym you want to make sure you are pushing yourself to increase strength in some way. Even if your goal is fat loss. Strength gains might be on one exercise in your workout or all of them. It could be by adding weight, adding reps, adding sets of decreasing rest time. It could also be by performing the reps with a greater range of motion, more slowly or with better form.
Muscle growth is a slow process and visually you might not see this for weeks or even months, especially if you’re not a beginner to the gym. That’s why it’s so important to follow a program and log your results as you do each workout!
Progress photos and visual assessments
All the forms of progress so far have been quantitative (number based), and can help you work out what adjustments are required in your plan. Progress photos are not great to base adjustments on, but they can be useful to see the quality of your progress. For example, scale weight might be the same, but progress photos may show that you look better as a result of increasing muscle mass and decreasing fat.
I think the most useful thing about progress photos is that they can provide a lot of motivation when you see changes that you weren’t aware of. As you progress, you’ll forget what you looked like when you started. Having photo evidence of it and comparing this to where you’re at now can help you realise exactly how much progress you’ve made, even if it doesn’t seem like it according to your other measurements.
Progress photos should be of the front, back and side of your body. You can take them monthly, or at the start of each new phase of your program. Make sure the lighting is good and that you have a similar set up each time you take them.
Now you can begin doing weekly check-ins with yourself to ensure that you’re progressing properly. This self check-in is vital for achieving fat loss and maintaining it.
Ideally you want to see change in one variable, whether that be strength, body weight, or body circumference measurements. Some weeks this change might be in the form of visual changes in your progress photos.
If none of these are changing for 3 weeks in a row then don’t stress! You can overcome this by checking out my article here on making adjustment to your plan.
Other Forms of Progress
The more progress you can learn to identify, the better you’ll feel throughout your fat loss journey. If you can say yes to any of the following, then congratulations- you’re making the type of progress that will pay off long term:
- Consistently sticking to your program
- Having more energy
- Feeling more positive
- Being able to go out and not feel guilty for eating a pizza
- Your clothes feeling nicer
- Having better sleep
- Having better digestion
- Not being scared of food anymore
- Not labelling food as good or bad (just seeing it for what it is)
- Improving your form in an exercise
- Being able to talk yourself into going to the gym when you don’t feel like it
- Maintenance – especially if you have been going to a lot of social events!
Why you don’t need to bother with body fat percentage measurements
Measuring body fat isn’t as useful as you might think, simply because the error rate is so high. Even if you use a DEXA scan, which is regarded as one of the most reliable sources of measuring body fat percentage, and even if you do it under the same conditions each time, there can still be an error rate of +/- 5%.
This doesn’t seem like much but when you look at the actual numbers it can totally distort the figures and make it seem like your body fat percentage has increased when in fact it has decreased. Or it can go the other way and imply you have lost a lot of body fat when in fact you haven’t.
For example say your actual body fat percentage is as follows:
Week 1: 20.6%
Week 2: 19.4%
Week 3 18.2%
Week 4: 17.5%
If you apply an error rate of +/-5% to each of these you could get something like the following results:
Week 1: 25.6%
Week 2: 14.4%
Week 3: 23.2%
Week 4: 22.5%
If you were relying on body fat percentage to measure your progress, these results could make you as disappointed as seeing the scale weight go up overnight. And, because DEXA scans cost money you’d probably be even more upset!
Whether you’re a science nerd like me or not, you need to be a scientist in your fat loss journey!
You can’t make a conclusion without tracking data. Even if you’ve tried a diet in the past and you had some success with it in terms of your physical appearance, if you weren’t tracking data then you won’t know why it worked, or what parts need adjusting to keep moving forward when you hit a plateau. For more info on overcoming plateaus, make sure you check out my article here!