There are many ways to measure your success with any fitness program. Many people become too focused on one or two "numbers" and can become frustrated when they don't see positive results from their hard work. More often than not, they are simply looking in the wrong place! There are many factors that can illustrate your progress, and many ways to measure each factor. This article will discuss several ways to measure your success!
A picture is worth 1,000 words. Many people do not realize that the mirror lies. Even after reaching ultra-low body fat and taking control of my life, I still see a different image in the mirror than what a picture can show me. We live with ourselves every day, and our self-perception is shaped by many factors, most of them psychological. So when you look at the mirror, you might not see the changes that you are looking for!
Taking a picture every few weeks can add a level of objectivity. When you place two pictures side by side, it's hard to miss the changes that are taking place. You can see the fat melting off or the muscle slowly accumulating, and remain satisfied that you are maintaining the shape that you want. I invested in a digital camera a few months ago, and the investment has paid off in a big way.
I use my digital camera to chart my progress every week. When I would become frustrated because I felt I had gained maybe a little too much fat, the pictures were able to provide the proof I needed to know that I was headed the right direction.
Before and after pictures are very important in any transformation. Many people refuse to take "before" pictures because they are so out of shape and are either embarrassed or simply do not want to share these pictures with anyone else.
Keep in mind that the only person who has to see these pictures is you. You might regret not having a "memory" to refer back to once you reach your ultimate goals—I do not know many people who don't keep their "before" picture close at hand to constantly remind themselves where they came from to help focus on where they're going.
When you are trying to lose fat or gain muscle without gaining substantial fat, there is no tool superior to a skinfold caliper. A skinfold caliper measures the thickness of a "pinch" of skin. Skin is very thin—only a fraction of an inch—so when you pinch a fold of skin, any thickness beyond that fraction of an inch is subcutaneous fat (fat stored beneath the skin). A skinfold caliper can measure this fat and help provide clues to your progress.
Notice that this section is not about body fat. I will address body fat calculations later. You do not have to perform a body fat calculation to measure your progress! I am a prime example. Once I lost a substantial amount of fat, I stopped storing fat in certain places such as my chest, triceps (back of my upper arm), thigh, and even my suprailiac, or above my hip ("love handles"). In fact, the main place I was keeping those last stubborn pounds of fat was the one where I least wanted it—my stomach!
By keeping track of my umbilicus skin fold (a vertical pinch of skin just one inch to the side of my belly button) I was able to track my progress. For example, with my most recent photo shoot, my skinfold at my umbilicus was 13 mm several weeks out. I had to lower that measurement to around 8-9 mm in order to take my professional pictures.
Instead of having to worry about my body fat, I could simply focus on that measurement. Now I know that to get back into "picture" shape, I simply need to drop enough fat to bring that skinfold measurement down to 8 - 9 millimeters.
Body fat is another great indication of progress. There are many methods of testing your body fat, and all have their pros and cons. Anyone who is extremely overweight—over 30% body fat—will most likely not get an accurate reading using most methods. There are methods such as water or hydrostatic weighing and the "Bod Pod" (shown to right) that try to assess body fat by analyzing volume. These methods are considered fairly accurate, but can be prone to their own errors.
Bioelectrical impedance, such as hand-held devices or body fat scales, measure body fat by passing a current through your body and are also great for watching trends in body fat. Skinfold calipers are considered the gold standard - inexpensive yet fairly precise—and become more accurate as you lower your body fat.
Keep in mind that, like all other measures of success, body fat should be used as a tool and nothing more. Many people become obsessed with a "number" for body fat, and there is no reason to! 8% body fat is not necessarily healthier than 12%—and for women, 8% might even be unhealthy! Instead, body fat can be used to gauge your progress.
If you are 12% body fat but feel like you are in the best shape of your life and love how you look, why worry about becoming any leaner? Conversely, what good is 8% body fat if your ultimate goal is to see your abs, and they still are not visible?
Many people focus on changes in "lean mass" with body fat. When you take your body fat percentage and multiply this by your weight, you compute pounds of fat.
This is how much fat you are carrying. When you subtract this from your total weight, you have a measurement called "lean mass". Lean mass is NOT just muscle tissue—it is everything but the fat in your body. While this includes muscle tissue, it also includes your skeletal structure, other tissues in your body, the contents of your stomach and even water.
Just because your lean mass increases by 5 pounds doesn't mean that you gained 5 pounds of muscle tissue—you could just have easily accumulated that much water weight or have that much food in your digestive system! Conversely, it is rather common to lose a substantial amount of water weight when you begin a new nutrition and exercise regimen. A rapid loss of 5-10 pounds of weight is not necessarily muscle mass—it could easily be water being flushed from your system, and while this is a change in "lean mass" it is not a change in muscle!
So what is a good way to gauge muscle change? My favorite method is a combination of pictures and tape measurements. I know if my body fat stays about the same, but my arm measurements go up, I am probably gaining muscle mass there!
When you lose body fat, you typically lose it around your abdominal area. Taking an accurate tape measurement can help you gauge your progress. If this measurement is decreasing, you are losing fat! Many people use clothes (pants size or dress size) as their "ruler" for fat loss.
You can buy a pair of pants that are slightly too small for you, and try them on frequently. As nutrition expert Keith Klein recommends in an article of his, if you are on track, you will slowly begin to fit into those pants more comfortably!
One key ratio from your measurements will certainly help you gauge your progress, and this is the ratio of your biceps measurement to your waist measurement. I take them both flexed. Let's say your flexed biceps is 16 inches and your waist measurement (with abs flexed) is 32 inches. This is a 2:1 ratio (2.0).
As long as this number stays the same or is going down, you should be gaining muscle and losing fat. For example, if you end up with 17-inch biceps and a 32- inch waist, the ratio drops to 32:17 or 1.88 from 2.0. If, on the other hand, your waist stayed the same but your flexed biceps diminished in size to 15 inches, the ratio would become 32:15 or 2.13. This would imply a loss of lean mass or increase in fat.
Many people are told to avoid the scale. While this is good advice when beginning a program, it can be an invaluable tool for continued fitness.
Any person beginning a new exercise and nutrition regimen is likely to experience dramatic changes in scale weight. It is common to lose up to 10 pounds the first week as excess water is flushed from the system. People are often encouraged by this rapid loss of weight, then become frustrated as the rate of loss slows.
Furthermore, a beginner is likely to accumulate muscle mass at a much faster rate than someone who has been training for some time. This means that the scale weight will drop more slowly or not at all—if you lose 3 pounds of fat, then gain 3 pounds of muscle, the scale won't move at all—but you are making progress!
There is a limit to how much muscle your body can gain in a short amount of time. It is more than likely that you will not gain more than 10 pounds of muscle even when beginning a 12-week transformation program. So if you have 20-30 or more pounds of fat to lose, it stands to reason that the scale weight must go down! The scale can help you "fail fast" by recognizing if you are not progressing and making adjustments up front.
When I was over 245 pounds, I could easily drop 5 pounds of fat and not "see" the difference. I had to lose 65 pounds of fat to reach my "target" weight, and there was no way I would be gaining 65 pounds of muscle! So I knew that the scale had to go down, and I would adjust my portion sizes accordingly—if the scale stopped moving, or even headed in the wrong direction, I knew that the portion sizes had to be decreased to continue my progress.
When you are gaining muscle, the scale is an important measure as well. If you track your skinfolds and/or body fat, then the scale can tell you if you are accumulating lean mass.
By keeping skinfolds and body fat relatively constant, but gaining scale weight, you know that you are increasing lean mass. Some of this will be water weight, but in the long run, it is a great indication, along with the tape measure and photographs, of progress.
Keep a diary! Your progress is important. When I am discouraged because I'm stuck at a certain weight on my bench press, I can refer to a journal entry from 1 ? years ago when I could barely lift half the weight that I can now! Strength is important. While an increase in strength doesn't directly correlate to an increase in muscle mass, it is a good indication that you are progressing.
I keep detailed journals of every workout. I make sure that in each workout, I lift at least one more repetition or a heavier weight than the previous one. This lets me know that I am progressing.
Strength is not just limited to the weight room. You have cardiovascular strength as well! If you could not even run a mile one year ago, and now run 3 miles with ease, your heart is certainly stronger! That is great progress—even if your physique is not where you want it to be, celebrate the fact that your health and fitness level have improved!
Many people become so focused on the outside that they forget what's going on in the inside. In less than one year of exercising and eating clean foods, my resting heart rate dropped to 48 beats per minute from 60.
A woman I know with high blood pressure lowered that to a healthy, normal level. I have a good male friend who cut his cholesterol and triglycerides in half, while reversing a liver condition, after only half a year of exercise and proper nutrition!
Every healthy food you eat and every ounce of sweat you expend with exercise will take you a step closer to your peak physique. When you feel you are not progressing, remember that there are many tools you have to gauge your progress. Some changes happen on the outside, but the most important changes happen on the inside—a true transformation is inside-out! So the next time you become frustrated, take a deep breath then step back and measure your success!