This article is a go-to reference guide for any hard training male or female wanting to understand the truth about weighing on the scales and why it should never be considered the sole indicator of one’s body composition progress.
It will give you a better understanding of the multiple factors that affect body weight and why you shouldn’t get too hung up when your weight plays games on the scales.
I also wrote this article with personal trainers in mind. I’m sure there isn’t a week goes by without a client complaining about what they see on the scales? If you need to, please feel free to reference this article and save yourself the daily/weekly monotonous task of explaining what the scales are playing at…
You’ve trained hard and eaten well all week.
You’ve caught the odd glimpse of yourself in the mirror, smiled and said ‘this is really starting to pay off. Your clothes feel looser and in general, your family, friends and colleagues all comment on the great changes you’re making.
However, besides all this, you’ve one BIG FEAR
Regardless of any positive changes you make, scale weight dominates your mind.
What will they say this week?
Have I made progress?
Have I wasted another full week of my time, effort and money?
From an early age, we’ve been trained to idolize the scales as a measure of health and fitness progress.
I’m sure you relate to some if not all of the following?
Think about it.
Everything is focused on bodyweight – no wonder so many of us worship the scales.
Are they really that important?
Don’t get me wrong scale weight can be important but it should never be considered the sole measure of your fat loss or muscle building progress.
I’ve lost count the amount of times I’ve had to reassure clients and even myself that is the case.
Before anyone embarks on a fat loss journey they automatically anticipate their bodyweight to drop steadily from week to week without fail.
Rarely is this the case!
It usually goes something like this:
1. Start a program,
2. Lose a few lbs.
3. Weight plateaus
4. Drops a few lbs. again
5. Weight goes up
6. Head goes – diet over…
You’re not alone.
From my experience with 100’s of clients I very rarely see a person’s weight drop in a linear fashion.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the reasons why…
Exercise helps you drop weight right?
It most certainly does as it increases energy expenditure and places us in a calorific deficit (the biggest factor in determining rate of weight loss).
However, different forms of exercise result in different effects upon body weight and body composition.
For theory’s sake, lets take two scenarios using two genetically identical twins who could do with shedding a few pounds. Both individuals are placed on a well-balanced maintenance diet that supply’s an adequate amount of protein, carbohydrates and fat.
The only variable that differs is the type of training they do. Both individuals are relatively new to exercise in the first place.
The individual starts following x4 60 min weight-training sessions per week.
The individual decides to ditch the dumbbells and perform regular low-intensity cardiovascular exercise instead at x4 60 min sessions per week.
Both cases would technically place the individual into a calorie deficit; based on the fact the extra activity will increase their energy expenditure above and beyond that of their original resting state.
Fat loss will occur in either case.
However, the end ‘weight loss’ and proportions of ‘what’ is lost between the two cases will very likely differ.
To explain this better, lets fast things forward a month and review what kind of results could be expected.
The client’s weight stays exactly the same. Weight watchers may as well stop reading from this point onwards… (I’m kidding)
Consider the purpose of weight training?
It not only burns energy but stimulates the growth of new proteins (inclusive of muscle) through a process called protein synthesis, provided there is an adequate nutritional intake of protein consumed in the diet. This is simply an adaptive response to accommodate the imposed stress that regular weight training provides.
Theoretically, the end result could be a loss of 1lb in body fat with a gain of 1lb of lean body mass. The scales now show a jaw-dropping fluctuation of 0lbs!
Findings like this are also common in the research. A prime example would be the work of Bhasin et al for the New England Journal of Medicine (7) who investigated the effects of supraphysiological (beyond natural) doses of Testosterone on muscle size and strength in normal men.
After 10 weeks of resistance training the placebo exercise group (non-assisted) showed an increase in fat-free mass (~1.9kg – as assessed by underwater weighing). On average there was no significant change in body weight.
The idea of training for 4 weeks and losing nothing has sent many of us into a spiral of anxiety and depression. In fact, many of us feel like giving up!
However, you can be rest assured there will be an extremely favorable aesthetic change in one’s physique!
Lb. for lb. Muscle is denser than adipose as it contains a lot more water (1) Furthermore, muscle is more metabolically active than adipose and so a loss of fat and a gain of muscle will lead to an increased requirement for food energy to maintain your weight.
Increased levels of strength not only indicate an improvement in skill development (motor control) of performing a specific exercise but also indicate the gain of new functional muscle tissue and its associated counterparts. (2)
As a result, visually, you will appear leaner and see a notable improvement in muscular shape and size provided your diet has been kept in check. However, the only way to quantify the changes in your body composition (loss of fat, increase in muscle for instance) are to have your body composition assessed – see later in the discussion.
The client loses 3 lbs.
The individual is performing an activity that places a completely different mode of stress on the body. There will be a minimal increase (if any) in protein synthesis, meaning the chances of increasing muscle mass are considerably less.
The tendency will be much more toward cardiovascular adaptions such as increases in maximal oxygen uptake, capillaries, heart size, blood volume and a decrease in resting heart rate (3)
As a result, there is a greater shift towards the loss of both fat and lean body mass hence the greater weight drop.
Provided your diets in check, the type of training you do (on average) will have a profound effect on how quickly or slowly your drop body weight.
Weight/resistance training will increase lean body mass and as a result, you may expect to see a slower drop on the scales compared to following a program primarily based on cardiovascular based exercise.
To highlight my point on how training habits can influence body composition.
Check out this great visual representation of two identical twins from Finland, one a weight lifter, the other an endurance runner. The link to a summary of the study can be found in the references section. (8)
Here’s another great example of a female client who made the switch from a cardiovascular dense training regime to that more focused on weights resistance training. The difference in a year speaks for itself.
Women are well aware of how their menstrual cycle can affect body weight. And science has defined this relationship really well (9)
In my coaching experience, many of my female clients report regular weight fluctuations of 3-8lbs across a typical cycle. This can prove annoying, but every female understands and is aware of the temporary physiological side effects/changes associated with their menstrual cycle.
Any weight gain will show up on the scale. It’s not body fat, simply excess fluid retention associated with the cascade of hormonal events (9)
In fact, the whole process costs energy and can in fact serve to increase energy expenditure (1)
No wonder during times of prolonged calorie deficit or ultra low body fat does the entire process shut down to preserve energy. This is known as amenorrhea, a common side effect as part of the female athlete triad, which also includes a reduction in bone density and close association with eating disorders. (3)
The best approach is to anticipate your weight gain and simply accept it’s a temporary side effect of an entirely natural process. Don’t panic!
The contents of your bowels are easily overlooked when stepping on the scales.
I’ll not go into specific details, but the average excrement can weigh anything from 1-3lbs, never mind partially digested food that’s still making its way through the digestive tract.
The next time you sit down to a meal, pick it up and feel how heavy it is. My last meal Steak, Potato and Salad (Pictured below) weighed a whopping 800kg/1.7lbs (excluding the plate). Also, note certain foods become heavier when cooked in water (think rice, quinoa, cous cous, oats and potatoes etc.)
Consuming this meal (never mind fluid intake) would instantly increase my bodyweight. If I didn’t go to the toilet for 12-24 hours the scales would tell me I’ve put on weight.
I always have clients weigh fasted first thing in the morning after a bowel movement (if possible). This is a simple but very important way of increasing the accuracy of a weigh in, instead of weighing at random times throughout the day.
Carbohydrates are stored in three places within the body; Muscle glycogen, Liver glycogen and the blood. Excess carbs are then converted to and stored as lipid in adipose tissue. Glycogen is osmotically active (it holds onto water) and therefore an increase in muscle and liver glycogen will lead to an increase in muscle and liver water content and therefore weight. (2)
For every gram of carbohydrate stored there is an associated 3-4g of water stored alongside. Therefore, if your diet is predominantly carbohydrate based you would see significantly more glycogen related water retention than that of someone following a lower carbohydrate approach.
Just look at the large initial weight drop that occurs when someone transitions from a regular high carb diet to that of a low carb/Keto diet. The resultant loss is simply down to the loss of glycogen and associated fluid. If you were to reintroduce carbs (even whilst keeping calories in check) you would see weight gain. It’s not body fat its simply water, classified as lean body mass.
Research suggests an average loss of 400g of glycogen equates to over 1kg of non-fat associated weight loss. (10) You thought that 1kg was all fat – no…
Additional work by Bergstrom et al (11) was able to show that after 3 days following a low carb diet, glycogen stores dropped by 33%. However, after a few days eating a higher carb diet glycogen stores doubled to more than twice what was normal before the diet (super compensation) As you can guess, this would have resulted in weight gain (not fat gain). Therefore, you could argue carb cycling diets can cause large fluctuations on the scale independent of changes in body fat levels. Something to consider the next time you weigh yourself after a reefed or carb dense cheat meal…
In the physique and bodybuilding world we can see a clear difference between someone who has depleted levels of muscle glycogen as a result of going low carb compared to someone who is ‘carbed up’. The individuals on the higher carb intake show increased muscle fullness compared to that of the individuals following a lower carb approach.
Seemingly those who follow a low carb/ketogenic approach will often include short periodic re-feeds of carbohydrates throughout their diet. Their purpose is to replenish training fuel (muscle glycogen), stimulate metabolic rate and also provide a psychological break from dieting. (5)
Gains of 5-10lbs after a carb up can be expected. The amount of weight gained is highly dependent upon; how depleted you are, the amount of carbohydrates and duration they are consumed over.
Even though bodyweight can spike after the reintroduction of carbs, it is important to realize the majority of weight gain is a shift in water balance towards the creation of glycogen (stored carbohydrate) and digestion of carbs in the gut.
Are you drinking enough water and taking in enough salt?
A severe decrease in water intake and the essential electrolytes specifically sodium can increase the production of a hormone called aldosterone within the kidneys.
Aldosterone’s functions are associated with the maintenance of water and electrolyte balance within the body by regulating blood pressure and blood volume. (2)
When water or sodium intake is low for a prolonged period of time the kidneys increase the production of aldosterone, which stimulates sodium reabsorption, and by extension water retention. People who exercise regularly and consume a protein rich diet have increased hydration needs. (3)
In layman’s terms changes in sodium intake and excretion through exercise can alter water retention. Which as you already guessed, can alter bodyweight independently of changes in fat mass, rendering scale weight, slightly inaccurate.
Another simple explanation of weight gain is simply down to what you drink across the day. Let’s say you weigh first thing in the morning after perspiring all night and using the toilet.
It’s pretty obvious that your bodyweight will be lighter first thing in the morning in contrast to a few hours later when you’ve maybe eaten a few meals and guzzled a few liters of water.
Yes, this sounds fairly obvious, but too many people fail to comprehend the weight of food or fluid they put into their body when assessing themselves on the scales.
A 2-liter bottle of water weighs close to around 3.5lbs. If you drink that in one go does that mean you’ve gained 3.5lbs of weight – Yes, Is that weight fat? Not in the slightest. The average weight watcher will fail to take something this simple into account and subsequently begin stressing over nothing.
This is the main reason I don’t have clients weigh in the middle of the day after a full day’s eating and drinking.
How Much Water and Salt Do I Need?
The amount of water and salt we need is highly individual.
Many of us have been led to believe that salt (sodium) is an unhealthy addition to one’s diet. However, its essential to consider the context in which it is added.
If you are classified as overweight, inactive and consume a diet rich in sodium-rich processed foods adding extra salt may not be the best idea.
On the other hand, if you exercise regularly and consume a diet naturally low in sodium you may benefit from adding a good salt to your meals to help restore what is lost during perspiration.
Celtic Sea salt is a personal favorite of mine due to the fact it provides a broad range of key essential minerals above and beyond that of regular table salt.
When stressed we activate the sympathetic branch of the central nervous system, otherwise associated with the fight or flight response.
This system is responsible for a host of important physiological changes that ensure survival, most notably increased levels of stress hormones (corticotrophins – adrenaline, cortisol etc.), speeding up of heart rate, inhibition of reproductive organs, fat mobilization, protein breakdown, diversion of blood flow away from the digestive tract toward the working muscles and increased mental clarity for action and reaction! There is a host of other actions I could list, but I’m sure you’re getting the point already.
Once activated this system shuts off the other branch of the central nervous system, known as the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for resting, digesting and breeding.
Problems arise when we live in a sympathetic state for prolonged periods of time. People who are highly strung, going through extreme emotional stress or over doing their training are prime examples.
Over production of various key stress hormones like cortisol will result in a host of metabolic abnormalities ranging from poor Leptin signaling (the hormone that governs metabolic rate), chronic inflammation (the root of a lot of chronic disease) right through to increased fluid retention. (3)
Clinically speaking Cushing’s syndrome is a prime example of abnormally high cortisol levels. One of the main side effects of this condition is severe fluid retention and hypertesnion. (6)
So there you have it, another factor contributing to a potential increase in scale weight, leaving users even more stressed, which as you can guess adds to the problem even more! The typical response is to train harder and stress more. Talk about the stressful situation of weight loss…
As hard as it may be, chill out! Stress is self-harm!
There is a wide range of medications that result in increased fluid retention. Anti-Depressants, Birth control, and other hormone related drugs are some of the biggest culprits.
The water retention side effect of each drug will differ from person to person. Educate yourself on what you’re taking and respect additional weight gain (from fluid) may be an expected side effect.
Here are three other simple factors that are often overlooked when weighing.
1. If you weigh on carpet your weight will be lighter than normal.
2. If you hold onto something whilst weighing your weight will be lighter
3. Take off heavy clothes and heavy items out of your pockets before weighing.
4. Watch someone doesn’t have their foot on the scales whilst you weigh.
Of course, there will be inter-individual variations to all of the factors I’ve listed above.
Based on my coaching experience over the years. I see the most consistent weight drops with morbidly obese clients (unless they’ve deviated from the plan). Generally speaking, I find these individuals drop quicker and smoother than leaner folk.
There is a lot of excess fat and edema (fluid retention) that will happily leave the body once their old lifestyle of being inactive and eating to excess is replaced with more physical activity and healthier lower calorie food options. Improved self-perception and the associated reduction in stress will undoubtedly benefit their fat loss.
In this scenario, more consistent weight drops are expected.
The scales should never be considered the sole indicator of your body composition progress.
In order to provide a more accurate evaluation of your body composition progress correlate changes in body weight with other key measures. My personal preference (in order) is visual assessment, tightness/looseness of clothing, waist circumference, DEXA scan and then skin folds. There are other methods for practicality and ease of use I advocate the above.
Please note, each of these measures has their pros and cons. You can increase accuracy by measuring at the same time of day, using the same piece of kit, same qualified practitioner and also same lighting/mirror/camera/third eye (coach) if visuals concerned etc. But bear in mind that like the scales, most methods of body composition assessment are also susceptible to changes in body water content, so carb cycling, sodium manipulation and changes in hydration can give erroneous results.
Visual assessment always trumps a set of stats especially when improving body image is the main goal. As the saying goes the mirror is your best friend.