So you’ve started a new workout program and the first few weeks went great, then all of a sudden the scale stopped. Or worse, it went up! Your friends reassure you that it’s just muscle. Muscle weighs more than fat, so don’t worry. But… How do you know?
In a perfect world, we would all have access to body fat testing or personal trainers to measure our body fat. The reality is that most of us don’t, so we end up guessing or listening to friends or the internet. There is no 100% foolproof way other than expensive professional testing to tell if you are in fact losing fat and gaining muscle, but there are things to keep in mind.
- If you are only doing cardio, you most likely aren’t gaining muscle. The purpose of cardio is to burn fat and strengthen your heart. It is not known for its muscle building properties. If you are only doing cardio and the scale is going up, you are probably overeating. Don’t rely on cardio machines to guess how many calories you’ve burned. They can overestimate by as much as 30%.
- If you are strength training and your measurements are going down or your clothes are fitting loser, then you may be gaining muscle and losing fat. A pound of muscle weighs the same as a pound of fat obviously, but the muscle takes up less space when filling out your clothes. It’s hard to tell the ratio of muscle gain and fat loss without testing, but you’re probably moving in the right direction if your clothes are fitting better and you are measuring smaller.
- If your weight jumps up suddenly by a few pounds in a week or fluctuates wildly, then most likely it’s mainly water and not all muscle. It is nearly impossible to gain that much muscle in a short period of time. The same rule applies to losing muscle. Fluid retention comes and goes based on the time of month, what you’ve eaten, and other factors. Huge scale jumps or large fluctuations without a food binge of thousands of calories is probably mostly water.
As you can tell, much of progress is trial and error to figure out what works best for you and your body. The scale is just one way to gauge progress and shouldn’t be relied on as the only way to tell if your program is working. Use the scale combined with measurements, progress pictures, and the fit of your clothes in combination to get a more accurate picture of your results.
Try to take an objective look at these tools along with what you’re eating on a daily basis. Also think beyond these things. How do you feel? Do you have more energy? Are you feeling stronger, happier? The benefits of a fitness program sometimes can’t be measured in the obvious ways.