Six Ways The Scale Doesn’t Always Tell The Full Story

Six Ways The Scale Doesn’t Always Tell The Full Story

The scale isn’t the be all and end all of progress.

27 Jul 2017

Mindset Beginner
10 Mins


No matter how many articles, pictures or videos we see about how we shouldn’t weigh ourselves, or how progress shouldn’t be monitored by the scale, how the scale should be called the ‘sad step’, the fact is, you’re still going to use it.

You probably weighed yourself this morning, right?

We all do it; it’s built into us. Especially if health and fitness is a priority in our life and we like to track our body’s response to all the training, diet and cardio we’re putting it through.

There’s nothing wrong with the scale. It works. But what the scale isn’t, is the be all and end all of progress.

It’s just another tool (like body fat percentage, circumference measurements and progress photos) that supplies us with data. Your weight doesn’t and shouldn’t define you.

Some trainers advise their clients never to get on the scales or label it with a negative name, but this only further perpetuates the issue. Instead, as trainers we should be educating our clients as to why they are having fluctuations, and that it’s perfectly normal.

To those trainers that advise their clients never to get on the scales or label it with a negative name – you’re perpetuating the issue. Instead, you should be educating your clients as to why they are having fluctuations and that it’s perfectly normal.

Sometimes It Doesn’t Always Tell The Full Story.

You might have had the perfect week nailing your training, diet and cardio 100% and the scale has gone up a pound? What gives?

The six reasons below should give you some insight as to what causes these fluctuations, and that if you step on the scales with a slight increase, you’re able to step back, apply logic, know that it’s normal and continue to stick to the plan.

1. Time Of The Month

This is obviously one only applicable to women, but it’s an important one so we’re going to start with it.

We always tell our female clients that around their time of the month, DON’T weigh yourself. Hormone fluctuations in the 3-5 days leading up to your period can make you retain up to 3-5 pounds (sometimes more) of water, making the scale a completely false representation of your current body composition.

The reason this happens is because of the hormone progesterone. When there’s no baby (so you have your period), progesterone levels fall and as a result, your kidney processes less fluid through urine and your body retains water as a side effect.

2. Muscle Mass Changes

One thing we’ve both seen over and over again is clients recomping to the point their weight stays the same but their body fat is a LOT lower.

This is especially applicable to people who are coming off lay-offs, new to serious training and dieting or just going through one of those awesome 3-4 week blasts where the body is firing on all cylinders.

We also see the other end of the spectrum in new female clients who have done poorly executed crash or extreme diet plans, where they lose a lot of weight very quickly, assuming it’s all fat. If your diet isn’t optimised and you’re not training heavy, this fast weight loss could be more muscle than fat, which will probably make you look worse than you did 10 pounds before.

3. Constipation

When you’re dieting hard and getting into lower levels of calories and body fat, you’ll probably have days when you’re ‘backed up’.

Normally, we like to suggest weighing yourself upon rising before water/food and after using the toilet. But if you wake up constipated don’t be surprised if the scale increases above the norm.

As calories get low, this may happen more often, so it’s key you’re using strategies to keep yourself regular.

Our favourite ones we recommend to all clients are
  • Stay hydrated – aim for 3 litres if you’re a woman, and 4 litres for men.
  • Keep up fibre intake – things like Psyllium husk can work if you’re already ticking the boxes with your veggies intake. The psyllium husk swells and produces more bulk to the stool, as well as increasing the speed of passage of your stool through the digestive track. Take 1-2 teaspoons a day for best effect.
  • Senna extract – if you’re backed up for a while, it’s probably to give your system a little assistance with a senna product, which is a natural laxative made from the leaves and fruit of the senna plant.

4. Sodium

Increasing sodium in the diet can cause fluctuations in the scale through water retention.

This doesn’t mean sodium is bad, because we need it for proper cellular and muscular function. But if your body is not used to a specific sodium intake, it will hold water from the increase.

Your body’s response to sodium will depend on your habitual intake. If you’re used to consuming 3,000mg a day, and one day you decide to change the condiment you use and it goes up to 4,500mg, your body may respond by holding onto water.

This doesn’t mean you gained body fat; it’s just shifts in fluid that makes the scale an unreliable tool to use that day.

5. Stress And Cortisol

This isn’t the typical ‘stress makes you fat’ line (when usually it’s to do with the mindless eating you do when stressed). This is for those of you who are in big calorie deficits and high training/cardio volumes for prolonged periods of time who need to just back off.

After a while, the cortisol response with the deficit / training volume combined can lead to masked fat loss on the scale. This is due to cortisol binding to the same receptor as a hormone called aldosterone. Aldosterone’s primary role in the body is to retain water/sodium.

Hence when someone’s body is truly stressed due to the reasons mentioned above, they end up retaining water and increasing their scale weight.

If this sounds like you (it’s always better to have an objective eye decide this), then you probably just need to reduce your deficit, cut back on training/cardio chill out and sleep more for a few days.

I remember having a client who was absolutely nailing everything with her training, diet and cardio. But, she also worked as a full time lawyer too with ridiculously busy work schedule, along with high stress cases.

This, coupled with the extreme deficit we had to employ during the latter stages of prep led to her bodyweight ‘sticking’ – despite visually looking sharper.

What we did was actually counter-intuitive during a dieting phase; I asked her to stop all cardio, skip training for two days, increase her calories temporarily and go relax in a spa for a couple of nights.

From the Thursday morning to the following Monday morning – she dropped 6lbs.

6. Flights

If you’re a regular traveller for business or pleasure, it’s always best to avoid weighing yourself the day of or after travelling.

Because of the change in air pressure and the inherent slight dehydration you’ll get from it, you’ll probably retain some water. When coaching our City clients, we try to avoid doing measurements in the day of or after a business trip, for this very reason.

How To Use The Scale To Your Advantage

Aside from some of the examples above, the scale can be a very useful tool in measuring your fat loss. It’s one of the few measurement tools we’ll use with every one of our clients (along with tape measurements, performance in the gym and pictures).

This is because for the most part, the scale will give us the required feedback to make the decisions needed to drive you towards your goals.

If you’re pushing hard towards a deadline and have ten pounds to lose, we’re going to assume you’re training hard and heavy, your protein intake is optimal, your sodium is consistent, and that any scale changes (besides time of the month and possible irregularity) is as a result of fat loss.

To best monitor scale weight, it’s wise to weigh yourself regularly at the same time of the day. For women, 3x a week is probably the minimum, given the amount they can fluctuate day to day. From here, you’ll want to take a weekly average and use this as your feedback tool, rather than looking day to day.

If you take a look at the graph below, you’ll see that your weight can fluctuate day to day, but as long as the overall trend is going down, you’re on track.
(Credit for photo: Phil Learney from his Ultimate Cutting Guide)


Becoming educated on the different ways the scale can be affected can alleviate a lot of the stress and frustration that many of you feel if you have a ‘bad week’ on the scales, despite a great week in the gym and kitchen.

The scale isn’t always telling you the full story, so the more you can become in tune with your body to learn how it reacts to certain changes, e.g. increased sodium intake, the better you’ll be able to interpret your day to day scale readings.

As always, if you have any questions or thoughts on this, please don’t hesitate to ask us.

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