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.

Akash Vaghela Akash Vaghela · 27 Jul 2017

Mindset Beginner
15 Mins

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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 coaches we should be educating our 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, your weight WILL fluctuate and go up despite doing everything correctly. 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.
 
This occurs due to the increasing levels of progesterone (which is the dominant hormone throughout the luteal phase) impacting aldosterone in a way that causes more water and sodium to be retained. This is why many women feel bloated and swollen throughout certain areas of their body throughout this time.
 
The key takeaway here is to understand that it’s completely normal. In fact, you can still be losing fat throughout this time EVEN if the scales are saying otherwise. Remember, the increase is from water weight, NOT actual fat mass.
 
A lot of advice out there tells women to avoid the scale completely during this time but from what we have seen with our own clients, the women who continue to weigh themselves during this time and understand what is going on, feel a lot more empowered and less down on themselves. 
 
Is it still frustrating to see? Definitely. But with the right knowledge and understanding, you know that it will pass soon enough and nothing in your plan needs to change.

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 doesn’t contain enough protein 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.
 
This is also why we encourage our clients to keep track of their waist measurement along with pictures as they may be seeing big changes there with relatively little change on the scale. For an extreme example, check out Minal who was the EXACT same weight in both of these pictures.
Over time, the scale weight should be coming down throughout a fat loss phase but don’t be surprised that it doesn’t move as quickly as you would like despite seeing massive changes in the mirror.

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.
 
Selecting foods that offer the highest volume per calorie will not only help with keeping you fuller for longer, but can also aid in keeping your bowels regular as most of these foods are also high in fibre and/or water.
 
Even those on very low calories can be still be including a good amount of fibre by incorporating foods such as:
  • Pumpkin
  • Squash
  • All vegetables
  • Sweet potato/potato (skin on)
  • Oats
  • Air Popped Popcorn
  • Lentils/Beans
  • Berries
In contrast, if your diet is made up of protein shakes, rice, rice cakes, oils, nuts and fatty meats then we highly recommend removing all of them to make room for the above mentioned foods. 
 
On top of that, try incorporating this morning routine.
  • Wake up half an hour earlier than usual.
  • Consume between 500-750ml of lukewarm water with a pinch of salt and squeeze of a lemon.
  • Have a strong black coffee (if tolerance allows)
  • Go for a brisk walk 
The combination of the warm liquids, caffeine, lemon and salt can really stimulate the digestive tract to start contracting and encourage movement of waste through the system while the walking just amplifies it even more so.

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. 
 
This is also the main reason your weight increases the morning after a meal out, despite you making the best choices available. Even though the meal you consumed would have been perfectly suitable from a calorie perspective, the amount of sodium, MSG or other compounds that are used to enhance the taste of said meal can have an impact on your scale weight.
 
Luckily, just getting back to your regular meal plan and exercise routine the following day should see the scale weight come back down just as quickly.

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) but instead, it’s quite common to hear that dieting increases cortisol levels which in turn, lead to excess water retention. But is this really true?
 
Interestingly, the weight of the evidence simply doesn’t support the notion that dieting or caloric restriction in and of itself increases cortisol levels. A study done on female physique competitors who lost an appreciable amount of body fat over the course of 16 weeks demonstrated that cortisol levels remained very stable throughout, despite other hormones such as thyroid, estrogen, testosterone and leptin taking a noticeable hit (which is to be expected).
If dieting did increase cortisol levels substantially, we would definitely see it in this specific population who are female, doing a lot of activity and following a calorie restricted diet. 
 
Considering most of you reading this are not going to be physique competitors preparing for a show, looking at your overall stress load from other things such as work, relationships and sleep will have a much more profound effect on water retention than eating more and/or doing less. 
 
Granted, temporarily increasing your calories and doing less activity may provide a psychological break which can then transpire into better sleep, improved mood and overall better dietary adherence. This may show up as a loss on the scale but in reality, you are not losing any fat during this time and on top of that, are using a short term fix (more food) to mitigate your stress.
 
On the contrary, if you could achieve those exact same outcomes without increasing your overall food intake, not only will you continue losing fat but you would also realise that there are things you can do to manage your stress that doesn’t involve food. We have written more about this topic here.
 
So what does this mean for you practically? If you follow the principles from our MNM curriculum and are following the plans we have given you, it’s not the diet that is the issue. 
 
Focus on improving your sleep, incorporate more relaxing activities, do some yoga, have some sex, listen to your favourite music, spend more time with loved ones and watch that scale start moving again!
 
*Caveat: This is not to say that increasing calories and dropping activity doesn’t work for mitigating stress/excess water retention as it’s one of the strategies we utilise when peaking a client for a photoshoot.  But this is for a specific event where the goal is no longer fat loss and we are aiming to bring the best looking physique for one specific day
 
For anyone outside of that situation, the chances of a weight loss stall due to doing too much/not eating enough are extremely minimal!

6. Flights/Shift Work

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 on the day of or after a business trip, for this very reason.
 
If you have had to swap to night shifts for a certain period of time, then your scale weight readings are going to be very off for those specific days. Continue tracking but similar to the menstrual issues mentioned above, understand that it’s not a reflection of your body composition but more of a result of you holding more fluid.
 
The body does NOT like change, especially when changing time zones. You “literally” do this when flying but the same physiological effects happen when you drastically change your circadian rhythm.

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. 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)

Conclusion

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.
 
If there is ONE key takeaway from this article, it would be that as long as you are doing everything with 100% accuracy (eating everything according to plan, no extras, no eyeballing, etc) you WILL be losing body fat even if the scales are not showing it immediately. 
 
In fact, there will be weeks where you may see nothing happen on the scale for days on end and then all of a sudden, a massive drop overnight. When I’m cutting, this is exactly my pattern of loss and we have seen it with many others.
 
Trust the process, continue being 100% adherent, take all of the above into consideration and learn to work with the scale, not against it.
 
As always, if you have any questions or thoughts on this, please don’t hesitate to ask us.
Akash VaghelaAkash Vaghela

Akash Vaghela has spent 10+ years transforming bodies and lives around the world, and in May 2017, founded RNT Fitness to serve this purpose. His vision is to see a world transformed, where ambitious high performers experience the power of the physical as the vehicle to unlock their real potential. He’s the author of the Amazon best-selling book Transform Your Body Transform Your Life, which explains his unique and proven five-phase methodology, is host of the RNT Fitness Radio podcast, has been featured in the likes of Men’s Health and BBC, whilst regularly speaking across the world on all things transformation.

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