by Matt Weik
When you want to achieve the best results possible with your health and fitness, you need a way to track your progress. Sure, you could look in the mirror and use what you see as your way to measure, but seeing actual numbers is the best way to check precisely how well (or not) you’re coming along. In the mirror, you have no true comparison—it’s simply you at the moment. This article will show you some great ways to see how you’re progressing.
A great way to figure out if you’re heading in the right direction is to take measurements from different sites on your body using a tape measure. Now, this doesn’t mean go out and pick up a Craftsman utility tape measure as if you’re going to cut lumber, they make specific tape measures that are pliable such as an alteration tape measure where it can bend with your body and give more precise readings. Use sites such as the upper arm, shoulders, chest, back, waist, hips, thighs, and calves to help understand where you are either losing body fat if you’re cutting or putting on muscle if you are bulking.
I have a love/hate relationship with scales. While they give you your weight, they can’t take into account for water weight, lean muscle mass, bone mass, etc. You could jump on the scale and have lost body fat and gained lean muscle, but the only thing it will tell you is that your weight increased. Sure, they have the body fat bathroom scales that some people use to see exactly where weight fluctuations came from, but they are generally way off the mark when it comes to accuracy. It’s also common to lose weight and put on muscle and have the scale tell you there’s no change yet you know you’ve been busting your hump all week and stuck to your diet without any cheating. So, take what the scale says with a grain of salt regardless of the model you have.
I will say this though, and that is if you have a body fat scale, it’s still good to use it and use it as a baseline to tell if your body fat is going up or down. While the percentage might be off, at least you’ll get an idea if you’re truly losing body fat during your cut or if you’re maintaining your current body fat percentage while going through a clean bulk. It’s best to use a body fat scale at the same time of day when you are comparing since things like hydration levels and how soon after you ate before jumping on the scale can throw off the readings. If you can, try to use the scale first thing in the morning.
3. Body fat measurer/calipers
There are many different devices out on the market these days ranging from inexpensive to incredibly expensive. Figure out what you’re comfortable spending on such a device and then look for what options fall into that budget. The most common thing that individuals purchase are calipers. There are super cheap plastic calipers all the way up to heavy duty clinical calipers. Generally speaking, the more expensive and the more heavy duty, the more accurate the caliper will be. The cheap plastic calipers will generally not be the most accurate, but at least if you use it consistently you will be able to see any fluctuations in your body fat over time. The sites generally used with a caliper are the abdomen, chest, back, thigh, hip, directly under the armpit, and the triceps. If you don’t have someone you live with who can do the testing for you, check with one of the local trainers in your area and see if they are skilled in checking body fat and let them give you a hand.
Another device that some people use are handheld body fat measurers. These send an electrical impulse through the body to calculate your overall body fat. These have been deemed not as accurate as calipers, but if you don’t have someone who can consistently test your body fat, this is a nice easy way to check your progress. Again, the handheld device will not be as accurate (just like with the body fat bathroom scale), but if used consistently, you can at least tell if you are making progress and adjust your program accordingly.
4. Write everything down somewhere
You could use a notebook, a piece of paper, or an app on your phone—it doesn’t matter. The key point here is that you want to write everything down. Write the date, time you took you measurements or weight/body fat and what each value was. Try to be as consistent with your measurements and weight/body fat as you can. For instance, if you want to check your progress once a week, try to take your measurements on the same day and at the same time each week. By writing everything down or putting it into your smartphone, you’ll be able to keep everything nice and organized to see how you are progressing over time and how quickly/slowly you’re seeing the numbers change. It’s also motivating to look back and see how far you’ve come.
5. Smartphone apps
There are many apps available today for both iPhone and Android devices. The most popular is MyFitnessPal. The app allows you to enter your weight and it provides you with a graph showcasing your progress on a timeline. The app is also useful if you are looking to track your calories and macros. There are obviously other apps available (both free and ones you pay for), you just need to decide exactly what you’re looking for. If you are interested in tracking your body fat, there are apps that can specifically track that for you as well, so long as you know the measurements of the given sites they are looking for you to check. There are also apps like MapMyRun and MapMyRide that can track your run/ride when doing cardio.
6. Progress photos
Taking photos every week, bi-weekly, or monthly is a great way to see your overall physique progress. When taking the photos, stand the same distance away from the camera, use a stand/tripod/family member to snap the photos, pose in the same position, wear the same or similar clothing, and try to stand with the same background (don’t stand in front of a bunch of clutter) and in the same lighting. This will give you the best scenario for comparing photos side by side and seeing how your body is changing and reacting to the nutrition and/or exercise program you are following.
A simple guide to measure your progress is to see how your clothing is fitting. If all of sudden you’re needing to wear a belt with your pants or you’re changing which hole on your belt that you’re using, then you know you’re losing weight and inches around your midsection. If all of sudden the sleeves on your shirt are getting noticeably tighter, you’re starting to turn those water pistols into bazookas. Taking notice of how your clothes are fitting is a quick and easy way to take notice of your overall progress. This method might not be the most scientific, but it’s a great way to measure the overall success of your program and hard work.
While I’m not a fan of the body mass index (BMI), it is still a measurement tool used to this day by many health organizations and doctors. If any of you have life insurance, they look at your BMI to give an overall rating on your health and give you rates based off of your BMI score—which I completely disagree with. When I was shopping around for life insurance, they told me that I was considered morbidly obese even though I’m nowhere close. This causes a hike in my rates. BMI does not take into consideration your lean muscle mass. It simply looks at your overall height and weight and gives you a score under a given category. Therefore, what the BMI does is scores muscular individuals as having a much higher BMI than they should. The different categories are as follows: underweight (less than 18.5), normal weight (18.5 to 24.9), overweight (25 to 29.9) or obese (greater than 30).
Putting it all together
If you want the best results, it’s wise to combine some of the examples above. It’s good to see numbers on paper, but it’s also good to see those numbers and compare those with progress photos so you can see what a 10-pound weight difference looks like, or what a 15% drop in body fat looks like. Utilize these measurement tools to give you a much clearer picture of your progress. Not only will it tell you how far you’ve come, but it’s also a great way to stay motivated and on track to hitting your goals.