Stressing about progress itself causes stress which hinders progress. Are you avoiding this by tracking your progress objectively?
To have success in dieting (whether this be cutting or bulking) tracking your progress is vital. It forms the base from which you can make objective decisions on changes necessary in your diet. Have you progressed these last 4 weeks or not? – Your tracking system needs to be able to answer this question. It isn’t as simple as Bruce Lee’s example above where a stopwatch will do, but it doesn’t have to be hard.
In this post I’ll explain…
- Why it’s important, with a story of a trainer and BB competitor at my gym,
- Tell you what not to do, specifically why the mirror and scale is not enough, and
- The system I use, which takes the guesswork out of things.
Why Tracking is Important – Louie’s Story
Ten weeks before his Osaka Bodybuilding competition, Louie, a Japanese trainer at my gym, was sitting at about 12% body-fat. He was panicking about coming in too fat for the second year running.
I asked him about his progress and it became clear his only method of tracking was lifting up his shirt to look at his abs and the scale weight. Worried that this wasn’t going to end well, I cycle back to the gym later that day and gave him my only spare tape measure and begged him to use it. – He wasn’t a client but he seemed eager to learn and that made me care probably more than I should.
Two weeks later, I’m just finishing off some dips and Louis came over, notepad and pen in hand, and starts asking very sincerely what about the tracking stuff I was talking about the weeks before. I lift up his shirt. He’s around 9% and it’s just a week before the competition. He knows he’s screwed it again. I ask him his food intake.
Louis: “Around 300g of chicken breast, green vegetables, 100g of carbs, zero fat or as close as I can get. Everyday the same.”
Me: “So you’re consuming around 1000kCal. You’re lacking energy for the workouts thus losing muscle along with the fat, your metabolism has slowed prematurely meaning you have to eat even less, which you’re already struggling and miserable about, and I’m guessing you’re having trouble getting an erection too, right?”
– I was spot on accurate and his face said it all. He asked me to coach him after the comp.
Louis went wrong because he ended up starving himself when he didn’t see changes, rather than tracking things objectively to take the emotion out of it. If you can’t answer these questions then your tracking system is inadequate:
- Did you actually progress this week even though you can’t see anything in the mirror?
- The scale didn’t move, but did you lose fat and gain muscle?
What follows is a sample chapter from my book, ‘The Last Shred: How to adjust your diet like a pro to reach single digit body fat‘. I hope you find it useful.
Part 4: How I Recommend You Track Your Progress
Here’s what most people do that I suggest you don’t…
- Rely on the mirror. – Don’t. We can’t trust the mirror because of the tricks our brain’s play on us by constantly adapting our perceptions to new levels of stimulation. This is another phenomenon known as “perceptual adaptation.” Furthermore, lighting will vary, and your condition will change depending on the salt and carb content of the foods you have eaten. Trying to track your progress by checking yourself in the mirror is a recipe for disaster, as in the short term the mirror will just screw with your head.
- Try to track by measuring your body-fat percentage. – Don’t. There are accuracy and consistency issues with all commercially available methods. (BIA, BodPod, underwater weighing, callipers and DXA scan all have their issues. I’ve written more about this on the site here.)
Here’s how I suggest you track things…
1. Take 9 Points Of Measurement Once A Week
Consistency is key to accurate tracking. This means that measurements need to be taken at the same time of the day, under the same circumstances. Do it yourself, as you are the only person that will always be with you. The best time to measure is in the morning, after you wake, after going to the toilet. Once a week is fine.
- Measure in nine places as per the illustration.
- Tense/flex your muscles for each measurement as this enables more consistent results.
- To help you take the measurements in the same place each time,
- Use the widest part of your legs,
- Measure at the nipple-line for the chest, being sure not to get the tape at an angle or twisted,
- Curl your biceps in a pose like Arnold to take your arms at the widest point,
- Measuring the stomach two fingers above and below the navel is a good guideline instead trying to measure 2 inches above and below each time.
- Consider getting yourself a Myotape/Orbitape as it makes self-measuring easier and more consistent.
- Take and note measurements to the nearest 0.1 cm.
FOR COACHES: Accept nothing less than a 0.1 cm degree of accuracy, regardless of what system they are used to. Not only is it exceptionally useful for noting small changes and trends in the data, it sets the client up with a mindset on precision – that they need to take the data seriously. Without the data, you are blind after all. I hammer this point home to clients at the outset – no data, no assessment. People sometimes screw this up, so it’s worth checking that they have filled out the tracking sheet correctly in the first week so that there can be no misunderstandings at the update point 2-4 weeks later where you have no data to look at, incomplete data, or data to the nearest 1 cm (or even more annoyingly, nearest half an inch).
2. Weigh Yourself Every Morning
Here is a quick summary of all things that can cause fluctuations in weight:
- Water & glycogen – due to a change in carb intake.
- Water – the stall-whoosh effect.
- Water – due to hydration status.
- Water – due to a change in salt intake.
- Bowel content – some foods have a higher ‘gut residue’ (they stay in the gut for longer).
We want the conditions to be as consistent as possible when weighing ourselves, and the best thing for this is to weigh last thing at night, or first thing in the morning. My preference is for the morning – scale fluctuations can mess with people’s heads we don’t want sleep to be disturbed because of them stressing about this.
→ Weigh yourself every morning upon waking, after the toilet (empty your bladder). Then at the end of the week calculate the average and note it.
You can expect to lose 1-2% bodyweight over night through the moisture lost when breathing, so definitely do not weigh yourself in the morning one day, and then the evening the next.
Scale Weight Obsessors – If you’ve noticed that your client is completely obsessed with the scale weight and won’t get it into their head that there will be fluctuations as they progress, you probably want to limit them to weighing themselves once a week. – The stress from the fluctuations can cause water retention and will only make them stress more.
Weighing once a week is not ideal by any means as it leaves you open to random fluctuations in weight happening and screwing up your analysis. The downsides of this need to be weighed up with stress from daily weighing that happens with certain personality types. Education on the causes of weight fluctuations is usually a cure in most cases, but not all.
3. Take Photos Once Every Four Weeks
Take two photos, front and side. Use the same lighting conditions, camera, camera angle, time of day, and pose.
I’ve experimented with weekly and fortnightly photos with clients and I’m convinced that every four weeks is best, and taking them more often can be counter-productive as the changes are often too small to be motivational.
FOR COACHES: If someone comes to you with an initial set of photos where they have their stomach forcibly sticking out, ask them to retake them. Tell them to tense their abs from the start – it’s important to be consistent. The goal with the photos is not to have the most striking before-after shots, but to have a reliable visual gauge of progress.
4. Track Strength
Track your strength in the main compound lifts you perform. Some days you will feel stronger than others, so note the best set for the week. The conditions must be the same for you to be able to compare – rest times, form, etc.
FOR COACHES: I like to get clients to note the best session for each main compound lift of that week, as it means I can look at all the data at a glance and I’m at less risk of missing anything. Of course, feel free to track the entire workout routine as well, or the total volume performed for the week for a body part or exercise – when I coach clients through a bulk this is something I have been doing this last year. Total ‘hard sets‘ for an exercise or body part is another option of tracking training volume.
5. Track Diet & Training Adherence
Rate your diet adherence as a percentage – If you get each macro target to within 10% either side, consider that to be perfect adherence (100%). The total percentage I’d suggest you write is the percentage of days you managed to achieve that. It’s also a good idea to list any instances where you feel you went well over the calorie balance for the day – that could be a big drinking session, wedding party, etc. Note the date that you did this in your tracking spreadsheet (because otherwise you’ll forget) as you can expect a rise in the numbers that week.
FOR COACHES: Some people are going to screw up their counting of things. Short of requesting a complete list of the client’s meals and their ingredients (which I think may be overbearing, and possibly counterproductive because you get them stuck into a rigid meal planning mindset from the start), there is no real way to check for this, you just have to be aware of it. So, if someone isn’t losing weight as it seems they should for the macros you’ve given them, miscounting may be a factor. More on what you can do about this later.
Rate your training adherence as a percentage. – This means the percentage of completed workouts, not how well you thought you performed. Fluctuations in performance are normal and to be expected.
6. Track Qualitative Factors
Rate your sleep quality, stress level, and hunger on a 1-5 scale each week. As you look back across your tracking data to see how you are progressing, if weight and measurements aren’t changing according to plan, check to see how your sleep or stress levels were for these weeks. – If they are high, then it is likely to be water retention rather than a lack of a caloric deficit to blame. This is especially true if you have been finding yourself hungry at the same time. (Just note, hunger doesn’t always mean you’re in a caloric deficit, but it can be a good gauge that you are if other things point in that direction.)
Points to note when self-assessing
Here is some additional information. It’s covered in the book in far more detail but I think you’ll find it useful.
The Number 1 rule: Always look to gauge progress by looking at data over a four week period and assessing the trend, never before. There will always be fluctuations during the initial weeks.
- When around 15% body fat or lower, fat comes off the upper abs first, before that there doesn’t seem to be any pattern.
- Changes in salt intake or carb intake will cause changes in water balance. Therefore it’s best to look at the general trend in the data over 3-4 weeks.
- Ladies, your weight will fluctuate with your cycle due to water retention, compare data points 4 weeks apart.
- When getting lean, use the fluctuations in hardness over the week to your advantage. – If you’re a model, actor, or (more likely) have a pool party you want to look good for then time it right. (You’ll know when this is for you when you get there.)
- Strength increases correlate well to muscle gains.
- Muscle growth will hide fat loss so don’t just rely on the scale.
- For more experienced trainees that are cutting (and thus not likely to make any muscle mass gains) the goal is muscle preservation. Strength maintenance is a good sign of muscle maintenance, however there is the mechanical inefficiency of getting leaner that you need to be aware of. Thus, for experienced trainees cutting a lot of weight, drops in strength should probably be expected The degree of the drop will depend mainly on the level of fat loss (20%->10% body fat would see 5-10% decrease in lifts, fatter folks possibly more – I have nothing to back that up except for observation). Limb proportions will determine which lift is most affected. There is individual variance.
Same weight as 4 weeks before?
With the client work I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting trends and this helps immensely when assessing whether changes are needed. I hope the above is good enough to get you going.
|Bonus: How to lose 4% body fat in 24 hours and walk away $50 richer.
Did you already buy a BMI machine and want your money back? Here’s a quick way to do that.
Think this tactic hasn’t been used to sell more member subscriptions or exaggerate program results at some gyms?
Thank you for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments. – Andy
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