I want to share with you a conversation that happened with an athlete last week. Not knowing anyone was watching or listening, a female tennis athlete stepped on a scale next to my office and exclaimed to herself, “Why is my weight keep going up an down!” to which I replied, “Who cares what you weight? Your concern should be percent body fat and lean body mass. Body weight doesn’t tell you either.” Startled and intrigued, she reacted with the question, “What do you mean?” as she made her way to my office to learn more.
For so many athletes (female especially) the scale is a source of stress and self-loathing, but it really shouldn't be. Not only does your weight change every day, it also changes at different times through a single day, so there is no point to weighing yourself every day — and definitely not multiple times a day if you goal is weight loss. The reason? Because of body fluid fluctuations — you might be retaining water from too much sodium consumption, or you may not have gone to the bathroom yet (gross, but true). All of these things affect your body weight.
The issue with checking the scale daily (it’s okay if you’re managing hydration) is that minor fluctuations can freak out athletes. Instead, the focus during any nutrition plan, whether it’s weight loss (fat-loss), weight gain (muscle-gain), or maintenance, should be monitoring your body composition.
Body composition is the term used to describe the different components that make up a person’s body weight. The human body is composed of a variety of different tissue types including lean tissues (muscle, bone, and organs) that are metabolically active, and fat (adipose) tissue that is not. When you determine your overall body fat percentage, you will get an accurate sense of how much of your body mass is made up of fat and how much is made up of lean muscle. When the body has a greater percentage of fat compared to lean muscle mass, the body will appear heavier than when that number is lower.
For instance, when placed on a scale, one pound of fat is going to weigh the same as one pound of muscle – just like one pound of bricks is going to weigh the same as one pound of feathers. Where the confusion comes in is that muscle and fat differ in density (muscle is about 18% more dense than fat) and one pound of muscle occupies less space (volume) than one pound of fat.
Just think about it – if your weight stayed exactly the same (according to a body weight scale) and we hypothetically took off five pounds of fat from you and replaced it with five pounds of muscle, you will weigh exactly the same. How? Because muscle is more dense than fat; the five pounds of muscle will take up less volume and you will appear slightly leaner, thinner, and/or more toned. Although the number on the scale did not lower, you are certainly more healthy, fit, and are on the right track with your “weight loss” program.
Therefore, I would much rather have five pounds of lean, dense muscle inside my body than five pounds of shapeless, bulky, fat, and I am guessing you would too! Besides being denser, there are also many health advantages to having increased muscle mass.
The first advantage is muscle burns more calories than fat therefore increasing your metabolic efficiency (metabolism) and body’s ability to burn calories at rest. Know each pound of fat that your body stores represents 3,500 calories of unused energy. In order to lose one pound, you have to create a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories by either consuming 3,500 less calories over a period of time than your body needs or by doing 3,500 calories worth of exercise. Therefore, by increasing your lean muscle mass through resistance and body weight training, you will help your body burn more calories. One pound of muscle will burn slightly more calories at rest than one pound of fat tissue at rest (one pound of muscle burns an extra 50-100 calories per day than one pound of fat).
Another benefit of increasing lean muscle is that it improves insulin sensitivity and better glucose control. Research in the 2011 Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism reported that a 10% increase in lean mass resulted in an 11% improved insulin sensitivity within the body. This is great news – people with a higher insulin sensitivity have better glucose control and ultimately, lower rates of diabetes. What is more, less dietary glucose will turn into body fat and less insulin is necessary to keep body systems operating optimally.
When you become less obsessed with scale readings and more focused on what truly matters (lean muscle) with your nutrition program, success will follow. This is why it is important to use more than one method to track your progress. Some of these methods include:
- before and after pictures
- girth and body measurements
- body fat percentage and
- gauging fitness and conditioning level
A good rule of thumb is to have all the above methods measured once, every 4-6 weeks. By adopting this practice, you will know if the experienced weight loss is truly a decrease in body fat. Furthermore, body fat tests vary widely and some claim to be better than others. Do not get caught up in which test is better than the other. Instead, make certain the test you choose is the same test throughout your optimum nutrition plan. Furthermore, have the same practitioner administer your body fat test each time. Varying test-types and testers can disrupt the reliability of the body-fat test, resulting in inaccurate measurements.
When the number on the scale does not budge, it is important to remind yourself that the scale only shows you a snippet of what is happening. It is only expressing your total body weight – which includes fat, muscle, bones, organs, skin, etc. and not the composition of that weight (lean muscle) within your body.
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