Measuring What’s Important


Female Figure CompetitorsIf you’re a competitive body-builder, or high-level athlete, then being specific with what you keep track of makes sense.

If you train to train, then yes, keeping track of every little thing that goes on in your training program or in your mouth might be a good idea.

Record your reps, sets, weight, how you feel, how you slept, your nutrition, all that stuff.

The reality is that for the other 80% of the population though, do you really need to add all that additional data?

Is it even sustainable as a part of weight loss or healthy living?

I don’t think so, in fact, it probably serves as a sensory overload that moves people away from good weight loss practices, because it seems like too much.

Unless you’re Tim Ferriss, or Michael Phelps, I just don’t see tracking copious amounts of data as being worthwhile for the average individual and what’s worse, it can be really really stressful for most.

You’re not a computer, you don’t do big data, and most people who track a ton of stuff will never use that data well enough to make the effort worthwhile.

All the same, there are thousands of training articles out there, advocating training logs, and meal plan calorie counting, and all sorts of tracking!

Do a google search right now you might get more than a million hits on ‘workout logs.’

I don’t want to discount the value of training programs — I’ve written probably over a few thousand easily at this point — but I do question how much you should actually track.

What’s actually worth your while when it comes to tracking?

Many people mistakenly gauge their workouts on how much they think they sweat.

How do you measure sweat as a unit of progress over time?

How detailed do you really need to get?

Do you need to write down what weight you used for 3 sets of 8, or how many reps you did each set of every workout?

Do you really need to focus on these minor details?

How often will the average person refer back to these numbers?

Likewise, do you really need to record and track every single calorie that goes into your body?

Do you count fiber? Is protein measured any differently?

Are you differentiating the calories that you ingest and do you realize that most nutrition labels are off by 8% or more?

Who, reading this, has been able to consistently use any calorie tracking system for more than a year?

What about 2 or 3?

The point is, this approach, is especially ineffective if you don’t have good habits, training skills and fitness behaviors.

Habits, skills and fitness behaviors are the bedrock of success and often merely qualifiable, not quantifiable like most ‘tracking’ that is recommended.

However the data you track is only as good as the interpretation and modifications you can make based on the data you collect.

There are more ‘tracking’ services available to the average person right now via their phone, a tablet or their computer than ever before and is it really making losing weight any easier?

Are people getting thinner and more lean?

If they are, I haven’t seen a statistical difference quite yet…

So what really matters?

When it comes to weight-loss, think more about body re-composition or fat loss, more than weight loss.

It’s about losing fat, not just weight.

The most important thing you can track is (in order):

Table of Contents


    Let’s be honest, looking good is most likely really your objective, you don’t know what 20 lbs lighter, or 5% less body fat percentage really ‘feels like‘ without a photo to go along with it.

    Photos (Video too if you want…) are the qualifiable metric that speak to the imagery oriented brain.

    Not to mention that 50% of our sensory input is visual, and imagery is the language of the brain.

    How will you be able to visualize your progress, without photos?

    How do you know how good you now look, without a photo?

    I get it, you’re not happy with the way you think you look right now, but without a photo, you probably won’t be able to gauge if you’re looking any better over the course of your journey either.

    Body Fat Percentage

    Skin-fold calipers being the easiest (most trainers should be able to do a 7-site protocol), there are also DEXA scans (the new gold-standard, will set you back $60-90), the Bod-Pod and Hydrostatic Weighing.

    **Avoid the bio-electrical impedance devices as they are remarkably inaccurate.

    You could always look for cheap set for yourself, like the Accu-Measure Fat Calipers, which will set you back $5-15 usually and are far less expensive than professional calipers ($300-400), while still capable of fulfilling your basic body composition measurement needs in most cases.

    Meaning you’ll at least establish a baseline that you can compare to in future measurements, and measuring the change is really what’s important — rather than pure accuracy, providing you always measure the exact same way.

    It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing, or girth and weight alone.

    I recommend the Jackson & Pollack 7-Site Skinfold assessment for the most accurate available.

    I have a free calculator in google drive that you can use (just make sure you input your age and weight too):

    One for men.

    One for women.

    If that’s too much work, the US Navy has developed a more simplistic (though not as accurate) method of tracking body fat percentage using height with neck and waist girth. For Women they add hip girth for more accuracy.

    Check the calculator I built for that here.

    Not as accurate but probably good enough for most folks, especially if what we’re looking for realistically speaking is what is changing.

    Girth & Body Weight

    **In combination is the most ideal.**

    Only if the above is inaccessible and/or body calipers are inappropriate for you — your coach should know, but generally speaking if you carry a significant amount of weight around the mid-section, skin-fold calipers are probably not the best option for you and you are better off with a DEXA scan or this option.

    I almost always discourage people from measuring their weight only as it’s a pretty terrible gauge of progress on it’s own.

    Girth is essential for providing context to weight, the same volume of muscle weighs considerably more than an equal volume of fat tissue.

    Lean mass is more dense, so a very muscular lean person with very dense bones can be surprisingly heavy.

    It’s quite possible to shed a ton of fat without losing a pound, so you need to check weight in combination with the volume (girth) of space you now take up.

    It is not uncommon for people to experience a great deal of frustration with just a scale because they don’t realize that they have gained more health lean mass via their exercise routine — lean mass keeps your metabolism higher too so gaining a little bit of muscle is beneficial for long-term weight loss.

    I recommend that you pick up something like a Myotape for cheap ($5-10) and relatively accurate measurement tool.

    For girth, measure the neck, shoulders, chest, upper arm, waist, hips, thigh and calf to get a good handle on where you might be losing fat, while potentially gaining muscle.

    The myotape will often come with some basic instructions, I’m a little bit anal though, so I may be a little more detailed in my approach and so I have a special guide that I use with my clients.

    Nutrition Tracking

    Try This Daily Review (Sheet):

    A) Did I eat mostly whole foods today?

    B) Did I eat lean protein with every meal today?

    C) Did I eat veggies with every meal today (at least 5 servings)?

    D) Did I eat some healthy fats today?

    E) Did I reserve my starchy carbohydrate consumption for after my daily exercise?

    Check out the free private journaling tool, for an easily qualifiable recording tool that will send you a daily email reminding you to make note of the above things.

    Rough figures work here, educate yourself on the rough macronutrient content of food, but you probably don’t need to be as anal about the micronutrients, provided you have a good variety of foods in your diet and you’re not apparently deficient in anything — which a blood test can often reveal and a doctor should test in a physical exam; if you are chronically lethargic, experience gastrointestinal issues or otherwise seem to experience any potential health concerns please see your doctor and get a blood test; It’s possible you lack something you need in your existing diet.

    A good tool — to get a feel for how you are eating now — is to do a 3 day food log, where you record what and when you ate every other day for a week.

    This is more of an analysis tool though, not a lifestyle, it is very difficult to monitor your diet indefinitely with this kind of precision.

    An exercise like this, may reveal some deficiencies in your diet, as well as give you a good cross-section of how you eat during the week and how you eat on the weekends (generally they are different).

    You probably don’t need a calorie counting tool to tell you that huge piece of chocolate cake last night, was probably not the best choice.

    Use tools and exercises to assess your situation and adjust your behaviors accordingly.

    Training Tracking

    I know a lot of people are extremely fond of recording everything they do in the gym.

    Personally I find this tedious for me and most of my clients, with the exception of athletes and other more intermediate to advanced objectives.

    I’ve yet to see the value in measuring all of your training via tracking for weight loss or general health objectives.

    Here is what I recommend you focus on instead:

    1) Execution

    Always check to make sure your movements are being done with near flawless technique first.

    You’ll never be ‘perfect‘ but you can try to be the best you can be.

    Execution is a critical and often overlooked component to fitness, this qualitative measure is often ignored.

    Many people fall into the ‘more-is-better‘ trap.

    You’d be amazed at just how many people find it incredibly difficult to squat with good form, let alone add load or repetition to the equation with a high degree of proficiency.

    If you’re just going for more weight or more reps, you may end up injured, so learn to add and subtract (move well) before you try to multiply and divide (add more weight or repetitions).

    2) Personal Bests

    Or “PB’s” for those cool kids on the school yard, sometimes people call them PR’s or Personal Records. Once someone can execute, it’s time to really start training.

    I like to keep track of every clients personal best attempt for 5 rep max (RM), 8RM, 10RM, 12RM, 15RM of the big lifts like back squats, bench, chin-ups, front squats, deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, 100m Sprint Time etc…

    For bodyweight exercises I may track max repetitions, with a few exceptions.

    You may even record the best set of your major lifts in a session, to get a rough idea.

    For example, what was the weight you used and the number of reps you hit on your last set of each exercise? Rather than recording everything…

    For the more advanced client, I may even track 1RM, 2RM, 3RM, or 4RM lifts.

    I work detailed periodic assessments into workouts but we don’t track every little detail all the time, simply because I believe it to be unsustainable over the long-term and the amount of good solid data you get back in usable fashion is hard to utilize in future training sessions.

    If we are getting that detailed, I’m more than likely the one to record it (as the coach), I am after-all the coach, looking for trends. 

    3) Range of Motion

    I utilize movement screens with every single client I’ve ever seen in some shape or another.

    Even then, very rarely will I get a goniometer out — unless it’s a formal assessment, which is different — I’ll eyeball the range of motion, because I know roughly where it should be.

    If there are still obvious issues then I’ll get more specific with measurements.

    In the case of data, it is ultimately more up to me — as the coach — to keep track of the minute details anyway.

    So having roughly 90 degree of hip flexion is probably good and generally speaking the difference between 90 and 87 degrees won’t be incredibly relevant for the majority of people.

    When I do track data like this, it is for my own records to establish consistent variables or ‘normative data points,’ that I can then use comparatively from client to client.


    Health is a ridiculously vague term overall. By definition it literally only means:

    The absence of disease.

    Meaning if you do not presently have an illness, syndrome or other health ailment, you are already considered ‘healthy.’

    However, there a bunch of ‘health markers’ monitored by public health officials and we have established certain ‘ideal’ ranges.

    Some of the best well known health markers at present:

    • Total Cholesterol (a lipoprotein found in your blood)
    • HDL Cholesterol (the good lipoprotein found in your blood)
    • LDL Cholesterol (the ‘bad’ lipoprotein found in blood)
    • Triglycerides (fatty acids in the blood)
    • Blood Pressure
    • Resting Heart Rate

    However, there are many other markers of ‘health’ that can be utilized such as:

    • Fasting Blood Glucose
    • Oral Glucose Tolerance Testing (OGTT)
    • TSH (a marker for Thyroid Function – though may often test T3 hormones)
    • Testosterone
    • Progesterone
    • Estrogen
    • Potentially many other hormones…

    Unfortunately at this time, a lot of these assessments are not particularly accessible to a lot of people, at least not at a reasonable price.

    Easy things to measure are your resting heart rate (should be close to 60 beats-per-minute [BPM] and measured right upon waking in the morning) and sometimes your blood pressure.

    All the others require a blood test.

    The only way to really know how you completely stack up relative to all the variable though is to get a full blood panel/profile done.

    Not all medical plans cover this kind of thing though, so you may have to go out of pocket and it can be expensive ($300-400 or more).

    Typically medical plans will cover the basics though, like cholesterol and triglycerides.

    However, unless you get a baseline and then get subsequent profiles done to observe change though, you won’t really know how your diet or exercise plan is altering your health profile in this respect.

    So most of the time you’ll be making an educated guess otherwise.

    If you feel crappy for an extended period of time, seek medical advice, you may discover that you’re low in something like Iron or Vitamin D.

    Otherwise, I generally don’t see see a strong need to get regular full blood panels done, unless you can afford to do so, or are just curious from time to time.

    I know that’s a ‘reactionary’ approach, and I’m all about being ‘proactive’ but unfortunately at this time, the majority of the system just doesn’t work proactively.

    My hope is that this perception within the medical community will change in future, but for right now, you may have limited options depending on where you live and the type of medical care you have access to.

    Everything Else

    If you didn’t check with your doctor already before starting an exercise program, fitness professionals should be getting, at bare minimum, a PAR-Q  or some other formalized health history — it’s pretty standardized, even if it doesn’t look exactly like that, it’s 7 questions. 

    This will help us identify how we need to approach a fitness program with you, specifically whether or not you need your doctor’s clearance before starting an fitness and nutrition program.

    I like to go above and beyond that in my information gathering, but keep in mind that these are often only one or two time assessments and I don’t expect any of my clients to keep track of the data, I do that.

    They may include:

    I) 3-Day Food-Log (as mentioned above)

    II) Lifestyle Questionnaires

    III) Detailed Health History Questionnaires

    IV) Kitchen Assessment

    V) Readiness for Change Questionnaire

    VI) Social Support Questionnaire

    VII) Referral Out the Door for Blood Chemistry, Sleep Analysis, or other Professional Health Care Practitioner for an other formal assessment

    See some of the tools I use here.

    In the end, it can become very stressful and unproductive for many people to worry about too many details.

    You often end up sweating the small stuff, rather than focusing on the select things that really matter to you and your objectives..

    Let me or another coach worry about little stuff.

    Hire a good coach or find a great mentor.

    Learn some simple to follow habits one at a time.

    Learn some new skills that will help you in your journey that have long-term application.

    Let those habits and skill influence your behaviors, then practice, practice, practice, and you will be successful.

    Just be weary of overloading yourself with too much data and take things one step at a time.

    Stick to what’s important and sustainable.

    Tracking/Data is not as important as doing.