Measuring What's Important
If you’re a competitive body-builder, or high-level athlete, then being really 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 for the other 80% of us? Do we really need to add all that additional data?
Is it even sustainable as a part of weight loss or healthy living?
I doubt it, in fact, it probably serves as a sensory overload that moves people away from good weight loss practices, because it seems like too much.
I’ve seen how stressful it can be on a lot of us.
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 at least a few thousand by now — but I do question how much you should actually track.
What’s actually worth your time when it comes to tracking?
That’s what we’re here to find out! The most important things you should track (in order) and why:
Scales get all the love because they are easy. But let’s be honest; You don’t know what 135 lbs, or 200 lbs or 168 lbs looks like. And even if you were there once before in your lifetime, the same weight can look wildly different.
What scale weight sacrifices for ease of tracking is that it can't/won't account for volume or tissue distribution. Nobody cares how much they weigh. What you really care about is looking good.
Which is incredibly visual and subjective. And cannot be measured with a scale.
Start taking photos instead. Doesn’t have to be complicated or shared with anyone. Getting a shot from the front, side and back is ideal if you have a way to do that. But snapping a photo of yourself in the mirror in your bathroom periodically in the same or similar clothes under the same or similar lighting is enough.
We’re visual creatures*, it’s time to start tracking like we are.
Photos (or even video if you prefer...) are the qualifiable metric that speak to the imagery oriented aspect of the brain. You need to be able to visualize your progress, so start taking photos every week, every other week or at least once a month.
*50% of our sensory input is visual. Imagery is the language of the brain.
And I get it, I hate having my photo taken too, I understand the reluctance to do this. But that doesn't make this any less important. How do you know how good you now look, without one?
The truth is without tracking the thing you care about most, you won’t be able to reliably gauge if the work you're putting in is taking you where you want to go.
In Fitnack, we encourage clients with fat loss "I want to look better naked" goals to take photos every two weeks. Actually that duration between measurements applies for most of what’s to come (girth, weight, etc…).
It’s not so frequent that people get neurotic about it, but not so infrequently that you can’t react to changes as they happen.
Are there reasons to do it more frequently or less frequently?
We just find every two weeks is nice and easy for the majority because measuring well takes a bit of time.
Body Fat Percentage
In a perfect world, this would come next. Few people really want to lose healthy lean tissue, we want to lose the unsightly fat tissue right?
And just like bodyweight, few people will know what 5% less body fat percentage really ‘looks’ or ‘feels’ like. Simply that it looks better. Unless of course, you've previously been at a specific body fat % in the past.
Body fat percentage is actually a much more reliable proxy for how you'll look than scale weight. But it remains a "you don't know what it looks like, until you see it" type of thing.
The truth is, it’s tough to do body fat % accurately without skilled hands, expensive equipment or access to things in a gym. What’s easier?
The US Navy Body Fat Percentage Calculator
(*Click that link to download an excel file to track this yourself)
The US Navy developed a simplistic — though admittedly 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.
Not as accurate as any of the above options but probably good enough for most folks who don’t want to track every girth measurement I mention below.
So long as the tracking mechanism is the same, we’re really just looking for realistic change in the first place, not how accurate the method is overall.
Looking for something more accurate?
A DEXA scan (the new gold-standard, will set you back $60-90) and Hydrostatic Weighing are the most accurate measurements available today but can be expensive and fairly invasive.
The Bod-Pod is an excellent alternative that some gyms have, not as accurate but more accurate than skinfold calipers.
Skinfold calipers are what I typically do in the gym (most trainers should be able to do a 7-site protocol) because it’s fairly accurate and I’ve practiced enough over the years to use a very firm grip. Again we’re just looking for the changes.
As long as the same person does the skinfolds, the same way, under the same conditions, most of the time, you should be able to track progress with ease.
**Avoid the bio-electrical impedance devices as they are remarkably inaccurate and very prone to wild fluctuation, even when used at the same time of day under the same circumstances. Hydration status is the main problem.
You could always look for cheap caliper set for yourself, like the Accu-Measure Fat Calipers. These will set you back $5-15 usually but are far less expensive than professional calipers ($300-400). While still capable of fulfilling your basic body composition measurement needs in most cases, providing you're consistent with time of day and the conditions of assessment.
Meaning you’ll at least establish a baseline that you can compare to future measurements. 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 for this too that you can use (just make sure you input your age and weight too):
Girth & Body Weight
I almost always discourage people from measuring their weight only. It’s a pretty terrible gauge of progress on it’s own. On its own, I only use it for one reason and one reason only: Daily for short amounts of time (~21-35 days) to help people better understand how their weight naturally fluctuates.
This can be particularly valuable for women so they better understand how their menstruation patterns impact water retention (and weight by extension). The risk being the neuroticism that it can lead to in some people, especially when used in the long term.
**The combination is the most ideal.**
If body fat percentage isn’t practical for you – and in a lot of cases it isn’t – then this is ideal for you. Don’t just track weight by itself, you’ll be deceived for every goal other than weight maintenance. Here's what I recommend tracking:
- Neck (at Adam's apple, or where that would be if you were male)
- Shoulders (thickest part)
- Chest (at the nipples)
- Waist (at the belly button, not the thinnest part like they do in fashion circles)
- Hips (at the head of the femur, the boniest part of the side of your hips, where your hips meet your leg bones)
- Thigh (measure half way from the fold of your hip to the top of your knee cap)
- Calf (thickest part)
I recommend that you pick up something like a Myotape for cheap ($5-10) as a relatively accurate measurement tool. I’m a little bit anal about using a scientific approach.
As before, you want to make sure you measure under the same conditions. But you also benefit from taking more than one measurement at each sight to lower your margin for error. If you're spot on for a measurement twice, I usually take that number. If there is variance, I take a 3rd measure of the sight and take an average.
It’s unlikely you’ll always get the same number on certain measures like shoulders, chest, waist and hips because the numbers are higher and have more room for variation. Keep that in mind, coming from someone who has done a lot of these measurements.
If you’re already using the Navy Calculator then adding a few more girth measures to the mix isn't too time intensive.
Girth is essential for providing context to weight, the same volume of muscle weighs considerably more than an equal volume of fat tissue. If weight is going up, but girth is staying the same or getting smaller, you're likely adding muscle and losing fat.
It's not an exact measure mind you, but it's a pretty good proxy that will give you a ton of insights into what is going well and what is not going well.
Lean mass is more dense, so a very muscular lean person with very dense bones can be surprisingly heavy. That’s how you end up with people who look as thin as me, but who are surprisingly heavy.
It’s quite possible to shed a ton of fat without losing a pound. This is typically called 'body recomposition.' That's why you need a volume measure (girth) for the space a given weight occupies.
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 healthy lean mass via their exercise routine — lean mass keeps your metabolism a bit higher too so gaining a little bit of muscle is beneficial for long-term weight maintenance.
There are some good ways to interpret this data, maybe I'll get around to writing that article some time.
Generally speaking I don't do a ton of calorie counting with my clients. Instead I focus our work on developing skills.
We track those skills with an easy X or √ on a calendar of some kind. Did they practice that skill that day or not, simple, no math involved. It is a yes/no question.
Consistency is the key ingredient to any and all success.
Now again in Fitnack we really try to drill down to specifics for each client but here are a few good ones you can try on your own:
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 starchy carbohydrate consumption to match my activity today?
You can use google or apple calendar for this for free but I think I prefer to buy a calendar put it in plain site somewhere and mark it gratifyingly with a big check mark.
The thing to track is that you did it, not that the specifics.
These skills collectively make up the process you have towards any objective that requires nutrition to create (fat loss or muscle hypertrophy) so these are the things you’re going to tweak when girth/scale changes aren’t happening.
Sure 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.
Quick Side Note:
A good tool — to get a feel for how you are eating now and thus what might be best to change soon — is to do a food log, where you record what and when you ate every other day for a week. It's important to get an understanding you weekdays and weekend days.
This is more of an analysis or awareness tool though, not a lifestyle. It is very difficult to monitor your diet indefinitely with this kind of precision. That kind of precision 100% of the year is often overkill too. In all but the very extreme physical transformations (i.e. you want to be a bodybuilder or fitness model…).
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).
Once you have a clear, honest understanding of how you're eating, it's a lot easier to find areas you can improve.
You 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.
I know a lot of people are extremely fond of recording everything they do in the gym. I’m not.
There is a big difference between forgetting what weight you used last week because you didn’t write it down and writing out how much load you used for every set and rep of every single lift.
The latter can be useful if you’re an athlete, and dedicate a lot of your time to high level training. Maybe even if you have really advanced objectives but most of us just need a number or two for each lift. Something to give you a sense of what to push for in your next training session.
There are exceptions, sure. A great deal of this really comes down to learning the nuances of training and the system you’re using.
Assuming you’ve been given a set and rep scheme, all you need to know for next week was the load you used. Maybe the number of reps with a given load, if that's your proxy for progressive overload.
If you want to be more specific, record exactly how many reps you achieved with a the highest load per exercise, so you can shoot for one or two more reps next week with the same load if you stumble with an increase.
If you’re chasing more reps on a lift, record the total reps.
If you’re chasing more load, record the load you use.
It's worth recording both, but you probably don't need to record much more than that.
We teach a lot of these nuances in Fitnack but here are a few other things work paying attention to when you’re training:
Did it feel easy? Did you make it look easy?
You’ll never be ‘perfect‘ but that doesn’t mean you can’t chase ideal form. I find the easiest way to gauge that without a coach is how the lift felt and how smoothly it got done.
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. If I beat what I’m tracking from last week, I’m usually pretty happy but if it felt easy, I’m ecstatic.
Look for the other ways you’ve improved things, besides more reps and load.
If you're not tracking best set weight and reps, or even if you are, you can also rate how that set felt on a scale of 1-5 (or 1-10 if you prefer). 5 being felt amazing, 1 sucked.
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 loading. If you’re chasing more reps on push ups, keep a log of that somewhere in pencil, so you can erase it with new PB’s.
I like to keep track of every clients personal best attempt for a handful of core lifts we use. It's motivating to see these go up over time, especially if someone else is responsible for tracking them.
Typically this means at least one squat variation, at least one hip hinge variation, at least one split leg variation, at least one single leg rep max for the legs. Likewise probably max reps in a chin-up/push up, then a loaded press, and a loaded pull. Or anything else that people really love doing.
If we’re getting more specific maybe something speed oriented like a broad jump, Pro Agility Test, 40 m, 100m Sprint Time etc… You can get as specific as your needs or desires are but once you’ve found the lifts that are the biggest bang for your buck; Track a few of them to keep track of your personal best lifts.
You may even record the best set of your major lifts in an assessment sessions every 3-6 months, just to track overall progress.
Range of Motion
I utilize movement screens with every single client I’ve ever seen in some shape or another but it doesn’t even have to be that complicated. Set up the pins in a squat rack to check how deep you squat, gradually work to increase that range of movement and track lowering the safety pins.
You can do that for any lift really, you just have to give yourself an initial marker, then find new markers that increase range of movement (safely – don’t go cranking on things that don’t move).
Very rarely will I get a goniometer out to track range of motion formally — unless it’s a very formal assessment, which is different — I’ll eyeball the range of motion, because I know roughly where it should be.
If you have “tight hamstrings” and that’s something you’re trying to work on, you need to measure it. At least write down a rough number. Do your flexibility/mobility practice, and then reassess at some point.
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. It's almost the same.
If flexibility matters to you, you need ‘normative data points’ so that you know you’re improving it.
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. Typically these don’t become common place to track until we hit middle age, or until our doctors identify an issue worth tracking. Unless you have a reason to track this sort of thing, consider just tracking your heart rate.
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)
- Potentially many other hormones…
Unfortunately at this time, a lot of these assessments are not particularly accessible or practical for a lot of people. At least not at a reasonable price or without a doctor’s referral.
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 that you may or may not need, talk to a medical professional if ‘health’ is what you’re trying to improve.
If you want to improve energy levels or mood, simply record your mood or energy on a scale of 1-5 or 1-10 daily. Try to observe how what you eat and exercise influences these.
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.
Realistically speaking if all you care about is how you look, you didn’t even need to get this far in this article. Why are you still reading this?
You probably only need photos and girth/weight. Maybe body fat percentage if you’re lucky.
If you’re training keep a number for each lift. If you’re using nutrition to help, pick a skill to practice and just track if you’re doing it or not.
That’s about it…
If you really want to go above and beyond like I do, you probably don’t need to. No one is marking this, you won’t be graded on how diligently you track progress.
In the end, it can become very stressful and unproductive for many people to worry about minute 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. You focus on what really matters to you. That’s a handful of numbers really.
Hire a good coach or find a great mentor if that isn’t working.
Learn some new skills that will help you in your journey that have long-term application.
Create some new simple habits one at a time.
Track how those things impact your results, and tweak them over time.
Practice, practice, practice, and you will be successful.
Tracking/Data is not as important as doing.