Let’s try to get away from this phrase “weight loss.” Weight loss could mean you have lost body fat, yes, but it could also mean that you're retaining less water due to less physical or emotional stress. Weight loss could mean that you don’t have much food in your stomach from yesterday or that you took a big dump this morning. Weight loss could mean that you have been on the Keto diet for 4 days and your kidneys are flushing water or it could mean that you’ve had a stomach flu for a week and are as weak as a kitten.
These are all reasons why we never want to rely on the scale alone to measure our success on getting healthier. The scale is like that bully in elementary school. It taunts us and teases us, but the more we show an emotional response to those taunts, the more power it has. Soon you will dread going near the scale. You will do everything in your power to avoid having an encounter. But you can make other friends. Friends that don’t lie or abuse you and friends that are on your side. And the more friends you make, the less afraid you are of the bully. These friends I’m referring to are the numerous other things you can track besides your weight to prove you're getting healthier.
Now I’m not telling you that if you’ve been eating uncontrollably for a few months and the scale is up twenty pounds that it’s wrong, but rather that if you see small fluctuations or if it seems stuck at one number despite all of your best efforts to improve your body composition, there are other ways you can determine how you are progressing.
Muscle tissue is more dense than fat, which is to say that one pound of muscle takes up less space (or volume) than fat. No, your fat does not turn into muscle as you get more fit which is a statement I have heard expressed by many people since my childhood. This is a common misconception. Fat and muscle tissue are different. To simplify this at its most basic level, body fat is made when you repeatedly consume more calories than your body needs to use for energy and so it is stored.
When your body fat weight turns into muscle tissue weight, you are burning stored body fat while simultaneously building muscle tissue which is why some may think fat is being turned into muscle. This process of body recomposition can lead to minimal movement on the scale and so one other way to track this process is by taking regular measurements of key points on your body to observe the change. If your hips, waist and thighs are decreasing in inches, but the scale is not dropping, then it stands to reason you are indeed losing fat and building muscle, or perhaps losing fat and retaining water.
Even though it may be difficult to take measurements at the beginning of your health pursuits, it is helpful to have a starting reference point. Many of my clients cringe at the idea of measuring their bodies, but as with any data, I try to encourage them to release the emotional reaction to these numbers and simply look at it as data.
Be consistent in where and how you are measuring. Measure areas you tend to carry the most fat:
Probably the simplest indicator of how your body is changing is how your clothes fit. Of course, jeans feel tighter when they first come out of the dryer and when you may feel bloated from eating a lot of pizza or being near your time of the month (ladies), generally our clothes don’t lie, whereas the scale and photos may.
My favorite story from a client’s progress is when she hulked out of her blouse at work after training with me for about six months. Her co-worker asked how that was possible, since the shirt was ballooning around her waist. The answer here is that as she was building muscle in her shoulders and upper back, she was losing fat from her midsection, leading to her ripping the seam around the shoulders. If you are a muscular woman, then you know there are some fabrics that are nearly impossible to wear if you have muscular shoulders and that it’s hard to find jeans that fit the waist while still fitting over those squatting muscles in your thighs.
So, pay attention not just to the size that you are wearing, but how the fit of the clothes changes. It may surprise you to see where you are building muscle tone and where you are losing fat. And next time you hulk out of your clothes, stop a moment and consider that this might be an indication that you are getting leaner.
When we see ourselves in the mirror everyday it can be difficult to see how our body composition progress is moving along. This is why taking photos of yourself once a month can be a more helpful way to observe the changes going on with your body. When we stare at ourselves (and judge ourselves harshly) in the mirror, we tend to focus on our “problem areas” and may miss the changes that are more obvious to our friends and family looking at us with a less critical eye. Your eye may gravitate towards the stubborn fat around your belly and miss the fact that your arms and legs are getting leaner.
Our genetics dictate where we carry our extra weight and which fat comes off slowest. I often have clients ask me “how can I lose the fat off my upper arms or my love handles” and my response is “keep to your nutrition plan and your exercise and the fat will come off where it’s going to come off.” This is why diets that are trying to sell you on a Flatter Tummy in 20 Days is bullshit because you cannot target fat loss to specific areas.
(I weighed nearly the same in both photos.)
Taking photos of yourself at various intervals will allow you to line them up next to each other and see the more subtle changes. For example, seeing how your face and neck thin out is one that we often miss when looking in the mirror but one of the more obvious ones to other people who are looking at our face first and foremost. Photos will also allow you to see things like how your booty looks more lifted or how the definition in your upper back muscles is more apparent.
If your goal is body re-composition, then you’ll be losing fat, yes, but you’ll also be putting on lean muscle mass (a totally redundant term, by the way, since all muscle is lean). Even with photos and measurements, it can sometimes be difficult to appreciate how much muscle we are gaining. One of the easier ways to determine this is simply to track your progress in the gym. How much weight are you squatting this week versus two months ago? How much easier do pull-ups feel this week?
Keep a journal documenting the weights you lift in the gym each session. This will tell you your strength and muscle gain, but it will also help you continue to progress your strength, push yourself appropriately, and make the most out of your time in the gym. There’s nothing more sad than watching someone squat 95 pounds perfectly week after week after week just because they never push themselves to add more weight.
If you want help adhering to a training program, be sure to take a look at our fully immersive Barbell Strength Training Program which includes coaching videos from yours truly on nutrition, mindset, training strategy and more.
This is the very first change I noticed about my body back in 2013 when I started squatting under a barbell. As my abs, shoulders and spinal erectors got stronger, I was able to stand up taller with my shoulders back. I vividly remember that I was standing in line at a bank and it just hit me like a tidal wave that I felt taller. My spine felt long, my body felt strong and I was more confident than I have ever been. I think this is why I have such a special place in my heart for squats because deep down I knew that squatting under load had changed my life forever.
Do you sit at a desk all day? Have you previously had back pain? Well, maybe one way you notice you are getting healthier is that you are sitting taller at your desk. Maybe your coworkers have noticed.
“After working with Hill, everyday tasks are easier. I take the stairs instead of the elevator, I can carry far more groceries the quarter mile between my car and my flat, people have noticed me sitting up straighter at my desk and I have far fewer joint creaks in the morning! I sleep better, and I'm smaller in inches. And I think those are some of the changes everyone hopes for and expects!”
Many of you have had this exact moment - you are walking up a flight of stairs at work or in a parking garage. You’re clutching the railing, gasping for breath and you say out loud “I need to get in shape.”
Hey, I’ve been there too.
As you begin to improve your aerobic capacity, build more strength in your legs, lose fat and build muscle, that long climb begins to feel easier. You might not get out of breath as quickly or at all. Soon enough you are electing to take the stairs because it makes you feel good, reminding you how far you’ve come. This type of progress is what makes all the hard work worth it.
Now, if you have been relatively lean or in shape most of your life, this may never have been a big deal to you. One week of light jogging may get you right back to where you were at your most in-shape. However, for those of you who have carried (or do carry) 100lbs+ of extra body fat, this moment of identifying your progress could be a truly emotional and deeply important point in your path to health. If walking up a flight of stairs is something that you have dreaded for years, imagine what a relief it would be to simply not have shame or anxiety surrounding this moment.
No amount of progress is too small to celebrate.
You may be familiar with the instant high you get after getting a good, sweaty workout, thanks largely to the release of the mood-boosting endorphins. But did you know that there are also improvements to chronic depression and anxiety connected with exercise? Regular exercise upregulates serotonin which helps your brain control mood, sleep and appetite. Serotonin helps regulate your circadian rhythm and will improve your quality of sleep and we all know that getting a good night of sleep leaves us feeling better. Exercise also increases BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which supports the growth of new neurons and synapses particularly in areas related to memory. BDNF also supports the growth and health of motor neurons like in skeletal muscle which will continue to help you perform better in your sport.
Regular and consistent exercise is sometimes (though not often enough) prescribed as a first line of defense against anxiety or depression and has been shown to be as effective as antidepressant medication for people who were previously inactive. It would certainly cost less too and have fewer negative side effects.
It will lift your mood, too, to note that exercise has been shown to:
It seems almost too obvious to state that working out makes you feel better. But aside from the obvious, there is much evidence to support that there are positive physiological changes occurring in your brain and body when you are regularly exercising.
You live on the third floor and have to trudge your groceries all the way from the parking garage. Oh, and the elevator is broken and you took your dog on a walk too so you only have one arm to carry three bags of this week’s provisions. But it’s all good because you’ve been hitting the gym hard and your arms and core are stronger than ever.
There’s no getting around it, it’s just plain useful to be strong.
The little, daily tasks you loathe simply become easier once you start getting in shape. I see so many clients develop a better mindset about how hard it is to get in shape once they see how much easier it is to get through basic tasks. Suddenly, it’s not so much about getting a six pack or a bikini bod, but rather “wow, I was helping my friend move this weekend and it wasn’t so hard because my back wasn’t hurting.” I think so many of us start out our health journey with these illusions that the most important result is getting shredded and throwing it in our skinnier sister’s face, but as the journey continues, we realize that we got something even more valuable out of the process: we can live life harder and better.
Nothing supports a good workout routine like great nutrition. And nothing makes you want to adhere to your nutrition program more than watching how it improves your workouts. It’s cyclical like the snake that eats its own tail. The more you see yourself improve in the gym, the more you are going to be motivated to structure your diet to keep the progress rolling. I think that’s when you know you’ve made it to a really good mental place with health - when you make the conscious decision to put down the pizza and beer and reach for the protein instead because you remember that training always feels like garbage the day after having pizza and beer.
And along those same lines...
Millions of people view exercise as a chore and something they do their whole entire lives strictly out of that obligatory understanding that it’s in some way good for them. But every single time they strap on their running shoes or show up to the gym, they begrudge it. I would say that if you find yourself in the place where you start to crave a workout and feel “off” if you skip training, or if you catch yourself in a bad mood saying “I’ll feel better if I get to the gym,” then you have won a huge battle that most people never even know they are fighting. Congratulations!
The path to a healthier life is long and winding and I often wonder what it would be like if I could instantly step back into my pre-healthy body eight years ago just to see what my baseline “normal” used to feel like. I believe that a lot of us don’t even realize how crappy we feel on a daily basis because we don’t have anything else to compare it to. Our energy is low, our backs hurt, our stomachs are always upset and our brains are foggy.
Building a stronger core will help lower back pain because the muscles around your spine are able to support your posture better. Exercise improves inflammation and inflammatory conditions like arthritis. Exercising also improves circulation which will increase blood flow to your joints, allowing more healing oxygen and other nutrients to flow through stiff and sore joints. Losing body fat will ease the burden and impact on your joints and building stronger muscles surrounding those joints will strengthen your skeletal structure as well. Regular functional movement will maintain your mobility. If you have an aching knee, it could be that your hips are extremely tight, causing your quadriceps to pull on your knee cap and create pain in the joint. By doing things like full-depth squats and stretching out those tight muscles afterwards, it will allow you to keep a fuller range of motion of your joints which becomes especially important as you age.
Many people have started training with me saying “I can’t deadlift because I have back pain.” I think few of these people realize that their back pain is likely because they don’t deadlift and don’t have any core strength. It may seem counter-intuitive, but lifting heavy and using those muscle groups that are problem areas for you, may actually self-correct over time (assuming you are using safe lifting mechanics and increasing load gradually).
When your body spends too much time in one position, it will start to yell at you and the simple act of switching up your position, your movement or your daily habits can greatly improve aches and pains that you believed were irreversible. The human body is a powerful machine and it wants to be used.
When you take away the progress photos, body measurement, bloodwork or performance indicators, you are faced with you and your own mind. Getting healthier is good for a lot of reasons, but you wouldn’t care about any of those reasons if you didn’t want to just simply feel good in your own skin. Ignore what you see in the mirror. How do you feel about the person that’s in the mirror? How do you think of yourself? Whatever health looks like to you, the closer you get to that ultimate goal, the more confidence you will have just strutting around day to day. When your body gets strong, your mind gets strong too and you feel more confident in tackling hard things. I’m not just talking about hard thing like 100 burpees and push-ups, but rather hard things like the curveballs that life throws at us. If you are speaking in front of a crowded room, you’ll stand up tall with your new posture and sense of self-worth and you will dominate that room. If you need to change a tire in the rain and there’s no cell signal to call AAA, it won’t be the end of the world because you’re strong and you can figure it out. If you try on an outfit and you don’t love the way you look, it’s not going to ruin your day because you know that you feel good inside and that you’re cool with where you are on your path to health.
In my opinion, you can throw away all the rest of these health indicators as long as you have this one on lock.
BMI, or Body Mass Index, is an indicator of weight, or mass, that is calculated based on your height and weight. In my not-so-humble opinion, this piece of data is useless for one simple reason: it does not take into account the amount of lean muscle mass you have. Remember how muscle tissue weighs more than fat? You can take a very muscular and lean individual and put them next to a very overweight or unhealthy individual and they will have the same BMI.
Let’s take myself as an example.
As I write this now, I am 5’7” and currently weigh 173lbs. Not my leanest, but not my heaviest either. In fact, I would say I am stronger with more muscle mass than I have ever been. According to the formula, I have a score of 27.1 which is considered in the mid-range of overweight.
(173lbs and considered overweight based on BMI)
How about when I was at my very leanest, 162, dieting hard, training five days a week plus extra cardio. Oh, and I might add that this is when I developed overtraining syndrome and adrenal fatigue and had an irregular menstrual cycle. I woke up every morning dreading the moment of stepping on the scale and when it hadn’t dropped lower, I ignored how shitty I was feeling in training and the fact that I was have terrible quality sleep and just kept pushing harder, believing that I wasn’t working hard enough. I weighed a hard-fought 162 and according to my DexaBody Scan I had 127lbs of lean tissue (muscle, water, bone and organs) and I had the beginnings of a six-pack. This gives me a BMI of 25.4 which is considered on the low end of overweight.
(162lbs and still considered overweight based on BMI)
What if I weighed 142lbs? I would be a BMI of 22.2, right in the middle of normal. With 127lbs of lean tissue, I would also have only 10% bodyfat, which is 3% below the minimal amount of bodyfat required for a female to sustain life.
I discourage clients from making declarations like “I want to lose 20 pounds” because we really aren’t able to discern how many pounds of weight lost would bring us to a body where we can feel and perform our best. At the end of the day, you are better off keeping an eye on these other holistic indicators of health to see how you are progressing towards your goals and letting go of the scale.
Getting healthier, whatever that means to you, is deeply personal. It’s a road many of us wander onto at some point in our adult lives, and many of us wander off of again and again. Even though we know instinctively that exercise and eating well is good for us and will help us live longer, we resist it. And that’s because it’s really hard. It’s hard to know what is the right way to eat or to train and it’s hard to know who to trust. Everyone is trying to sell you on something, but when it comes down to it, you don’t need fancy machines or formulas to tell you if you are getting healthier. You will know because you’ll feel it in your bones...and in the way you fit into your jeans.