Why We Should Ditch the Scale on our Fitness Journeys

Sometimes we can all be a little concerned and preoccupied, scratch that, we can be a little obsessed with making sure the number on the scale goes down when we start our fitness and health journey. Is that necessary a good thing? Guest feature blogger, and certified strength and conditioning specialist, Tony Gentilcore discusses this issue on our blog today!

 Should You Use Scale Weight as a Measure of Success? Hint: No

There’s certainly no shortage of articles, blogs, and rants out there in the digital world decreeing, loudly, that using a scale to measure success is kind of pointless.SPOILER ALERT:  this is going to be one of those rants.

I’ve been working as a trainer and coach for well over a decade now working with various females – short, tall, skinny, overweight, athletic, blue-collar, white-collar, Team Jacob, Team Edward – helping them achieve “the look.”

What “the look” entails I’m not exactly sure, as different women have different goals and different viewpoints on what they’d prefer to look like. More often than not, though, for most, it just comes down to feeling and looking better, and not being bashful at rocking a strapless dress whenever the time calls for it. Or, to put it more succinctly (and a tad less narcissistic):  just becoming the best version of YOU that you can be regardless of sexiness factor or societal standards.

If I had to narrow it down to one celebrity who gets the most “Yeah, I want to look like her” nods it would undoubtedly go towards Mrs. Justin Timberlake (AKA: Jessica Biel.) In my experience this is “the look” which many women I’ve worked with have gravitated towards. But again, it’s just one example and doesn’t represent a universal mindset – so please, please, PLEASE don’t mistake this as me saying “hey ladies, this is what you should look like!” Because at the end of the day, it’s about you, not me.

But here’s the deal: it’s a fairly well known fact that Jessica is a very active person who routinely lifts weights, plays sports, and leads a healthy lifestyle.  Or, at least that’s what all the magazine articles and interviews tells us. Her celebrity status aside, I look at her and see a full-figured, athletic woman who doesn’t look frail, weak, emaciated, or the second coming of that creepy skeleton looking guy from Tales of the Crypt.

Unfortunately, many (not all) women are under the impression that in order to achieve said look they have to diet for months (if not years on end), do copious amounts of long-duration, steady state cardio, and avoid lifting weights like the plague.

To steal a quote from Nia Shanks: “We’re often given the impression by the diet industry and mainstream media that dieting and metabolic health go together like peas and carrots. But in reality, most diet plans that claim to boost your metabolism are really just low-calorie deprivation diets in disguise. Just a quick internet search reveals a disturbing trend: these diet plans that promise to raise your metabolism often recommend eating as little as 1000-1400 calories a day.”

I don’t think it’s wrong for me to say that many women fall into this trap (guys do too, by the way) and often end up stuck in this never ending cycle of dieting, feeling like poop, not getting ideal results, dieting some more, feeling even more like poop, not getting results, and well, you get the idea. They’ll hop on the scale – as if that’s somehow the end-all-be-all panacea of health – and see that they’ve made little (if any) headway in terms of the number going down, feel even more desperate and frustrated and repeat the cycle over and over and over again.

Why doesn’t dieting typically work?  To steal another quote from Elizabeth: “Because the body views dieting as a famine (it doesn’t know what a bikini is or why you’d want to starve yourself to wear one). The body detects a lack of energy coming from food, so it turns to alternative energy sources to cope with the shortage. And how does the body access alternative energy sources? By releasing stress hormones.”

And while it’s much more complicated than this (I’m going to refrain from going into the actual physiology), the body will go into “preservation mode” and start storing fat to stave off a perceived threat. As such, many women will continue this perpetual cycle, jump on the scale expecting that all their suffering will somehow lead to weight loss, only to be disappointed, pissed off, frustrated, and thiiiiiiis close to punching a kitten in the mouth. True story.

100% of the time I feel cardio is drastically overemphasized and could be more deleterious than beneficial.  While I don’t want to go into the semantics here and start WWIII, I’ll admit it: I’m a strength coach, so of course I’m going to be adamant that women actually lift weights.  Appreciable weights.  None of this soup can/pink-dumbbell high rep nonsense.

Listen: If you want to change how your body looks – like, in a “holy shit, did I go to high school with you?” kind of way – you actually have to put forth some effort.

You need to actually provide enough of a stress to make it change. Deep down, do you really think that lifting a weight that weighs less than your purse is going to do anything as far as body composition goes?

Come on, really? No seriously, really?

You get out of it what you put in. If you lift light weights, your body is going to represent that fact: You’ll look frail and weak. Maybe that’s what you want.  And if so, more power to you. I guess.  But I doubt that’s the case. Now I’m not saying women have to lift weights so that they can win a knife fight in a back alley or challenge The Rock to an arm wrestling match, but I can’t stress enough how crucial it is to, you know, actually challenge the body and work. Only then will you see the fruits of your labor.

Which is why I’d much rather see women focus more on strength/performance based goals rather than the scale to gauge progress/success. Without getting overly technical, one lb. of muscle weighs the same as one lb. of fat, albeit takes up 25% less space. This is why you will often see contestants on the television show “The Biggest Loser” weigh the same as many professional athletes, despite being the twice the size. Muscle is also metabolically active tissue which will also helps you burn more fat. In essence, someone might see very little overall weight loss or even GAIN weight in order to achieve “the look.” The latter is especially true for petite women.

As an example, a 5 foot 4 ,140 lb. woman with 25% body fat wants to look leaner and achieve that “toned” look. She wants those flabby arms to go away and she wants to fit into those pair of jeans that she used to wear back in college. To do so, this particular woman feels she should lose weight and get down to 110-115 lbs. through restrictive dieting and copious amounts of cardio. If she takes that course, she may look thinner, but at the expense of looking like a smaller, weaker version of her original self.

Conversely, let’s take the right course instead.

Six months later the same 5’4” woman has followed a resistance training program (which is also great for strengthening bones and preventing osteoporosis), changed her diet to include more healthy fats (fish oil, nuts, avocado, olive oil, butter, coconut oil, etc.) protein (i.e.: chicken breast, lean beef, eggs, cottage cheese, whey protein shakes) and less refined carbohydrates (i.e.: cereal bars, bagels, 100 calorie snack foods), and most importantly, she threw away her scale.

She made more QUALITATIVE goals and challenged herself to work up to being able to do five, un-assisted chin-ups as well as deadlift 200 lbs. Mind you:  when she started, she wasn’t even close to doing ONE chin-up, and could barely deadlift 100 lbs. without shitting a liver.

Now she’s 135 lbs. with 18% body fat. She lost eleven lbs. of fat and gained six lbs. of lean muscle, for a net loss of only five lbs. But she looks like she lost 15 lbs. She’s not “skinny-fat.” She’s stronger and healthier. And she can fit into those jeans no less!

Using a more real life example, here’s a before/after pic that’s made its way around the internet which I feel gets the message across pretty concretely: Most women would faint at the notion of GAINING nine lbs., but try to tell me that the after picture doesn’t look like she LOST weight?

You see:  the scale only measures QUANTITATIVE progress.  For some, especially those who are morbidly obese and need to lose weight for health reasons, it makes sense to track weight using the scale.  For everyone else, however, it’s nothing more than mind f***.

Seeing the number on a scale go down doesn’t really tell you the QUALITY of weight being lost. As noted above, many will sacrifice muscle – which I’d argue you want to keep as much of as possible – in lieu of just seeing a loss. Any loss. A number dip on the scale doesn’t tell you the quality of the weight being lost.

Closing Up Shop

Many women make the mistake of equating progress with the number on the scale going down. If they don’t see the number going down on a weekly basis, they feel they’re failing. Let me make this simple. The scale can be very misleading and in a lot of ways, invalid.

How do you know the weight you’re losing is fat and not valuable muscle?

You should be more concerned with what the mirror is telling you. Are you losing inches around the body? Do your clothes fit better?  Are you lifting more weight now compared to two months ago?  Can you bang out ten crisp push-ups whereas before you could barely do one?

Perhaps these results are less quantifiable and harder to notice, however, the sooner you realize that these are better indicators of progress, the better off you will be. This isn’t to say the above is an all-encompassing mentality either.  I realize that there are extenuating circumstances, and that utilizing the scale does have some merit. But for 95% of the women who are reading this post, it doesn’t correlate to much.

Actionable Item

Do yourself a favor:  for TWO months ditch the scale.  Give yourself a goal. It could be squatting “x” weight for “y” reps, improving bench press technique, performing your first chin-up, and doing a handstand!  Anything!  Whatever you do, just focus on that instead.

Don’t let the scale dictate your mindset.

Blog Post From Tony Gentilcore: Tony is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) holding a degree in Health Education with a concentration in Health/Wellness Promotion from the State University of New York at Cortland. Tony has established an outstanding reputation due to his no-nonsense approach to training, unique perspective on program design, and corrective exercise experience.

Tony is also one of the co-founders of Cressey Performance, located in Hudson, MA. Check out his article archives. Visit his website for some more awesome blog articles! http://www.tonygentilcore.com/