Tracking Your Progress

“I’m going to drop 10 lbs by summer”. “Time to get rid of this holiday weight”. “I have to be under X weight before the seasons starts”. Many of you may have made goals like these at one point or another, using the scale to measure your progress, and, ultimately, determine your success. I mean, it’s easy to do. You can get a bathroom scale or as little as 20 bucks, and every time you use it, it’s free! There are some benefits to tracking your weight, but it’s important to make sure you go about it the right way, and don’t neglect other important measures of your overall health and fitness. In this post I’ll explain some of the common measurements used to track progress and give my advice on tracking progress and setting goals.

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The Scale Good old bathroom scale. For most people, this can be helpful to track your weight as a measure of progress toward weight loss goals. For some sports like rowing, wrestling, and weightlifting, how much you weigh determines which class of competition you’re in, which can ultimately affect how you place. In this case, the scale can help you get to and maintain your ideal weight for your sport. Keeping track of your weight is also good because it allows you to monitor changes and can prevent any major changes from happening without you noticing (you know, like when you go on vacation and come back 10 pounds heavier…). Just keep in mind a few do’s and don’ts when tracking your body weight:

DO weigh yourself at the same time of day, wearing the same type of clothing.

DON’T weigh yourself daily. This does nothing helpful, and usually results in frustration.

DON’T get hung up on weight. Most women’s weight can vary 2-4 pounds due to normal fluctuations. These fluctuations can be a result of salt or carbohydrate intake (meals high in either will cause the body to retain water), or hormonal cycles.

DO take your weight in the context of other things. How do your clothes fit? How do you feel? How has your nutrition been? Weight is an important number, but it is not the only number.

Body Mass Index, often referred to as BMI, is basically a ratio of your height and weight. According to the standard, your BMI indicates:

Underweight: less than 18.5

Normal weight: 18.5 – 24.9

Overweight: 25 – 29.9

Obese: greater than 30

In a clinical setting (hospital or doctors office) this measurement is most often used as a screening tool and can give your doctor a general sense of your weight status and how it may affect your health. However, BMI doesn’t take muscle mass into account, so BMI places many competitive athletes in the “overweight” category. For example, Tim Tebow, NFL quarterback and feature on the September cover of GQ, has a BMI around 27, classifying him as overweight. Conversely, a person could be of normal weight according to BMI but still be over fat. So it is important to take BMI with a grain of salt, and for most people, I would not recommend using it as a measure of progress.

Body Fat Percentage is one of the more useful means of tracking progress, but it’s a little more difficult to measure and can be inaccurate, costly, or both. The most accurate measures are Dual Energy X-Ray Absorbptiometry (DEXA) scans and Bod Pods. The DEXA scan, which uses two x-ray beam

s at different energy levels to measure muscle tissue, bone density, and fat, is one of the most accurate methods of body composition assessment.  Unfortunately, DEXAs are expensive and hard to find.

Bod Pods are egg-shaped machines that use air displacement to determine your body composition. They are fairly accurate, with about plus or minus 3% error, and are widely used among professional and collegiate athletes to measure body composition. They can cost anywhere from $20 – $65 per use depending on the location. If you’re interested in finding a Bod Pod, you can use this link  to find one near you.

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The most accessible and easiest method is to use skin calipers. This measurement of body composition measurement is offered at many gyms or health clubs, but they rely heavily on human error. If you decide to use body fat percentage to track your progress, remember to

–       Pick one method and stick to it

–       Check periodically, about every 6 weeks, until you are within your goal range

–       Measure under the same conditions at the same time of day if possible

–       If you use skin calipers, try to have the same person do the measuring each time to minimize error

As a reference, here are the norms for body fat percentage for men and women from the American Council on Exercise (ACE).




Essential body fat (what your body needs to protect organs and form cell membranes)















Pants Size. This can be a great indicator of whether or not to be concerned about your weight. Did the scale go up 5 pounds but your pants are fitting looser? You probably gained some muscle and lost some fat. If you start to notice your pants are getting a little tight, it may be time to reevaluate how well you’re sticking to your nutrition and/or workout plan.

Health Markers. By “health markers” I mean the types of measures taken at your annual physical. Like blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol. For most people, the normal ranges are:

Blood pressure: less than 120/80 mm Hg

Total cholesterol: less than 200 mg/dL

LDL cholesterol: less than 130 mg/dL

HDL cholesterol: greater than 40 mg/dL for men and 50 mg/dL for women

Blood sugar: 65-110 mg/dL

It is important to note that these numbers can be within the normal range even for people who are overweight and at risk for problems down the road. However, these numbers are important and you should be aware of them. Even in healthy people, cutting out processed, high sodium foods can lower blood pressure and eating more healthy fat compared to trans and saturated fats can improve cholesterol numbers.

Adherence to nutrition and training plan. Are you eating nutritious, whole foods? Paying attention to portion sizes and including lots of vegetables and lean protein? Are you working out regularly? Adherence isn’t a good indicator all by itself, but it’s important to make note of. This doesn’t mean you need to write down everything you eat every day, but it can be easy to let thing slip, so if you feel more sluggish during workouts or have less energy, it may be a good idea to keep a food journal for a few days to get you back on track.

Your own opinion. Sometimes this one is the most important and yet the least measured. What do you think about how you look and feel? Get naked. Take a look in the mirror. Do you like what you see? Do you like how your clothes fit? Do you feel good and have lots of energy? Are you getting stronger, faster, or better at your sport? No matter what you choose as a measurement of progress, always, always include this one.

To Wrap it Up…

For the most part, I like to recommend picking 2 or 3 measures of success and setting a goal for each one. These measures should be:

1. A numerical measure of body composition that is relatively easy to measure like weight or body fat percentage

2. A fitness related measure like 1 rep max deadlift or 5K time

3. A fun and achievable measure like how well your old jeans fit or your ability to pick up a new sport

Set a goal for each category that motivates you and follows SMART criteria (flash back to undergraduate business class anyone?) by being specific, measurable, achievable, relevant to you, and time-based.

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