Scale Tales: Why Your Weight Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story
You wake up in the morning, step on the scale, and stare back at the number dumbfounded.
Weight loss: 0 pounds. Weight gain: 0 pounds.
Or maybe you’re even up a pound or two.
Kind of feels like a recipe for frustration and insanity, right?
If you replay your past week of eating and exercise, and realize you missed workouts and overindulged, you might accept the news from the all-mighty scale.
But if you’ve been training hard and eating right for a week or more, and still get this kind of response when you step on the scale, it’s easy to feel defeated.
If that sounds anything like the scale tales you’ve experienced, you’re not alone.
Does that mean you need to re-calibrate your scale, only use an old-time scale with sliding weights, or only rely on the scale at the doctor’s office?
Probably none of the above will make much of a difference. Why not?
The Scale Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story
Well, your weight doesn’t tell the whole story when you’re on a mission to shred fat, build muscle, and transform your body.
In fact, research suggests that the scale alone isn’t the best way to measure progress and serve as motivation to encourage exercise and healthy eating. Instead, a more holistic approach to measuring weight loss appears to be more effective. 
Here’s how Ohio State University research Dr. Tracy Tylka explains it:
“Data reveal that the weight-normative approach [only using the scale] is not effective for most people because of high rates of weight regain and cycling from weight loss interventions, which are linked to adverse health and well-being.”
Tylka says that if the scale is the only way you measure your weight loss journey, it has the potential to set you up for failure, lead to yo-yo dieting and weight gain, and negatively impact self esteem.
However, using the scale in addition to other methods of measuring progress can lead to behavior changes that support long-term weight loss.
5 Reasons The Scale Doesn’t Know Everything
Ever wonder why the scale alone isn’t the best way to measure your progress?
First let’s look at why a daily weigh-in can help you.
You’ve probably heard of people who weigh-in religiously every single day.
It can be an effective way to help you be more mindful about your training habits and your eating patterns. And some research suggests people who weigh-in daily have greater success with weight loss and weight management than those who don’t.
But stepping on the scale is an imperfect way to measure your progress for a lot of reasons. For example, the scale doesn’t measure:
1. Bone density. On average, your bones account for about 15 percent of your body weight. But if you’ve gone from zero activity to weeks of consistent strength training, your bone density will be greater, which may be one reason for an increase in weight.
2. Muscle mass. Let’s clarify the muscle weighs more than fat confusion. One pound of muscle and one pound of fat weigh exactly the same. But a pound of fat takes up almost twice as much space as a pound of muscle, because muscle tissue is denser than fat. So you lose a little weight, but gain a little muscle on a hypertrophy program, and the scale doesn’t know the difference.
3. Water retention. Ever weigh yourself after a vacation of too-much eating out, fast food, and grab-and-go processed meals? If you’re relying on the scale, it might lead you to believe you’ve gained 10 to 15 pounds in a matter of days. But that’s easily attributed to water retention from consuming too many high-sodium foods. For women, the monthly menstrual cycle can have similar effect on water retention. And the scale just doesn’t understand this. It’s one reason your weight can fluctuate by a few pounds even between morning and evening.
4. Body fat percentage. It’s another way of looking at the muscle mass vs. body fat comparison. The scale doesn’t know the difference. It just measures overall weight.
But wait. You’ve got one of those bioimpedance scales that estimates body fat percentage. It might give you a rough estimate. But it’s not nearly as accurate as the gold standard DEXA scan (dual energy x-ray absorptiometry) for measuring body fat, lean muscle mass, and other biometric data of overall weight.
5. The way your clothes fit. A couple weeks into a shred with lots of training and clean eating, how do your clothes fit? If you jump into a training plan like this after being sedentary or a long break from serious training, a lot of people experience some big changes early on. The scale might not move a lot, but if your clothes fit differently (looser, especially around the waist), it’s an indicator you’re making progress that the scale can’t capture.
The Scale and Other Ways to Measure Progress
Consider the scale a way to measure your progress, but don’t hang all your success and self confidence on what the scale says from day to day. In reality, weight loss or fat loss isn’t a perfectly linear process.
For most people it’s a process with ups and downs in the short term, and ideally a long-term trend of success that leads you to getting leaner and stronger.
If a daily weight fluctuation of a couple of pounds bothers you, resist the urge to step on the scale that often. Instead check in once a week, and use other methods to track your progress like:
Measurements. The most common measurements: Chest, waist, hips. You can also track your progress by measuring changes in bust, thighs, knees, calves, upper arms, and forearms.
Progress pics. Most transformations happen in small increments that are hard to notice from day to day. But compare Week 1 to Week 12, and there’s often a dramatic change in appearance, and body composition. Take weekly progress pics, front, back, and side, to track your progress.
Journal. It doesn’t have to be the “dear diary” kind of journal. Just a way to keep track of how you’re feeling, how your clothes fit, and what you think about the journey you’re on. Reflecting on your mindset, weight, body image, workouts, etc., can be a great way to track your progress.
Performance goals. Instead of focusing on a specific weight-loss goal, set performance goals. Prepping all your meals. Eating clean. Limiting yourself to one cheat meal a week. Fitting in all your lifting and cardio workouts. These are things you can control and measure to help you progress, that the number on the scale can’t.
There’s nothing wrong with stepping on the scale to track your progress. It’s a good way to help you be mindful of your training and nutrition habits. But the scale doesn’t tell the whole story.
- Tylka, T., et al. (2014). The weight-inclusive versus weight-normative approach to health: Evaluating the evidence for prioritizing well-being over weight loss. Journal of Obesity. From: https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jobe/2014/983495/
- Steinberg, D. M., et al. Weighing every day matters: daily weighing improves weight loss and adoption of weight control behaviors. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. From: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25683820
- Berkeley University. (2013). Body fat scales: Step right up? Remedy Health Media. From: www.berkeleywellness.com/healthy-eating/diet-weight-loss/article/body-fat-scales-step-right