11 Ways to Measure Your Fitness Progress
Last Updated: May 30, 2014
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What's your measurement of success on your fitness journey? Is it the number on the scale? How much weight you can lift? The way your clothes fit? “The point of taking measurements is to come up with meaningful data that you can act on and know whether or not the steps you’ve taken are helping you reach your goals,” says Mark Nutting, CSCS, fitness director and master trainer with Saco Sport & Fitness, in Saco, ME. “The assessments you choose should relate directly to your goals.” Here are 11 ways to track your progress. Some are better than others depending on your goals, so find one or two that work for you and get started.
BODY MASS INDEX (BMI)
Let's start with the basics. Body mass index (BMI) is simply a ratio of your height to weight. Use a BMI calculator (like the one on the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute website). The number you get falls into one of four ranges: underweight (less than 18.5), normal weight (18.5 to 24.9), overweight (25 to 29.9) or obese (greater than 30). But there are drawbacks. Your BMI doesn't take into account muscle mass versus fat mass. That means muscular individuals often show up with a higher BMI, which could place them in the "obese" category. So it's best to use your BMI only as a starting point for how you're progressing.
Calculate Your BMI
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THE BATHROOM SCALE
The most obvious measuring tool may not be the best unless you pair it with another method. “The scale does not tell the whole story,” says strength and conditioning coach Mark Nutting. “Using other methods (skinfold calipers, ultrasound, underwater weighing, etc.) to measure body composition gives you a better idea of the changes you’re making in your body.” The scale best measures progress when it’s used alongside other tools.
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Measuring progress by tracking your waist, hips, abdomen and other body sites can substitute for body-fat measurements when used with bathroom-scale readouts, says strength coach Mark Nutting. “It’s helpful, for example, if your weight hasn’t changed but you’ve dropped two pant sizes. It shows you’ve probably gained muscle and lost fat, so the scale shows a net loss of zero.” Good sites to measure include waist (circle around where you normally wear a belt), hips (at the widest part), thigh (at the widest part) and chest (at the fullest part).
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HEALTH AND FITNESS APPS
Apps that track your food and exercise are essentially journals, says strength coach Mark Nutting. They create greater mindfulness about what you choose to track and a record so that you can follow changes over time. “Tracking weight loss or having exercises available can make beginners successful if they utilize the tools in apps,” says Averill Kessee, certified trainer at At One Fitness in North Hollywood, Calif. Apps can also hold you accountable in between personal-training sessions, he says. Popular ones for measuring progress include MyPlate (food and calorie tracker), MyFitnessPal (calorie tracker), MapMyRide (measures routes for cycling) and MapMyRun (tracks your run).
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THE FIT OF YOUR CLOTHES
When you can’t button your favorite pair of pants, it’s easy to blame it on dryer shrinkage, but not if you’re being honest with yourself. “Personally, I like the clothing method,” says Irv Rubenstein, Ph.D., exercise physiologist and founder of STEPS Fitness, a science-based fitness facility in Nashville, Tenn. Find an item of clothing you’d like to fit into. If after a designated amount of time you find it easier to put on or it doesn’t look nearly as stretched out, then whatever you’re doing is working. “Clearly this does not calculate body fat, but as with the fancier so-called scientific tools available to the average fitness pro, it will give you a relative measure of success,” says Rubenstein.
HANDHELD BODY-FAT MEASURER
This strange-looking device tracks body fat through a gentle, electrical current either though your upper body. It may be simple to use, but it isn’t always very accurate, says exercise physiologist Irv Rubenstein. “Any bioelectric impedance tool is subject to a variety of sources of error. For one thing, they only send a current partially through the body and calculate, based on the rate of return of the signal and a bunch of formulae, how much fat got in the way of the current.” Rubenstein says their greatest value lies in measuring pre- and post-exercise or diet progress for any one person.
Resembling a bathroom scale, body-fat scales have the same challenges as handheld models (see #6), says exercise physiologist Irv Rubenstein. Hydration levels and the timing of your last meal eaten can change the outcomes, but using the scale at the same time each day gives you a relative measure of your progress. You should be hydrated when you step on the scale, says Rubenstein, as water conducts a current better than fat. And ideally you've not eaten a large meal recently, because the fluids in your stomach from the food can distort the conduction, he says.
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It may look like a torture device, but calipers are a sophisticated way of "pinching an inch." They're often used by personal trainers to measure a client’s body fat, and it’s important to find someone skilled at operating them in order to get accurate measurements, says Rubenstein. “The cheap, plastic ones will not give you good results from a scientific standpoint, but again, if used consistently by the same measurement taker, you can get a relatively accurate idea of the success (or failure) of a program," he says. Trainers will generally use calipers to measure at seven sites: chest, abdominal, thigh, triceps, subscapular (under your shoulder blades), suprailiac (near you hipbone) and midaxillary (under your armpit). Measurements are then entered into an equation to determine body fat.
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PINCHING AN INCH
Pinching your midsection to “measure” fatness is very subjective and a difficult way to determine progress, says personal trainer Averill Kessee. “It only shows where a client’s body is at that moment.” Loose skin can vary with individuals who are obese, women who’ve recently given birth or those who’ve lost a lot of weight that results in hanging skin. Plus, your hydration level and how much water you're retaining can impact your result as well. Using another measurement to ascertain a growing “pinch” or weight loss will give you a better idea of where you stand.
KEEPING A JOURNAL
Putting pen to paper has been shown to help keep you focused and organized, whether you're tracking eating habits or recording workout progress, says personal trainer Averill Kessee. But keep it simple. “When journaling your workouts, break them out by body part.” Make note of weaker body parts and focus on them in your next workout. If you're recording your caloric intake, track not only the food, but also the amount, where you were when you ate it (the car, on the run), the time (are you always starving at 2:00?) and even your mood to see if you’re eating in reaction to hunger or emotions.
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BEFORE AND AFTER PHOTOS
Photos are a way to really objectively see your progress. Take your before pictures the day you start your fitness program (or within the first week). Men should take the photos wearing shorts or a swimsuit without a shirt, and women should be in a bikini or shorts and a bra. It's important to see your stomach -- and be sure not to suck it in! -- since you may see your most pronounced changes in that area. Use a tripod or get a friend or family member to help you take the photos. Stand in front of a plain wall with as little clutter behind you as possible. Take the photos again -- wearing the same clothing -- 30 days later.
How to Take Your BEFORE and AFTER Photos
Adobe Stock/Sergey Peterman
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Are you trying to reach a fitness goal? How have you been measuring your weight-loss progress? Have you tried any of these methods? Or will you give any of them a shot? Which ones should we have included in the list? Share your suggestions, stories and successes in the comments section below!
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