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

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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), circa whenever it was she did that redunkulous spread in GQ Magazine.

Don’t shoot the messenger!  I’m just stating that 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 justify my point – especially with regards to the dieting side of things – Elizabeth Walling had an amazing guest post over on Nia Shanks’ blog the other day on the stress and damage caused by chronic “dieting.”

To steal a quote:

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.

On the training side of the equation, we typically have the treadmill/Zumba class/step-aerobics/ avoid lifting weights at all costs camp.

Listen, I’m not here to bash “cardio.” I recognize that it’s part of the equation and that any well-rounded fitness/health routine will include some (key word: some).

That said, 100% of the time I feel it’s 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 just defer to an excellent (albeit controversial) article that John Kiefer wrote a while back titled Women: Running Into Trouble.

With that little song and dance out of the way I’ll admit it:  I’m biased.  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.

Following a resistance training program helps build muscle which increases strength and firmness. Aside from that, 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. I just threw up a little in my mouth using the word toned, but I’ll run with it to get my point across.

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 (ie: chicken breast, lean beef, eggs, cottage cheese, whey protein shakes) and less refined carbohydrates (ie: 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 measure 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.

Hell, losing weight is easy.

1.  Don’t drink any water for a day.

2.  Go to the bathroom and drop it like it’s hot.

Problem solved.

See what I mean? Seeing a number dip on the scale doesn’t tell you the quality of the weight being lost.

And just to save face, as I noted above, for some, using the scale makes sense. Those who need to lose weight for health reasons would be high on the list.

Likewise, I’d even go so far as to say that those who take more of a Curious George approach and are very inquisitive or “in tune” with their bodies (think: physique athletes) would fall into this camp as well.

For most, they just want to see what variables – following a certain diet plan (low carb/high carb, intermittent fasting, Paleo?) or exercise routine (5/3/1, body part splits)  – will do as far as fluctuations in their body weight.

This even applies to those who don’t compete, too.

As an example, I was having this conversation with one of my female clients, Claudia, who mentioned not too long ago how if she has a heavy salted meal the night prior, it’s not uncommon for her weight to go up 5 lbs (or more) the following day.

She likes to fiddle with “stuff” and see what affects her weight.

But she knows better and won’t jump in front a mack truck if she sees the scale go up a few lbs. She understands that if she gets back on task, the weight will go away after a few days.

To her credit, Claudia, who’s 48, always (and I mean always) stresses performance based goals over the scale.  Here she is crushing an EXTRA set of softball grip pull-ups after performing four sets prior:

And you know what?  I garner a guess that there’s plenty of women HALF her age who would kill to have her body.

Did I mention she’s 48?

She’s 48.

[And yes, I had permission to divulge her age]

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, doing a handstand!  Anything!  Whatever you do, just focus on that instead.

Don’t let the scale dictate your mindset.

Two months. Thats it. (<======= DO IT!!!)

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

I don’t share email information. Ever. Because I’m not a jerk.

Comments for This Entry

  • Teddy

    Great message. Would you say that using the scale in conjuction with performance based goals would make more sense? For example, to see the rate of weight loss or gain you are experiencing over time in relation to your gym performance and/or eating habits? As well as to see if the number on the scale is trending in the right direction?

    May 15, 2013 at 6:52 pm | Reply to this comment

  • claudia

    I'm pretty damn excited that I'm on your blog today. Thanks for all your help this past year! P.S. Ladies, please listen to Tony because he knows his stuff.

    May 15, 2013 at 7:42 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Danielle

    AGREED. i don't even bother to tell people what I weigh because they 1) don't believe me and 2) they change their judgement and wonder how much of that under my stretch pants is really fat. I'm 5'7.5" and weight about 153-159 depending on the days. I weigh myself maybe once a month anymore because it started making me feel insane. I am losing fat and tightening up after years of going to the gym and not making much 'fat loss progress' (lots of strength gains) by cutting out junk, eating less carbs, more fats, sprinting once a week and taking a 1-2 mile jog maybe once a week. I am finally seeing results. don't care what the scale says, i'll check out my butt in the mirror if i need to see if anything is happening!

    May 16, 2013 at 8:27 am | Reply to this comment

    • Asheley Woodruff

      Danielle, I'm glad you mentioned that. I'm 5'7.5" too and I've never been able to figure out what a healthy weight is for my height. I think I'm going to pitch my scale and just go by my mirror, tape measure, and over-all feeling from now on.

      May 16, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Reply to this comment

      • TonyGentilcore

        Thanks for the awesome feedback and for sharing the stories you two. Asheley: please heed Danielle's (and mine, too) advice. Like I said try it for a month or two, give yourself a goal to actually train for, and let that be your gauge. I can only imagine the freedom you'll feel.

        May 16, 2013 at 8:19 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Jen Comas Keck

    Great post, and funny as always! I hate to admit this, but I was ruled by the scale a couple of years ago. I finally had enough of it ruining perfectly good days and threw it in the garbage in November of 2011. I haven't weighed myself once since then - not one single time. I'm a grown woman and I'm fully aware of how my clothes feel, how my body feels doing bodyweight exercises, and how I look. I do not need a scale to give me some insignificant data that more often than not, just serves to piss me the eff off.

    May 16, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Megann

    As a petite woman, I'd like to offer that this is so true - when I started lifting more seriously, I gained 5 pounds. At first it was hard to stomach seeing that new number, but seeing that my new muscles gave me curves in all the right places made it worth it. I try not to look at the scale these days, and instead judge myself on my performance. PS - Claudia is awesome!

    May 16, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Emily

    I was just talking about this with one of my clients today who was concerned about how much she weighed despite the fact that her clothes fit, were a little loose in the waist and her husband was drooling over how she looked in a pair of pants she hadn't worn since last year. ;-) I calmed her down and she went back to squatting. And pressing, And doing her RDL's. So, crisis resolved! ;-) Thanks Tony...and shared of course on my page.

    May 16, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Megan Fitzgerald

    A great take on the issue. However, I just threw up a little in my mouth to hear Jessica Biel described as "full figured." Sir, Christina Hendricks is full-figured--JB is athletic.

    May 16, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Touche. You're right. I should change that. But what I really meant was that compared to many of the cover models you see on Elle Magazine or Vogue (not that, you know, I read them or anything, ahem) she's more curvy. That make sense?

      May 16, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Belatrix

    I only step on the scale occasionally out of curiosity (like once a month or less frequently). My true progress measuring comes once a year when I do a DXA scan to see how much fat versus muscle I have. It's steadily been going down since I started lifting and my bone density is going up. My weight hasn't changed much but I'm very happy with my progress. Oh, and I can do pull ups now! Yay!

    May 16, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Nice work Belatrix. Like I said, there's definitely a time and place for the scale, and it does the enter the equation on occasion. But when we change our mindset and give ourselves more qualitative goals to strive for, and we hit them, that makes all the difference in the world IMO. Congrats on the chin-up by the way!

      May 16, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Luke Doolittle

    Hey Tony. Great thoughts! I wrote something similar about a month ago. Yours is much more well thought out though; mine was a bit impulsive.

    May 16, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Reply to this comment

  • atrixo

    In my case I'm doing a lot of kettle bell and body weight exercises and seeing results but I would like to be able to run a marathon at some stage (I stopped because of a bout of hayfever) but I'm going to have a go again on a treadmill. If someone was determined to continue lifting but had the goal of running a distance what would your advice be? I'm not overweight and my diet is good.

    May 16, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      No worries at all atrixo. A goal is a goal, and if running a marathon is a goal for you then more power to you! I'd still try to hit the weights at least 2x per week if you can. Full body. Getting stronger will not only help you stay healthy and (hopefully) stave off some overuse injuries from running, but will also help with force production. The more force you're able to generate into the ground to propel you forward, the better your running efficiency/economy will be.

      May 16, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Kellie Hart Davis

    The other week when interviewed on Super Human Radio, Carl brought up a good point. He said if I were his coach and told him that he was getting way stronger, leaner, and growing more muscle, but he didn't lose any weight on the scale or inches from his body he would be thrilled. But when a woman hears that she panics like she isn't working hard enough. It's hard to adjust the mind when everything gears toward 'fitness and diet' uses phrases like 'weight loss' 'drop a dress size' ect. When clients come to me they've been told my their doctors that they need to lose X amount of lbs/kg. It's very hard to break away from this mentality when everything that surrounds us tells us it's the right way to think. I always stress with my clients that it's not about the scale. I create before and after comparisons of them so they can visually identify with how much their bodies have changed despite what the scale, or even the tape measure, says. In addition, we keep graphs on how their strength has increased, and we also relate back to their mood, energy level, confidence, ect. I actually created a side-by-side of myself from when I first started in figure and now. The first photo I was training at minimum an hr a day, eating between 1000-1200 cals per day, and I hated life. I was so run down and miserable. The second photo I don't monitor what I eat, but I would guess it's round 1800-2200 cals per day, with about 30-45 min of training 3-4 times per week. I have a noticable amount of muscle gain, but otherwise I look pretty much the same. I just feel worlds better. I do think the scale has a purpose, but it's definitely not the end all, be all when it comes to fitness goals. Thanks again for such a great piece, Tony. You are always a welcome sounding board for all things that make sense in fitness--- and pretty much everything else.

    May 16, 2013 at 4:27 pm | Reply to this comment

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    May 17, 2013 at 5:51 am | Reply to this comment

  • Shannan Maciejewski

    Tony, Sharing this right away with my lady clients. Hits the nail on the head. This concept needs to be used by more female trainees. Well said.

    May 17, 2013 at 7:18 am | Reply to this comment

  • Kevin

    TG, Love it and shared gladly. My question revolves around nutrition decisions. I know the basics as you stated above regarding food choices adding healthy fats, cutting refined foods, but what about the total number of calories? Is that a point that you train your clients to pay attention to? Is there really a line between fueling the body enough to build muscle and eating too much to add weight? do you recommend calorie counting to stay within a window?

    May 17, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Good questions Kevin. Make no mistake about it, at the end of the day, calories in vs. calories out matters. It behooves anyone to try to make long-term progress and not have at least SOME idea of how many calories they're putting down their pie hole. That said, more often than not, at least in the beginning, especially if I'm working with someone new, I'll literally just focus on helping them make better food choices. In my eyes, I don't want to inundate them with too many "rules," to the point where they feel overwhelmed. If I can get someone to eat, say, two whole eggs and a maybe a small piece of fruit for breakfast instead of that ginormous bagel, that's a step in the right direction in my book.

      May 20, 2013 at 6:58 am | Reply to this comment

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  • Jeannie

    I know from experience the scale is not the way to access your performance and strength and muscle. I am 70 and I know the scales don't help me in the past years. I do strength training and some cardio.. I eat the right foods and keep; myself hydrated.

    December 28, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Felicity Zare

    loveloveLOVE this article. Spot on! Now that I have been training consistently for some time, when not competing I like to go by goals and visual assessments (Max rep ect) but when competing I use bodyfat %. Because the number on the scales means nothing to me! And this is coming from someone who would previously weigh myself obessivly several times a day, chasing some unattainable, unrealistic and frankly unhealthy number... great read :)

    February 11, 2014 at 11:43 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Joanna

    Thank you for this article!! I needed to read this. I started a workout/strength regimen a little over a year ago and have made some great progress. The other day I went to my doctor (who I hadn't seen since 2011! Yikes) and weighed myself and I was heavier than the last time I was there. I know for a fact that I wasn't healthy then and only started to take my health more seriously recently. It kind of threw me a bit. But only for a bit because I know the way I feel in my skin now is SO much better than where i used to be. Throw that damn scale away! It really is a mind f***. We become such slaves to numbers rather than measuring our success by how strong we feel and look. Thank you SO much for the reassurance!

    April 1, 2014 at 9:22 pm | Reply to this comment

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    May 24, 2016 at 9:59 am | Reply to this comment

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