Before you embark on your fitness journey, it’s critical that you take some time to determine your starting point.
Basically, where you are beginning. It’s only when you know where you are beginning that you are then able to monitor where you are going.
Tracking your progress is key for sustaining motivation, for ensuring that your efforts are paying off, and for learning how to adapt and change your program accordingly.
There are many different tools that you can use to track your progress, so today we’re going to take a look at what these tools are so that you can choose the most appropriate ones for your own journey.
Now, before we get into the tracking methods you should be using, I want to say a quick work about getting prepared.
Before starting any fitness program or health plan, it’s important that you go see your physician to get the go ahead.
He or she will likely check factors such as your blood pressure, your resting heart rate, as well as other factors that may influence whether or not its safe for you to start up on an exercise program.
Once you get your doctor’s go ahead, you are ready to move on.
At this point, you’ll want to take a series of tests. You’ll want to take some tests that are related to your body composition, as well as some tests that are more focused on your current fitness level.
Both of these will provide critical information that you can then use to help shape your program – and monitor progress – going forward.
There are a variety of ways to measure body fat to track progress. These are the best methods to measure body fat.
Body Composition Testing
When most people start on a workout or diet plan, they do one thing: weigh themselves.
They stand on weight scales and look at the number staring back at them. And while this is a great start, it isn’t giving you the whole picture.
Weighing yourself on a typical body weight scale isn’t going to let you know how much of your body is made up of muscle mass and how much is body fat. And that is what we’re most concerned about here.
When you start a workout program, you’re going to want to focus on losing fat – not muscle – and a scale is not able to tell you if you are doing that successfully.
This is why we turn to body composition testing instead.
There are many different methods to go about assessing your body composition, aka your muscle to body fat ration. Each of these methods have their pros and cons.
The first body fat calculator method, and one of the simplest, is to use skin calipers. A skin caliper is a simple device (available at most fitness stores or online) that allows you to ‘pinch’ certain areas of the body and see how thick the skinfold (body fat) is underneath that area.
There are key areas that you should be testing here – under your arms, along the side of your stomach (your love handle area), your lower abs, your inner thigh, as well as just under your shoulder blades.
These are the areas of the body that tend to store fat most often, so they’ll be the primary places you’ll want to assess as you move through your program.
When using skin calipers, it’s important to be routine. Test in the same place each and every time and if you can, have the same person take the test.
As techniques can vary slightly and this can influence the nature of your results, if a different person tests each time, that may cause inaccuracies.
Once you have your skin fold thicknesses, you can then plug these numbers into a given formula and estimate your body fat percentage.
Even if you don’t necessarily figure out your estimated body fat percentage, you can still use the measurements you get to determine if they are going up or down, indicating if you are losing or gaining weight.
So all in all, skin calipers are a fast, cost effective, and relatively easy way to gauge your progress.
Here’s how they stack up.
- Cheap to purchase
- Fast to do
- Can be done at any time
- When used properly can give a good indication of whether you are gaining or losing body fat
- Inaccuracies may occur if using different testers over time
- May not estimate your true body fat percentage that accurately
- Cannot do on yourself easily (especially in the back of the body)
- Not ideal for those who are in the obese category
All in all, if you want a cheap way to assess results, skin calipers are a great solution.
Another method of assessing body composition that you may have heard of before is bioelectrical impedance. This method is where you hold onto a device (or step onto metal plates on a scale) and then it sends an electrical current through your body.
Don’t worry – the process is painless.
The idea behind this process however is that that current will travel much faster through water and lean tissue than it will body fat tissue.
So the device then measures the speed in which the current is passing through you and can then give you an estimate of your overall body fat percentage.
Now, this method is very fast and easy and while the machines aren’t exactly cheap to purchase, once you have it, you can use it as many times as you’d like for free.
The problem with this approach however is that it can be very inaccurate. Something as simple as drinking a tall glass of water before doing it can really throw off the results, making you appear much leaner than you are (as now you have a good volume of added water inside the body).
You can increase the accuracy of this technique by doing it first thing in the morning upon waking (after using the bathroom), but even then, it’s still not going to be all that accurate.
So use it for estimation purposes only if you really want. Don’t rely on it entirely.
Many people will gravitate to this as it seems high-tech and is similar to use like a body weight scale, but it isn’t the best way to estimate your progress.
- Fast and easy to use
- Can be done in the comfort of your own home
- Tends to provide inaccuracies
- Must be done at the same time daily
- Can be a bit pricey to purchase at the start
DEXA (or DXA)
The final method of testing your body fat that I want to discuss is the DEXA, which stands for dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry. Sometimes this test is also referred to as a DXA scan as well.
If you want accurate, this is the test to take. This one requires you to lay inside a large device, which will then scan your entire body and can determine such things as your total fat mass, your lean mass, as well as your bone density.
You’ll typically have to visit a hospital or specialty care setting to get access to this machine and often it will come with a fee (unless it’s covered by your health care provider).
So while not accessible to everyone, it’s the most accurate way to really get to know what body fat percentage you’re sitting at.
If you are concerned about your risk factor for osteoporosis or other bone related health issues, that may also be a reason to consider opting for a DEXA scan. You’ll be able to gain important information about your bone health by choosing this scan.
So there you have a closer look at the three methods of body composition testing that you can do. For most people, skin calipers will be the most realistic to use on an everyday basis given their low cost to purchase and ease of use.
Now let’s talk about a few other tracking methods that will compliment your body fat testing.
Additional Tracking Measures To Take
While having your body fat tested is a great start, there are a few other additional things that you should be tracking to really help push your progress forward.
These will help keep you more consistent on your program and help provide a more well-balanced view of exactly how you are doing.
The first additional assessment that’s fast and easy is taking measurements.
Get out a tape measure and simply measure around various areas of your body that you want to assess.
You might measure your waist circumference, your hip circumference, your arm circumference, and your thigh circumference for example.
This can tell you whether these areas of the body are getting larger or getting smaller.
One caveat with this approach – it won’t differentiate between fat and muscle. So for instance, if your arm is getting larger, you could be gaining both fat and muscle and not know how much of each is being gained.
So for best results, you may want to use this technique with other techniques, which will help you identify what changes are in fact occurring.
For most people on weight loss diets however, provided you are using a wise approach, you can rest assured that chance are good you are losing fat when you notice your measurements getting smaller.
Likewise, by following the program we’re laying out, you may also begin to lose edema from the body (water retention) as well as flush out inflammation, both of which can also take down your measurements, causing you to become thinner.
Tracking these measurements over time as you progress through your program can be an excellent way to keep motivated and recognize that changes are in fact taking place.
Here’s how measurements stack up.
- Very cost effective to do
- Can be done yourself at any time
- Provide a good estimation of whether your body is getting larger or smaller
- Does not allow you to estimate body fat in any way
- Doesn’t differentiate between whether you’ve gained/lost muscle or body fat
- Can be slightly inaccurate if you don’t measure in the exact same place every time
Overall, adding measurements to your weekly or monthly tracking program is a great idea provided you are using other more precise methods to estimate body fat as well.
Progress pictures are the next method of assessment and tracking that I’d highly recommend everyone does.
These are free to do and can provide you with an excellent comparison over time. It can be challenging to notice changes in your body occurring when looking at yourself daily.
Since you see yourself each day in the mirror, the changes may be too small to spot. But, when you see yourself from a time two months ago and then today, that’s when you can really notice a difference.
Unless you are taking progress pictures however, you’ll never notice this difference occurring.
To use progress pictures, you’ll want to follow a few simple guidelines:
- Aim to take the pictures at the same time each time and for women, at the same time each month (to avoid
changes related to the menstrual cycle)
- Take the pictures first thing in the morning to avoid bloating/water retention from food/beverages
- Wear as little clothing as possible to allow you to see as much of yourself as you can
- Wear the same clothing each time so the change in dress doesn’t impact how you look
- Take your pictures from the front, the side, as well as the back so you get the full views of your entire body
- Take the pictures in a place where you also have consistent lighting as lighting changes can make a big difference in how you look
Remember that no one has to see these pictures except you, so don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed about it.
Once you have the pictures taken, put them somewhere you’ll be able to easily access them and compare them to the new pictures you’re taking at a later date.
The next type of tracking that you’ll want to be utilizing as you go about your program is your workouts.
An exercise journal, where you can write down everything that you’re doing in the gym over time is the perfect tool to use for this.
Now, back in the day, you would have to manually write down all the details. You’d write down what exercises you did, how much weight you lifted, how many reps and sets you performed, and how much rest you took.
It involved quite a bit of work!
Now however, there are many different applications, either for your computer or for your phone that will allow you to track these details quickly and easily.
For instance, I personally really love the MyFitnessPal app as it’ll keep everything you need all in one place.
By tracking these details, you can look back over time as your workouts have progressed and see just how far you’ve come.
Having this data readily available for you to review going into each workout will also help you remind yourself of what you want to accomplish in that next workout that you do. What goals do you need to reach?
If you are utilizing the power of daily goals – setting an objective you want to obtain that very workout, reviewing this data and using it to figure out your new challenge for the day ahead is a very effective way to ensure maximum progress.
I’d recommend that you track this right while you are in the gym. Some people wait until they leave the gym to take it down, but there’s a greater chance you’ll forget exactly what you did if you wait.
Put it down on your phone while you’re taking your rest between sets. This way, you know it’s exact.
Food Log or Food Journal
In addition to tracking your workouts, you’ll also want to track your food intake. This can be done with a simple food log.
Here again, you can either write this down manually in a book if you want, or if you prefer, use another phone application.
The great thing about MyFitnessPal is not only will it track your workouts, but there’s also space for a food journal.
And, it’ll even track your calorie intake and macronutrients if you wish as well.
By tracking your food intake however, you can get a more precise idea of exactly what you’re eating and how much energy you’re taking in over the course of the day.
Too many people under or overestimate their calorie intake, which will really sway the overall results they see.
Plus, when you know you have to track all the foods you eat, it may cause you to think twice about going in for that slice of cake, so that can help you stay more accountable.
Your Step Count
Another excellent thing to track as you go about your journey is your step count. You can either purchase a pedometer that you’ll wear to keep track of this, or if you prefer, you can also use the MyFitnessPal app for that as well.
For those who are just getting started, aiming to bring your steps up to the 10,000 steps to per day is a great place to start.
This will help build more active ‘lifestyle’ activity into your program, which when done in conjunction with your usual strength training protocol will really help to kick things up a notch.
When you see your step count towards the end of the day, it can put into perspective whether you should spend 15 minutes and head out for a walk in order to get your step count met.
Those who utilize pedometers tend to be more active on a day to day basis compared to those who don’t, so this can definitely help accelerate your weight loss progress.
Build Accountability Into Your Program
A final method to consider as you go about your tracking is to engage someone else in helping keep track of you as well.
Don’t keep your program a secret.
Go out and talk to your friends, co-workers, or family members about the plans you have for yourself. By telling these people, you build in a higher level of accountability.
Now you know that these people will be asking how you’re doing over time, meaning you’ll have to respond to them. You’ll have to be accountable to them.
Most people aren’t going to want to tell others they’ve fallen off the program and haven’t succeeded with their efforts, so this can help keep them on track better.
Plus, when others know about your goals and program, if you are struggling, you can turn to them for support and advice during those hard times.
For many people, this can make a big difference in terms of whether you see success or failure.
So to summarize, here are the steps that you’ll want to take to optimally track your results over time.
- Visit your doctor to get the go-ahead for a new exercise and diet program. He or she will likely take your blood press, resting heart rate, along with possibly other tests to ensure you are in good health.
- Figure out a way to assess your body composition – whether this is using skin calipers or getting a DEXA scan done.
- Get out the measuring tape and take measurements of various parts of your body.
- Take some before and after pictures.
- Get a food and workout journal ready. Consider the MyFitnessPal app to make things easy and convenient, all in one place.
- Start using a pedometer to track your step count.
- Tell others about your program, asking them to check in with you from time to time and be there for support when needed.
If you follow all of these steps, I can promise you you’ll stay more motivated, more consistent, and see better results from the program you’re on.