Measuring your progress and how to drive improvement

I was commenting on a post from a blog I follow this morning–getting all carried away and verbose as I do–when James Clear’s words jumped into my head:

Every keystroke you type is one stroke closer to your last. And because every keystroke counts the same, why spend so many of those keystrokes answering emails that 1 person will read and then never look at again, when you could be using those same keystrokes to write an article that will help a thousand people?

Now I know for a fact that there are not “thousands” of people reading my blogging efforts up here, but still, the message from James was sound. If you have something to say, especially something that you consider helpful, why not share it in the widest way possible?

If you read Joelle’s post, you’ll see it was a nice update about early progress on a new program she’s been following. However, there was a couple of points she made in there that I wanted to comment on specifically.

Fluctuations in bodyweight

Daily fluctuations in weight, in the order of 3-5lbs, is entirely normal. Between your glycogen stores, water weight, waste weight, stomach contents etc. it’s not hard to be shocked when we jump on the scale and see a different number.

For example, for every gram of carbohydrate that your body stores via glycogen, it also stores three grams of water. Hence, if you are carbohydrate-depleted (non-training day, or after a hard workout), you may be at the lower end of your glycogen variance. Conversely, if you just consumed a bucket-load of carbs, you will likely be at the upper end of your glycogen variance.

That’s why it’s always best to track your “moving average”, not your “daily weight”. There are plenty of iOS and Android apps that’ll let you plug-in your daily weight and then compute (and chart) the moving average for you.

Weight isn’t everything

But of course, weight on the scale is a pretty dull instrument, especially if you are hitting the weights hard. Body recomposition (gaining of muscle, losing of fat) can leave you pretty static on the scale, yet you might have made some real progress on the fat loss. To balance the scale work (see what I did there!), use linear measurements, visual cues (photos) and even your favorite pair of jeans to track changes. just be aware that with linear measurements, “bloat” can affect your numbers. So try to measure yourself early in the morning, once a week, using the same measurement points and equipment.

I’ve stalled, time for a change?

Some kind of “stall” on any program is inevitable, and sometimes a change or two IS needed to reignite progress. However, I’d caution you against throwing the baby out with the bath-water and assume that the current regimen doesn’t work for you. In short, just about any program of controlled eating and progressive resistance training will bring you results. How quickly things stall, and for how long, will vary significantly based on a bunch of different factors, including the type of dietary protocols you are following, the difficulty of the program and, most importantly, your execution of both.

However, even with a great diet, solid program and good discipline, progress will stall at some point, and when it does, here’s my advice.

  1. Don’t instantly cut calories. Absolutely “spot-check” your daily intake to make sure it’s about where it needs to be (modest calorie deficit), but if it’s about right, I would not default to assuming you are eating too much. This point is even more relevant if you are working hard in the gym 3-4 times a week as hard work requires proper nutrition to maintain lean body mass while burning fat. Too large a deficit can actually harm progress, triggering a response in your body that tells it to hang-on to body fat to offset the drop in calories.
  2. Don’t jump at supplements. With the exception of protein, the chances that a supplement–something “supplemental” to your diet and training regimen–can make the difference is a stretch. Sure, if you’ve already taken huge strides towards your goal and shed the bulk of your excess body fat, supplements might be the answer to help trim that last pound or two. Otherwise, [re]focus on the basics first and save your money.
  3. Look at your off-day eating. Check to see if your off days are “in check”. i.e. they are lower in total calories, and in particular, lower in carbs than your training days. Carb cycling is a great tool to help regulate your insulin response and has made a big difference in my own progress and staying lean.
  4. Up the intensity. If you’re macros are good and calorie intake in check, then it’s time to up the intensity of your workouts. And there are lots of ways to do this, enough in fact to warrant an entirely separate post. But start with the basics. Trim your rest intervals down and/or superset your movements; basically, never be inactive during your workout. Add an extra set to the workout; maybe make it a drop-set. Swap out an accessory movement for a compound exercise. And if your workout is already maxed out (within the parameters of your program), start adding one or two HIIT sessions to your schedule. This can be as simple (ha!) as a kettlebell/burpee finisher at the end of your workout, or an entirely separate 20-minute HIIT workout another day of the week. Bottom line: find a way to up the intensity before you decide to eat less.

Anyway, despite a lot of assumptions and simplifications in this post, the basic advice is solid.

  • Weight fluctuates; track averages and use other measurements.
  • Stalls are inevitable; don’t change too much too fast.
  • Eating less or jumping on supplements should not be your first things to change.
  • Intensity (and consistency) are king; start by finding ways to make your workouts more intense.

Hope that helps someone out there!

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