So you’ve set a fitness goal and decided on a new exercise routine to achieve it. But do you know the best way to track fitness progress along the way?
Besides taking steps to plan and schedule your workouts, so you actually do them, you’re going to need a reliable method for tracking fitness results.
Why is progress tracking important to fitness goals? For the same reason you get grades in school quarterly to help keep track of your progress to reach the goal of graduating, you need to have a way to track progress to achieve any health, strength, or weight loss goal.
Once you’ve set a S.M.A.R.T Goal and detailed your action goals to help you reach your outcome goal choosing a method for tracking your fitness progress is key.
FOUR TYPES OF FITNESS PROGRESS MARKERS
There are four different types of markers you can use to track fitness progress.
- Body Weight & Composition
- Performance Metrics
- Mental/Emotional Health Markers
- Physical Health Markers
How do you know which marker is right for you?
The marker you choose should align with your goal.
If you want to look better naked, you’d most likely choose body weight or body composition measurement.
Have you got an athletic goal or a specific strength goal? Select a performance metric!
Is your goal to feel better? A mental health marker could be for you. And if you have a goal of improving your health, a physical health marker is a great fit.
You can choose more than one marker to track if you have a primary goal and one or two secondary goals.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT MARKER FOR YOUR GOALS
Bodyweight and fat percentage are the most common fitness progress marker to track, but if your goal is to get stronger, be healthy, or feel more confident, it may or may not be the best fit for you.
Feeling confident in a swimsuit is not always accomplished by a number on the scale or your body fat percentage.
Sometimes, it’s a confidence that comes from doing bad-ass things, so a performance marker could better suit you.
If your primary goal is to increase strength, be capable of defending yourself, and able to lift heavy things, does a scale show you that? A progress picture? Probably not.
While weight loss may be one factor that improves your physical health, if your priority is lowering your cholesterol or improving your insulin resistance, choosing a blood work marker may a better fit.
You can lose weight and still have poor physical health markers like low HDL and high blood pressure, so make sure you’re choosing a marker to track that directly applies to your primary goal.
Once you’ve dialed in which marker type is the right fit for your goals, you’ll want to get specific on your method for tracking.
There are several options for each type of marker. I’ve compiled a list of considerations for you to review.
BODY WEIGHT & COMPOSITION
If your primary goal is to lose weight, lose body fat, gain muscle, or simply “look better naked,” you can choose from five different types of tracking methods.
Tracking scale weight for fitness progress is the most popular method, but usually only because it’s the easiest for most people. A $20 scale at target is easy to buy and use, but it’s not going to if you gained or lost muscle or fat.
When does scale weight work? If you have a goal of around 20 or more pounds to lose and you’re not concerned with gaining muscle, scale weight could work for you.
Most people who want to “lose weight” in the 5-15 pound range actually have a body recomposition goal, not a weight loss goal. They just don’t know it.
Body recomposition = losing some fat and gaining some muscle.
With body recomposition, the number on the scale may change slightly, but sometimes it doesn’t change at all (or it goes up), and the client is still thrilled with how defined and lean they look.
How often is it best to weigh yourself? Daily or weekly, both works.
A systematic review of weight loss research looked at findings from 19 intervention trials and found that self-weighing was likely to improve weight outcomes, when performed daily or weekly, without causing untoward adverse effects.
Of course, self-weighing is not a good idea for individuals with eating disorders, but according to research, self-weighing alone will not cause disordered eating.
Whether you choose daily or weekly weighings, be sure to weigh yourself at the same time of day after a typical day of eating.
Your weight will fluctuate throughout the day and is affected by your hydration. A good time to weigh yourself is on a weekday morning before breakfast, where you ate and drank what you usually do the day before.
Suppose you uncharacteristically ate a big or salty meal the night before, had several alcoholic drinks, or forgot to drink enough water after hot yoga class. In that case, I’d recommend skipping that next day of weighing, as it could be higher or lower than your actual weight due to water retention or dehydration.
Bioelectric Impedance is a common method for people looking to lose weight and want to build or hold onto their current muscle, as you can buy a fancy scale or handheld tool that uses this technology.
The technology bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) uses to determine body fat percentage measures the rate at which an electrical current travels through the body.
Body fat causes more resistance (impedance) than fat-free mass, slowing the rate at which the current travels.
However, this method less accurate for obese populations or athletes with a high training volume.
Bioelectric Impedance devices can also be inaccurate if you are dehydrated or recently had food or drink. Dehydration might cause your fat-free mass (muscle mass and bone) to be underestimated, and recent meals and beverages can overestimate it.
This method works best for non-obese, and non-athletes who use it in a fasted, non-dehydrated state in the morning.
However, it can track changes in your body over time, even if the number it gives you isn’t the most accurate marker.
Body Fat Measurement with Skinfold Calipers
Skinfold measurement is the oldest method of measuring body fat.
While it is more accurate than bioelectrical impedance, it’s largely affected by the user’s skill, consistent accuracy in measuring, and a good pro tool.
I don’t recommend skin fold calipers as a method for most people, as it’s not the easiest to get the hang of and is best done by a skilled professional.
Taking measurements works best if you have a body composition goal for one or more areas of your body. For example, lowering your hip to waist ratio, or getting bigger booty.
However, just because a body part is smaller doesn’t tell you if you achieved fat or muscle loss, and if a body part gets bigger, the tape measure doesn’t read if it’s fat or muscle contributing to the growth.
Also, there is some margin for error trying to get precisely the same spot you measure each time, so if you choose this method, take detailed notes on exactly where on your body you’re putting the tape- and make sure to use a soft measuring tape.
If you choose circumference measurements, you’ll probably do best to choose a second method for more accurate tracking of your overall fitness progress.
DEXA scans determine body composition by sending low-radiation x-ray beams through your tissues. The varying energy absorption of different tissues determines tissue types and quantity.
A DEXA scan will also read your bone density. DEXA scans were developed in medical settings to use when osteoporosis or bone fractures are a risk. But, they are now being used by people wanting to track body composition for non-medical purposes.
The results are very accurate, but since the test gives out a small amount of radiation, and radiation exposure can add up in your body over time, it is best to avoid unnecessary radiation.
While the estimated levels of radiation you are exposed to during a DEXA scan is about the same amount as you would encounter while on a transcontinental airline flight, it’s important to note, the patient radiation dose from a DEXA scan depends on several factors, including the size of the patient, the specific design of the device, the number of images, and the image speed, length, and width.
Most of these factors contributing to total radiation exposure cannot be controlled by the operator performing the DEXA examination.
If you get a DEXA scan infrequently, maybe once a year or so, and it’s beneficial to your health to do for bone density and body composition, it might be a choice for you.
However, if you want to do a test often to track progress regularly, there are safer methods to use for frequent fitness tracking.
Hydrostatic weighing is a very accurate and safe method for tracking lean muscle and body fat.
It was considered the gold standard for measuring body composition until the invention of CT scans and MRI scans. Still, those aren’t available to the public for measuring body composition and are used only in medical settings.
In hydrostatic weighing, your dry “land” scale weight is measured and compared to your underwater weight. Your body’s density can be calculated using Archimedes’ principle that the amount of liquid a submerged object displaces is equivalent to the object’s volume.
Since your body fat is lighter than bone and muscle, your density can be used to calculate your body fat percentage. If your underwater weight is lighter, it indicates a higher body fat percentage and vice versa.
If you live in the U.S., check out the mobile truck locations for The Body Fat Test. I’ve been using them for years, and they get clients safe and accurate results you can do multiple times a year.
A test about every three months is recommended to track body fat or muscle mass changes, so if you want something with more regular data, you can pair this test with another method like scale weight or performance markers.
Progress pics aren’t a suitable tracking method for everyone, as they focus on aesthetics, and not everyone has a “look better” goal.
However, if progress pics align with your goals and help you feel motivated and accountable, they are easy to implement.
Post pictures on social media if that helps you. But don’t put too much stock in other people’s “before and after” pics.
Another person’s bathroom selfies are only ONE part of their fitness journey – focus on your progress instead.
Unfortunately, many progress pics are fake and photoshopped for marketing purposes.
So the next time you see an Instagram Influencer’s beach day pics or a fitness ad with tanned six-packs splayed across it, remember, there was most likely a lot of makeup and digital assistance that went into that photo.
Progress pics are super easy to take now with smartphones and delay timers on cameras or even just in your bedroom mirror.
Make sure you take progress pictures in the same clothes, room, and lighting at the same time of day, every time.
Ladies! You’ll also want to take your pictures at the same time of the month, since our cycles can affect water retention.
A progress picture once every 2-3 months is a good plan, more than that, and you may be squinting to find the progress.
Performance markers aren’t just for athletes!
Goals such as deadlifting more than your body weight, beating your previous best 400 meter sprint time, or completing the kettlebell snatch test (100 snatches in under 5 minutes), are very motivating.
Performance and strength goals will lead to physical and mental improvements, so you achieve success with multiple fitness goals.
If you love setting goals, learning new skills, have a competitive personality, or enjoy data and numbers, performance metrics are an awesome way to challenge yourself – and get many benefits of exercise without focusing on weight loss or body image.
I’ve found that when clients take the stress off losing fat or getting a six-pack and focus more on the desire to be strong, faster, more powerful, etc., they become more disciplined and tend to get better results on many markers, body composition and weight loss goals included.
I call this the “what the hell effect” for body composition.
MENTAL/EMOTIONAL HEALTH MARKERS
Mental shifts like your mood, energy, sleep, focus, stress tolerance, etc., are an excellent marker for those whose primary goal is to feel better.
If your goal is stress relief, you could take an online stress test, like this one, from The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
There are a ton of sleep trackers on the market. There’s even a bed that tracks things like heart rate variability, hours slept, sleep consistency, and REM sleep.
Once you decide what mental and mood health markers are important to you. Chances are, there is an app or a quiz that can help you track it.
PHYSICAL HEALTH MARKERS
Health markers are useful to track if your primary goal is to improve general or specific health issues.
These days, you don’t even have to go to the doctor to order blood work.
Many companies offer at-home test kits for everything from vitamin D levels to fertility and gut function.
Of course, ask your doctor if they would recommend a test for your specific health goals, and it’s always advisable to get a full blood work panel once a year from your doctor, even if you are healthy.
FITNESS TRACKING CONSISTENCY
Whatever markers you choose to track fitness progress, the most important thing is to be consistent.
Make sure it’s a method you enjoy keeping track of and not something that makes you feel bad about yourself or is inconvenient or too expensive to get done consistently.
There is no one right way to track your fitness goals.
Choose one or two markers that align with your goal, work well with your preferences, schedule, and budget, and track your results with some regularity.
Happy goal setting and tracking!
Damilakis, John et al. “Radiation exposure in X-ray-based imaging techniques used in osteoporosis.” European radiology vol. 20,11 (2010): 2707-14. doi:10.1007/s00330-010-1845-0
Shieh C, Knisely MR, Clark D, Carpenter JS. Self-weighing in weight management interventions: A systematic review of literature. Obes Res Clin Pract. 2016 Sep-Oct;10(5):493-519. doi: 10.1016/j.orcp.2016.01.004. Epub 2016 Feb 17. PMID: 26896865.
Dehghan M, Merchant AT. Is bioelectrical impedance accurate for use in large epidemiological studies? Nutr J. 2008;7:26. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-7-26
Androutsos O, Gerasimidis K, Karanikolou A, Reilly JJ, Edwards CA. Impact of eating and drinking on body composition measurements by bioelectrical impedance. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2015;28(2):165-171. doi:10.1111/jhn.12259
American Family Physician. Choosing Wisely: Don’t routinely repeat dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scans more often than once every two years. https://www.aafp.org/