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How To Measure Progress For Aesthetic Goals

If some or all of your goals are aesthetic, you need a way of tracking progress.
Max Cotton

I used to tell people not to train for aesthetics and to train for performance instead. As I matured as a trainer, I realised that a) I shouldn’t be telling people what they want from their training and b) there’s absolutely nothing wrong with purely aesthetic motivations for exercise.

I know some people say ‘train for performance and the aesthetics will come’, but the reverse is also true. If you train to look good, you’ll need to train hard and eat well, so you’ll probably get pretty fit in the process. You can still be a bad motherfucker getting after purely aesthetic goals. 

If some or all of your goals are aesthetic, you should have some way of tracking progress. This is because it can be hard to see a gradual change in ourselves day-to-day, so it helps us understand if what we’re doing is working or if we need to tweak our approach to diet or training. Progress review points enable us to see progress objectively, so long as we pick the right tools for the job.

I’m not going to go into every single way of measuring progress, just the ones I use and why. I’ve left callipers and tape measurements off the list, which might seem like blasphemy to some, but both can be difficult to do on yourself with consistent accuracy. For most people, measuring results accurately by themselves is key.

A note on timings:

Timing is critical for accuracy. You will usually look different post-workout from how you look pre-workout. You will probably weigh more in the evening than in the morning. Whichever method you use for tracking progress, make sure to measure in the same state every time.

I usually advise first thing in the morning, before breakfast and before training, and if possible on the same day of the week, too, so that you measure in weekly or fortnightly cycles. For women, it’s also worth bearing in mind that periods can cause fluctuations in weight, even if all other conditions are the same. So if weight loss is your goal, try not to be disheartened if you’re heavier or haven’t lost weight if you’re weighing yourself at different points during your cycle.

Method 1: Bathroom Scales

For fat loss

Scales are getting a bit of a bad rap at the moment. Many influencers and PTs claim they’re an outdated or irrelevant measure of fat loss. Sure, they don’t tell you the make up of fat and muscle – even those claiming to are guesstimating. And I appreciate that for some people, scale readings can have adverse effects on their mental health. If that’s likely to be a trigger for you, then I’d agree that it’s not going to be a helpful tool for you. Instead, your PT should help you focus on achieving specific goals that will make you feel better, not worse.

Besides that, scales are still a valuable tool for tracking progress towards many aesthetic goals for most people. First of all, knowing your weight is vital to working out your target calories and macros. If you know what you weigh, you can work out how much you have to eat to gain or lose weight, as well as the protein requirements. If you want to gain weight, you need to eat more than you expend; if you want to lose weight, you eat less than you expend. So it helps to know your starting point.

They also help us in tracking progress in several situations. If you’ve got a lot to lose, then scales are a very useful tool in checking you’re going in the right direction week to week. If you’re 120kg, and you lose 1kg, it probably won’t look much different in two pictures side by side, which can be demotivating. If you get on the scales and see that you’ve gone down 1kg, it’s a great feeling, and you know what you’re doing is working.

If you have a lot to lose, scales are helpful. There is such thing as an unhealthy weight, and obesity is linked to an increased risk of many non-communicable diseases such as Type II diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. There is nothing wrong with understanding that losing weight is going to better protect from these risks.

I believe in using scales for fat loss in most situations, so long as you understand what you need the data for and how to interpret it critically to serve your goals. But in some instances, scales aren’t the best tool. If you don’t have a lot of weight to lose – let’s say you’re sitting in the 5-15% body fat range – then scales might not be that useful. Fat loss is slower at this point, and if your deficit is too large, you run the risk of atrophying muscle. Chasing an arbitrary number on the scales is more likely to lead to that. 

I wouldn’t worry too much about the scales if you have less to lose. Stick with progress pics (more on that shortly).

Scales for measuring muscle gain

If you want to gain muscle, scales are helpful too. I ask my members who are trying to gain to weigh themselves every week. This is especially useful in the first few weeks for those coming in from a largely untrained state. The sudden increase in exercise means they’re burning a lot more calories than they were before. I’ll give them calorie targets to hit that should put them in a calorie surplus, based on their age, weight and activity level. If their weight starts to drop, they’re not eating enough, and we need to increase the cals a bit more. If you are trying to add muscle, your overall weight should not be dropping.

When your weight goes up, the scales are unlikely to tell you how much is fat and how much is muscle. Even the fancy ones are doing a fair bit of guesswork based on the data they can collect. Case in point: I bought some Salter scales (for home) that claimed to measure body fat percentage. They told me I was 28% body fat in December. The next day I used the body scanner at the gym, which costs £15,000 to buy. This put me at (a much more likely) 15%.

The scales we bought were pretty cheap, but that’s still a massive disparity and could be very damaging to someone who doesn’t know better. There are better bathroom scales out there than the ones we bought, but don’t assume they’re accurate in telling you anything but your current weight. These scales work by sending a current through the pads you stand on. The current will always meet at the shortest point, i.e. around your pelvic floor. This means that the data they work with is collected from reading fat, muscle and bone in your two legs and the space between them.

So they’re not especially useful for telling you how much muscle you have, but if you’re looking to gain, you should be checking your weight is going up, or at the very least not going down. So keep weighing, but combine the readings with progress pictures.

Method 2: Progress Pictures

For any body composition goal, progress pictures are beneficial. You have aesthetic goals, meaning the most important aspect to you is visual. You’d be mad not to be tracking that. But, as I mentioned before, change can be gradual and subtle. You see yourself every day, so it’s perfectly feasible that you might not notice changes in yourself. One week apart, you might not notice any difference in the progress pictures, but you should do after 2-4 weeks.

We’ve already established why timing is essential, but that’s not the only factor to consider. To take good progress pictures, you need to ensure that the state of the photo is the same every time. As well as the same time of day and week, use the same angle, lighting and distance from the camera. Take full body shots from the front, back and side. I’d recommend using your camera on a timer rather than holding it. This will make taking two photos in the same position much easier every week.

You want to see the areas you want to see change clearly, so make sure they’re unobscured by baggy clothing. You can also take some close up pics on areas where you specifically want to see a change. Just remember that you can’t spot reduce fat, though you definitely can focus where you want to gain muscle.

What’s best for me?

For most people, I usually recommend using both scales and progress pictures. Depending on where they’re at, one will sometimes be more useful than the other. In some cases, only one method will be useful at all. If you’re not sure how you should be tracking your progress, send me an email with your goals, and I’ll give you some free advice on how I’d do it.

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