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Diakadi Fitness Tips: Throw Away Your Scale—Five Better Ways to Track Your Progress

By Billy Polson

Welcome to another edition of Diakadi Fitness Tips, a new series of weekly features and interviews with Billy Polson and Mike Clausen, founders of the award-winning Diakadi Body personal training gym and creators of RealJock's 12-week Workout Programs. Have burning questions about your fitness that you want them to answer? Send an email to billyandmike@realjock.com.

Using a scale can be a shot in the dark in terms of giving you a realistic idea of progress you are making—or not making—with your workout programs. Scales don't distinguish between muscle and fat—yet muscle and fat, famously, have different weights. As you become more fit, you can actually end up weighing more as your body fat percentage goes down. So you're going to need more sophisticated measurements than a scale can provide. Below is a list of five better ways to get much more specific feedback and ideas about what your diet and workout programs are doing for your body.

1. Body Circumference Measurements
Body circumference measurements will tell you where you're gaining in size. They are crucial to tracking a workout program, because they really test whether you are developing evenly. Take the subjectivity out of figuring out whether your biceps are pacing your pecs: measure. But it's important to remember that these measurements will only tell you where you're gaining, not what. To know if it's fat or muscle—and in what proportions—you'll need to measure your body fat percentage. First though, get some baseline numbers on size. To take body measurements, use a tape measure and measure the following points on your body. Keep records for comparison over time. One tip: avoid digital tape measures. Go old fashioned—the seamstress tape. Measure the following areas monthly if you are actively working to change your measurements, and quarterly if you are not.

  1. Belly button: Measure straight around your waist with the tape right on top of your belly button.
  2. Chest at nipples: Measure straight around your chest with the tape on top of your nipples.
  3. Chest at armpit: Measure straight around your chest with the tape up tight in your armpits.
  4. Shoulders at armpit crease: Measure around the outside of your shoulders with the tape measure right at the crease formed by your armpits in front.
  5. Biceps: Measure the peak (or largest part) of your bicep while it is flexed.
  6. Thighs: Measure straight around your thighs exactly half way between the top of your knee cap and the bony front part of your hip. (You may want to measure vertically and then divide by half rather than eyeballing it, since you are measuring both sides.)
  7. Calves: Measure straight around your calves at the largest circumference when they are flexed.
  8. Hips: Measure straight around your butt with the tape at the largest part of your rump.
2. Body Fat Testing
There are several ways to test your body fat. I recommend them in the following order, from most to least accurate:
  1. Hydrostatic body fat testing: This method uses an under-water scale to eliminate situational variation in the test results. It is the most accurate weighing method because it is not influenced by environmental factors. The basic principle is one of buoyancy, as discovered by Archimedes: bone and lean muscle sink; fat floats. By weighing you on land and then in water, a formula can calculate your buoyancy—how much of you floated, and therefore was fat. Hydrostatic testing has to be performed at a special testing facility, however. Try to locate a local test site using BodyFatTest.com or a similar site in your area. You can also try local university sports clinics or hospital wellness centers.
  2. Bioelectrical impedance testing: This method sends a very low-level electrical current through the body, measuring the amount of resistance that current meets. Essentially, the water surrounding fat will have a different conductivity than bone, and from that conductivity we can infer the amount of fat in the body. But it's important to use the right machine, and get the most accurate readings; I recommend using a professional e-scale that also reads your impedance/hydration level in order to determine you are getting comparable test results each time—you want to test for the water that surrounds fat, not just the water you drank with breakfast. You should also follow all the scale's guidelines for when to test each time—such as not eating or drinking caffeine before, never testing first thing in morning when you're not hydrated, and never working out for 12 hours before a test.
  3. Calipers: Calipers are the most widely used body fat test method, and yet they carry the biggest risk for getting faulty results. Calipers depend heavily on the consistent ability of the tester and on the equation the tester uses to calculate an estimate for the entire body's fat level. For my clients, I only use the calipers to get comparisons for each pinch site instead of using the equation to calculate full body fat percentage. Calipers can get you a baseline for comparison for a specific site over time, but any general body fat number derived from them is only a guesstimate and can often be several percentage points off.
Test your body fat monthly if you are actively trying to change your body fat. Otherwise, test quarterly.

You need comparative measures not only of your fat levels, but also of your fitness. Ultimately, this is your goal—not just to be thin, but to be well. A key part of testing where you are with your workout program is not just pounds and inches, it's utility. So set yourself some fitness tests, and see where you stand each month. And when you do this, make sure you test for cardiac endurance, muscle strength, and flexibility. You need all three to really be fit.

3. Mile Speed Run
Test your cardio abilities by using a treadmill or track to run a mile. See how quickly you can finish it. This will test your endurance and your cardiac output. Test monthly to track your improvement.

4. Max Out Pushups, Pullups, Situps
Do a basic strength test using the gold standard exercises—pushups, pullups and situps. Do each kind of exercise to failure to test your strength level, and write down the results to compare to previous months. Remember to look at these numbers over the long haul—month to month there may be situational variants; but you want to be on an upward trajectory in general. Test monthly to track your improvement.

5. Stretch Test
Flexibility is an important but often overlooked measure of fitness, and varies over time and with different programs. Too often, it takes a back seat to size, which can put you at risk for injury. To know whether your program is really working, you need to test whether it's promoting your flexibility. Do these standard flexibility tests on a monthly basis:
  1. Toe touch: Do this test standing, with feet together and knees straight (but not locked).
  2. Quad stretch: Lie on your stomach and reach back to grab one heel. See if you can bring that heel all the way back to touch your butt, bending your knee and keeping your thigh on the floor.
  3. Shoulder stretch: Holding a non-stretch strap with both hands, try to keep your arms straight as you take the strap up and over your head and down to your butt. The test is to see how close your hands can be to each other. The closer you can keep your hands while maintaining straight arms, the better your flexibility in your chest and shoulders.