Body composition: why the scale isn’t everything
As you chase the goal of weight loss, the scale can become your greatest asset. It’s a proven, numerical way to track your progress and to see your hard work paying off. But changing your fitness goals means changing your relationship with the scale.
A majority of people who are trying to transform their bodies not only want to slim down, but they also want to “tone up”. It’s at this point that fat loss stops being your only priority and muscle gain steals the spotlight. But putting on muscle won’t reflect on the scale in the way that you’re used to. If you’ve become ingrained to think that the lower the number the better, you may be in for an uncomfortable realization.
Changes in body composition can be vastly more important and noticeable than just trying to make yourself smaller. Technically, you could put on a few pounds with your muscle growth, but it will get you closer to your goals than ever before. We’ve all heard the saying, “muscle weighs more than fat”, but today I want to give you a reason to put the scale away and really believe it.
Body composition analyzes the totality of your body mass, including fat, muscle, bone, organ tissue, and water, according to InBody. It’s this kind of analysis that can help you accurately interpret changes in fat mass in comparison to muscle mass and overall body fat percentage. It gives you a look at the whole picture instead of just your weight.
Muscle weighs more than fat in same-size portions because it is much more dense. While the density of fat is 0.9 g/mL, muscle is 1.1 g/mL, according to LiveStrong. So a liter of muscle would weigh about 2.3 pounds where a liter of fat would be closer to 1.9 pounds. This is why optimizing your body composition can take precedence over your weight on the scale. You could be lighter than a person and still have a higher fat percentage than they do, and less muscle definition. No matter what the scale shows, your goal should be reducing your body fat percentage and increasing your muscle mass.
Even if your overall fat percentage doesn’t change, working out changes where and how your fat is stored. There are thousands of genes in our body responsible for maintaining our weight, a large portion of which have been proven to change with a little exercise. According to a scientific study published in the Telegraph, consistent physical activity reduces the body’s habit of storing sugar from the blood in the fat cells. After about six months of exercise, fat methylation increases. Methylation in the body is basically a bunch of little on and off switches that determine how you makes energy from food, and how you respond to stress, according to Mind Body Green. Increased methylation can also reduce free fatty acids that lead to diabetes. All of these processes can happen without any change to the scale, but your body’s ability to care for itself and balance your weight is so much bigger than the numbers.
Changing where your body fat is stored not only affects your appearance, but your health as well. There are three different types of fat: subcutaneous, visceral, and brown, according to Healthline. Subcutaneous is stored on top of the muscle, underneath the skin and serves as insulation and energy for vital body systems. Brown fat is stored in very small amounts around the chest and shoulders, helping to regulate body temperature. Visceral is the most dangerous form of fat and is stored in the abdominal cavity. This form of fat attaches to the organs and increases your risk of heart disease. Visceral fat is also more likely to accumulate when you eat too much junk food, stay too sedentary or if your under a lot of stress. Minimizing these factors can get your body composition moving in a positive direction.
Even if you like what you see in the mirror, watching the scale go up can be a mental struggle. You know you are putting on muscle, but the thought of being heavier isn’t always easy to swallow. One factor that can keep you feeling positive is strength gain. Muscle gain requires a caloric surplus, meaning you’re taking in more energy than you are burning off. Those extra calories provide your body extra fuel for your workouts, allowing you to handle heavier weights than before. It’s almost impossible to create muscle mass without putting on a little fat in the process, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
On a healthy diet and exercise regimen, this extra fat starts to be stored between the muscle fibers. This intramuscular fat not only makes your muscles look bigger, but it also gives them a higher strength threshold, according to Breaking Muscle. With the addition of this specific kind of fat, the muscle attaches to your bone from a different angle and provides you better leverage in the weight room. Now the goal is to eventually increase the size of the muscle fibers themselves, not just this intramuscular fat, but that happens overtime. So instead of letting the scale break down your mindset, notice those improvements and how much more power your creating for yourself in the gym.
There’s a whole host of other reasons why your weight might be fluctuating on the scale. Muscle or fat gain isn’t always the culprit. Changes in weight can be attributed to the time of day you’re weighing yourself, how much water you drank that day, when your last meal was, what your last meal was, when your last bowel movement was, when your last workout was, how many hours of sleep your getting, your menstrual cycle, your supplement regimen, and how stressful your day has been. Any tiny change in your routine or even mood can cause your body to tip the numbers, none of which are worth torturing yourself over. If these things are responsible for a heavier weigh-in, they are very temporary and don’t reflect your progress.
Since the scale can’t show you all these underlying changes, there are other ways to measure your body composition. Skin calipers pinch your skin folds in various areas all over your body and then average the measurements to find your fat percentage. Bioelectric scales send a current through your body with little electrodes under your feet and estimate your body composition based on how long it takes the current to return. Hydrostatic weighing nails down your exact density by measuring your normal body weight against your weight when fully submerged in water. And a DEXA machine works much like an x-ray machine, scanning your body limb by limb for a near perfect body composition analysis.
But if you notice yourself getting stuck on the numbers, maybe it’s time to leave it all behind. How you feel in your skin is the ultimate test of your success and how far you’ve come in your fitness journey. So step off the scale, take a look in the mirror, and love the body your building.
Take it from me
I had to abandon my scale a few months ago and it’s probably one of the best things I could’ve done for myself. I spent so much time obsessing over a lower and lower number when I was losing weight that it became ingrained in my way of thinking. Even though I knew I wanted to put on muscle, I couldn’t let go of that little digital number staring back at me. I was terrified of putting the weight back on and didn’t even consider how my body composition was changing. One day, I finally broke, and I put the scale away for good. I bumped up my food intake and grabbed the heavier weights in the gym, anything that would get me closer to the muscular figure I was dreaming of. I knew I would put on a few pounds, but I shoved it to the backburner and made a concerted effort to base my happiness on how I felt in my skin.
Before I knew it, I saw myself in a whole new light. I saw the massive changes I’d created and how much progress had gone unnoticed. I could tell that I wasn’t stick skinny like I was before, but instead I had a more full, shapely figure. The extra weight did me a favor and couldn’t believe I was ever ashamed of it. Everytime I step in the gym now, I feel strong and unstoppable. Instead of trusting the scale, I rely on my diet and exercise routine to take me where I want to go. As long as I stay committed to a healthy lifestyle, I know my body will reflect that.