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by Geoff Rand

When I first entered the Army, one of my earliest challenges was the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), consisting of timed pushups, sit-ups, and a two-mile run.  Sounds simple enough, but there’s a second portion of it, not widely advertised, the height and weight and body fat percentage standards.  You need to pass the APFT and height and weight.  If you don’t meet the height and weight standards, you get taped to measure your body fat. 

Unfortunately for me, the Army is slow to change and was still using height and weight charts from the 1940s when I was in.  The beanpole physique that seemed to be adequate for storming the beaches of Normandy was at odds with a mid 1990s diet and lifting regimen not to mention the strength needed to carry the amount of gear we were issued.  So, I became very familiar with getting taped after every PT test (more on this later).  The trick was to get your neck to be as close in circumference as your waist, as those were the only two areas they measured for males and the difference in the two measurements was what factored into the official body fat percentage calculation.  To assist me in passing the tape test, I received great advice, such as don’t drink or eat anything for 24 hours before you get taped.  Of course, no food or drink for so long before any physical activity is horrible advice.

There seemed to be a stigma attached to the ever-increasing number of us failing to meet the height and weight standards and thus needing to be taped.  I always made my body fat percentage, so it wasn’t a huge issue for me, but those of us who had to get taped, even if within body fat percentages, were looked at in a negative light.

The Army’s height and weight standards just don’t take body composition into account and are unrealistic for many people who lift.  And whether it’s outdated thinking or just being uncomfortable with having a stranger pinch your belly fat, I think a lot of regular people tend to place too much emphasis on the scale’s reading, and not enough on their body fat percentages and measurements.

What does the scale tell you?  It really is just a measurement of the force of gravity acting upon your body, whatever your body is composed of.  The scale does not take into account your muscle mass or body fat percentage.  And, with it being very possible to gain or lose 2-10 pounds in a single day depending on diet, fluid intake and retention, hormones, activity level, your elimination schedule and a thousand other factors, the scale falls short if you are looking for a complete picture of your level of health or fitness.  While your weight measurement is needed for most body fat calculations, your measurements are what you should really be paying attention to, not the scale.

For those people finishing up the most recent nutrition Challenge, those continuing to follow a nutrition/workout plan, or for those just monitoring their day to day health, here are some tips to get the most out of your weigh-ins and measurements.

Be consistent.  Weigh yourself at the same time of day each time you weigh-in.  One of the better methods is to weigh yourself right after waking up and after using the bathroom, and before eating or drinking anything for the day.  Wear the same type of clothing each time you step on the scale for the best results.  Because of weight fluctuations throughout the day, compare day-to-day weigh-ins to other measurements taken at that same time of day.  The same goes for measurements.   Get measured at the same time as previous measurements to have an accurate comparison.

Don’t cheat.  Your most accurate results will come from you centering yourself on the scale.  Most scales will give a lower weight measurement if you stand more towards the edge of the scale, but you’re only lying to yourself if you do this.  Stand on it properly and accept the truth.  The same goes for your measurements.  Sucking it in only creates a false result.

Position the scale on a solid, flat surface that has no give to it.  Hardwood, vinyl, or tile floors are best.  Don’t put it on carpet with padding underneath.

Don’t weigh or tape yourself after a big cheat meal.  You know the figure is going to be an anomaly, and you’re just torturing yourself by looking at the higher than usual numbers.  Most foods prepared in restaurants or that are prepackaged are high in sodium, which will make you puffy by causing you to retain water.  Get back on track and check it a few days later.  And, it does take a few days after a large meal for everything to return to normal, so keep that in mind before you decide all is lost and rob Georgetown Cupcakes.

Remember how the Army did my taping after the PT test?  Yeah, don’t do that.  By working out or even just stretching or warming up before measurements, you’re potentially getting a “pump” as the muscles respond to activity by drawing water into them, and this will artificially inflate your measurements.  So don’t do any activity prior to getting measured.

What about electronic scales?  I have one of those electronic scales that supposedly measures body fat in addition to weight.  But, I found my numbers to be all over the place day-to-day and even hour-to-hour within a day.  Other users and studies show the same.  What’s up with that?

These scales use Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA) which is a fancy way of saying it sends a low voltage electrical current through your body and measures the resistance.  It relies on the fact that muscles contain a lot of water and fat tissues contain very little water.  Water’s conductivity is a known factor, so a reading can produce a theoretical body fat percentage.

However, if you are dehydrated, you will get a higher than actual body fat percentage result since there is less water to conduct the current.  Also, if you downed an electrolyte drink right before stepping on the scale, your internal conductivity will be increased and a lower body fat percentage will be shown.  Even factors like body temperature can affect readings.  For these reasons, the body fat calculation on your scale can fluctuate greatly and it is a poor way to measure body fat and lean muscle mass percentages.

Your best practice is to continue your normal course of hydration and eating before your weigh-in or measurements.  Don’t starve or dehydrate yourself.  Your body will naturally eliminate fluids and nutrients it doesn’t need, so don’t do anything to interfere with a properly functioning system.  Eat a small meal with water before a weigh-in or having measurements taken.

Opinions differ on how often to weigh yourself.  Some schools of thought say weigh-in everyday so you can see how differences in diet and exercise affect your weight.  Others say that once a week is sufficient.  The problem with daily weigh-ins is a lot of people start watching their weight like the stock market.  Weekly weigh-ins only capture a snapshot of where you stand on that one day.  If you were on the high end of the curve that day, it’s going to make it look like you blew the whole week.  A more accurate method would be to weigh yourself daily, but average the numbers for the days of that week and record that average figure.  This eliminates many of the variables and gives a truer picture of your progress.

My advice is to check your weight maybe a couple times a month just to see where you are, but get measured once a month if you have a specific goal you’re working towards.  Everyday, think about how you feel, how your clothes fit, and your performance in the WODs and record it.  As things change, good or bad, try to figure out what caused the change and either incorporate or eliminate the stimulus for that change.  It’s important to look at changes over time.  Don’t go and stop a certain activity or immediately make a drastic diet change because of a short spike in weight gain or loss.  A food or training journal can assist with this.

Now I’m not saying toss your scale in the garbage, but just understand the limited information it can provide.  Place heavier importance on the results of your body measurements, your performance, and how you feel.  Don’t get so wrapped up in the fluctuation of a few pounds that you let it derail your progress.

Amanda offers private nutrition counseling and can discuss rates and what you can expect from the program.  It might be a good follow on program for anyone who wants to continue towards their goals post challenge.