4 Ways to Measure Fitness Progress Without a Scale
Craft individualized workout program, check. Walk your client through every movement to ensure proper lifting form and technique; check.
Provide nutrition recommendations, dispense motivation and encouragement, and count their every rep – check, check and check. Think you’ve covered all grounds when it comes to coaching a client? Not quite.
You’re missing something: progress reviews.
Tracking your client’s progress boosts your client’s motivation in staying the course. In addition, it helps you determine if any adjustments to their training program (e.g. training volume) are needed for better results.
This, in turn, potentially leads to a more negative body image, lower self-esteem, and a higher likelihood of depression. Fortunately, non-scale ways to measure fitness progress exist. This article walks you through 4 great examples.
Track Body Fat Percentage
Chances are, many clients of yours come to you wanting to look “toned” and “just better in general”.
Generally, that’d involve you helping them to do 2 things: 1) build more muscle, and 2) lose fat. Accordingly, tracking your client’s body fat percentage is a great way to determine if they’re on track.
But wait. ‘Track body fat percentage’? How could you possibly do that for your client without a scale?
As it turns out, scientists have come up with somewhat accurate mathematical equations – aka circumference measurements formulas – that help estimate an individual’s body fat percentage based on simple variables (e.g. age, gender, waist circumference).
A well-known formula you could use is something called the Navy-Seal formula. To use this formula, you’ll have to get your client’s:
- Neck circumference
- Waist circumference
- Hip circumference (applicable only to female clients)
There are 2 ‘variants’ of the Navy-Seal formula; there’s one for women and one for men. Be sure to use the correct one when estimating your client’s body fat percentage:
- Men: 86.010 x log10 (abdomen – neck) – 70.041 x log10 (height) + 36.76
- Women: 163.205 x log10 (waist + hip – neck) – 97.684 x log10 (height) – 78.387
While there are no standards or guidelines on just how fast an individual should be dropping body fat, most experts believe that anywhere between 1 to 3% monthly is safe.
That said, practice caution with clients who are already lean (roughly 23% for women and 14% for men). Being too aggressive with their fat loss plan can end up impacting their lean mass instead – and, ultimately, hinder their performance in the gym.
Log Muscle Circumferences
Great. You now have a non-scale method that’ll help determine if your client is dropping fat – and by how much, weekly. But what about muscle gain?
You can simply track the measurements of your client’s muscles over time. In general, you’d want to take measurements in 3 areas: biceps, glutes, and quads. This will give you a good sense of how your client’s body is changing in response to their prescribed training program.
Here are a few tips that’ll help you get the most accurate measurements:
- Take the measurements in the same conditions every time: If your client flexes their biceps the first time you take their measurements, make sure they flex for every single subsequent check-in. Of course, that applies to all other muscle groups (e.g. glutes and quads) you measure as well.
- Always measure around the largest area: Taking measurements from the mid-glute region one session – then the lower glutes session the next – is a sure-fire way of misleading you and your client about their progress.
- Average out 3 measurements: This comes down to the statistics principle that the average value becomes increasingly precise as the number of measurements increases (thanks to a corresponding decrease in uncertainty – or, in other words, how far your measurement is to the actual value).
That said, it’s undeniable that this method of tracking your client’s progress suffers from a glaring shortfall. What if your client’s going through a ‘body recomp’ where they’re building muscle and losing fat at the same time?
You wouldn’t be able to pick this up by simply measuring your client’s muscle circumferences. This is where the following non-scale method comes in.
Take Progress Pictures
Asking your client to take progress pictures is, hands-down, one of the best ways to help you – and your client – see the changes in their body from one day, month, or even year, to the next.
Bonus: seeing visible progress can be a huge morale and motivation booster for your client, too.
As with all progress-tracking methods, though, there are a few things to note:
- Take pictures at the same time of the day: Where possible, have your client take their progress pictures in the morning – before they’ve eaten anything. This will help minimize any meal-related bloating that’ll disguise their progress.
- Strive for the same lighting conditions: Lighting is everything. Your client’s body in a picture taken under the gym’s fluorescent lights is going to look wildly different from if they took it at their home, in natural lighting – even if it’s just minutes apart. So, no matter which lighting condition your client chooses, make sure they stick to it.
- Wear form-fitting activewear: You’re not going to see anything if your client is wearing baggy clothes in their pictures. So ideally (and depending on your client’s comfort level), you should have your female clients wear a sports bra and biker shorts – and your male clients wear shorts.
- Capture 3 angles of the body: To understand the full scope of how your client’s body is changing, it’s crucial for them to capture their front, side, and back. For consistency, ask your client always to choose the same side each time (e.g. right side).
- Get your client to take progress pictures every 2 to 3 weeks: In most cases, you (and your client) should be able to see the differences in a few months. Bonus tip: here’s a list of the top apps that’ll make keeping track of all your clients’ progress pictures a breeze.
Re-assess Fitness Capabilities
All that said, it’s worth remembering that sometimes, your client isn’t looking for aesthetic improvements. Instead, they just want to lift heavier, run faster, jump higher, etc.
And the truth is that your client can do all these without a corresponding change in body composition. So, how would you know – for sure – that your client is making progress in this case?
It’s pretty straightforward.
Just put them through the same assessment you did when they first started working with you, then compare the results.
Be sure to test their cardiovascular fitness (with the Step Test and/or One-Mile Walk Test), flexibility (i.e. range of motion on various movements), and their strength (with something like the 5-rep max for various exercises).
If your client’s performance has improved, you can be sure that they’re making progress – and on the right track to achieving their fitness goals.
As you’re probably aware by now, you shouldn’t only rely only on 1 way to track your client’s fitness progress.
Each tool, when used individually, will inevitably fail to provide a comprehensive picture of what’s going on in your client’s body. For example, how their body fat percentage changes tells you nothing about what’s going on with muscle mass – is it increasing, decreasing, or the same?
Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell.
You’re going to have to use the above-mentioned methods together for a more accurate assessment. And remember: it’s important to help your client work towards a happier, healthier relationship with fitness.
Fitness is a life-long pursuit, and fixating on short-term aesthetic goals shouldn’t be your client’s (or your) priority.