You’ve been hitting it hard at the gym.
You’ve been regimented with your diet.
So when you step on the scale, and the number staring you back in the face hasn’t budged – or, worse, is somehow higher than before – you’re understandably disheartened.
How could that be?
You’ve been doing everything right…
What’s more, you honestly feel and look better than ever – and other people have been telling you as much.
So what gives?
Well, the problem with this picture is placing too much emphasis on your scale weight, and not enough on your overall body composition.
It’s easy to see the scale as the biggest indicator of your progress with your workouts and diet – hell, with this whole fitness thing in general.
But it’s not…
What’s more important than your weight, in pretty much all cases, is your overall body composition.
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In this article, I’m going to cover what body composition is, why it’s important, how to measure it, and what you can do to improve your own body composition.
What Is Body Composition?
In short, your body composition is just what your body is composed of.
For all of us, this means a combination of fat, muscle, organs, water, blood, and bone.
So, then, your body composition can be thought of as the specific percentages of each of these components – each of which factors into the weight you see on the scale.
That is to say…
How much fat you’re carrying.
How much muscle you have.
How much water you’re holding.
And the density and weight of your bones.
This is a more nuanced way to look at who we are – physically, at least – and far more revealing than a single number on a scale.
Let’s dive a little more into it.
Why Body Composition Is More Important Than Scale Weight
We’ve already touched on how there are a variety of factors that go into your body composition, but to help illustrate this let’s look at a common barometer of general health: Body Mass Index (BMI).
If your BMI is too high (over 25), then you are considered overweight; if it is too low (under 18.5), then you are considered underweight.
However, the overly simplistic BMI calculation is only based on 2 factors – your height and your weight.
This means that, like your scale weight, it doesn’t even come close to telling the whole story.
For instance, take a look at this picture of 2 guys who both have exactly the same BMI (which means that they are the same height and weight).
As you can see, the guy on the left is built like a bodybuilder, whereas the guy on the right is clinically obese…
Still, by BMI standards, they are exactly the same, clearly showing how using scale weight alone can be extremely misleading.
This is why FFMI, which estimates your fat free mass, is a considerably more useful overall indicator than BMI.
How To Measure Body Composition
Now as far as body composition goes, there are certain things that you can control, and others that you can’t.
There isn’t much you can do about your bone mass, your organ weight, or the amount of blood that’s running through your veins.
And while you can manipulate your water retention levels to some extent, it isn’t worth worrying about too much.
So let’s focus on the two things that you can control – the amount of muscle you have and your body fat percentage.
Therefore, in order to measure your body composition, you need to be able to figure out both the amount of muscle and fat that you have.
Now, certain scales will actually attempt to do this for you.
By using something called electrical impedance, they’ll estimate how much of your body is made up of muscle, water, bone, and fat.
One such scale that does this is the Withings Smart Body Analyzer, which you can order from Amazon here for about $150.
However, a more accurate (and affordable) way to measure your body composition is simply to use a regular scale in conjunction with calipers or a body fat monitor, while also factoring in strength gains from your workouts.
So, you would weigh yourself at regular intervals, as I discuss in this article, to get an accurate sense of your scale weight.
At the same time, you would take body fat measurements, using one of the methods that I discuss in this article.
Finally, you factor in whether you’re consistently gaining (or losing) strength in most of your core exercises.
These 3 factors, used in combination, will give you a MUCH more telling picture of your actual progress than just scale weight alone, and can also be used to evaluate what changes in your scale weight really mean.
For instance, if you are gaining weight on the scale, your body fat percentage is staying the same, and your strength is consistently improving, then you can be pretty confident that you are gaining mostly muscle, not fat.
Likewise, if you are losing weight on the scale, your body fat percentage is steadily decreasing, and your strength is staying largely the same, then you know that the majority of your weight loss is coming from fat, not muscle.
In either of these cases, you are making progress – so pat yourself on the back and be happy!
On the other hand, if you are gaining weight, your body fat percentage is increasing, but your strength isn’t improving, then you are probably gaining fat, not muscle.
And by the same token, if you’re losing weight, your body fat percentage is staying the same, but your strength is decreasing, then you are likely losing muscle, not fat.
In either of these 2 cases, things aren’t going to plan, so you should take a step back and evaluate what’s going wrong.
You see what I’m getting at here?
Although this is admittedly an imperfect system, the fact remains that these 3 factors, considered together, can paint a much clearer picture about what that scale number actually means, and whether you’re going in the right direction on not.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had clients that hit a plateau with their scale weight, but their strength continues to improve while their body fat percentage decreases.
In these cases, while they may weigh the same, they are stronger, leaner, and typically look a whole lot better.
And even though their scale weight doesn’t indicate much, the reality is that they’ve made a ton of progress.
How To Improve Your Body Composition
As I mentioned before, the only components of your body composition that you can meaningfully change are the amount of muscle and fat that you have.
So, in order to improve your body composition, the focus should be on building muscle and losing body fat.
However, as I’ve discussed before, it is extremely difficult to do both of these effectively at the same time (unless you’re newer to working out).
The better approach is to focus on either building muscle (while limiting fat gains), or losing fat (while limiting muscle losses).
In addition, take a look at my article on progressive overload, which is a core tenet of muscle building that you’ll want to bear in mind at all times.
Do you have any questions about body composition? Let us know in the comments below.