Ever started a new fitness program and found yourself feeling more in-shape than ever—but weighing more than before you started? Don’t worry, that’s actually pretty common!
“Almost all of my personal training clients, even athletes, notice weight gain at the onset of a progressive strength-training program,” says Erica Suter, C.S.C.S. “They get worked up over the number on the scale, yet they’re delighted and tell me their clothes fit better.”
Sure, it’s frustrating when the numbers on the scale don’t decrease—but here’s why you shouldn’t fret.
What The Scale Can’t Tell You
First of all, the number you see on the scale can be influenced by a number of factors, like what and when you last ate, all that sodium in your last meal, the last time you pooped, or, if you’re a woman, where you are in your menstrual cycle, says Suter.
And even if you step on the scale when none of these random variables apply, it still can only tell you how many pounds you weigh in total—not what those pounds consist of. Here’s why that matters: Often when we eat well and exercise (and strength train, in particular), we lose fat and build muscle at the same time, says Suter.
And because muscle is about 18 percent denser than fat, it takes up less space pound for pound, she says. So if you replace, say, five pounds of fat with five pounds of muscle, you can look completely different and drop a dress size without seeing any change on the scale.
It’s hard to overcome the mentality that health and fitness success is measured in pounds lost, but trust us, making that muscle is worth it. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, meaning it requires more calories to maintain, so the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn even at rest, says Suter. (One pound of muscle burns about seven calories a day, while fat burns about two.)
So having more muscle—and the higher metabolism that comes with it—helps you keep your weight down and allows you to eat more calories to maintain your weight, says William Yancy, M.D., Director of the Duke Diet And Fitness Center. More muscle also means a lower risk of injury, an easier time taking care of day-to-day tasks and, usually, an invaluable boost in confidence.
Related: 6 Reasons You’re Not Losing Weight
If that hasn’t convinced you to worry less about the scale, consider this: Someone who has more muscle may weigh the same as someone with more fat, but they’re less likely to deal with a number of health issues, like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, and sleep apnea, according to Yancy.
When we lose weight it’s typically two-thirds fat and one-third muscle, so holding onto those pounds can actually be a good thing, says Yancy. “Even though you may lose less on the scale, shifting weight loss in any way so that you lose less muscle is a win,” says Yancy. (To do this, you’ll need to down enough protein and hit the weights regularly. Suter suggests starting with full-body weight training about three times per week and eating 15 to 30 grams of protein at every meal.)
Better Ways to Gauge Your Progress
Instead of hopping on the scale to evaluate your progress, try snapping progress photos and taking note of any differences in how your clothes fit, recommends Suter. You can also use a tape measure to record and track the inches lost around your chest, waist, and hips as you go.
For more precise info, a doc or trainer can evaluate your body composition (like how much of your bodyweight comes from fat). They may pinch your skin folds with a caliper and measure them to estimate your body fat, or use a body composition scale, which shoots electricity throughout your body to measure your percentage of body fat, explains Yancy. Some trainers or weight-loss clinics may even have access to more sophisticated options, like underwater weighing (which uses your buoyancy to determine body fat), the BOD POD (which uses air displacement to measure body fat), or DEXA scanning (a type of X-ray that looks at body composition).
A standard blood test can also show that you’re getting healthier even if the scale doesn’t budge. Look out for improvements in your cholesterol, glucose, and insulin levels, Yancy says. Sleeping better, having more energy, and feeling less pain are also signs that your healthy lifestyle is paying off beneath the surface, he says.
Suddenly the scale doesn’t seem so important, does it?