I tried incredibly hard – probably WAY harder than I should have – to come up with a catchy title for this article…but when it comes right down to it…it’s really simple. The Scale – the common bathroom scale – is a major reason why workouts fail.

Yeah, you heard me right. The Scale is a problem. There are a few reasons why, but The Scale is Public Enemy No. 1 in workout world. The Scale contributes in a HUGE way to what I’m calling “Perceived Lack of Results”. “PLOR” is why an incredible number of people get frustrated and just give up.  The scale can make you think you’re on top of the world or a complete and total failure.

It’s all. About. The Scale.

The Scale Doesn’t Lie – 

As a matter of fact, The Scale is incredibly honest. Too honest. The Scale doesn’t know how to lie – It knows how to do one thing: Tell you exactly what you weigh. 

Isn’t that the point?

Yes and no. The Scale will tell you what you weigh, but the problem is there are a lot of factors that play into how much, exactly, you weigh RIGHT NOW. How much you weigh over time. Your weight loss or gain trends. Stress, sodium intake, hydration (or lack thereof), sweating, fat loss/gain and muscle loss/gain all affect what you weigh. And don’t forget – the food you actually eat throughout the day weighs something too! All of these things can play into a false sense of where you’re at when you step onto the scale.

So far I’ve thrown a lot of information at you, even though it may not seem like it. Let’s take it one bite at a time (hah, I made a funny).

Stress – 
Being under high levels of stress, which isn’t uncommon these days, can lead to weight gain (or to the scale staying the same – we’ll come back to that) as discussed in this article on WebMD, this article on MedicineNet, and this post on About.com Health. I’m taking away three distinct factors from all these (and more) discussions about stress and weight gain –

1. When you’re stressed your body enters a primal “fight or flight” mode and generates a number of hormones, including Cortisol. Cortisol serves to facilitate fat and carbohydrate metabolism, but it also triggers insulin release to help regulate blood sugar. The end result is YOU craving more high-carb high-sugar foods. Helloooooo tub-o-ice cream.

2. Cortisol, a result of stress, causes your body to store fat deep in the abdominal area. This not only produces an INCREDIBLY attractive gut-like appearance in the belly, but it’s also the kind of fat store that can lead to health issues.

3. When you’re stressed there’s lots of nervous energy that needs to be expended – your body and mind have to find a comforting activity. Many times, eating becomes that comforting activity and, HOW CONVENIENT – you can go ahead and nom on that high-sugar high-carb stuff you’re craving as a result of cortisol release. Perfect.

Sodium Intake, Hydration / De-hydration and sweating-

Where does all that salt come from?

The ideal daily sodium intake is around 2,300 mg. I don’t know if you’ve looked at sodium levels in some of the foods you eat, but it can be INCREDIBLY difficult to keep sodium levels low…especially if you eat out at all. The chart to the right shows you where all the salt in your food comes from – if you look at it you’ll see why the more “processed” food you eat, and the more “processed” it is, the more salt you can’t help but take in. Increased sodium levels make you retain water (don’t believe me? Google it). Retaining water makes you weigh more – water has weight, right? Totally makes sense. If you decide you’re gonna stop drinking water and get pretty dehydrated – yeah, the scale is probably going to look a little bit better, but you’ll be disappointed next week/month when you weigh in and you’re hydrated differently than the last time.

And just like taking in or not taking in enough water can affect your weight – you’re obviously going to weigh less after you’ve just gotten done sweating out a bunch of water. In my experience, I can sweat out 1-2 lbs of water (maybe even more) during a super-intense workout (1+ hours), yours may vary, but that IS a significant amount of weight just from sweating. Your body will replenish it when you have that post-workout “oh-my-god-I’m-dying-of-thirst” water guzzle, so this is an even more temporary fluctuation than the others, but it is a weight fluctuation just the same.

Food Weighs Something – 
This one’s quick, easy and obvious – the food you eat weighs something. If you weigh yourself before you eat in the morning you will weigh less than if you weighed yourself after eating. Every time. There is no food out there that makes you lighter after you eat it (and if there is, tell me!). 

And this leaves me with my favorite point to make, and the one that, I think, really brings this whole article together:

No, this is not just some kind of corny line – volume-wise, muscle weighs more than fat. Think of it like a pound of feathers and a pound of gold – it’s gonna take a super-huge pile of feathers to weigh a pound – that pile is going to take up a lot of space. The same weight of gold is small, sleek and in a tight tiny package. Same goes for muscle and fat. Fat is less dense than muscle, thus 5 lbs of fat takes up a lot more real estate than muscle.

Let’s put it another way that’s easier to understand:

  Starting to get the picture?

Muscle is tighter and denser than fat – same weight, smaller package. If the scale doesn’t move, or barely moves, it’s likely because you’re building muscle while at the same time burning fat. The more muscle you have in your body the more calories you’ll burn – your body has to burn calories to feed all the muscle on your body.  That’s a good thing. Don’t be afraid of building muscle.

No. Not necessarily.  Wasn’t the goal to burn fat? Get healthy? Get fit? Yes, you’ll lose some weight, but it’s going  to come to a point where you stop losing weight so rapidly. You might even stay the same for a while. This could be a true plateau or it could just be some muscle gain (I’ll cover true plateaus in another article), but either one can be overcome. I lost 107 lbs so far – it did not steadily come off 5 – 10 lbs per week. There were weeks I didn’t lose weight. There were weeks I GAINED a little. You have to think LONG TERM with your weight-loss and fitness goals. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was your body. Be confident in what you’re doing and believe in yourself. If you get so frustrated that you want to smash the scale and throw it out the window…well…I’ll pretend I didn’t see you do it.

So, what? I can’t trust The Scale?

Like I said – The Scale will ALWAYS tell you exactly what you weigh…at that moment…with no regard for muscle vs. fat, hydration, stress, etc. Weigh yourself at your own risk. Don’t weigh yourself more than once a week – definitely not daily. The number The Scale tells you is NOT the only number in the world that matters. Trust other measurement methods. How do you FEEL? How do you LOOK? Are your clothes fitting looser? Can you tighten your belt more? Do you see more muscle definition when you flex? Has your body fat % gone down? Don’t let the number The Scale tells you skew the image you see in the mirror.

When you start a program and take your “before” pictures, whip out a measuring tape and get your measurements – neck, chest, waist, hips, thighs, biceps, calves, etc. You’ll be glad you did, because THOSE are the measurements that count. If those are changing in a positive direction, the weight will follow. Believe in yourself and stay positive – don’t let The Scale make you think you’re failing.