You might have heard the common saying that muscle weighs more than fat, but this would defy the laws of physics, since one pound of anything still weighs a pound - a pound of muscle weighs the same as a pound of fat. Where this idea really comes from is the amount of volume muscle takes up compared to fat.
Muscle is much more dense and takes up less space - up to 18% less. Meaning you can weigh quite a bit more with a large amount of lean mass and not look as "large". In addition, muscle tends to be more smooth than fat, helping you look more toned and lean overall.
So no, gaining muscle will not make you weigh less. Often it makes you weigh more than your starting weight. But your clothes may fit better, you will feel healthier, and the gym will start to become a little more enjoyable. So maybe it's time to toss the scale and start measuring your success by something else, like your body fat percentage or progress photos to keep you motivated.
Here’s five reasons the scale is not the best way to measure your progress and what you should try instead.
1. The Scale Can’t Tell You Your Body Fat Percentage
Your body weight is only one data point, and a fairly broad measurement at that. You are made up of many things that contribute to the number you see on the scale including water, bone, tissue, fat, and muscle mass. And oftentimes, body fat only represents 10-30% of your total weight.
This matters because when you are looking to lose weight, you are hoping to lose body fat. If you are also strength training as part of your weight loss journey it is entirely possible you are going to see some changes in lean body mass at the same time. Not to mention the normal weight fluctuations from water weight.
If you are only relating on the scale, you might find yourself not losing weight (especially in the first few weeks) which can cause you to get frustrated and give up. But what’s really happening below the surface is meaningful changes in your body composition that you should be celebrating.
Yes, some scales will measure body composition, but they can be inaccurate and at the mercy of hard to control variables: like your hydration status, last time you ate, exercise schedule, etc. The typical margin of error for body fat scales is somewhere in the range of 3 to 8%, to as high as 22% compared to the gold standard test, a DEXA/DXA scan that falls with a 1.6% margin of error (1,2,3).
2. The Scale Can’t Estimate Your Minimum Calorie Needs
Calorie control is crucial to just about every health and fitness goal, so understanding your basic energy needs is key to supporting good health and getting results. Your body weight only gives you a rough estimate of your daily energy needs, but knowing your total lean body mass will allow you to get a much more accurate picture of your daily needs so you are able to fine tune your nutrition.
Muscle is more metabolic than fat and can help you burn more calories naturally. In fact, a huge chunk of your resting metabolic rate and metabolsim is determined by your body weight - mainly your lean muscle mass. The more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns, and the easier it becomes to maintain your weight.
3. The Scale Can’t Tell You Your Protein Goals
The amount of protein you need depends on the amount of muscle mass you have and your overall fitness goals - you should strive to get about one gram of protein per one pound of lean body mass. You can estimate this based on your body fat percentage, but the best way to determine your minimum protein goals is by knowing how many pounds of muscle mass you have.
Protein is not only important to help you build muscles and maintain your lean mass, but can also benefit your diet and health goals in unique ways - helping to improve body composition during weight loss and weight gain, control hunger, and reduce cravings.
4. The Scale Won't Tell You Your Bone Density
Some forms of body composition testing, like DEXA/DXA scans, can also tell you your bone density. Because this form of body composition testing uses x-ray technology, it can pinpoint exactly where you carry body fat and muscle down to the pound, along with your overall bone health.
This is important because most people have no clue how strong their bones are and whether or not they are at risk of developing health conditions like osteoporosis later in life.
5. The Scale Isn’t the Best Measurement of Overall health
You probably have an idea of your ideal weight but how can you tell what is a healthy weight for your frame?
The scale alone won’t even tell you if you are overweight. At the very least, you’ll need to calculate your body mass index using your height and age to determine your weight status. This matters because being overweight, obese, or underweight, can increase your risk of various health complications.
Additionally, where you carry body fat can also play a key role in your health risks. If you tend to hold more visceral fat, the type of internal fat wrapped around your abdominal organs, you might be at higher risk for developing chronic health conditions like Heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and high cholesterol (4,5,6,7). DEXA/DXA scans can also tell you how much visceral and subcutaneous fat you have and where it is on your body.
Lastly, body weight is only one factor of a healthy lifestyle. You should also be paying attention to your nutrition, mental health, and total wellbeing to live the healthiest lifestyle for you.
Weight is only one part of the health equation and there is no reason to live and die by the scale. Instead of beating yourself up over a number, consider other ways to measure your health and progress, such as getting a body composition test done every few months, paying attention to how you feel and how your clothes are fitting, or taking progress photos.
Then focus on improving your health in meaningful ways.
- Lift weights or incorporate resistance training into your routine to build muscle, gain strength, and support good bone health.
- Eat more nutrient dense foods to provide your body the nutrition it needs to thrive.
- Focus on full body health by gaining a healthy mindset, social support, and a lot more self love.
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