If you are putting in a serious amount of effort with your training and nutrition, you owe it to yourself to take the ten extra minutes each week to track your progress seriously.
I’d go as far as to say it’s the biggest differentiator between those that are successful and those that aren’t.
Because without proper tracking data, you can’t gauge whether or not you are progressing as hoped. You won’t have objective data points from which to base your decisions on when you stall in some area, and there is a good chance that you will get stuck spinning your wheels, not knowing what to tweak to get yourself back on track.
Perhaps you’ve already experienced this frustration?
Consider the following:
- A lack of weight change does not necessarily mean that you haven’t lost body fat.
- A weight increase doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve gained body fat.
- Weight gain when bulking won’t be from muscle alone.
- A lack of training progress doesn’t necessarily mean that a training plan is to blame.
- Body fat measurement methods all have accuracy issues, so they can’t be relied upon to gauge progress in the short term.
If the way you’re currently tracking isn’t sufficient to tease out the differences, then you need to improve it. Fortunately, this article is here to help. It will guide you through the art of proper progress tracking that I’ve developed over the last 10 years working with clients online. It is easy to understand, quick to implement, and I’ve included a spreadsheet tracker you can download also.
📙 What follows is a sample chapter from my book, The Diet Adjustments Manual.
The three body progress tracking methods to avoid
1. Don’t try to assess your progress by a body-fat percentage estimation tool. All methods have inaccuracies and inconsistencies. I’ve talked about this here and here. If you wish to get an estimation, use my body-fat percentage pictures and the US Navy Body Fat Calculator. Over longer time frames, these are sufficient. In the shorter time frames where all the decisions need to happen, they are woefully inadequate and will more than likely just leave you in the shit.
2. Do not try to use an activity tracker to estimate your calorie burn and adjust your diet each day to the numbers it gives. These devices are also notoriously inaccurate. The activity multiplier in your TDEE calculation took care of your activity levels. Yes, they will vary a little from day to day, but this is a small part of a much bigger picture, so you don’t need to worry about it.
3. Do not try to gauge progress by how you look in the mirror. The brain plays tricks on us. How we see ourselves changes due to a phenomenon known as perceptual adaptation. Oh, and how defined we look can change from day to day also.
The 8 Ways I Get Clients to Measure and Chart Body Progress
There are eight key ways I now get clients to track progress. The data points taken together will help you navigate the fluctuations in weight and determine whether you need to adjust or just keep doing what you’re doing.
This is how your data will look if you track as per this guide:
You can download a copy of the progress tracker spreadsheet immediately for free here.
(Check your browser’s downloads folder after clicking.)
1. Weigh Yourself Daily
👉🏻 Weigh yourself every morning, upon waking, after going to the toilet. Note the weekly average.
You can choose to do this at night, but most people will find a morning habit easier to stay consistent with.
Put the scale, notepad, and pen next to the toilet so you can’t forget. Note each day to the nearest 0.1 and note the weekly average to the nearest 0.1 in your progress tracker.
WHY I RECOMMEND DAILY WEIGHING
As explained in my article on macro adjustments when dieting, your weight will fluctuate. Weighing ourselves daily, noting the average at the end of each week, and then comparing weeks helps to smooth out these fluctuations in the data and make interpretation easier.
As a reminder, here are all the reasons that weight fluctuations happen, aside from fat and muscle mass changes:
- Water due to hydration status (perspiration and respiration).
- Water due to a change in salt intake.
- Water (retention) due to stress or the menstrual cycle.
- Glycogen due to a change in carb intake.
- Bowel content, because some foods have a higher ‘gut residue’ (they stay in the gut for longer).
Some clients have found daily weighing stressful due to the fluctuations. But I’ve found that when I’ve taken the time to explain the causes and show them several data sets of past clients, it has helped immensely.
So, if you find the idea of daily weighing stressful, the reasons presented here and the data you’ll see later in the book should help.
2. Take Weekly Body Measurements
👉🏻 Measure your body circumference in nine places, once per week, to the nearest 0.1 cm.
I suggest you measure in the morning when you wake up, after going to the toilet. I get clients to do this on a Saturday.
To help you get consistent measurements:
- Do it yourself rather than relying on a partner, as you are the only person that will always be with you.
- Get an automatically tightening tape (commonly branded as an Orbitape or Myotape). This will make self-measuring easier, and the tightness of the tape will be consistent.
- For the chest, measure at the nipple-line, being sure not to get the tape at an angle or twisted behind your back. Take a deep breath and hold it. Don’t flex your lats or chest unless you have experience controlling how much you can make the lats flare.
- For the legs, stand, tense, and measure at the widest point.
- For the arms, curl your biceps and tense at the widest point.
- For the stomach, tense and measure at the navel, three finger-widths above, and three finger-widths below.
WHY I RECOMMEND TAKING WEEKLY BODY MEASUREMENTS
When combined with the scale weight, body measurements help us to gauge muscle growth and fat loss in different areas.
The 0.1 cm degree of accuracy is useful for noting small changes and trends in the data. It also sets clients up with a mindset on precision, reminding them that they need to take the data seriously. Without reliable data, as an online coach, I am blind. You will be also.
3. Take Monthly Photos
👉🏻 Take two photos, front and side, once every four weeks.
Use the same lighting conditions, camera, camera angle, time of day, and pose. Do this yourself rather than relying on someone to take them.
Resist the urge to forcibly stick your stomach out in your first set of photos. The goal with the photos is not to have the most striking before-after shots but to have a reliable visual gauge of progress.
WHY I RECOMMEND TAKING PHOTOS
Being able to see changes in definition month to month can be very useful for motivation. I’ve experimented with weekly and fortnightly photos with clients, and I’m convinced that every four weeks is best as the changes are often too small to be noticeable at higher frequencies.
Competitors should consider adding a third picture from the back, as this can show changes in the lower back, hip, and ass fat which the front and side photos will not towards the end of the diet.
I prefer relying on data for decision-making purposes, but three exceptions come to mind where I find photos to be more useful:
- When I estimate initial body fat.
- When I gauge whether a competitor is lean enough.
- When I help people decide when to transition from a cut to a bulk.
4. Rate Weekly Dietary Adherence
👉🏻 Note the adherence to your weekly calorie target as a percentage of your totals for the week.
So, if you go 15% over your calorie targets, write 115%. If you go 10% under your targets, write 90%.
The way to find your daily calorie targets is to multiply the calorie values of each macronutrient and then add them together.
For protein and carbs, this is 4 calories per gram; for fats, this is 9 calories per gram. Thus, if your macros are P:200, C:200, F:50, your calorie target is 2050 daily, 14,350 weekly.
👉🏻 If you eat 16,000 kcal, your adherence total is 111%. (16000/14350*100)
👉🏻 If you eat 12,000, your adherence total is 84%. (12000/14350*100)
WHY I RECOMMEND LOGGING DIETARY ADHERENCE AS A PERCENTAGE OF CALORIE TOTALS
You aren’t going to be perfect. Your memory is fallible and has a recency bias.
When looking at your data to determine whether your macros need to be adjusted, you need to know how well you adhered each week.
Your macro targets might be perfectly fine, but the issue is that you haven’t been adhering to them, and without the data it’s easy to forget.
Also, by tracking things as a percentage of calorie totals hit each week, you get the opportunity to compensate for any mistakes made earlier in the week on later days. You don’t want to do this too often, or you will compromise recovery.
👉🏻 Don’t make the mistake of writing the percentage of meals you adhered to.
Let’s say you eat three meals per day and have two meals off plan in a week, calling them “free meals.” This would give you a 90% meal adherence total, which on the face of it, could be considered good adherence.
However, it’s conceivable that with a starter, large main course, and dessert, you could put down 2500 calories in each of these meals.
👉🏻 Assuming a 2100 calorie daily target and perfect adherence to your otherwise 700 calorie meals, this would give you a 3600 kcal surplus for the week, which is an adherence total of 124%. (2100*7 + 3600)/2100*7
This would wipe out your calorie deficit entirely, but if you were to log 90% instead of 124%, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the lack of progress wasn’t due to poor adherence but the macros being too high.
If you cut macros, adherence is harder. If you manage to sustain it, you’re likely to then consume even more in your two free meals (typically at the weekend), and the cycle of misery will continue.
5. Rate Weekly Training Adherence
👉🏻 Note your training adherence as a percentage of workouts completed.
So, if you have four workouts planned for the week and you only did three of them, rate your adherence as 75%.
Fluctuations in performance are normal and to be expected. This percentage is not a reflection of how well you feel you performed or whether you progressed, only whether you turned up and put in the work.
WHY I RECOMMEND RATING WEEKLY TRAINING ADHERENCE
If you haven’t been sticking to your training plan, then you can’t expect to progress with it. However, without the data, it’s sometimes easy to miss the fact that you haven’t been faithfully following the program well enough to gauge the efficacy.
If this number is consistently below ~85% (meaning you’re missing one in six sessions), then you need to re-prioritize training in your schedule. If that is not possible, re-organize the training volume into fewer training days.
Yes, this will mean longer, more tiring sessions with a potential performance drop off toward the end. But this is preferable to consistently missing workouts.
6. Rate Sleep Quality, Stress, Hunger, and Fatigue
👉🏻 Rate all of these on a 0–5 scale.
- Sleep issues? (0 = no issues, high-quality sleep. 5 = insomnia.)
- Stress levels (0 = no stress, 5 = divorce or a death in the family.)
- Hunger issues? (0 = no issues, 5 = extreme hunger.)
- Fatigue/lethargy? (0 = no issues, 5 = exceptionally fatigued.)
WHY I RECOMMEND TRACKING SUBJECTIVE FEELINGS OF SLEEP QUALITY, STRESS, HUNGER, AND FATIGUE
It’s normal to have some issues as you progress. Knowing about these things will help tell you when you can be more aggressive or when you need to back off a little.
Sleep quality will affect training performance and recovery, and therefore muscle retention when in a calorie
deficit. Sleep quality affects hunger and energy levels. So, if you are hungry, your training has been shitty recently, or you’ve been feeling lethargic, but you see that your sleep quality has been low, fixing it is the most likely cure.
Stress will negatively impact training performance as well as recovery and can cause water retention. Stress can also affect sleep. So, if your weight hasn’t been coming down in the last few weeks, but your stress levels are exceptionally high, then water retention masking fat losses may be to blame.
Chronic hunger can signify that the caloric deficit is too high. However, high stress levels or poor food choices can sometimes cause this. So, if you are hungry and stressed, the one may be causing the other, and you need to work on the root cause of the stress.
Energy levels affect workout performance. This, in turn, affects our ability to maintain muscle when dieting or grow it when bulking. If energy levels are low, it could be a sign that you need to raise caloric intake. However, it could also be due to poor sleep or high stress, so consider these things before increasing calorie intake.
As you can see, there are many interactions to consider. I’ll simplify the decision-making process with the flowcharts in the later chapters on mid-diet adjustments.
7. Keep summary notes on your key lifts
List each of the main compound lifts in your training plan in the ‘Key Lift’ section beneath the rest of the data. Every two weeks, write one of the following three things:
- ‘Progressing, recovered.’
- ‘Not progressing, recovered.’
- ‘Not progressing, not recovered.’
‘Not recovered’ in this sense means your performance is affected after a warm-up (the weights feel heavier than usual for that exercise). This shouldn’t be considered good or bad, so don’t attach a meaning to it. It is normal for this to happen in waves across our training week(s) as fatigue builds and dissipates with training the training cycle and as stresses come and go.
WHY I RECOMMEND YOU KEEP SUMMARY NOTES ABOUT TRAINING PROGRESSION
Keeping summary data will help you to see the connections between macro adjustments, sleep, stress, hunger, and fatigue, without being overwhelmed by the full training log.
Suppose you see that you aren’t progressing as well as expected in certain areas, despite sleep, stress, and adherence being on point for a couple of consecutive periods. In that case, you know you need to take a deload, tweak something in your training program, or perhaps raise your caloric intake.
8. Keep a detailed training log
Either in a notebook or a separate tab of your tracking spreadsheet, keep a full training log. Note the sets * reps * load (including the weight of the bar.
For example, if you performed 3 sets of 12 reps at 35 kg, write 3*12*35. Here is an example:
If you lower the load or do fewer reps on subsequent sets, note it like this: 2*12*40, 12*35, or 2*12*40, 10*40. Avoid clutter, don’t note your warm-up sets nor the units.
If you’re not familiar with the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) notation, it is a method to help match the load used each day to your readiness. It’s explained here.
WHY I RECOMMEND YOU KEEP A TRAINING LOG
There are two primary reasons:
- This allows you to dig into the details of your program when you have determined that you need to make a change.
- You need a record of what you lifted the week before so that you can choose what you lift this week. I keep a screenshot of my training program on my phone. I put the phone on airplane mode. This serves the dual function of making sure I’m not disturbed when lifting something heavy and keeping me away from social media distractions.
Warning: More Fitness Tracking data is not always better
Looking at data is something I do half of my working week. How I get clients to present it to me is something I have thought very long and hard about. Think carefully before adding other data, as it can overwhelm you with detail.
That said, the one additional item I would suggest you track is motivation, rated weekly on a scale of 1-10. This is something I have clients write in their email updates along with any questions or concerns because I want them to explain the reason they feel this way. Also, as a coach, the text dialogue at the update points can provide invaluable insights.
Thank you for reading. To learn how to interpret this tracking data and making adjustments to keep yourself progressing, check out my book, The Diet Adjustments Manual.
Questions welcomed in the comments. 🙏🏻❤️