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. This will help ensure you get the results you deserve.
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 won’t be able to gauge whether or not you are progressing as hoped. You won’t have objective data points from which to base your decisions off of 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 body fat hasn’t been lost.
- A weight increase doesn’t necessarily mean that body fat has been gained.
- 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 six and a half years from working with clients online. It is easy to understand, quick to implement, and I’ve included a spreadsheet tracker you can download also.
The tracking mistakes most people make:
1. Are you weighing yourself just once per week? Don’t do that. Your weight will fluctuate from day to day, and across the course of a day.
2. Do you try to gauge progress by how you look in the mirror? Bad idea. The brain plays tricks on us by adapting perceptions to new levels of stimulation through a phenomenon known as “perceptual adaptation.” Oh and how defined you look condition will change from day to day your water balance and gut content fluctuate.
3. Are you trying to measure your body fat percentage? Well, that’s another seemingly great, but really bad idea. Body fat measurement methods all have accuracy and consistency issues. (I’ve written more about this here.)
Over longer time frames, this is sufficient. In the shorter time frames where all the decisions need to happen, this is woefully inadequate, and will more than likely just leave you in the shit.
The Art of Proper Diet Progress Tracking
There are eight key ways I now get clients to track progress. The data points taken together will help you determine whether an adjustment to your diet or training is necessary. It’s not perfect, but it will help you navigate the fluctuations in weight when dieting and bulking, help you determine whether you need to make an adjustment to your training, and stop you from doing something prematurely, screwing yourself up.
This is how your data will look if you track as per this guide:
Many of the points I will make here may seem very obvious in isolation, but they are things easily missed or forgotten when making decisions in the heat of the moment.
For more useful graphics, check out my Instagram.
1. Weigh yourself every morning upon waking. Note the weekly average.
Do it after going to the toilet. You can choose to do this at night, but most people will find a morning habit easier to stay consistent with.
Scale weight will fluctuate day to day, and throughout each day. You can expect to lose 1-2% body weight overnight through the moisture lost when breathing. Here are other things that cause fluctuations in weight:
- Water & glycogen, due to a change in carb intake.
- Water, due to the stall-whoosh effect.
- Water, due to hydration status.
- Water, due to a change in salt intake.
- Water, due to stress or the menstrual cycle.
- Bowel content, because some foods have a higher ‘gut residue’ (they stay in the gut for longer).
Scale Weight Obsessors – Weighing once a week is not ideal by any means as it leaves you as a coach open to random fluctuations in weight happening and screwing up your analysis.
The downside of this needs to be weighed up with the stress from daily weighing that certain personality types feel. Educating the client on the causes of weight fluctuations is a cure in most cases, but not all. Perhaps showing several data client sets with the daily weigh-ins and the trend line noted would help.
2. Take circumference measurements in nine places, once per week, noting the measurements to the nearest 0.1 cm.
As with the scale weight, 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. Do it yourself rather than relying on a partner, as you are the only person that will always be with you. Two different people measuring with the same tape will get a slightly different result.
To help with consistency:
- Consider getting a Myotape/Orbitape (pictured below) as it will make self-measuring easier.
- Tense your muscles.
- Use the widest part of your legs.
- Measure at the nipple-line for the chest, being sure to not get the tape at an angle or twisted behind your back.
- Curl your biceps in a pose like Arnold to take your arms at the widest point.
- To gauge 2 inches above and below the navel, just use three finger widths.
You can find a picture and video guide to using this kind of tape here.
When used in combination with the scale weight, this will help you to gauge muscle growth and fat loss in different areas.
Accept nothing less than a 0.1 cm degree of accuracy, regardless of what system (metric or imperial) they are used to. Not only is it exceptionally useful for noting small changes and trends in the data, but it also sets the client up with a mindset on precision, and that they need to take the data seriously.
Without the data, you are blind after all. I hammer this point home to clients at the outset – no data, no assessment. People sometimes screw this up, so it’s worth checking that they have filled out the tracking sheet correctly in the first week so that there can be no misunderstandings at the time of the first update.
3. Take two photos, front and side, once every four weeks.
Use the same lighting conditions, camera, camera angle, time of day, and pose.
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 major changes in lower back and hip+ass fat which the front and side photos will not towards the end of the diet.
Due to the subjective nature of photos, I prefer relying on data for decision-making purposes. There are three exceptions that come to mind. Firstly, when making a guess at initial body fat. Secondly, gauging whether a competitor is lean enough for competition or whether or not we are on, ahead of, or behind schedule. Thirdly, helping people turn things around into maintenance, and then a bulk, without unnecessary fat gain.
If someone comes to you with an initial set of photos where they have their stomach forcibly sticking out, get them retaken. Varying degrees of stomach flexion will lead to a dramatically different appearance from one minute to the next. Remind them that the goal with the photos is not to have the most striking before-after shots, but to have a reliable visual gauge of progress.
4. Track subjective feelings of sleep quality, stress levels, hunger, and fatigue, each week.
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.)
Everything affects everything:
- Sleep quality will affect training performance as well as recovery, and 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 had been poor, sleep duration or quality is likely the cause and 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 be a sign that the caloric deficit may be too high and needs to be raised. 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 and muscle mass retention (or growth). 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 making an increase.
5. Rate your diet adherence as a percentage of the number of days you adhered to your calorie or macro targets each week.
For those that are new to tracking their food intake, I suggest you aim to hit your daily protein intake target to within 20g, and hit your calorie target to within 200kcal.
More experienced trainees will benefit from a higher standard of accuracy. This is what I usually use with my clients. Aim for “best” 75% of the time and the other days can be “better” or “good” targets:
- Good: Hit your calorie target to within 100kcal.
- Better: Hit your protein target to within a 10g, and your calorie goal to within 100kcal.
- Best: Hit your protein and carb targets to within 10g, fat to within 5g.
Those toward the end of a contest prep will benefit from tighter targets. Those in a bulking phase should consider looser targets.
Perfection is not a reasonable or realistic target to aim for, it will just set you up for failure. You need to choose an accuracy target that is both appropriate for your experience level and current situation. It’s important to build flexibility into the system to make things sustainable or your life will revolve around your diet.
When bulking you can (and arguably should) have looser accuracy targets than when you are cutting. Life needs to be lived, you cannot be on point all of the time or you will burn out.
Some people are going to screw up their counting of things. Short of requesting a complete list of the client’s meals and their ingredients (which I think may be overbearing, and possibly counterproductive), there is no real way to check for this, you just have to be aware of it. So, if someone isn’t losing weight as it seems they should for the macros you’ve given them, miscounting may be a factor.
6. Rate your training adherence as a percentage of the number of workouts completed each week.
This figure is not how well you thought you performed. Fluctuations in performance are normal and to be expected.
If you haven’t been sticking to your training plan then you can’t expect to progress with it. However, without the data staring you in the face 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 80% (meaning you’re missing one in five workouts) then you need to re-prioritize your schedule or adjust the number of days in your training plan (while making an effort to keep training volume the same) so that you can stick to it.
7. Keep summary notes on your key lifts.
List each of your main compound lifts. Every two weeks, write one of the following three things to summarize the period:
- ‘Progressing, recovered.’
- ‘Not progressing, recovered.’
- ‘Not progressing, not recovered.’
‘Not recovered’ in this sense means you are unusually sore when you next hit that body part, or if after your 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 strength to fluctuate as fatigue builds and dissipates across the training cycle, and as work-life stresses come and go. Keeping summary data like this separate from the full training log helps to avoid clutter, and helps you get the relevant ‘big picture’ details without being overwhelmed when making decisions.
If you see that you aren’t progressing as reasonably expected in certain areas, or are unusually sore, despite sleep, stress and adherence all being on point for a couple of consecutive periods, then 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 noting all sets and reps completed along with the weight used for all exercises. Avoid clutter, don’t note warm-up sets.
This is how I get clients to note things:
If you have a copy of The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid, you’ll see that this is a version of the novice powerlifting sample program on page 153.
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. This will help you manage fatigue more effectively and make faster gains. Eric Helms and I have put a free email course together explaining how to implement it here.
1. This allows you to dig into the details of your program when you have determined that you need to make a change. Putting it on a separate spreadsheet keeps the main summary data from getting cluttered.
2. It allows you to focus. 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.
(Check your browser’s downloads folder after clicking.)
For more useful graphics, check out my Instagram.
Some Advice on Interpreting Your Data
- Gauge progress by looking at data over a four week period. Analyze the trend, not the fluctuations day to day or week to week. Yes, this means you’ll have to wait for four weeks after setting things up. It’s during this time that people typically experience the most fluctuations.
- You’re looking for minimum confirmation that you’re progressing, not any single point in the data that suggests you aren’t.
- When around 15% body fat or lower, fat comes off the upper abs first, so you’ll see the mid and upper stomach measurements drop before the lower ones. When bulking the reverse will happen.
- Don’t forget that you store fat on your chest and back, legs and arms. So, if these measurements decrease when you are cutting, it doesn’t necessarily indicate muscle loss.
- Conversely, all your measurements increase when bulking. Unfortunately, this will not all be muscle gain, there will be some fat. More details concerning this in my bulking guide.
- If your weight is slowly increasing and your stomach measurements slowly decreasing, this indicates simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain. Muscle growth will hide fat loss so don’t just rely on the scale. Think very carefully before changing anything as this is the domain of novice trainees and won’t last forever.
- If your weight suddenly increases (which it will on occasion), don’t panic, this will not be fat gain. Check your stomach measurements – you will likely notice little change. This will be due to an increase in glycogen, perhaps from some extra carb intake or saltier food intake. The reason this does not show in the stomach measurements is because these changes happen throughout the whole body (mostly the muscle tissue) rather than under the skin.
- Ladies, your weight will fluctuate with your menstrual cycle due to water retention. Only compare data points at the same time point in your cycle.
- An increase in neck girth is probably a good indicator of lean mass gain as not much body fat is stored there. This is used in military body fat estimation methods. Consider taking this when bulking. The changes will be slow, so only compare over long time intervals.
- Strength maintenance is a good sign of muscle maintenance, however, the leaner you get, the less mechanically efficient you’ll be at many lifts because the bar has to travel further. Thus, for experienced trainees, drops in strength for the same total training volume should probably be expected when getting very lean. (For more details see this article on training program choice, the section, “The Difference Between Bulking and Cutting.“)
- Experienced trainees using a form of periodization (non-linear progression) can assess strength changes with periodical as many reps as possible (AMRAP) or 1-rep max (1RM) testing with your main compound lifts (squat, bench press, deadlift, etc.). If you’re a powerlifter, 1RM testing makes sense. For all others, the AMRAP is a safer and less fatiguing option. Just choose a weight you could only get x reps with y weeks prior, and see if you can get any more reps. For example, if you could get 5 reps of 200lbs 6 weeks ago, but you can get 8 reps at 200lbs now, that’s progress. If you’d like to get an estimate of how that would carry over to a 1RM use this tool I’ve added to the Muscle and Strength Pyramid books site.
Warning: More 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. This article is an excerpt from my book on diet adjustments, The Last Shred. My books are where you’ll find my best work, so if you’re finding the site useful and would like to support it while getting more great content, please consider buying those.
Thanks to fellow coaches Alan Aragon, Joseph Agu, Russell Taylor, and Børge Fagerli for sharing their experiences and methods and providing feedback to improve this.
If you don’t feel ready to do that yet but would like more info on diet adjustments, I’ve put together a free email course which you can sign up for below.
Thanks for reading, questions welcomed in the comments! – Andy
Top image credit, Brandon Wells photography.
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