Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Science of Scale Fluctuations: Why Your Weight Does What It Does

I got a great article for you today from a colleague of mine, Leigh Peele, who's a fat loss expert and creator of The Fat Loss Troubleshoot, on scale fluctuations and why weight loss plateaus occur.

Note: Our new 6:00 am North Vancouver Boot Camp class has started as of last week at the 2104 Front Street location in North Vancouver. Classes run every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 6:00 am to 6:45 am. Our other classes, 11:45 am and 7:15 pm, are also running those days as well. If you want to join us for a free one week trial, please call us at 604.626.2342 or email us at to let us know you would like to come. 

Back to the article, Leigh wrote about scale fluctuations and why weight goes up and down like it does. If you are one to panic when that happens, this article will help ease that.

So without further adieu here's Leigh...

Hi, it's Leigh Peele here. I hope you are well. I have had the pleasure of training and consulting some of the strongest people in the world. Actors, doctors, coaches, athletes, government leaders, models, etc. These are people who can train for hours at a time. They spent years in school studying to better themselves and some run our lives with the decisions they make.

Put these leaders, these champions on a scale, and if that scale doesn’t say what they want it to, they will weep before your eyes. I have held a 6’2 and 230lb pure muscled man in my arms as he wept. All because of the scale.

The Weight of Measure

There are a few types of scales used to measure weight. The main ones used today are balance, spring, and strain gauge.

Balance scales are used very little by everyday society as a means of measurement. A balance scale works off a lever comparing a known weight placed against the tester. A classic example of this would be Justice Scales.

A widely used method for weight, and was the standard for many years, are spring scales. These scales work on either a stretch or compress system. A stretch system is what you will find at a grocery store when weighing produce. Place an object on the scale and the distance the spring stretches, based upon its set expansion, will determine the weight.

The reverse is what is used in bathroom weight scales with springs. The amount compressed in distance is the determining factor here.

The last method is a strain gauge scale, it measures the strain of an object. A wire or many wires send out a current when weight bends the plate that it is attached to. That amount of stress is calculated and the read out that you get on a digital scale is the collection of those calculations.

There are pros and cons to every weight system. Usually different scales produce different read outs. You will find most quality scales are within a few pounds of one another for the average persons daily weigh needs. No system is without flaws and if needing to make weight for a particular event make sure you test on their scale if possible. The important thing to note is that is the only time your weight should ever matter.

Let me repeat that.

The only time your weight number is important is when you are in a competition that involves weight class. I am going to teach you how to conquer the rest of the time with the art of logic, science, and nutrition.

Essential Body Mass

The human body is made up of various bones, skin, organs, tissue, muscle, fat, water, etc. At a point there is only so much of that weight you can get rid of. For the sake of this article let’s call this Essential Body Mass (EBM). This is a little different than Lean Body Mass (LBM) because you can lose or gain a certain degree of LBM. At the end of the day there is a certain amount of EBM that you must maintain. Sorry, but you can’t make weight by removing your liver or extracting your femur.

If we set aside organs, bones, and body hair it leaves us a few places where we can store fat, muscle, and water as these are you main additions to body weight.

Fat-You have a certain amount of essential fat in the body. This fat is needed for a multitude of reasons and functions in the body. The rest of the fat you store when you eat in an excess of calories for your energy needs. You can store this fat subcutaneously (right underneath the skin) or viscerally (in between organs, mainly abdominal).

Muscle-You have a certain amount of essential muscle in the body. Without it movement would not be possible. The rest of the muscle you have is gained through various living of life or by breaking down and rebuilding that tissue via training. Muscle is more dense than fat. This means that 5 pounds of muscle takes up less space than 5 pounds of fat. It doesn’t weigh more than fat, 5 pounds is 5 pounds.

Riddle: What weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of rocks?

Water- A huge amount of your body is made up of water. Lean muscle tissue and blood contain about 80% water, where as a fat cell contains about 20 to 25% water. Water helps transport nutrients, oxygen, and waste products in and out of cells. It is necessary for all digestive, absorption, and circulatory functions.

Water is needed to regulate the body’s temperature and to provide energy. It also helps moisten skin and regulate hormones, emotions, and maintains normal electrical properties of cells. If your body drops even 2% of its water storage, you start to function worse, feel fatigued, and are more prone to health problems the further it drops. Simply put, no water in the body equals a whole lot of a mess.

Daily Changes

We talked about what you can’t change. Here are the things that can change. On a day in and day out basis, dieting down or not, eating in a surplus or not, these things are going to change and are affected by your activity.

Food Weight

The weight of an item you eat is going to change the weight you are. This may seem like a “duh” but I can name many moments where I had someone weight themselves after they ate, and were heavier, and freaked out.

The food you eat, has weight. The fluid you drink, has weight.

Exercise: Grab a full gallon of water and go stand on the scale with it and then without it. I rest my case.

Water Retention

Retention: To hold on to, to hold back within.

Retention comes in all forms and reasons. From hormonal to glycogen storage, you can retain water in various places on the body, in large amounts, and for extended periods of time. I am going to cover the main causes of retention and how they occur.

1. Edema

There are many causes and sublevels of edema. Edema is classified mainly as swelling from an accumulation of watery fluid in cells, tissues, or serous cavities. This can range from mild to severe and the reasoning behind it varies. Anything from electrolyte imbalances, kidney problems, allergies, injury, and exercise can contribute on mild to severe levels.

If you have sock rings, swollen calves, or a puffy face, technically these are forms of edema on small levels. If you live with this constantly then you are likely dealing with issues of electrolyte balance in the body and need to focus on maintaining a better state of that, as much as you can as it is impossible to control, but possible to manage.

What to do?

  • Make sure to stay properly hydrated.
  • Make sure you are getting enough of your sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and zinc.
  • Make sure you are getting proper rest and time off from training.
  • Make sure you are focusing on taking care of your joints and muscles.

2. Glycogen Retention

Muscle holds a massive amount of water. A lot of times people accuse diets of being “muscle eaters” but this isn’t usually the case. Usually they are muscle drinkers because one of the first things to go when you begin dieting down is the water stored in your muscles, especially if taking part in an extreme diet or one that is very low in carbs (even if higher in calories).

The reason that carbs are so important is because glycogen storage is pulled mainly from carbohydrate intake. Though a small amount can be taken from protein, it is never on a large enough level to maintain adequate or noticeable glycogen retention. That “plump” look you are going after with your muscles, to have them be filled and defined, is from storage of glycogen in the muscles. However, if you are not lean enough to see this definition pronounced, all you are going to really notice is that you fat looks fuller on the days you eat carbs.

This is a big reason why carbs get the short end of the stick. It isn’t the glycogen’s fault, it’s your fatness. Lose the fat and learn to love what the carbs can do for you.

What to do? Put the carbs to work by pulling them into the muscles by lifting and training the body. Go for “plump” not “bloated.” Keeping a lower body fat level also helps with partitioning in general.

3. Hormonal/Stress

This applies to men or women, but I will say that women are going to be affected more by this on larger levels. Stress and hormonal imbalances or just general readjustments in the cycle system lead towards heavy (I do mean heavy) fluctuation in your water balance.

Stress is included in this as the triggers are very close and affect hormonal behavior. For example, if you are stressed out, crying, and can’t sleep, you are going to look and feel very much the same as you do on your period no? This is not to be confused with the crying and puffiness that actually happens around your period time either. Women are notorious for carrying their emotions on their sleeve and in most cases it’s underneath it as well.

What to do? Don't stress, calm down. There are some hormones and issues you can’t control. For the ones you can, take care of yourself and your body will take care of you.

Weight Loss isn’t Linear

Like I stated before there are so many ways you can change the course of your weigh-ins. Unless you eat the exact same thing every day and do the exact same things, in the same city, and moving at the same pace, you are going to land at a different point from day to day.

If looking for change then you have to watch the overall pattern to understand where you are really falling. That is of course, if you think the scale should matter in the first place. That is a different story though isn’t it?

The problem is that weight loss isn’t linear. Fat loss has shown to be more linear, but weight loss isn’t at all. What this means is that weight loss hardly ever has constant downward progression. There are usually two main determining factors for this.

1-Body Fat Percentage

2-Severity of Deficit

If you provide the same percentage of deficit for a male at 29% body fat and a male at 12% body fat you are going to see a much faster rate of weight loss for the male with larger body fat. Larger bodies store more water along with their fat mass and muscle mass. As you increase in fat and muscle you will also increase at a steady rate with water. This is why we can see someone just increase so fast in the scales as the weight comes on.

You don’t normally gain 6 pounds of fat when you go up 6 pounds on the scale. Depending on your body’s setup you can gain 2 pounds of fat and 4 pounds of water. Therefore the reverse is also true.

With deficit severity if you provided 2 females at 30% body fat with the exact same deficit they will, on average, lose at roughly the same rate. If you put one at a more extreme deficit, at least initially, the one with the large deficit is going to lose more excess water and more linear on the scale, at least in the beginning.

Larger deficits can bring stalls or plateaus at a quicker pace and since re-feeds and breaks are needed to help aid that, you will gain back the water you lost. Still, depending on how severe the diet and the situation, majority of the time a more severe deficit (>800) is going to provide more linear results.

The “Whoosh” Factor

The “whoosh” is when you are watching your weight day in and out and there is little to small changes even with big deficits. One day, out of nowhere, the scale will drop dramatically lower than it had been registering. This is known as a whoosh.

The “whoosh” could be any number of factors and no one knows for sure. One idea, and the one that makes the most sense, is that as fat cells empty, they refill with water. After a certain point and time, under unknown conditions, these cells alleviate the water and the “whoosh” is born.

The exact trigger that brings about this is unknown. Some hypothesize that it is much like water and carb loading. The body had loaded that area with stored fat, the fat leaves but the body isn’t sure yet that these areas don’t need to stay big and open for storage. So to protect itself it fills with water and doesn’t extract until it is sure that all systems are a go.

There has been a lot of correlations with re-feeds and whooshes, there has also been a lot of experiments with trying to time whooshes. I myself have found them to be hit and miss. The best method thus far is in the Water Manual in the section of “Method: Water-Only Manipulation.” It appears thus far using this method is best at triggering the whoosh and that even with the weight regain that is sure to follow after depletion, the overall trend is down.

If you desire to have the manual you get it with the Fat Loss Troubleshoot package.

I will say that in order to see constant steady drops maintaining an adequate intake of minerals is key. With the right vitamins and electrolyte drinks I have found that you run into less stalls, therefore running into less whooshes.

The missing pounds

In this last section I want you to pull together all the information you have to understand how you can lose pounds of fat, but never see them on the scale.

Below I am going to write out 3 different scenarios. I will tell you my conclusion at the end. Suggest what you think the problems are. Feel free to write what you think in the comments section below.

Case# 1 – Bob

Bob is 5’8, 270, and 39% body fat. He has an average daily deficit of 20%. On weekdays he hits lower numbers than on weekends, putting him in a bounce situation with his numbers. In the beginning he saw more linear loss but has been stuck at the same weight for 4 weeks now. What could be a logical reason for Bob weighing the same?

Case#2 – Jane

Jane is 5’4, 131, body fat unknown. Jane teaches an aerobics class every night at her gym. She has been struggling for years to lose her final few pounds of body fat. Over the past 8 week Jane started to a lifting program and is really progressing in her weights. Jane basically eats the same thing everyday so she knows it isn’t her food intake causing the stall. She barely sees any movement on the scale and it has stayed basically the same for 7 weeks now. 7 weeks is way too long, what is wrong here?

Case#3 – Carol

Carol has been dieting for 12 weeks. She is 5’7 and 244 pounds. She has been eating 5-6 meals a day, training 4 times a week, and following a food point systems. She start at week 1 at 240 pounds. She is up 4 pounds. What is wrong?

The answers:

Case#1 – Bob

Bob just isn’t in that large of a deficit. 20% overall can mean little visual scale loss, especially if on the weekends he is eating higher sodium filled foods, which is very common.

Case#2 – Jane

The average woman with effort and newbie gains can gain approximately ½ pound of muscle a week. That rate can be faster in a beginner especially. Also remember with increased training that means increase in glycogen storage. So it would seem that Jane is actually doing very well to be staying the same weight instead of increasing. It is likely or at least very possible that Jane put on a few pounds of muscle and water, and dropped some body fat. We also have to take into account her already lean level which will increase her chance for muscle gains and body fat loss at the same time.

Case#3 – Carol

Carol is likely eating too much. She is also not tracking her food intake diligently. On top of that, the more aggressive the training on obese individuals the worse they are going to retain water. If she is new to training she could have added a little muscle as well. If Carol targeted her intake better and hit a more aggressive deficit she would likely start to see the scale move.

Leave your comments and questions below.

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