Thursday, 30 May 2013

How do you know if you're getting anywhere?.. The importance of tracking progress

One of THE most common reasons for people to leave the gym and quit exercising is boredom. Often this can materialise as the person feels they're not getting any results. A perceived lack of progress is enough to make even the most frequent gym user down heartened and deflated.

In many cases progress in fact IS being made. So why are we not noticing it? It may be relative improvements, you may NOT be as strong as your friends but significantly stronger than you were originally.

Or, it may be a subtle change that you struggle to see yourself; after all, you live with yourself and see yourself every day in the mirror - it can be tough to spot changes and progress.

With that in mind, here are some tangible and useful measures of success everyone should use in some form along with some potential flaws in many of the most common methods people use.

Weighing Scales:
Scales are often the first port of call when people want to track progress and make sure that their exercise regime is making a difference. They can be useful, particularly for those who have a lot of additional body fat to lose.
Potential Flaw: However, weighing scales do not offer an accurate reflection with regards to your body composition. What is the weight made up from? Sure, some offer you a body fat percentage but this is very much a "finger in the sky" process due to the high number of variables that can skew your results. Factors such as when you ate last, how much water you've had and if you use them pre or post exercise can all adjust the readings heavily.

Body Fat Percentage Callipers:
Callipers are the traditional way of measuring body fat percentage. Used correctly, they offer you an accurate, full body percentage for the amount of body fat you have and are widely regarded as the "best" or most accurate way to measure body fat percentage most accurately.
Potential Flaw: However, there can be a big discrepancy in the accuracy of these callipers if used incorrectly. While they CAN be the most accurate in terms of measuring body fat percentage, it's important to get someone with experience in taking skin fold measurements to take your measurements. I've seen it done incorrectly many times; if they don't mark your skin fold points with a pen or eye liner, take multiple measurements in the same place, or even worse, take measurements through clothing (yes that actually happens) then they are NOT taking accurate measurement.

Body Mass Index (BMI):
Your BMI or "Body Mass Index" is a basic way of measuring your height against your weight and saying whether, from this data, you are within the parameters of "normal".
Potential Flaws: While still used by many medical professionals, this is a pretty retro and pointless measure. Your BMI doesn't offer a fair reflection of good health VS bad health as it pays no consideration to body composition. ie: a 6ft tall, 100kg male with 12% body fat that exercises 5 days per week will score the same as a 6ft tall, 100kg male with 35% body fat who does no exercise!?.. Where's the logic?

Tape Measure:
Measuring various circumferences at different points around your body is a great way to track a reduction in size, or perhaps increase in size depending your goals. While you may not be able to notice change with your own eyes, monthly measurements will let you know that you are making progress but also, tell you when specific body parts are making progress at a slower rate or not at all and so you may adjust your training each month accordingly.
Potential Flaw: There are 2 main issues with taking measurements -
1) The tape measure does not take into consideration the difference between fat and muscle. ie: If a male loses body fat through a mixture of resistance work and cardio, his chest measurement may stay identical yet he would be making progress.
2) Measuring in the exact same place a month after your initial measurements may be difficult. There's a huge variation between the top and middle of your leg for instance. Try to use markers that won't change and you can relocate each time such as your belly button or even a mole or scar on your body.

Taking a monthly snap in as little clothing as possible can be a tangible way for your to track progress across the months. Under close inspection you can scrutinize each and every body part while getting a clear view of how others see you. If you ask someone to take pictures for you, or you have the necessary skills, then you can also get pictures of your rear view - something that isn't always particularly easy to see or regularly analyse in depth. Taking pictures also allows you to take your time and analyse your physique - this can be really useful ahead of planning for your next phase of training. I mean how much time can you REALLY spend looking at yourself and analysing your physique in a gym mirror before you look strange?.. In fact, don't answer that.

Potential Flaw: Photos can be easily manipulated in order to give an improved and inaccurate reflection of progress. These pictures should be for your own benefit and so this would defeat the purpose of them. A simple adjustment in lighting, positioning within the room, camera angle or pose can give a completely altered image. Be sure to: use the same room at the same(ish) time of day, stand the same distance from the camera and have the same (or as similar as possible to) lighting and stand in a natural and neutral position - no tensing or breathing in. Taking a picture on the first week of each month should be regular enough.

Tally Your Weights:
Tracking improvements in strength is a great way to show that you're making progress in the gym. If you're doing this then it's best to write in a small handbook as you go around the gym. Don't jut try to remember - your numbers won't go up at anywhere near the same rate if you do this. Knowing your numbers is a great way of not only tracking progress but also setting yourself new and testing goals to make sure that this progress continues.
Potential Flaws: The issue here is that you may sacrifice body composition and aesthetics for strength. It all depends on your goals - if your goal is to be as strong as possible and you have little focus on aesthetics then this system works. However, if you become completely encapsulated by improving your strength, your physique may be compromised. Using myself as an example, when I began to enjoy deadlifts and improve constantly, I hadn't noticed that I was gaining weight; that was until I came to do pull ups. Pull ups had gone right down hill. I began dieting, pull ups went up, deadlifts went down. It's a balancing act that many people face. Are you getting stronger or are you getting pound-for-pound stronger?

So what's the answer? The key is to rely on a combination or tracking methods. You want to make sure everything is working correctly to make sure that your training is going correctly and effecting your body the way that you thought it would. You wouldn't check your car oil levels were ok and if they were, assume that you had enough air in your tyres. Same thing - make sure every bit of your beautiful machine is performing at its optimum and maintain it - after all, you can buy a new car but you only get one body!

Thanks for reading...

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