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The Science of Scale Fluctuations

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Make sure to check out Part 2

I have had the pleasure of training and consulting with some of the strongest people in the world. Actors, athletes, coaches, doctors, government leaders, models, etc. These are people who can and do train for hours at a time. They spent years in school studying to educate and better themselves; some even impact our lives with the decisions they make.

Put these leaders, these champions, on a scale, and if it doesn’t show the numbers they want, they will weep before your eyes. I have held a 230 lb, 6’2″ 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 types used today are balance, spring, and strain gauge.

Balance scales are used very little in everyday life as a means of measurement. A balance scale works off a lever measuring a known weight against the tester. A classic example of this would be scales of justice.

A widely used method for weight are spring scales; they were the standard for many years. They work on either a stretch or compress system. A stretch system is what you will find at a grocery store when weighing produce. An object is placed 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 home weight scales with springs. The amount of distance compressed is the determining factor.

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 attached plate. The amount of stress is calculated and the readout on a digital scale is the collection of those calculations.

There are pros and cons to each system of weighing. Usually different scales produce different readouts. You will find most quality scales are within a few pounds of one another for the average person’s daily weighing needs. No system is without its flaws, and if you need to make weight for a particular event make sure you test on their scale if possible. And under that circumstance 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 involving 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, muscles, fat, water, etc. At a point there is only so much of that weight you can eliminate. 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, there are a few remaining places we can store fat, muscle, and water which are your main additions to body weight.

Fat—There is a certain amount of essential fat in your body; it is needed for a multitude of reasons and functions. The rest of the fat is stored when you eat 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. Movement would not be possible without it. The rest of the muscle you have is gained through general life activity or by breaking down tissue and rebuilding it through training. Muscle is more dense than fat. This means that five pounds of muscle takes up less space than five pounds of fat. It doesn’t weigh more than fat; five pounds is five pounds. This is a common misconception that drives me nuts.

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

Water—An extremely large amount of your body is made up of water. Lean muscle tissue and blood contain about 80% water, where as fat cells 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 maintain the normal electrical properties of cells. If your body drops even 2% of its water storage, you can start to function worse, feel fatigued, and are more prone to health problems the further it decreases. 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 you 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, “duh,” but I have experienced many moments where someone weighed themselves after they ate, saw they were heavier, and proceeded to freak 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 can be caused by multiple reasons. From hormonal issues to glycogen storage, you can retain water in various places in your 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 reasons for it vary. Anything from electrolyte imbalances, kidney problems, allergies, injuries, and exercise can contribute on mild to severe levels.

If you have sock rings, swollen calves, or a puffy face, you are technically experiencing forms of edema on small levels. If you live with this constantly, then you are likely dealing with issues of electrolyte imbalance in the body and need to focus on maintaining balance, as much as you can. 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 focus on taking care of your joints and muscles.

2. Glycogen Retention

Muscle holds a massive amount of water. A lot of the time, 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 you are 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” muscle look you are wanting, to have them look filled and defined, is from glycogen storage in the muscles. However, if you are not lean enough to see this definition pronounced, all you are going to really notice is that your fat looks fuller on the days you eat carbs.

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

What to do? Put the carbs to work by pulling them into your muscles through lifting and training your 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 toward 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 when on your period, no? This is not to be confused with the crying and puffiness that actually happens around your period either. Women are notorious for carrying their emotions on their sleeve, and in most cases, it’s underneath it as well.

What to do? Calm the f*%k down. There are some hormones and issues you can’t control. For the things you can, take care of yourself and your body will take care of you.

Make sure to check out Part 2

Song of the post: 

Cibo Matto – Sugar Water

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  • Sinead says:

    Interesting post. I’ve gotta say that my favorite “what do you do” answer is the last one for Hormonal Stress. Classic Leigh!

  • Mike says:

    Ahh… water retention.. a “weighty” subject for me… hyuk hyuk! 

  • Sarah says:

    Looking forward to part 2.

  • Jim says:

    I really want to get to 195lbs.

    Do I REALLY need TWO kidneys?? 🙂

  • Mike says:

    Jim, the entire human skeleton weighs 5-7lbs so you could shave a little weight off that somewhere.  🙂
     

  • paprika says:

    Great stuff Leigh!

    Thanks for the reminder to calm the f$%k down. 🙂 It’s been a really, really crazy month.

  • Amanda says:

    I’m also looking forward to part 2! I’m one of the strange people who’s been helped by weighing every day–since I get the daily feedback I can think about what I’ve done or what’s going on with my body to make me bump up .5 or even 3 lbs overnight. Of course I really pay attention to the overall trend, but I feel like I’ve been learning a lot about my body.

  • Kiki says:

    Thanks Leigh!  I haven’t “weighed in” for a month and I really don’t care anymore!  If I don’t like how I look, what does it matter what the scale says?  When I hear women complain about how they gained 5 pounds overnight, I tell them to go poop and weigh themselves again, they’ll feel better.

  • Jim says:

    Kiki, those are words to live by… “go poop and weigh themselves again, they’ll feel better.”
    ~priceless

  • Nia Shanks says:

    Holy hell, Leigh. I posted something similar to this on my blog today! That’s a little creepy in a cool, crazy way.
    You’re are absolutely right. I think people (especially women) need to stay away from the scale. It usually does nothing but make them feel like shit.
    The only time the number on the scale truly affects me is when I prepare for my powerlifting meets.    : )

  • Kim W says:

    Great article Leigh. Can’t wait to read part 2.
    Making sure I understand this line:
    <Keeping a lower body fat level also helps with partitioning in general.>
    Partitioning is how the body uses food/energy, right? So at a low body fat, my body is more likely to store as glycogen cersus more fat? Or am I way off?

  • Josh Aronovitch says:

    I weigh myself daily, not because the daily number matters, biut because the 10 day moving average tells me if I cma going int he right direction or the wrong one.

  • Josh Aronovitch says:

    and Jim, try shaving your back hair, that could buy you a pound or two 😉

  • RJ says:

    Excellent post!   I’m a huge data geek.  I weigh myself everyday, and use a BEI handheld scanner.  I like looking at the trends, and graphs in fitday.  Having these to look at really puts the “spikes” into context, not just the high spikes,  but the rapid drops that come as well.   But the number in itself means nothing to me.  I look better at my recent peak of 172, vs when i hit it at a low point months ago.

  • Missy says:

    I love the way you articulate things to us Leigh! This article is so down to earth and easy to “get”, yet technical at the same time. You have such a gift – as good as a gift as your singing and songwriting. You ROCK!!
    Cant wait to read part 2!

  • Tiggy says:

    This was the perfect article for today.

    I’ve been trapped in my apartment for days under a writing project deadline, so when I finally got dressed today (ha!), I noticed I was looking extra ‘fluffy.’ Feeling fluffy, too.

    I immediately put my scale in the closet.

    Stress, no exercise, little sleep and anything-that’s-there food choices have made me cloud-like in aspect… and in my jeans.

    So I went to Trade Joe’s and got some produce, vitamins and spring water. I also plan on sleeping tonight.

    Bravo, Leigh!

  • Kimberley says:

    OMG, I feel like a nut-job! For years I have heard the saying, “muscle weighs more than fat”, and not given it a second thought. That one is going in the trash immediately!

  • Etana Finkler says:

    When I bothered to look up the word syncronicity because this blog entry and my post on jpfitness forum today were “syncrononomous,” … well the post didn’t get saved, ugh…
    http://forums.jpfitness.com/fat-loss-troubleshoot/38505-getting-smaller-getting-leaner-getting-firmer-but-not-losing-weight.html#post727915
    so when does the fat loss scale start moving? after 8 weeks, 12 weeks? it must move down at some point.
    How much muscle can you actually gain while in deep deficit?
    At what point does your body retain enough water, gain enough  muscle, lose enough inches, and then the scale starts moving and moving? It has to happen… It’s scientific, no? Because otherwise, if I’m losing inches but not losing scale weight, after a while what the heck is going on?
    well, I’m not upset. I am curious and will perservere and weigh my food and measure my body and see what transpires.
    etana
    etana

  • jeanne says:

    Kim I was guilty of that too for so long. I had a forehead smack on that one.

  • Seth says:

    I recently bought a new scale, to use its bodyfat measure.  It shows a weight that’s off from my old scale (both Taylor brand) by about 2 pounds (not exactly consistent, either).
    At one gym with a 2-beam balance scale, I weighed either 200 (using the 50 lb increment piece) + 2 lbs, or 150 + 50 lbs.  That’s right, the same scale gave a difference of 2 pounds depending on which way I measured.
    (The riddle is actually “Which weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of gold?”  The answer is not the obvious one.)

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  • C. Barber says:

    RE: those commenting on “muscle weighs more than fat”. Y’all can un-smack your foreheads. In common usage, when one makes such a comparative statement there is an assumed common volume/amount/number. If I say that I weigh more than my sister, OF COURSE I am not saying a pound of me weighs more than a pound of her. I am saying my body weighs more than her body. If I am holding 2 oranges and say one weighs more than the other, again, I am not saying an ounce of one orange weighs more than an ounce of the other, I’m comparing 2 like quantities. This is all about semantics and it is SO tiring when people think they are so clever and profound saying that a pound of muscle weighs the same as a pound of fat. Well, duh!, it’s understood in English, that we are comparing like/similar quantities.

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