The Science of Scale Fluctuations

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. This is a common saying that drives me nuts.

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 witch hunt. 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? Calm the f*%k 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.

(Tomorrow I will post up part 2 of the series, stay tuned)

Song of the post:

Cibo Matto – Sugar Water

Before starting any new diet and exercise program please check with your doctor and clear any exercise and/or diet changes with them before beginning. I am not a doctor or registered dietitian. I do not claim to cure any cause, condition or disease. I do not provide medical aid or nutrition for the purpose of health or disease and claim to be a doctor or dietitian. This is merely an opinion blog. Read full disclaimer here -




  1. Sinead

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

  2. Mike

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

  3. Sarah

    Looking forward to part 2.

  4. Jim

    I really want to get to 195lbs.

    Do I REALLY need TWO kidneys?? 🙂

  5. Mike

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

  6. paprika

    Great stuff Leigh!

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

  7. Amanda

    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.

  8. Kiki

    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.

  9. Jim

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

  10. Nia Shanks

    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.    : )

  11. Kim W

    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?

  12. Josh Aronovitch

    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.

  13. Josh Aronovitch

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

  14. RJ

    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.

  15. Missy

    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!

  16. Tiggy

    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!

  17. Kimberley

    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!

  18. Etana Finkler

    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…
    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.

  19. jeanne

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

  20. Seth

    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.)

  21. C. Barber

    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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