Losing inches not weight

By Dave Smith

One of my most successful fitness programs is called The 10 in 4 Challenge.  It's designed to help women lose about 10 pounds in 4 weeks without supplements, over-exercising, or unhealthy dieting. The program is awesome. It really works...

At least, it does in most cases.

​Occasionally, a client in 10 in 4 will say something like,

"Dave, it's been two weeks and I've been doing everything, but my weight hasn't budged. My pants are fitting looser, so I know I'm doing something right, but why won't my weight go down?"

Have you ever been in this situation? You've been doing all those things that should lead to weight-loss, but the number on the scale doesn't budge. Even though you're seeing other signs of improvement, it can be demotivating to weigh the exact same as you did when you started.

I've been helping clients lose weight for over 15 years, and here are the 3 pieces of advice I offer every time this "unmoving scale" problem arises:

#1. Losing Inches, Not Weight Is Better Than You Think

I really wish that scale weight wasn't our standard measurement of health or fitness. I understand why it's such a popular measurement: it's simple to take, it's easy to compare over time, and it's a measurement that everyone understands.

But, the scale is SO unreliable. Here are 3 reasons why:

a) Weight Rhythms​

Your body flows through what's known as a "weight rhythm."

For most people, their rhythm produces weight-loss throughout the week, with the lowest weight showing up on Friday morning, followed by weight-gain on the weekend, with the highest weight appearing on Sunday evening. This weekly rhythm can produce fluctuations of 5-10 pounds or more!

Fretting over your scale weight on any given day of the week is futile because you can certainly weigh yourself in a few days to get a different result. Losing inches is a more consistent measurement of success.

b) Non-Fat Factors

I think you'd agree that you don't really want to just lose weight, rather you want to lose fat. There's an old weight-loss joke that goes like this:

"The fastest way to lose 10 pounds is to cut off your arm."

(For the record, please don't cut off your arm)

The scale can't differentiate between fat weight and lean mass weight, so, as an example, on a day when you hydrate really well—something that will actually help you shed fat long-term—your scale weight might not look so hot.

Just think about professional fighters who cut 10-20 pounds before a fight by dangerously dehydrating themselves. This is just one example of non-fat weight-loss, and you don't want any part of this!

The same can be said for hormonal shifts that cause weight-gain or weight-loss, sodium intake, and even the type of exercise you've recently done. The scale doesn't know any of this, and therefore, can't give you an accurate reading of the real goal at hand: fat-loss.

b) Scale Errors

Most bathroom scales just aren't that reliable. Research shows that they vary by 1.5% or more. That might not sound like much, but a few pounds can be enough to disappoint someone who's been working hard to drop weight.

All this to say, a disappointing number on the scale might not mean anything at all. Ignore it.

The fact that you're losing inches, not weight, is actually MUCH preferable to the opposite result. Losing pounds (an inaccurate measure of real progress), but not inches (an accurate measure of progress) would have me worried about the methods you're using to drop that weight. 

Just remember, your clothes don't lie. If your jeans fit better, you're winning. Don't overlook that reliable measurement of true progress.​

#2. If You're Losing Inches, You're Setting Yourself up for Much Bigger Future Wins

You've likely heard someone say this before: 

"Muscle weighs more than fat.​"

First off, this is ridiculous. A pound of muscle weighs the same as a pound of fat, just like a pound of steel weighs the same as a pound of feathers. A pound is a pound.

More accurately, someone might say,

"Muscle is more dense than fat.​"
muscle vs fat

When you notice that you're losing inches, but not weight, this strongly suggests that your body is going through a recomposition. You are losing fat, which takes up a lot of space, and are left with a greater proportion of fat-free mass (e.g. muscle), which takes up less space.

This should be SO much more exciting than losing weight on the scale because improving your body composition sets you up for much bigger wins in the future. Here's why...

Sarah and Sally

Sarah and Sally are identical twins. They live together, eat the same meals, do the same exercise, go to bed at the same time, and their bodies are pretty much identical. Both women weight 143 pounds and have a waist measurement of 34 inches.

And they like to dance together too!

Sarah, however, has decided that she wants to get in better shape, so she makes some tweaks to her diet, begins drinking more water, and adds some more resistance training to her exercise routine.​

Sarah busts her butt while Sally doesn't do anything different at all, and after 4 weeks, both girls weigh...143 pounds.

(Sarah is upset, while Sally thinks this is funny... Sally can be a little insensitive!)

But hold on, Sally...

Sarah's waist measurement is now 32 inches, and further testing shows that she has recompositioned her body by adding 5 pounds of muscle and shedding 5 pounds of fat!

This seemingly tiny change in Sarah's body means that her resting metabolic rate has increased by roughly 250 calories per day (because a pound of muscle burns somewhere between 30-60 calories per day). This means that she will burn about 250 calories more than Sally each and every day simply because her body is made up of less fat and more lean tissue.

Question: Who do you think will be able to lose weight easier in the future?

(Hint: it's not Sally)

The same is true for you.

Losing inches, but not weight indicates that your body is changing in composition. This is huge progress and will lead to even greater progress in the future because of the positive change your metabolism is undergoing.

Well done!

#3. If You're Losing Inches, But Not the Weight You Want to Lose, It's Time to Work Smarter

At this point, I know what you might be thinking:

"I get it Dave. What the scale says isn't the whole story, but I still want to lose weight."​

Honestly, I do understand. Even if you logically know that your scale weight isn't the best indicator of your progress, it still would feel really good to see that number drop. So what's the solution?

First and foremost, I want to strongly encourage you NOT to do what you're already doing, but at a more frenetic pace.

I see this a lot.

Jenny starts eating "healthier" (in brackets because this can mean many different things to different people) and exercising for a few weeks. Her scale weight doesn't ​change, so she concludes that she must not be trying hard enough. She needs to deprive herself more in the kitchen and punish herself more in the gym.

I'm sure you can guess how well this will work out. Don't do this.​

Instead, I challenge you to try something different. Try something, no matter how insignificant it might seem, that you've never tried before.

Here are my 3 favourite suggestions:​

a) Get Photo Evidence

I'm not doubting you. I don't think you're lying to me. But, I do know that most people have very little idea as to what they actually eat on a daily basis.

This can become even more of a problem if you've recently increased the amount of exercise you're doing. Research has shown that nearly 50% of people who take their exercise up a notch​ end up facing more food cravings, particularly for sweet or fatty foods, than those whose exercise stayed the same.

​The result can be unintentional overeating.

Take photo evidence of YOUR food, not someone else's.

CHALLENGE: For 4 days, take a photo of every single thing you eat or drink. ​This takes virtually no effort and can provide some excellent insights as to where you could clean up your diet a bit further.

b) Resize and Recolour Your Plates

A study out of Cornell University showed that the size of your plate is directly proportionate to the amount of food you will put on that plate. You've likely heard this before, right?

When you put a small amount of food on a large plate, your brain will likely interpret this as having too little food. You'll end up going back for more. In contrast, if you put the same food portion onto a smaller plate, your brain perceives this as a full serving. It's all you need.

The Cornell study showed that changing from a 12″ plate to a 10″ plate lead to a decrease in total calories eaten by 22%. That's a significant decrease that requires very little effort on your end.

Plate Colour

Plate size isn't the only thing that matters. Colour counts too.

Here's the part you might not have heard before:

The colour of your plates makes an even greater impact than the size of plate. Using a plate that contrasts in colour from the food you're eating will result in a 30% decrease in calories consumed!

CHALLENGE: Find a small-size blue plate that you can eat from for the next 4 weeks. Why blue? We don't typically eat a lot of blue foods, so the contrast is perfect.

c) Elasticize Your Water

I've written before about the powerful weight-loss benefits of drinking more water, so I won't rehash all the details here. Point blank: if you're dehydrated, your body isn't going to shed fat. It's not.

CHALLENGE: One of my clients in The 10 in 4 Challenge actually gave me this idea to drastically improve hydration:

(Shout out to Martha...thanks for this great idea!)

  • Find a water bottle that holds at least 500ml (16oz) and place 4 elastics around the bottom part of the bottle.
  • Fill up the bottle with water.
  • Drink the entire bottle, right down to the last drop, before refilling it.
  • Each time you drink the entire bottle, move one of the elastics up to the top of the bottle. This acts as your "score keeper" so that you know exactly how many times you've finished the bottle.
  • Commit to drinking the bottle 4 times per day, hence the 4 elastics.
Water Bottle

Never lose track of how much water you drink in a day.

Just as it is with food, most people have a very unclear picture as to how much water they actually drink. Elasticizing your water is a great way to stay accountable to being hydrated every day.

Losing Inches, Not Weight: Concluding Thoughts

If you're frustrated because you're losing inches but not any weight, please try to stay calm and look for a more reliable way to measure your progress. Measuring inches lost (or noticing changes in how your clothing fits) is much more honest than the scale.

Additionally, there are other signs of progress—better sleep, healthier looking skin, more energy, better digestion, improved mood, etc.—that are meaningful, though often overlooked. Signs that you're doing good things for your body. Celebrate those changes!

And if you do want to speed up your results, look for a new approach or strategy to stimulate those results. Doing more of the same will not work. Be smarter. Be open to change. Try something new.