First off, I will start by saying I am going to be using my own data, my own graphs, and my own scale pictures to show that fluctuations are just a part of life.
If I could get one point across for this entire article, it would simply be this: Temporary weight fluctuations have absolutely nothing to do with body fat or lean body mass.
What I will try to cover in this article is why fluctuations on the scale happen, how to use the scale as just another data point instead of something that defines you, and how to use it to get you where you want to go faster.
So let's first cover what scale fluctuations are.
Fluctuation is an irregular rise or fall in numbers or amounts.
See if this sounds familiar: You step on the scale in the morning and weigh 201.2 lbs. You step on it three hours later to see you now weigh 204.6 lbs. Before bed, you step back on and find that you are 202.8 lbs. Sound about right?
Throughout the day, your weight fluctuated.
Or maybe on a day-to-day scale. One morning you are 156.0, the next 155.4, and the day after that you come in at 157.2.
So what is it? How much do you actually weigh? Did you really gain three pounds in the span of six hours? Did you gain two pounds of body fat over night?
The number shown on a scale scares a lot of people. It can box you in, make you feel like all the dieting and workouts you've been doing are a waste of time, and if it's all you focus on, it may ultimately define you.
Let's dissect this.
1) No, you didn't gain three pounds of body fat in the span of 6 hours.
2) Weight fluctuations are an unavoidable part of life.
3) Just because the scale went up two days in a row does not mean you aren't still losing body fat.
4) Just because the number on the scale went up, does not mean you gained body fat.
So why does this happen?
Weight fluctuations can happen for any number of reasons, none of which have to do with body fat or lean body mass. The most common reasons we will talk about have to do with water.
The human body is always changing, and your weight is constantly a moving target. Weight fluctuations can be anywhere from two to six pounds in a single day, in either direction.
Let's talk about water retention.
Water retention can be impacted by sodium intake, carbohydrate intake, stress levels, menstrual cycles, and more.
Sodium: We've all heard this someplace or another. Now, sodium is a requirement of the human body. We need it for proper muscle and nerve function, and it helps control a few different bodily functions including blood pressure. But the more sodium we digest, the more water we need to keep it company. The body can hold up to an extra 1.5 liters of water depending on sodium intake for the day.
Carbohydrates: Carbs. The good stuff. Where happiness comes from. We all eat them, but how does it relate to our water retention? Well, oversimplified, carbohydrates get broken down to glycogen once digested and stored away mostly in muscle cells. For every 1g of glycogen, the body needs to store about 3g of water with it. So switching from a normal, carb-heavy diet to a low-carb diet would result in a quick loss of weight due to less glycogen stored in the body. Just like a high-carb meal (or weekend) would cause an increase in glycogen, followed by an increase in water retained.
Stress: No one likes it, and most people don't know it has anything to do with water retention. Increased stress leads to more cortisol hormone pumped out into the body. Increased cortisol levels have been shown to increase water retention in the body. So stress fluctuations often correlate with weight fluctuations.
P-p-p-periods: (will it ever not be awkward for me to say, even when writing on a computer?)
Menstrual cycles are never fun (I think?), but it has been shown to mess with your weight. Temporarily. It causes hormonal fluctuations, bloating, and gastrointestinal issues, which can all impact how much water your body holds onto.
Other: Other things that can relate to weight fluctuations include how much activity you've had over the past few days, when the last time you dropped a mondo duke (#2), how long it's been since you last had sex, how much sleep you got last night, and so much more.
Your weight can change due to any number of different and random causes. Stressful day at work? Heavy carb meal for dinner? Went out to a restaurant which covers each dish with a tablespoon of salt? Or any random combination of the above?
The bottom line is that these are all temporary, and if you're more focused on the scale day-to-day instead of week-to-week or month-to-month, progress will be impossible to see.
So let me show you this. Two pictures, the first is my daily weigh-ins (more recently during my cutting phase), and the other will be week-to-week over the same time period.
As you can tell, the first one is a roller-coaster. One day, I'm down two and a half pounds. The next, I'm up two. But if you take a step back and look at it weekly, the progress looks a little more natural, and it's clear that progress is being made.
So why should I care if I gained two pounds from April 26th to April 27th?
The answer is I don't.
Because I know real fat loss or real muscle gain requires patience and time to clearly see results.
"So why should I even look at the scale if it's going to be all over the place?"
Good question. If your weight is never sitting still and dozens of things impact what it does on a day-to-day basis, why even track your weight?
There are plenty of different answers that are out there to this question, and mine is this:
Weight does not tell you who you are. It is data that can help you make adjustments to get you to where you want to go, faster.
Data is great. I truly believe if you have a problem in life (finances, weight gain/loss, etc.), the more data you have surrounding the problem, the easier it will be to fix.
Measuring weight is just one way to do so. You can weigh in on a scale, measure body fat, measure lean body mass, record body measurements (hip, waist, chest, arm, etc.), take progress pictures, or record endurance and strength efforts all to track progress.
But the more data you have, the more tools you can use to succeed. (Cliché and makes you want to barf, I know.)
Now here are the best methods I've found to get the most accurate data over time:
1) Use the same scale, every single time -- different scales vary in weight measured, it could be off by anywhere from .5 lbs to 10+ lbs. So if the goal is to be consistent, using the same scale matters. Remember, using the scale as a tool for data, we don't care what the number is, just if it is going up or down as we want it to.
2) Measure at the same time, every day -- as mentioned above, your weight can fluctuate due to dozens of differnet stimuli throughout the day. So if we measure at the same time each day, likely more or less of the same stimuli has been given to us.
3) Measure first thing in the morning (after tinkle time) -- if more stimuli adds variability to what the scale says, then take out as much of it as possible. If you measure as soon as you wake, no meals, no stressors, no water, nothing will be there to immediately interfere, so you will get a more consistent number.
And yes, it will still fluctuate, no matter how much you do to stop it.
At the end of the day, if you don't weigh yourself, it's not the end of the world. But it is the difference between knowing and guessing how much progress you are making. The more you know, the better you can adjust, and the quicker you can get to where you want to go.