I realized something the other morning when I hopped on the scale for my daily weigh-in.
My weight had gone up… and I felt BAD about it.
And that was stupid.
Wait. What? How is that stupid? <insert sarcasm> Don’t we all know by now that gaining weight IS bad and I SHOULD feel awful about it? <end sarcasm>
Seriously, though, in this case feeling bad was really, totally, EXTRA stupid. Because I recently decided to move into a higher weight class.
As background for anyone who isn’t currently a competitive lifter, most strength sports use weight classes to match competitors more evenly (CrossFit being an exception).
Since I started powerlifting, I’ve competed in a weight class that was very close to or just slightly below my actual weight.
Since I’ve been adding muscle to my body for five years now, I’ve had to work increasingly hard to keep my weight low enough for competition. I finally decided this was holding me back from getting stronger.
So I moved up, which means I don’t have to restrict my calories so much, which will enable me to put on more muscle and gain strength.
Not only won’t getting heavier hurt me—it will HELP me. Right now many of my competitors in the new weight class will be as much as 15 lbs (7 kgs) heavier than I am. Gaining weight will help make me more evenly matched.
I WANT to get heavier. I SHOULD get heavier. So why is getting heavier making me feel like a failure?
The scale obsession
I don’t have to tell you that the scale wields astounding power. Especially on women.
Even if we’re not actively thinking about weight loss, for many (dare I say most?) women, it’s always there in the background, lurking below the level of conscious thought.
We could spend days unpacking societal views about body weight, medical research, the many facets of the body positivity movement, and the relative problems and merits of various approaches to weight as it relates to health.
I’m not going to do that here, but let’s start with one key assumption of mine, which you need to know if you’re going to stick around this blog.
There is no ideal body
Women do not all aspire to the same body type.
The assumption that we do is intensely destructive. Unfortunately, that assumption permeates the fitness industry, and holds many women back.
The fact is: Some women want to be thin.
Some women want to be fat.
Some women want to be muscular and jacked as fuck, and some women want to be slender but have a little bit of definition.
Some women don’t care about how they look at all.
Depending on one’s goals, the scale can be useful when used in concert with other ways of measuring progress.
But focusing exclusively on the scale is never helpful.
And it poses unique problems for women engaged in strength training, whether they’re competitive lifters or not.
“I want to get toned.”
Take the woman who’s new to strength training, and started because she wants to change how her body looks.
That was me back in 2015.
A year or so earlier, I’d looked at myself in the mirror and seen saddlebags on my thighs (why does all of the fat seem to go straight to my thighs???) and I wanted them gone. So I did what most women do: started counting calories and eating less.
I actually succeeded in losing the saddlebags.
But I still didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. No more saddlebags, but not much else either.
What I wanted was to “get toned.” I wanted defined (but demure) muscles, curves, and a nice ass.
I didn’t have any of that.
And that’s because, in the absence of strength training, when put into a caloric deficit, the body doesn’t differentiate between tissue types when it starts looking for an energy source. If you’re not actively working on building muscle, it will burn a little bit of everything.
In fact—and this is the kicker—it actually tends to burn muscle first, not fat, especially if you’ve added cardio alongside your dieting regimen. Your body interprets that exercise as stress, and preserving its fat stores is its very sensible biological defense mechanism to prevent starvation.
Like most women who want to “lose weight,” I hadn’t understood that there’s a difference between weight loss and fat loss.
When most women mean when they say “I want to lose weight,” is actually, “I want to lose FAT.”
In some cases, they also mean, “I want to get toned.”
What I didn’t know back then is that literally the ONLY way to achieve the look I wanted is to add muscle (give or take also losing some fat along the way).
More muscle is what gives you the shape. Less fat just makes that shape easier to see.
Happily, I did a little reading and learned all of this. That’s why I originally started lifting weights in the first place. Then I got addicted to the barbell, but that’s a story for another time.
Body composition 101
NOW, here’s the problem with the scale, if your goal is to “get toned.”
Your weight reflects the total mass of all of your body tissues. That includes both muscle and fat.
Muscle is denser than fat.
You may have heard someone at some point say “muscle is heavier than fat.” That’s incorrect. One pound is one pound. The key is how dense each tissue type is and how much space each one occupies in your body.
That means one pound of muscle takes up less space than one pound of fat. 85% as much, to be exact.
Here’s how that looks with some abstract shapes (muscle represented by red, fat by white):
Check out the image on this page for a more realistic model.
Imagine you have two identical carry-on bags. You fill one with bubble wrap and the other one with sand. Same volume. Different densities. Which one will be harder to lift into the overhead compartment?
Losing FAT, not weight
So…. if you’re losing fat but also gaining muscle, the weight on the scale may not budge at all.
It may even increase.
There’s a wonderful illustration of this phenomenon, along with a kickass caption, in this Instagram post from personal trainer Lindsay Nicole Pearl.
This simple fact of physics freaks many women out, especially if they’re new to lifting weights and trying to “get toned.”
They see the scale not moving and assume their plan isn’t working.
They are looking at the wrong metric.
Because we are all obsessed with the number on the scale.
I’ve heard this (unfounded) concern a lot, typically from women who aren’t working with a professional who can explain and reassure them about it.
They’ve lost inches on their hips or bellies, their clothes are getting looser, they’re seeing more definition in their muscles, and they’re getting stronger.
They are in fact achieving precisely what they were hoping to achieve.
But they’re still unhappy, because that number on the scale just seems…. well, too high.
The obsession plagues us. Even when we get the very sage advice to stop focusing on the scale and base our sense of progress on body measurements, clothing fit, and general appearance, many of us still find that number extremely difficult to ignore.
As I said earlier, we’ve all got different goals. Not all women are trying to lose weight/fat. Some feel quite content where they are. Some feel too thin and want to be bigger.
And some want to get stronger. Fast-forwarding seven years, that’s me NOW.
Since I’ve moved to a higher weight class, and remain quite light for that class, my personal goal now is to add muscle. And adding muscle means getting heavier, pretty much by definition.
The scale alone won’t indicate my progress toward that goal, because of the density issue I explained earlier. Additional weight could be due to muscle, fat, or a combination of the two.
For that reason, alongside scale weight, my nutrition coach and I also give significant consideration to how my body is looking and performing.
My measurements are holding steady, my clothes still fit, and I’m getting stronger. I’m not putting on more excess fat than I’m comfortable with. I’ve been quite successful so far.
So the fact that I feel like I’ve failed when the number on the scale goes up is ludicrous.
But not really surprising, because diet culture has brainwashed us.
I KNOW I’m not alone here. In fact, many women who lift heavy resist taking in sufficient calories to fully fuel their performance. Our coach or the app or template we’re using says “eat more carbs” and on some level many of us feel a sudden flutter of anxiety.
Even when we logically know eating more is exactly the right thing to do, a lifetime of programming causes an automatic, “I CAN’T DO THAT, I’LL GAIN WEIGHT!!!” response.
Bail on the scale
I have no easy answers for this conundrum. I haven’t completely solved it for myself. I’m still encountering these feelings.
Every time I step on the scale, I still catch myself feeling happy and satisfied when the number stays the same or goes down, and disappointed in myself when it goes up.
Even after having realized that these thoughts are not serving me or my goals in any way.
Even though I realize they are completely illogical and born of toxic diet culture messaging.
So how can we deal with this?
The scale is just a tool
It’s not for me to tell anyone how to manage their own complex feelings about their weight and their body. But here’s my advice just based on my own personal journey.
Fight with awareness.
Before last week I didn’t even realize I had these feelings. They’d stayed below the level of conscious thought.
Now that I AM aware of them, I can at least actively question and stop the “don’t gain weight!” message playback. I can short-circuit those messages and remind myself that the scale is not an oracle or St. Peter deciding whether or not I deserve to get into heaven.
I KNOW I’m not alone in fighting this silent battle with my own programming. That’s why I’m talking about it here.
So my best advice is: the next time you have a thought or reaction relating to the number on the scale—whether it’s a positive or negative thought—stop.
Remind yourself that the scale is just a tool, and tools are only useful inasmuch as they serve us and our goals.
Saws are wonderful, but they’re not helpful when you need to drive a nail. In fact, when you’re trying to build a structure, a saw may be downright destructive and really the last thing you need.
Remind yourself of your goals right now. Ask yourself if caring about that number is serving you or those goals.
And whatever you conclude about that, however you feel—whether it’s positive or negative—try not to let that feeling dictate your sense of success or failure or how you perceive yourself.
Remember that this is just one day and one data point. It doesn’t define you in any way.
Join me, and let’s free ourselves from the clutches of the scale.