One of the best things you can do for yourself when you have a fitness goal is to check in regularly with yourself, and measure your progress. If you want to run a 10K in under an hour, you’ve got to track your speed, not just run randomly and keep your fingers crossed. If you’ve got a weight loss goal, weigh yourself at regular intervals so you can adjust your habits according to your progress, or lack thereof…

In case you’ve never heard it before:

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

– Albert Einstein

Let’s use the example of a recent BB personal training client – a new mom, about 7 months postpartum – who is striving to lose a total of approximately 30 pounds. She was relying on Jenny Craig for the first few months, saw some modest results and then stalled. We began working together, focusing on adding lean muscle and taking her off of the repetitive, processed and unsatisfying Jenny Craig meals. She has learned to prepare healthy meals that help her to reach her fat loss goals. She is down 10 pounds since December.  It’s not quite as quick as she’d like. She, like a lot of women, wants very quick results and blames herself when she can’t recreate the weight loss results of Hollywood moms like Jessica Alba, Mariah Carey and Heidi Klum.

So today we will also check her progress – and build her confidence – by taking circumference measurements. When we evaluate a client, we take measurements of the following areas:

  • upper chest (above the breast)
  • upper arm
  • natural waist (smallest part of the torso)
  • waist at belly button height
  • hip (widest part of hip/butt)
  • upper thigh
  • calf

We take all of these measurements on the right side of the body, and measure every 2-3 months to evaluate results. For your own reference, unless otherwise indicated above, measure at the largest point on these body parts.

The truth is, sometimes you will see a greater difference in circumference measurements than you might in weight, particularly if you are doing the smart thing and losing weight by eating a balanced, protein-rich diet and doing lots of strength training to increase that fat-burning muscle mass. That protein + strength training not only burns fat, it increases your muscle mass so you burn more fat every moment of the day, even while sleeping!

Many women get discouraged when the weight on the scale doesn’t reflect their efforts, although they feel leaner and fitter. Chances are, you are leaner and fitter. If you have been diligently following an effective exercise routine – which stays challenging as you get fitter – and eating sensibly, you will get fitter. You will get leaner. You will have more muscle, less fat, more energy and a leaner, tighter physique. But your weight may never drop to that magical number you’ve had in your head since your early 20s. In my experience, those numbers women obsess over are often far from realistic. Or healthy.

You could drop the strength training, starve yourself on a low-calorie diet and see the first initial pounds come off more quickly. Why? The pounds you are losing include a significant amount of muscle your body is eating up to provide the protein and calories you’re not offering it on your “diet”. The result? You see a smaller number on the scale, but end up actually composed of less muscle and more fat, proportionally. In other words, you have become the dreaded SKINNYFAT. Your body runs on very few calories, and when you try to eat a more moderate diet or enter a “maintenance” phase after losing weight, you don’t maintain at all. You gain. 10 years down the line, and research shows you’ll likely weigh even more than you did in the first place.

[Tweet “Diets don’t work. Here’s how to get lean instead of “skinny fat.” “]

Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Here’s how to not let that happen:

1. Grab a measuring tape and take measurements of the areas listed above. Write them down and set a date, 2 or 3 months in the future, to repeat.

2. Eat 3 or 4 sensible meals each day, composed of protein, fat and a reasonable amount of carbohydrate (preferably from whole vegetable and fruit sources) according to your size and activity levels. Use this portion guide and never weigh or measure again.

3. Perform some strength training on the major muscles of the body – the back, chest, legs, shoulders, arms and core – at least 2-3 days per week. Use high-intensity cardio intervals (no equipment required!) to minimize the time you spend and maximize the burn.

4. Try to be active daily and include spurts of physical activity into your regular routine, aside from organized exercise.

5. Be patient. If you do this correctly, you’ll only ever have to do it once.