Posing for progress pics – why it’s important and how to do it

Everyone with a coach has a love/hate relationship with progress pics.  They can be a great reminder of how far you’ve come, forcing you to see yourself as the camera captures you.  They can also be a pain in the ass and a frustrating “raw” view of a body you are trying hard to move away from.

The psychology of progress pics deserves a book of its own and is beyond the scope of this post.  Suffice to say, my thoughts can be summed up like this:  “love your body in its current state while also realizing it’s ok to want to change it.”

The logistics of progress pics can easily be overcome – DO NOT rely on outside help, it makes this a pain in the ass for two people instead of one, and invariably you will be late because your help is unavailable.  I can guarantee you that your coach does not want this to happen.  Invest in a tripod like this and a phone mount/bluetooth clicker like this and you are well on your way to photographic independence.

NOW – why are we doing this and why do we care?  Obviously, your progress pictures show your progress (duh, thanks for the insight Darin).  But they show it in numerous ways – when I look at someone’s pics, I’m not just comparing them to those from previous weeks, I’m also just looking and asking “does this person understand their body?”  Body awareness is huge – I would go so far as to say that in bodybuilding, if you lack body awareness you aren’t really bodybuilding.  I define body awareness as the ability to manipulate your body and create tension in a muscle group without applying resistance to a muscle – this basically means being able to flex a muscle – any muscle – isometrically, in virtually any position.  Easy for some, tricky for others.  This also is not a binary thing – not a “yes I can do that” or a “no I can’t do that” situation – there are degrees.  You can flex your quads while standing, great – but can you isolate the vastus lateralus (outer head) versus the medius?  How hard can you squeeze it?  These things matter.

So it goes without saying that a progress pic where the subject is relaxed is worthless.  If the camera can see it, it needs to be tensed/flexed.  This means in a front pose, you have tension in your quads, abs, chest, shoulders, arms, and lats – that a lot to keep your mind on all at the same time.  It takes practice.

For competitors, the reason we do this is obvious – your posing is how you present yourself on stage and has a massive impact on how you are judged.  If you don’t practice your posing and your overall stage presentation regularly (that applies to men AND women), you are leaving out a huge and critical component of your prep.

For non-competitors, it’s all about gauging and developing that body awareness.  I would say if you can’t properly engage your lats in a photo (exceedingly common), you probably aren’t engaging them during an exercise where you’re trying to make them do the work.  Again, not a binary thing – you’re probably engaging them some, but not as much as we would like.  Learning how to pose correctly is the basis of learning how to lift correctly.  Focus on creating tension in the muscle, first without weight – then hit the gym, apply some resistance, and utilize your new-found tension-making skills to actually perform the exercise.

With that said, let’s get down to business and look at the main three poses we want to work on.  With all of these there is the possibility of
some variation – mostly concerning competitors who want to show off their physique in the best possible way.  You may want to try a different stance, position your arms a bit differently, etc – that’s fine.  This is intended to provide a good starting point.


frontFocal points:  quads, abs, chest, shoulders, biceps, forearms, lats

How to:  position your heels 2-3″ apart and angle your toes outward.  Bend the knees SLIGHTLY to make it easier to apply tension in the quads.  Suck in the stomach, expand the ribcage, raise the sternum, and bring the shoulders forward slightly to cue the lats.  Imagine a giant rubber band running between your elbows you are trying to pull apart to help create tension in the delts.  Smile.

Goal:  show separation in the quads, make the waist as small as possible, show v-taper from the waist up through the lats, makes the shoulders as wide as possible.


Notice in the photos here they are not identical but the broad strokes are the same – create the shape first, develop the tension, and fine tune.


sideFocal points:  quad (one), hamstring (same leg), glute (same side), obliques, chest, shoulder, tricep, bicep

How to:  turn 90 degrees to the right from the front position.  Place your feet together, with the arch of your front (camera-facing) foot resting against the ball of your other foot (front facing foot just slightly ahead).  Tense the quad, hamstring, and glute on the camera-facing side, along with the oblique.  Stretch yourself vertically, arching the lower back and raising the sternum.  Rotate slightly at the shoulders so the camera can see the back shoulder as well as the separation between the chest.  Tense those along with the arms.  Allow some daylight to be seen between the torso and both arms, but don’t bring them way away from your body.  Smile.

Goal:  show shape and definition in the leg and glute, showcase a small waist and that everything swells up around the chest/shoulder area.



backFocal points:  calves, hamstrings, glutes, lower back, lats, traps, shoulders, triceps

How to:  the foot positioning is the same as the front pose, heels together and toes apart.  Tense the calves and hamstrings (this is hard and takes practice) and the glutes (act like you really have to poop and you’re holding it in), arch the lower back in an attempt to engage the spinal erectors at the base.  Push the shoulders forward (stretch the traps) and raise the sternum to help engage the lats, then pull the shoulders back SLIGHTLY to engage the traps.  Create tension in the triceps while keeping the elbow slightly bent.  Smile.  Or don’t, the camera can’t see it.

Goal:  show those calves finally along with hamstring and glute detail.  Tiny waist, WIDE back and shoulders.

Determining Your Success

I get asked a lot of questions in a typical week.  Heck, a typical day.  Hour.  Whatever – I get a lot of questions and one of the cool parts of having this job is getting to interact with people who care about your answer and genuinely want to know.  Not the questions from a guy at a party who just found out you’re a trainer and wants to tell you about his Crossfit membership or about how his diet “needs some work”, but questions from people putting in the work daily who care about their results, want more, and are willing to put in the work.

Questions like the following are all great examples:

I was in the gym yesterday and the squat rack was taken so I did my squats on the smith machine, what do you think about that?


For my cardio session instead of doing the treadmill for 30 minutes I hopped around and did 3 different machines for 10 minutes each, is that ok?


I ran out of whey protein and more is on the way, what should I do for my post-workout meal in the meantime?

Now the answers here aren’t really relevant (for kicks, they are “let me see it”, “yes”, and “don’t run out next time”) but what the questions show is that someone is invested in the program, invested in the results, and wants to be compliant.  As a coach, seeing questions like this gets me excited regardless of how many times I’ve answered it because it shows passion, and that’s the thing I need to see to know that we’re on the right track.

One of the best questions I’ve ever been asked:

What else can I be doing do ensure I’m making the most of my efforts?

This from someone who is doing great on their plan but is greedy and wants more – love it!  That of course is a complex question and took some time to answer, but it got me thinking about my own question:

What separates those who struggle from those who succeed?

I wrestled with this one for a while – lots of possibilities to explore here.  How are the workouts tackled, how intense is your cardio, how precise are you in measuring foods and avoiding ‘off-plan’ foods, all the obvious stuff.  The more I thought about it, the more I zoomed out and saw the bigger picture and realized that the answer was really rather obvious.  The answer is a question itself, actually:

Do you view this plan as a burden or an opportunity?

Put another way:  is it all – the diet, the cardio, the training – is it something you have to do, or something you get to do.  I’m not saying that your cardio time has to be your favorite time of the day, but if you don’t enjoy it in some way or find a way to make grinding it out somewhat appealing, eventually it’s going to suck and you’re going to hate it and stop.  Or, alternatively, achieve your short-term goal and THEN stop and experience a horrible backslide and depression as a result.

Same thing with the diet:  if you don’t make your food appealing, you’re going to falter on your plan.  Yes most of us want more carbs, more fats, more pizza and burgers (or wait, is that just me?) but finding combinations that make your protein and veggie meals (or whatever) tasty is critical; make those something you look forward to.

If you don’t already love training, well…that’s just weird.  BUT even in that case, do you view this as a chance to really understand your body, how it moves and how to use it?  Or is it “ugh, I have to go to the gym”?  If you’re inexperienced you will certainly have a lot to learn, but it CAN be done and if you approach it like you would trying to learn anything else you really want to do, you’ll find the knowledge and experience come quickly.  Ask questions.  Be curious.

People who dislike training, can’t find a way to make their diet appealing and are unable to embrace cardio in at least some way are going to struggle.  You can make some progress for a bit but ultimately your mindset – treating your plan as a burden, or a chore, or as homework – is going to win out.  I don’t think many successful people are necessarily programmed to love all of these things, and I also don’t think that hyper-focusing on the results you plan to achieve tomorrow is the correct approach to motivate you today.  Taking in a comprehensive plan like this as viewing it as the opportunity to lean, grow, and improve is the real key.  It can certainly be difficult to maintain long-term – and regardless of who you are, this is a long process – but always remembering that you wake up with the ability to do this is the biggest key to success in my opinion.

Be positive.  Be open to new things.  Learn.

Picking the right show for you

With the end of the year quickly approaching, bodybuilders everywhere are thinking about the inevitable start of their prep for an early spring show or deciding exactly what show(s) to hit for the upcoming year.  How do you pick the show that’s right for you?  There are many factors to consider, so let’s dive in.  In no particular order:


Think about what you have planned in the year ahead and figure that an appropriate prep phase is going to take about 4 months.  It can be difficult (or impossible) to find a 4 month stretch in your life where you can just seclude yourself in a bubble and block out the rest of the world, and it isn’t necessary.  Enjoying some travel and taking part in events here and there are things that are absolutely doable while on prep – they just take a bit of additional planning and willpower in many cases.  That being said, if you’re getting married in June and having a week-long honeymoon right after that, a show in July or August is probably a bad idea.  Look at your calendar and identify the longest stretches of time that have the least going on – the end of that range is a great target date to start looking for.  Things to consider:  family events, vacations, school load/class schedule, kids’ schedules, holidays (December shows are no fun because it often means skipping Thanksgiving dinner).


Define a travel radius and look for options within that range.  In the east with states being smaller, you’ll have many more avenues to explore (this is something I help clients with).  If you live smack dab in the middle of Texas, you can pretty much confine your search to Texas and MAYBE Oklahoma if you’re adventurous.  Remember that when the show comes around you’re going to be tired and irritable – long car rides won’t help the situation.  I recommend avoiding flying in for a show unless it’s a national level show and can’t be helped.


This seems obvious but is worth mentioning.  If you aren’t a natural athlete, you have no business at a natural show.  If you ARE a natural competitor, think about how important it is to have a level playing field (no right/wrong answer here).  It is possible to be a natural and still be competitive at a show that is not drug-tested.  Worth noting also that, generally speaking, natural shows are typically smaller, shorter, and at less impressive venues.

Show size

Many people enjoy competing in a large show with huge classes.  Personally I prefer smaller shows – you’re more likely to get a fair look and the show is less likely to drag on endlessly.  By looking at photo galleries online you can get a sense for how well attended a show is historically and make a judgment call from there.  If the show is a Pro/Am (professional and amateur show on the same day), know that prejudging and finals often bleed together without a break due to the number of people competing at these shows.  Know your preference and your patience level when making a decision!


Competing is expensive.  Things to consider include registration fees, organization membership fees (if needed), drug-testing fees (for natural shows), paying for spray tan/hair/makeup (or doing it yourself), purchasing a suit (huge variance in potential cost here), travel and hotel expenses – all in addition to gym memberships, food, supplements, and a coach if you have one.  Get a good grasp on what is needed financially and ensure you can swing it.

Overall readiness

This is the big one, and before addressing it I think it’s important to ask a question and really think about the answer:  Why do you want to compete?  Some people compete because it’s fun, something to do, and a way to phase their long-term training so they aren’t always in a deficit or perma-bulking.  Others have ambitions of turning pro or at least winning shows or being competitive and in the mix for hardware every time out.  I personally think both approaches are fine – we’re all individuals and we have to work for ourselves first and foremost.  If you fall into the former category of someone looking for experience and something fun/challenging to do, my goal as your coach would be to ensure you bring a competitive package to the stage and look like you belong up there.  There’s a baseline for development that is needed for all divisions and we need to ensure you have that level of overall muscular development before attempting a cut.  MANY people these days see others on social media with competition-level conditioning and think “I want to do that”, but there is WORK that must go in to your physique before aiming for that level of conditioning becomes an appropriate goal.  A good coach can help you get there.

If the goals are to win, turn pro, or something along those lines – I would ensure you have a clear picture of what that means in terms of effort and dedication, and then we need to take a good long look at your current physique and establish priorities and timelines.  It’s not uncommon for people to need a year (or years) of growth to be competitive at the highest levels – consider who you’re up against and realize that the pros didn’t become pros overnight.  How long you’ve already been at it certainly plays into the equation here as well.


As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into planning your show and there are more considerations beyond what are mentioned here.  Establish your goals, work with your coach, and develop a long-term plan for where you want your body to be in 6 years rather than just 6 months.  Exercise patience and trust in the plan.  And of course, do work.

New Division for Men – AKA, the System is Broken

Last week the NPC and IFBB shared a joint announcement introducing the division of a new “classic physique” division for men, described as being in-between the current men’s physique and bodybuilding divisions.  There were be mandatory poses and routines, and attire will be “spandex trunks/shorts” – so once again, legs will matter.

Watch the full announcement here:

Seriously, go watch the first 5 minutes of the video on that page (the entire thing is 20 minutes).  Let me say right off the bat:  this is a great idea.  It’s also an idea that’s too late.

Shows.  Are.  Too.  Long.  Already.

Seriously – now we’re adding another division, and on top of that it is a division with posing routines.  The concern was brought up by the interviewer in the video, and Jim Manion responded by saying that hey, we started the bikini division and now everyone’s doing it.  Which, of course, does not address the concern in any way.

Another concern is why these divisions are added – as Manion stated in the interview, he wants to give Men’s Physique room to go back to what it was originally intended to be:  smaller, less dense, less cut.  The reason is has crept up to where it is now is because of the lack of consistency and accountability in judging.  Guidelines are written, published, and routinely ignored in every single show.

The NPC feels they've lost the handle on MPD

The NPC feels they’ve lost the handle on MPD

Just to show I’m not here to point out problems and walk away, I’ll propose a path forward.  Changing a handful of things will fix or at least address ALL of these issues.  Here is what I propose:

  1. Currently, scoresheets simply require a judge to write in the placing they feel each competitor deserves.  Scoresheets are collected, and the competitor with the lowest number (meaning the most 1’s and 2’s) wins.  Seriously, that’s it.  Guidelines for the NPC and IFBB say that competitors are judged on size, symmetry, conditioning, etc – but none of that is ever seen by anyone.  The solution:  make the judges give every competitor a score in each category they are actually being judged in.  That way when the ripped-to-shreds bikini girl or huge-but-soft men’s physique guy don’t place well, they automatically can see their weaknesses.  Also, judges often say “you have to judge what’s in front of you” – true, but simply giving someone a “1” because they are the best in a really sub-par class sends the message that their physique is what they are looking for.  With the new scoring system, judges can send a message:  “you were the best in your class, but you’re bigger than what we want, tone it down” or whatever.
  2. Trim all posing routines down to 30 seconds.  Amateurs simply don’t need 90 seconds, as is given at a large number of shows.  Alternatively:  only class winners or the top-3 perform routines.
  3. Do away with the pre-judging/finals format.  This is the biggest shakeup and, I think, would also make the most positive impact in the way shows are run.  Think about it:  you go up there in the morning and get 2nd callout, thus assuring yourself of a 6-10 placing.  WHY WAIT ALL DAY FOR THE OFFICIAL RESULTS?  When prejudging is over, everyone knows the results 80% of the time anyway.  I understand the need to sell tickets for finals but honestly, you are killing attendance by making a show such a giant pain in the ass to attend.  Do you tell your friends/family to come for prejudging or finals?  Or both, paying for two tickets and waiting around for 6 hours in between?  Especially since so much of prejudging is repeated in the night show, it makes more sense to just start the show at 5pm and charge a higher ticket price.  Be efficient, trim down the posing routines, and keep the show to 4 hours.  That way you might also encourage more people to stay for longer knowing they won’t be there until 1am as I have been before, waiting for a show to end.

In order to make the first and last options work – you should call out a class, conduct mandatory poses as you would during prejudging, then file competitors off stage and bring them back on individually for the routines or individual walks.  This gives the head judge time to tally up the (now more complex) scores and be ready for the winners announcement once the individual portion has completed.

So, let’s say a show starts with figure at 5pm – they come out for their class comparisons, callouts are made, scoresheets are completed.  Each competitor does their individual walk during which time the winners are calculated.  Announcements are made, trophies handed out, and then the figure competitors are DONE FOR THE SHOW.  Next class/division comes up, rinse & repeat.

Theoretically, an organized promoter can cut facility rental costs considerably as well and they should be able to set everything up on show day.  Check-in/tanning can be done on show day as well rather than the day before.  It’s just more convenient and practical for everyone.

By taking these steps, the NPC and IFBB can both not only continue to grow but also begin to resolve some of the long-standing accountability issues with judging and bring some respect and credibility back to these shows.

Q&A for 9/11/15 – progress pics and weight selection

Here we go – a couple of good questions this week that come up all the time.

I feel like I’m making good progress, but then I look at my photos and I’m like *gag* – what am I doing wrong?

Honestly – as I tell my clients, the problem is that you’re a terrible photographer.  Nothing personal, just the facts.  Without a basic understanding of how a camera works, lighting, and how the human eye perceives things you’re always going to be taking photos that are (usually) much less flattering than reality.

First things first:  the best camera in the world is the human eye.  Trust what it tells you when you look in the mirror first and foremost.  THAT is the best reality, and along with changes in how clothes are fitting and various measurements is the easiest way to gauge progress.

For the photos themselves:  identify the brightest light source and put it BEHIND the camera – don’t point the camera at it.  If you’re outdoors, this is the sun – position yourself accordingly.  If indoors, do NOT take a picture of a light source, even an overhead light as this will mess up the camera’s automatic aperture settings and make you look grainy/fuzzy/blurry/shitty.  Finally – experiment.  The location that seems easiest to set up in is not always going to yield the best results.  Play around with it.

I don’t know how much I should be lifting on these exercises.  How do I know what’s right?

The most complete answer to this question is:  you need a weight that is sufficient to make the muscle work, but not so much that it forces you to compromise form.

All of this assumes your form is impeccable and that your mind/muscle connection and ability to contract a muscle *hard* on command is on point.  It’s an experimentation game to figure out the correct number so that you reach fatigue (and beyond) at the desired rep range.  Generally speaking, heavier is better – until it isn’t.  A breakdown in form means that muscles other than the target group are being recruited to help move the weight – and moving weight is NOT (repeat:  NOT) the goal.  Reaching muscle failure and pushing beyond that point – that is the goal.  When you start flinging weights up and down, shortening up your range of motion, using momentum, or entering ‘brute force’ territory – where you’re doing anything you can just to MOVE the weight – that’s a place and unproductive place to be in.

Let the muscles do the work.  Let them suffer.  And then keep pushing – but maintain form!

September 2nd Q&A: peak week, off-season planning

What kind of protocols do you advocate for peak week?

Peak week is a funny thing.  Everyone thinks of the week before the show as being the difference maker and the thing that’s finally going to get them looking stage-ready.  Hint:  if you’re expecting a miracle, it ain’t happenin’.  Peak week protocols have a larger impact – and are potentially more dangerous – the leaner you get.  For bodybuilding, you can see significant changes hour by hour if you manipulate variables correctly.  For bikini (and this is no slight to the division), there’s a lot less value just because no one up there is rocking 4% body fat – you’re not holding water, you’re holding FAT and that is ok because some of that is expected and, yes, even helpful for that division.

I hear so many stores of coaches putting clients through absolutely ridiculous protocols.  Sitting in a sauna for an hour a day 3 weeks out from a show because, you know, water weight.  Nevermind that whatever is lost via sweat in the sauna is almost immediately replenished as soon as you start drinking again.  The absolutely mind-numbingly stupid Preparation-H/saran wrap protocol.  Limiting water intake to 16 oz per day the final week of the show.  All of these are recipes to A) feel terrible, and B) WORSEN your condition, not help it.

For some of my clients, peak week is no different than any other week.  For some, we do manage a moderate-to-aggressive carb-up, depending on the individual and their division.  Water intake is controlled and closely monitored, but not stupidly low as it just doesn’t help.

I do not recommend diuretics.  Over-the-counter ones are not terribly effective and prescription varieties are potentially very dangerous to be playing around with.

Do you offer planning and programming for off-season growth?

I do, and I treat it no differently from being in prep – plan pricing for what I offer is not altered from one phase to the next.  Most people fail to realize it, but off-season is the most difficult phase for nearly all of us.  Exhibit A:  the OVERWHELMING majority of competitors who look the same from 1 show to the next.  It’s prep prep prep SHOW <post-show depression, skipping workouts, feeling unmotivated, God I need to pick a new show and get back on it> prep prep prep SHOW – looking exactly the same, if you’re lucky.

I am a huge advocate of treating the off-seasons with the same aggressive, highly-motivated mindset that you approach contest prep with.  There should be goals, deadlines, focus, consistency, precision on the diet, and a few more indiscretions that you might normally get away with during prep.  Helping people maintain their focus, prioritize their training, and continue pushing and growing through an off-season is one of my favorite things to do.  Being on point and actually growing/improving through the off-season ensures a higher level of metabolic function as well, making the next prep easier and making it more likely you’ll be able to keep calories higher and for longer while still leaning out.  For the serious competitor, it really is a year-round commitment.

Introducing the Q&A series!

So here we go!  This is the start of what I anticipate being a recurring series of posts, addressing the topics that clients, prospective clients, and random people ask that I feel are worth sharing with a general audience.  Without further ado, let’s dive in:

Can I have an occasional drink and still lean out?

Probably (maybe?), but the question is “why?”  If you’re serious about leaning out – whether for a show or just to get lean, be serious about that goal and abstain from the things that will set you back.  Like alcohol.  As a macronutrient (7 calories/gram), alcohol contributes to your total caloric intake and effectively takes over your metabolism while still present in the bloodstream (converts to acetate, which the body prefers over glucose – your standard metabolic fuel).  I equate this to the car that runs you over, then sticks it in reverse and backs over you again for good measure.  When leaning out many people can get away with an occasional drink, but every occasion is just another chance to sell your long-term results short.  So again, why?  (and the answer, for many, is because Blue Moon is freaking tasty.  Oh wait that’s just my answer).

Do you favor a ketogenic (low/no carb) dieting approach?

Universally, no.  Some people certainly respond well/better to it, but ultimately I do what’s best for each individual body rather than adopting blanket strategies and try to apply them to all people evenly.  I know that if you can diet with carbs, you should – performance on your lifts will be better, mood will be better, LIFE will be better.  Carb cycling and refeeds come into the equation as well so even those who do follow a keto-based plan will find some carbs in their life at some point.

Do you think IIFYM (flexible dieting, macro-based dieting) is a good idea for me?

Maybe (my favorite, stock answer).  In principle it’s a decent strategy, but if you distill someone’s diet into 3 columns/numbers (protein, carb, fat) with no additional guidelines, you’re doing a disservice.  I support flexible dieting for those clients that it works for – like other things, following a macro-based plan is a skill and you have to be comfortable/dilligent with logging foods, knowing where your macros are coming from, and being able to accurately hit the targets on a daily basis.  I also provide additional guidelines regarding timing, fiber/sugar intake, and other things so when I do incorporate it, it has evolved beyond the standard “pizza and pop tarts” plan that it is much maligned for in some circles.

I’m interested in training but not sure I want to compete.  Can you still help?

This is the question I get the most.  The answer is yes, absolutely.  I work with anyone who is willing to put in a serious effort/commitment to learn and change their body, whether they end up on the stage or not.

If you’re at all on the fence about competing, DON’T.  I am the last guy that’s going to talk anyone into that.  If it is calling you:  great, do it.  If you’re not sure, skip it and find another way to motivate yourself and guide your training phases throughout the year.  Competing is something you have to WANT to do in a big way, you can’t half-ass it or give it 80% of your best effort – it just doesn’t work that way.


Unbeknownst to me, sometime (last week maybe?) the website decided that every page except the home page was going to go missing and ended up with a dead link regardless of what you clicked on.  I am not a design professional, but even I realized this was a Bad Thing ™.  A five-minute fix and we’re back in action.  My apologies for any confusion to anyone who was trying (unsuccessfully) to poke around!

In other news – things have been BUSY.  A couple natural pro cards earned earlier this year (congrats Liz and Christine!), plenty more shows for clients still on the calendar in the coming weeks and months as well, and LOTS of reading and researching going on as usual to keep my schedule full.

I have a few new projects in the hopper as well and am excited to start working on those in the near future, and will also be starting a weekly Q&A post on the website – stay tuned for that!

Weight tracking and expectations

Up-front disclaimer:  I don’t expect daily weigh-ins from all of my clients, and certainly not regardless of the phase of their training.  It takes a certain level of emotional detachment from the scale number (a skill worth learning) to make this worth the effort, but the insight you can gain from this process is extremely useful.

That being said, the value of daily weigh-ins is a double-edged sword.  On a day-to-day basis, you are essentially just tracking your body’s adjustments and fluctuations in water retention.  So an “OMG I lost 4 pounds in 2 days!” is like to be followed by a “WTF I gained 3 pounds the next 2 days??”  But hey, if that happens, you’re at a net loss of 1 so you’re still winning.

What causes water retention to fluctuate?

Basically, a lot.  In a perfect world of the experiment that is your body, we would have water retention as a constant, measure/track the variables (caloric intake and expenditure) and check the output (weight).  What we would expect to see is a slow, even trend in the direction we’re aiming for, whether up or down.

Unfortunately water retention is anything but constant.  It fluctuates seemingly according to the phases of the moon at times, though with less predictability.  Here are some factors that can be considered, though this is by no means a comprehensive list:

  • Hormones – I put this first because this is the thing that seems most mysterious and magical, and it should not be dismissed because of that.  Changes in your hormonal makeup (short-term and long-term) will effect how your body holds on to water.
  • Macronutrient intake – it is the job of carbohydrates to retain water and help seat it into muscle tissue, so higher carb intake means greater water retention.  That cheat meal at the Italian restaurant?  Yeah, you know what to expect the next day.
  • Sodium intake – it’s well known that sodium causes water retention, but more appropriately spikes or drops  in sodium intake will do this.  So again, that cheat meal at the Italian restaurant with the salty tomato sauce?  Uh huh.
  • Water intake – again, it’s more about fluctuations in water intake.  If you’re rock solid and then have a day where your intake is about half (or double) what it normally is, expect that to show up on the scale.
  • Sweat output – this one is fairly obvious, but it has more to do with output in relation to intake.  Double the cardio (and therefore sweat) while holding water intake steady?  Expect to see changes.

What else can cause fluctuations in weigh-in numbers?

The biggest thing here that I encounter is inconsistency.  If every day was the same, you would still weigh less in the AM and more in the PM (typically).  If you don’t weigh yourself at consistent times, you will not see numbers that bear any relation to one another.  In addition, every day is not the same, so your evening weight one day and your evening weight the next day are not easily compared.  When requesting daily weigh-ins from clients, the only numbers I care about and want to see are those taken very first thing in the morning, immediately after waking.  At this time we can expect the body to be in a relatively consistent state day-to-day and can begin to make sense of the data.

What’s the big picture?

To be frank, the big picture IS the big picture.  Zoom out, and take everything into account.  Focus on larger time intervals.

Confucius say, “she who weighs for a week measures water, she who measures for a month measures changes in lean body mass ratio”

Now I may have messed up the source or the specifics of that quote, but you get the idea.  Over time, you may see a graphed result that looks something like this from one of my clients:

weight loss graph

So, focus on that big picture – ALWAYS.  Included in that chart is a week that looked like this:

139.0, 138.0, 137.0, 144.5, 141.5

You can basically see the decision that led to that spike and it’s aftermath – but also notice that things start to correct themselves right away.

Taking daily weigh-ins is helpful, but only if you can do so with an analytical mind – and understand that most of what happens in terms of large daily fluctuations can easily be explained and accounted for, if you just stop to clear your head and think about it.  As humans we have a natural tendency to derive emotional satisfaction (or frustration) from a moving (or non-moving) scale.  I like instead to focus on enjoying the process – the easy stuff, the hard stuff, the feeling after a great workout, etc – and know that the results will come with consistency and time.  Daily weigh-ins can be helpful to gauge progress, but they are simply another tool in the arsenal.


The path to advanced lifting

Most of us remember what it was like the first time we started ‘attempting’ to workout.  I look back on my early trips to the gym and I just laugh.  Absolutely no clue what I was doing, but yet thinking I was doing productive stuff anyway (hint:  I wasn’t).  Lots of bad form, lots of skipped leg days, lots of bicep work, and plenty of “cardio” with heart rates in the double digits.  I was a beast.

The point of this post is this:  you can be well beyond that stage and still be a beginner in the gym.  With a lot of work, practice, and research you can progress to something more in the ‘intermediate’ range.  Being ‘advanced’ in my mind means that you have an absolute mastery of every common move and many uncommon moves.

Mastery in this sense means that you have absolute control over your body, can feel the muscles working easily, and fix it mid-set if they aren’t doing what they should.  If you ever find yourself mentally checking out during a set or – worst of all – doing an exercise without feeling and engaging mentally with the muscles that are being worked, those are the Tier-1 problems that need to be addressed immediately.  Anyone call execute a lat pulldown, but the real question is this:  can you manually engage your lats well enough to fatigue them on that exercise using a very light weight?

An advanced lifter also has an innate sense of the ‘right’ weight for a given set.  In our business, heavier isn’t always better – finding the sweet spot where you body feels the exercise to a maximal degree is what we’re after.  You might be able to curl 50’s, but sometimes when you switch out to 35’s, while also slowing down and squeezing harder on each rep – you can get more out of it, induce real muscular fatigue earlier in the set, and make the muscle work harder.

That sweet spot is also something that can change regularly, which is a good next point – advanced lifters don’t fall into ruts or patterns, at least not commonly.  The dance is a careful combination of OCD note-taking and lifting intuitively, and going by what is best for your body that day.

An advanced lifter also knows one key thing – the thing that makes a workout difficult comes primarily from within.  It’s your ability to focus, select the right weights, make the muscles work, and push past the point of failure that makes a workout effective and challenging.  Workout design is something I have a great passion for, but ultimately what I’m doing there is trying to optimize things – good transitions from one move to the next, a good flow, getting a good pump and making it easy to sustain.

If you find yourself struggling, here’s a good path to right the ship and get your workouts moving in a more productive direction:

  • Make your workouts less complicated – attempt to do more (more fatigue, more mind/muscle connection, more reps past failure, better form) with less.
  • Reduce your workouts to a handful of core exercises that you feel comfortable with, and move beyond comfort and closer to mastery.  Slowly incorporate additional exercises only when you’re supremely comfortable with the existing lineup.
  • If you struggle with getting certain movements to register and can’t seem to engage the proper muscle groups, enlist the services of a quality coach or trainer to help you out.  A good one isn’t just going to yell at you, count your reps, or write a plan for you – they should be aiming to teach you every step of the way as well.
  • Practice posing!  Even if you’re not competing, posing practice has incredible benefits when it comes to conditioning and – yes – BODY AWARENESS.  Being able to accurately manipulate your body and isometrically work muscle groups is key to developing a better connection with what those muscle groups are doing when you’re training them.  I wrote about this previously here.

In closing, you need to do more of what most people assume bodybuilders do very little of:  think.  Engage your brain when you’re in the gym and continue to learn with every single rep.

  • FSP on IG

  • FSP on Facebook