There are so many reasons why the scale can go up/Down.
This is the obvious one, and any rise in the scale number will surely be perceived as fat.
In reality, fat is lost and gained at relatively moderate rates. For very overweight clients, 3-4 pounds lost per week might be attainable (but extreme) and for very lean clients, a half to 1 pound per week will be all you can get.
To gain 1-3 pounds of fat would require 3500-10,500 calories over what they burn each week, which equates to 500-1500 calories over per day.
While it is possible to eat that much (you don’t want to see what my cheat days look like), it’s extremely unlikely if they’re sticking to their diet. It’s even less likely that they’d be eating that much every day.
Tim’s cheat day. Picture taken from his Facebook without his knowledge.
So when the scale jumps up and down several pounds over the course of a few days, reassure them that fat isn’t the major culprit. Something else is going on.
Much like fat, muscle is gained and lost at slower rates.
The difference is that while muscle gain on a fat loss program will be slow (if it happens at all), muscle loss can cause weight to drop quicker than expected.
That’s because muscle only contains around 500 burnable calories from protein. If your client runs a 500-calorie deficit each day and only burns muscle (which is highly unlikely), they have the potential to drop up to 7 pounds without losing any fat.
Compare that to the 1 pound of fat they would’ve lost had that same deficit came from only fat.
Make sure your clients know that faster weight loss isn’t always a good thing.
Besides actual changes in fat and muscle, the food eaten from day to day can cause big swings in weight as well.
It’s easy to overlook, but simply having more food in the gut (undigested or what’s left after digestion) adds to their weight. Drinking only protein shakes will keep stomach content minimal, while lots of fibrous veggies and hearty servings of meat (which is recommended), will have your client carrying much more “non-energy” food components that press down on the scale.
This goes for water as well. If your client chugs a liter of water, they’ll weigh 2-3 pounds heavier just from the sheer fact of that liquid sitting in their stomach.
Carbs are especially good at messing with weight, since they get stored in muscle and weigh more per calorie than fat (4 kcal/g compared to 9 kcal/g for fat).
And when they get stored in muscles as glycogen, they bring in around 3 times the amount of water, adding to even more weight gain.
If your client eats out one night at an Italian restaurant, where food is abundant and the pasta flows freely, they might end up heavier simply due to storing more glycogen. The same can happen after purposeful carb refeeds.
Your clients will be less likely to freak if they know what’s coming and why.
Similar to carbs, increasing sodium intake can also cause water retention, adding weight to the ticker.
The trick with sodium, however, is that your clients’ bodies will respond based on their habitual intake.
That means if they’re used to eating 2,000 mg per day and then bump it up to 3,000 mg one shameful night while polishing off a jar of pretzels, they’re likely to hold onto water from the increase.
But if they normally consume 3,000 mg, that night probably won’t have much of an effect, since it’s within their normal intake.
When assessing a weight bump in a client, be sure to consider any deviations from their normal sodium consumption.
Creatine is one of the few supplements that’s been shown through research to boost strength and power.
Your client might be excited to start taking creatine and reaping the benefits, but they won’t be excited if they aren’t prepared for the 2-3 pound gain that comes with it.
Similar to glycogen, creatine is stored in the muscle and draws water in with it. This is a good thing as it swells the cells and increases protein synthesis and cell signaling, but the only thing your client will notice is the scale laughing in their face.
Prepare them for the gain before they start taking it so they won’t be shocked.
Cortisol and Stress
This is easily the most frustrating factor, as it’s incredibly hard to measure, and can stall your client’s weight for several weeks.
Cortisol causes water retention (through cross-reactivity with the aldosterone receptor), meaning that elevated levels can mask fat loss.
It just so happens that dieting and exercise both increase cortisol.
Typically, a bigger calorie deficit and more total exercise (usually cardio) will increase cortisol to the point where weight loss becomes erratic and unpredictable.
But things like lack of sleep, big lifestyle stresses, and injuries can also raise cortisol.
If you suspect this is the problem for your client, the solution is easy: remove the stress.
Well, maybe not easy, but simple.
Reduce the calorie deficit, cut back on cardio, and encourage them to chill out and get some sleep. If cortisol is the culprit, these changes should help your client drop that extra water and show they’re true weight.
Education Goes a Long Way
Make it clear that their weight can fluctuate 5-10 pounds from the above factors alone. That’s huge.
Remind them to be patient and amazing results will come.
As a bonus, teaching them about the above factors will allow you to show off your knowledge and increase your credibility.