Why You're Not Making Progress And What You Can Do About It

By Molly Galbraith

I was 9 years old the first time I heard the word “plateau.”

I had been competing in gymnastics for 2 years, practicing no less than 9 hours a week, and hadn’t achieved any new tricks for months.  I was feeling frustrated and wanted to quit.  Luckily, my Mom talked me out of it, but I learned this lesson at a very young age:

Lack of progress is extremely frustrating and demotivating.

There are a number of reasons why a person trying to make changes to her health, physique, or performance may experience a plateau.

Depending on your goals, you may be over- or underestimating your calories, not choosing the appropriate food sources, or you may not be following her training program correctly or consistently. All of these are extremely important of course, but what if you are doing those things? What if you’re nailing your nutrition and you’re consistent with the execution of your training program, and you’re still not seeing results?

In my experience, it’s usually one of two things:

  1. You’re not tracking your progress
  2. You’re not tracking the correct measures of progress

Tracking is a critical component of making progress over the long-haul.

pencil-notepad-450x300Tracking Your Progress

Not tracking your progress can be problematic for several reasons, including but not limited to:

  • If you’re making small losses/gains consistently over time, and you don’t have any data to refer back to, it’s difficult to see how far you’ve actually come.
  • If you don’t have any information about whether or not what you’re doing is working, you never know when to adjust your nutrition or training program.
  • If you’re not tracking and acknowledging the small progress milestones, you may mistakenly think you’re not making any progress, and you'll feel less motivated to continue.

Of course, tracking progress isn’t just about weighing yourself or taking pictures. It's helpful to track other measures of progress such as health, lifestyle, and performance markers as well, which you'll read about in a moment.

Tracking The Correct Measures of Progress

Tracking the correct measures of progress is critical to your success. If you’re unknowingly tracking the wrong measure of progress, you won’t have accurate information about whether or not you’re making any. Here’s an example:

woman-screaming-at-scale-450x300I hear a lot of women say, "I want to lose weight." But I think that what most of these women are really saying is, "I want to lose fat."  That is a very important distinction.

When you focus on the scale as the only indicator of progress, you don't actually know what you're losing. You don't know if you're losing fat, muscle, bone mass, water. If you want to lose fat, it's really important that you don't rely on the scale as your sole measure of progress.

You may have been told at some point to "throw the scale out the window!" If the number on the scale (or even the idea of stepping on the scale) affects your mood and well-being, then I totally agree with that advice. It's absolutely not necessary to weigh yourself on a regular basis. However, it is data that when combined with other data, could provide a more detailed picture of what's going on in your body.

For example, say that you do weigh yourself two weeks in a row, and also take girth measurements. You notice that your weight is the same, but your body is actually getting smaller. What does this mean? Well, you've most likely lost a little body fat and gained a little muscle! That's the really cool thing about lean mass (muscle) compared to fat mass. Five pounds of lean mass take up significantly less space than five pounds of fat mass.

I know you've heard that "muscle weighs more than fat," right? Well, that doesn't make any sense, because five pounds is five pounds, whether it's muscle or fat. However, muscle is more dense than fat, so five pounds of muscle will take up less space than five pounds of body fat, resulting in the same weight but smaller girth measurements.

Below are two pictures of me. The one on the left is from 2004, when I weighed 185 pounds, and the one on the right is from 2012 when I weighed 183.5 pounds.

Molly-2004-2014-collage-e1433213479466 (1)

There's only a 1.5 pound difference in those two pictures, but my body looks drastically different. That’s because I'd lost a significant amount of body fat, and gained a significant amount of muscle. If I'd just used the scale to measure what that progress looked like, it wouldn't look like I had made much progress at all!

There are a few of things you can do to measure physical progress without focusing solely on weight.

Ways To Measure Aesthetic/Physical Progress

  1. Scale/Weight (only if it doesn’t make or ruin your day)
  2. Girth measurements
  3. Skinfold measurements
  4. Pictures
  5. Clothing


How to measure:  Weigh yourself on the same scale, on the same day of the week, at the same time of day (preferably first thing in the morning after emptying your bladder and bowels), wearing the exact same clothing, or no clothing (whichever you choose, be consistent).

Pros:  If you follow the advice above, digital scales are quite accurate measurements of how much your body weighs, and in conjunction with other measures, can be very telling in terms of progress.

Cons:  Scale weight doesn’t give you any indication of what the composition of the weight gained or lost is (water, fat, muscle, bone, etc.). It can also be psychologically difficult for some women to weigh themselves on a regular basis.

Good for:  People who want to lose fat, people who want to gain muscle, people who want both. This can also be valuable for people competing in a weight-class sport.

Recommended frequency: Weekly

Girth Measurements

How to measure:  Using a soft measuring tape, choose various sites on your body to take a girth measurement. Make sure you measure yourself on the same day of the week, at the same time of day (preferably first thing in the morning after emptying your bladder and bowels), wearing the exact same clothing or no clothing. Measure in the exact same spot each time, and don’t pull the tape too tight. It should be taut, but should not squeeze you. Also, keep in mind taking more measurements will provide a clearer picture of your progress.

Pros:  Girth measurements can be help you see not only whether you’re losing or gaining, but also what you’re losing or gaining (muscle or fat), especially in conjunction with other measures. For example, if you lose inches around your waist, but gain around your hips/glutes, there’s a good chance that you’re losing fat and gaining muscle.

Cons:  Measuring in the same spot each time can be tough, especially if you’re doing the measurements yourself instead of having someone else do them for you.

Good for:  People who want to lose fat, people who want to gain muscle, people who want both.

Recommended frequency:  Bi-weekly

Skin Fold Measurements

How to measure:  A healthcare or fitness professional will use calipers to measure skinfolds on different areas of your body.

Pros:  This can be a very accurate measure of how your body fat is increasing or decreasing over time, and in conjunction with other measures of progress, can tell a lot about your overall body composition.

Cons:  These measurements are extremely difficult to take accurately. In my opinion, the professional taking the measurement should have taken at least a thousand skinfold measurements on dozens of different people before you would consider letting them take your skinfold measurements, and even then, it’s hard to guarantee that the measurements are accurate.

Good for:  People who want to lose fat, people who want to lose fat and gain muscle, and people who want to keep fat gain to a minimum while they gain muscle.

Recommended frequency:  Bi-weekly or monthly


How to take them:  Have someone take pictures of you on the same day of the week, at the same time of day (preferably first thing in the morning after emptying your bladder and bowels), wearing the exact same clothing (or lack thereof), in the same room, with the same lighting, and from the same angle, every single time.

Pros:  Pictures, when take correctly, are an excellent representation of what’s happening with your body composition over time.

Cons:  Even the smallest change in lighting, angle, clothing, distance, or time of the month can result in pictures that aren’t comparable to one another. Consistency is key here.

Good for:  People who want to lose fat, people who want to gain muscle, people who want both. People competing in physique sports such as bodybuilding or figure, especially.

Recommended frequency:  Monthly


How to measure:  Choose a piece of clothing you love and that currently is bit snug on you (jeans and fitted skirts/dresses generally work well). Try it on every 2-4 weeks to see if it fits differently over time.

Pros:  If you’re not great at taking girth measurements, trying on clothing can give you a good idea of whether you’re getting bigger or smaller, and in what areas. It can also be very motivating to get closer and closer to wearing one of your favorite pieces of clothing and feeling great wearing it.

Cons:  Depending on the clothing you choose, and how your body loses/gains weight, you may find that the clothing isn’t giving you much information. For example, if you choose a skirt that’s snug, and you lose fat in your upper body first, you might be losing fat, but not noticing any changes in how your skirt fits, because you haven’t lost much in your lower body or waist first.

Good for:  People who want to lose fat, people who want to gain muscle, people who want both.

Recommended frequency:  Bi-weekly or monthly

Other Measures of Progress

While measuring aesthetic progress can be really fun and motivating, there are several other measures of progress you can track, including health markers, lifestyle markers, and performance markers. Of course, the lists below aren’t exhaustive; they're just examples of information you might find helpful to you on your health and fitness journey.

Health Markers

  • Blood pressure
  • Resting heart rate (taken upon waking)
  • Cholesterol
  • Triglycerides
  • Fasted insulin
  • Fasted glucose
  • Hormone panel

Tracking health markers can be really motivating on your health journey, especially if they are the reason you started exercising in the first place.

Lifestyle Markers

  • Stress
  • Energy
  • Strength
  • Mood
  • Sleep

Watching lifestyle markers improve can also be really motivating. They can also give you valuable information about your progress.  For example, if you've been losing fat at a steady pace for six weeks, and suddenly, during the past two weeks, you've hit a plateau, take a look at your sleep and stress levels.  If your sleep has been poor for the last two weeks, there's a good chance you've found the culprit.  Had you not tracked your sleep, you may have unnecessarily ramped up your workouts or cut calories when really, you just needed a bit more sleep.

Performance Markers

  • Number of Push-ups completed
  • Number of Pull-ups/Chin-ups completed
  • 5-rep max on Squat
  • 5-rep max on Deadlift
  • 1-mile run time
  • Broad jump
  • Vertical jump

It may seem obvious that tracking performance markers is important when performance is your goal, but you’d be shocked at how many people still don’t track it. You can choose any performance markers that are most relevant to your specific goals, but I’ve listed a few above that you might want to track.

One more thing...

Finally, in addition to tracking the values mentioned above, make sure you’re logging your workouts as well. Many women, unless they're prompted to increase the weight they’re using for their workouts, will continue to use the same weight day after day, week after week. That’s not how you get stronger and continue to make progress in the gym. It's really important to know how much weight you're using, for how many reps, and how it feels so that you can continue to push yourself.

When you're increasing your weight on an exercise always leave 1-2 reps "in the tank" so you can stay safe while still challenging yourself. Keeping 1-2 reps in the tank means that if you think you can do 10 and that's your absolute max, then you're going to use that weight for only 8 or 9 reps.


Example: You’re comfortably performing Dumbbell Bench Press using the 30-pound dumbbells for 3 sets of 8, which is what your program calls for. At this point, it’s time to increase to the 35-pound dumbbells. Because that’s a 17% increase in weight, you probably won’t be able to make that big of a jump, and still complete all the sets and reps with good form.

You might do something like this instead:

  • 1 set of 8 with 35 pounds
  • 1 set of 6 or 7 reps with 35 pounds
  • Drop back down and complete your last set of 8 reps with 30 pounds

If you hadn’t been logging your workouts, you would not have known that 3 sets of 8 with 30 pounds was challenging, but you could do a little bit more. You might never progress up to the 35-pound dumbbells.

As you can see, there are a number of reasons that tracking your progress in different areas is important to making and troubleshooting progress overall. We aren’t recommending that everyone track all of these numbers all the time. That can be daunting, and there are definitely periods in our lives when keeping things simple is the main goal. However, if you’re not making progress, and you want to know why, tracking the correct measures of progress over time is critical.

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About the author:  Molly Galbraith

Molly Galbraith, CSCS is co-founder and woman-in-charge at Girls Gone Strong, a global movement of 800,000+ folks passionate about women’s health, fitness, and empowerment. She’s also the creator of the The Girls Gone Strong Academy, home of the world’s top certifications for health and fitness pros who want to become a Certified Pre-& Postnatal Coach or a Certified Women’s Coaching Specialist.   The GGS Academy is revolutionizing women’s health and fitness by tackling critical (and often overlooked) topics like body image struggles, disordered eating, menopause, amenorrhea and menstrual cycle struggles, PCOS, endometriosis, osteoporosis, pre- and postnatal exercise, incontinence, diastasis recti, pelvic organ prolapse, postpartum recovery, and much more.   Learn more about Molly on her website and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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