You've been working your arse off in the gym or so you think you have? How can you know that you're building muscle?
There are many ways to track progress. A favourite of mine is taking endless amounts of selfies and posting it all over social media. Other methods for tracking muscle growth include taking body composition measurements. Using devices like DEXA, biomedical impedance machines, and skin caliper readings. Another good method is to measure your strength increases in the gym.
Whilst all these methods work to some degree, some are more accurate than others.
Take for example body fat measurement readings. Even the most accurate way of measuring muscle mass which is a DEXA scan has an error margin of around 5%. If you put that into perspective for an experienced lifter, they could be looking to add 2-3% increases in muscle mass a year. Thus if they were to use a DEXA scan to track progress it could be distorted with the error margin. Also to note, DEXA scans are the gold standard when it comes to body composition analysis. So the machine you're using in the gym could be giving you a bigger error margin.
What about selfies? Are they the most accurate way of measuring progress in the gym? They can be an accurate way of tracking progress IF done correctly. The problem with selfies is that there are a lot of variables that can affect the picture e.g. lighting, time of day, location and hydration levels. It's hard to take photos in the same pose under the same conditions. It can be done nonetheless and if so it can be a greater tool for tracking progress than body fat measurements. Also, pictures are good if the goal is to drop fat but not so good if you're carrying excess fat and looking to track when building muscle.
That leaves us with tracking strength gains in the gym. We all know how hard it is to add that extra 5kg to a bench press max or even to get that extra rep on your squat PB. So you can almost guarantee that if your strength is going up in the gym, you're building muscle. This is therefore the most accurate way to track muscle growth. Advanced lifters will be looking to make marginal gains in key lifts, only adding 10kg to their squat per year. So using this method of tracking growth is the only way an advanced lifter can track progress. Even if you're not an advanced lifter I’d still suggest this way of tracking progress to be accurate.
So how would you test strength in the gym? The typical way is to test your 1 rep max (RM) on compounds lifts e.g. squat, bench press, and deadlift. I wouldn't recommend testing your 1RM every week to see if you're progressing. I only test my 1RM in compounds every 6 months, if that. I’d recommend using a 1RM calculator. This allows you to test your 3, 4 or even 10 rep max and then you can add the figures to a calculator. It works at an estimate of your 1RM. A great tool so that you don't have to consistently perform high risk 1RM testing.
Here is a link to the calculator I like to use:
Keep a log of your compound lifts and track your projected 1RMS for each lift.
No more guess work and the best way of tracking progress in the gym.
Alex - Body Transformation Coach