Before I have talked about using an accurate scale and skinfold calipers for measuring progress. These are the best tools for an intermediate or advanced bodybuilder but they are not the best for a beginner. Here I'm going to show you the best way for a beginner to fitness to measure their progress, its very old-school, fool-proof, simple and cheap.
First lets talk about why skinfold calipers don't work well for beginners. If your bodyfat is high, say over 25%, even the professionals have a hard time measuring it accurately. And an inaccurate measurement is far worse than no measurement. The scale is the other problem, few people have a scale like this that is accurate. Even if you did, the bigger you are, the more your weight varies because of salt. Couple the problem with the scale with the problem with the skinfold calipers and a beginner is left with no information to go on.
Lets talk about the best way for a beginner to fitness to measure progress - this is perfect for people starting my boot camp program. The only thing you need for this is a measuring tape, these cost about $3 and they are used in sewing so you can pick them up at any fabric store or buy them on amazon. Everybody likes to measure chest and arms but lets talk about why we will NOT do this on beginners. If your bodyfat is high, the fat is stored all over your body. If you are 260 pounds and at a 20% caloric deficit, you are losing 2 pounds of fat a week. Even if your strength and muscles are growing at super-human rates, your arm and chest measurements will still DECREASE while you are losing fat. Measuring your chest and arms gives you no useful information if you are losing bodyfat. Measuring arms and chest will needlessly demotivate you. If you are getting stronger, that is all you need to know for now! Wait until your bodyfat is under 12% to start measuring chest, arms, legs, and skinfold measurements!
So what DO you measure? I warned you this was old-school and simple - there is only one measurement you will be taking, your waist. It doesn't matter at all what your precise bodyfat percentage is, what matters is if it is increasing or decreasing. If your waist measure 1" less than it did a month ago then your bodyfat has dropped and you will eventually reach your goal. During that month of doing my boot camp program you got noticeably stronger. Really, what more do you need to know? You are clearly getting stronger and leaner, who cares what the exact numbers are.
How to measure? The most important thing is that you be able to repeatedly measure your waist accurately. You should be able to measure three times and have it come out to within 1/4" (6mm) of the same measurement each time, here is how to do it. This isn't pretty so do this with the blinds closed in the bathroom. We are going to measure the minimum and maximum waist measurements. While looking at yourself in the mirror, stick your belly out as far as you can and make it as big as you can, then measure where your belly is biggest. Your goal is to get the largest measurement you can so try it a few times to find the place. Now suck it in and make your waist as small as you possibly can and measure your waist at the point where you can get the smallest measurement possible. Again, try a few times till you have found the smallest point. Now practice both those measurements a few times. The first two weeks I would take these two measurements every day just to get the hang of it, after that once a week is fine. The reason we are taking the measurement two ways is that it depends on your bodyfat which of these is going to be the most telling. If you are significantly overweight and have an apple shaped belly then the maximum measurement will be the most helpful in gauging your weight loss progress. If your bodyfat is such that you can suck it in and get an hourglass figure then the minimum measurement will be more helpful. In any case, its best to take both.
Lets talk about the scale a bit more. Many people who are overweight and starting on a fitness program become weight fixated. They weigh every day and become ecstatic and motivated if they have lost a pound and depressed if their weight has gone up. This emotional roller coaster is not doing any good whatsoever. Weight can easily fluctuate 10 pounds in a day with differences in sodium intake and hydration so why bother getting worked up about it? If you are consistently working out, getting your cardio, watching what you eat, and doing resistance training then you WILL get stronger and leaner.
Set a good course, hold it steady, and enjoy the beautiful view of the ocean rather than burning yourself out chasing the compass needle. If your waist measurement is decreasing every month and the number of pushups you can do is increasing then what else to you need to know? Seriously! :)