Muscle Reality Check: Three Questions to Ask Yourself

On this second anniversary of Workout Nirvana, it’s time for a reality check: How far have you progressed in the last year? Are you making steady progress or have you let circumstances get in the way? And where will you be a year from now? We don’t have to slowly decline as we age if we track how we’re doing and take action. There are many ways to track your progress, so here are just three to help you determine where you really stand today.

Have you gained or lost muscle?

Without strength training or other athletic endeavors, adults over age 35 lose about .5 -1 percent muscle mass per year (NASM). If you’re not actively trying to build more muscle, you should at least be trying to maintain it.

What happens when your muscle atrophies? Your metabolism slows down, which results in weight gain. Don’t be one of the many who lets that happen. Stay on top of the game and lift weights for all major muscle groups at least twice a week.

To find out how much muscle mass you have, check this. Or subtract your fat mass from your body weight, if you know your body fat mass (to calculate your body fat mass, multiply your body fat percentage by your weight). Recheck your lean body mass every six to eight weeks – if it increases, that’s a good thing! Or if you prefer, check your body fat percentage instead – just be sure you are adding muscle while losing weight.

Has your grip strength increased?

Grip strength is a good indicator of overall health (2). It also tends to decrease as our strength decreases, so it’s a good measure of where you stand from year to year. The most common way to measure grip strength is using a dynamometer, a spring-loaded squeeze device that measures force (ranging from $30 to over $1,000 and used by physical therapists and other specialists).

If you don’t have access to a dynamometer you can create your own test while increasing your strength at the same time. For example, test how long you can hold a weight plate in each hand by pinching the outside curve of the plates. Start with 2 Β½ lb. plates and gradually increase the weight as your grip strength increases. There are many types of grip strength and ways to measure and increase it, so check this out to learn more.

You can also purchase hand grippers in different weights (100-300+). Choose a weight you can close fully 5-10 times and work up to more weight. This is a great way to test your grip strength over time because the more you use it, the stronger you get! Train your grip (and forearms) three times a week and watch not only your lifts improve but your strength in daily life.

Are you lifting more?

Do you track how much you’re lifting compared to months or a year ago? If not, start keeping a training log now – on a smart phone, your computer, or via hardcopy (*raises hand*). A log not only helps you figure out where you were a year ago but from workout to workout. Weight lifting is about progression – getting stronger (and/or bigger) by continually challenging your muscles more and more.

Estimating your one rep max is an effective method for gauging your strength. Whether you use this method or simply track how much weight you’re lifting over time, a log will help you see how you’re progressing.

Looking back at my log from a year ago, it’s encouraging to see how much certain lifts have increased, notably my shoulder press (66 percent) and Romanian deadlift (73 percent). I can see the results too. But I haven’t progressed much in my bench press (only 25 percent). Knowing how much my shoulder presses and deadlifts increased, I know I’m probably just not pushing myself as much as I could with bench presses.

Most everyone has at least one setback each year, such as injuries, schedule changes, and lagging motivation. What’s important is that you make a comeback. Don’t let an injury cause you to lose confidence or a change of schedule cause you to permanently lose your old routine. Keep your eye on your goals and strive to get back to where you were and then some.

As always, I love hearing from you. What other methods do you use to measure your progress?

You may also be interested in One Year Later: Are You Doin’ It?

16 thoughts on “Muscle Reality Check: Three Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. Happy anniversary!

    I do not track my weight lifting. I suppose I should but it’s just one more thing to keep track of (I keep a running and cycling log when training). I do have a pretty good memory though and remember what # I’m lifting.


    • I suppose the point not necessarily being tracking every workout but at least documenting where you are from time to time. This ensures that you’re actually progressing and holds you more accountable. I see many situations in which people drop off of weights, time passes, and a year later they’ve lost way too much muscle and strength. Over time that translates into decline. You are doing great – keep up the weights!


  2. Congrats on your second anniversary, Suzanne! My trainer uses the skin fold test measurements to see how my muscle mass has increased and the one rep max you mentioned above is a great indicator too. The best rule of thumb for me to test my strength is how I handle tasks of daily life. We were at Costco yesterday and six months ago, I could lift a case of water bottles but not carry them far without exertion. Now, it’s actually easy and I don’t ask my fiancee to carry them up the stairs in our townhouse anymore. πŸ™‚


  3. Hope you are better!!!!!

    Me, I don’t write it down but after all these years, I know what is going on! πŸ˜‰ I can see how I am not what I was at 45 – this year turning 55 BUT I am proud that I am still working very hard, lifting heavier now trying to combat the age thing & it does happen no matter how hard one works & eats well.. so I am lifting heavier & I continue to fight one! πŸ™‚ I have said before that I was an easy gainer so for a while, I lowered my weights BUT the past few months, been lifting heavy again as age rears its ugly head! πŸ˜‰

    CONGRATS on your anniversary!


    • If there’s one person I’m not worried about declining it’s you. We’re the minority, unfortunately… It totally rocks that you’re lifting heavy again! You can totally do it, knowing you’re a badass plays a big role πŸ™‚


  4. I will show this post to my brother, who has been doing weight training on and off for the last five years. Maybe this will inspire him to do better.


  5. First, congratulations!

    Love this advice! Focus on lean body mass, not the number on the scale.

    One quick way to get an estimate of LBM is to use the Navy method, which takes into account a few body measurements (for women, waist, hip, and neck), height, and weight. It’s not body mass index but an actual estimate of lean tissue. Great if you don’t have access to a trainer wielding calipers. Calculator here:

    I’m also a big proponent of tracking workouts. I use a very low-tech tool: a week-at-a-glance notebook, which gives you just enough space to jot down each workout. I’ve got a whole shelf of them at home, dating back to the 1980s.


    • Yep, I included a link to that calculator above, maybe it’s hard to see. Wow, I am super impressed you’ve kept your logs so long! And why not? We have a sentimental attachment to our progress.


  6. From the methods described, I find writing down progress, as in number of reps and weight used, the most reliable and easiest method. Tape measures can’t tell you the difference between a thicker fat layer or muscle and calipers are complicated. Worst are male trainees who step on a scale thinking, “10 lbs more, it’s all muscle”.


    • Yes, I find that it’s all rather imprecise when measuring body fat. A person’s weight may not change but their measurements and body fat percentage decrease, indicating a change in body composition. Measurements must be taken in the same exact way each time, which can definitely be imprecise. I don’t focus on the scale at all when it comes to clients… plus many find it demoralizing and embarrassing.


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