Leading Metrics and Lagging Metrics

It takes a long time for your clients to see results.


People don’t join a gym to lose two pounds. They join a gym to lose twenty. Unfortunately, that’s going to take awhile.


As Michael Bernoff, author of “Average Sucks!”, told me last week: “People have this vision of who they want to be, and they try to jump straight to that other person. But this isn’t checkers. They can’t make the leap.”


So it’s up to us, as coaches, to guide them from the person they are to the person they want to be. And that means showing them their progress as often as possible. That means tracking and reporting leading metrics instead of lagging metrics.


Leading and lagging metrics are performance indicators. Leading metrics show you what’s happening; lagging metrics show you the outcome. Leading metrics give you power: “If I change X, then Y will happen”. Lagging metrics give you a report “I did X, so Y happened.”


Weight loss is a lagging metric: we can’t show progress, only the end result. So is total cholesterol and resting heart rate. Most of the “health” metrics tracked by the medical community are lagging metrics. They only show the end result of a long process. And they don’t tell anyone how to become healthier.


The American Heart Association lists “Life’s Simple 7 Cardiovascular Health Metrics” as smoking, diet, physical activity, body mass index, blood pressure, total cholesterol, and fasting glucose. Four of these are lagging metrics: they tell us what happened, not what to do about it (or how well we’re doing). But the other three–smoking, diet and physical activity–are leading metrics. Those are the levers we can pull.


Smoking is a “yes/no” metric: if you smoke, you’ll shorten your life.


Diet and physical activity are more complicated. Everyone has “a diet” and everyone moves. The quality of diet and physical activity are what count. The quality of a person’s diet and physical activity are together measured as “fitness”.


What are the leading metrics in fitness? What can we point to and say, “As long as you’re doing THIS, you’ll eventually reach your goal?”


Adherence – how closely someone sticks to the plan, whether their workouts or nutrition plan. Adherence is a leading metric; retention is a lagging metric.


Planning – how well they’re setting themselves up for success (preparing meals in advance, shopping with a list, packing their gym bag, scheduling appointments)


Progress – how much weight they are losing, how their WOD scores are improving, how much weight they’re lifting compared to their starting point


Recovery – how often they’re performing supercompensation activities


Sleep – how much quality sleep they’re getting


Stress – how they’re managing their stress


These leading metrics for fitness can really be split into four categories:






Note that most these leading metrics are subjective: there’s no “perfect ten” in any category that we can point to and say, “You have successfully achieved fitness.” That means you have to ask a client “How are you sleeping?” and then help them find a way to do better.


Start your client journey by asking, “How much sleep do you need to feel your best?”

And then telling them how to improve their sleep.


Help them eat better by guiding them to good habits first; good choices second; and then to their aesthetic goals. Habits are good leading metrics: if you eat protein at every meal, you’ll crave carb snacks less.


Help them move more often by guiding them to adherence first (just show up); optimal workouts second; and then to their exercise goals. Adherence is a great leading metric: if a person just shows up regularly, they’ll get results.


Help them manage their lifestyle by guiding them to daily habits first (plan your workout time, schedule 5 minutes for meditation); optimal habits second (skip the middle of the grocery store); and then to their lifestyle goals.


Track what they’re doing instead of what they’ve done. Help them pull the levers that will get them results in the long-term.


We teach the “Sleep, Eat, Move, Manage” Framework in each of the Two-Brain Coaching courses.




What about performance metrics, like WOD scores and PRs?


Though performance is a great indicator of progress in fitness, it’s not the progress they signed up for. WOD scores are a good leading metric for fitness (as long as your workouts are truly broad, general and inclusive.) But despite their improving performance metrics, if a client who signed up for weight loss doesn’t lose weight, they’re going to leave eventually.


Strength goals are also lagging metrics: we can’t report a 400lbs deadlift until it’s happened. But marginal strength gains are leading metrics: to go from a 300lbs deadlift to a 400lbs deadlift, everyone has to achieve a 305lbs deadlift first.


What about abs?

Aesthetic appearance is a lagging metric. Self-perception is a leading metric. “How do you feel?” is a better question than “how did you look in the mirror today?”

Clients don’t speak your language. You have to quantify their goals before you can show them which levers to pull. So when a client says “I want great abs”, you explain that visible abs are the result of low bodyfat percentage. Then you measure their current bodyfat percentage, and tell them the fastest way to improve it. Like this:

“First, we’re going to cut processed foods and sugar out of your diet. I’d like you to take a picture of every meal you eat and send it to me for the next week.”

Leading metric: they’re reporting their meals consistently.

Lagging metric: decreased daily sugar intake.

Long-term lagging metric: fat loss.


You will have to work hard to keep a client on the path to their long-term goals. But leading metrics tell your client exactly what to do: “if you do X, then Y will happen.” You’ll also have to show them their progress as often as possible. The key is to track much and talk often.


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