Body fat measurements:
both tricky, and important. Why?
Because you need to know where you’re starting if you want to have an idea of how go get to your destination.
That’s a really lame way of introducing this post, and I apologize for it. However, I have so much cool information that you’ll forgive my lack of cleverness.
It’s a bit of an interesting dilemma – fitness pros and diet books and all sorts of health websites try to give you dietary advice and insight on your calorie intake, all of which is based on a number of variables and metrics.
One of these, of course, is your body composition; that is, how much of your total body weight is composed of Lean Body Mass (LBM) or as you’ll commonly see it, Fat Free Mass (FFM)—which is muscle, bone, and any non-fatty tissue—and how much is Fat Mass (FM). Once you know your body fat, we give you a Calorie formula to help determine how much to eat.
However, getting from the measurement to the diet isn’t as easy as we’d like it to be, because unfortunately, the measurement of body composition is not really an exact science.
Confusion about body composition measurements is one of the most common problems seen by beginner and intermediate trainees. Firstly, too many people are trying to “eyeball it” and have no idea what the hell they’re talking about.
The Problem With “Eyeballing” It:
…is that it’s stupid.
Honestly, unless you’re an advanced bodybuilder or model and have dieted down to a specific percentage 10 times or more, you’re going to get it wrong. After 10 times, I feel that someone knows the look and FEEL of 6% and isn’t at such a disadvantage. With “regular” people…the issue that most of the time you’re just looking at your abs. If you can see them well, automatically people think they’re below 10%–which is usually true. But not always.
Outside of that, guesstimating isn’t great because it fails to take regional distribution into account. Some people (like myself) can have completely shredded abs, but store fat elsewhere (in my case, love handles and lower back) and so are a higher body fat percentages than they appear.
Obviously, you need to actually measure to be sure. However, that actually doesn’t help much, because there are so many different ways to measure…which leads us to problem number two.
This is one of those things that seems like it would be a good idea; after all, you’re getting a lot of data and it could give you a more comprehensive view of your body composition, right? Wrong.
First you hop in the BodPod, then you decide to get your skinfolds pinched, and the on top of that you grab on to your handheld bio-impedance device. What’s the end result? A lot of measurement variability and frustration, that’s what. No bueno.
So before I go any further, if you take just one lesson home from this post, let it be this: Pick one method and stick with it for the duration of your training career—or AT LEAST for the duration of your diet and training program.
Unfortunately, the only method that is 100% accurate is to cut you open and dissect you. Which, while probably great for determining your caloric intake, would ultimately kill you deadstyle, so you couldn’t eat anyway.
Besides, once you die, your caloric intake is always Zero, anyway…unless you’re a zombie.
FACT: Zombies mostly eat protein.
…but that’s a different post altogether.
Of course, I’m going to explain all of the most popular methods, and their pros and cons (as I see them), but the important thing is, again, regardless of which method you choose, stick with it. It’ll give you the most consistent measurement, and that’s the key.
In truth…the simple fact of the matter is that it doesn’t really matter which method you choose.
Umm…But What Aboot Accuracy? (lol, I said aboot)
Actually, that isn’t as important as you may think for measuring progress. When tracking body fat measurements, absolute accuracy is not nearly as important as convenience, consistency, and relative reliability.
To be clear: accuracy is important when trying to determine Caloric intake. It is NOT important for tracking progress.
Obviously, for the purposes of constructing a diet, we want the best information we can get to come up with our best estimate for Caloric intake; however, as I’ve written before, the unfortunate truth is that Calorie formulas are, at best, a crapshoot.
Calorie formulas allow us a framework for understanding how food is affecting us; from there, we make modifications based on observation–and therefore having an accurate starting point is nice.
However, when it comes to tracking progress, the absolute measurement is by far less important than the differences in your measurements relative to one another.
Ultimately body composition measurement is merely a tool you use to track your progress in the gym.
Assuming your methodology is consistent and reliable, even if your measurements are a bit off from your absolute numbers, you’ll be able to monitor your progress via the changes you see in both your fat mass (FM) and fat free mass (FFM).
This becomes incredibly important for anyone who desires to drop fat and/or to pack on muscle. You better know the composition of the weight that you’re dropping or adding; if you’re losing LBM, you probably aren’t eating enough and need to make some changes. The starting point for all of that is knowing your body fat.
All of which means something like this: if your body fat scale reads you at 12% and you’re really 14%, that doesn’t freakin’ matter. Ultimately, it’s just a tool to gauge progress. As long as you use that same scale and you see that reading going down, you’re making progress.
So whether your goal is to lose fat, gain muscle or both, you’re going to have to track those changes. Don’t be bogged down in what you’ve heard about the accuracy of various body composition measurement tools. Simply find a method that allows you to check your body composition frequently, reliably and conveniently.
Top Tips for Body Fat Testing:
- Pick ONE method and stick with it. For at least 6-8 weeks, anyway. However long your training program is, use your method for THAT length of time.
- Don’t go crazy with frequency. A lot of people try to treat body fat testing like weighing yourself: they do it too often. Testing your body fat every day isn’t necessary, and depending on the method you use, it’s probably pretty inconvenient. Test body fat (or have it tested) no more than once per week, TOPS. By the way, if you’re still weighing yourself every day, cut that shit out. Every third day.
- Consistency is Key. You know that you should only use one method. And you know you should only do it once per week. Here is where consistencuy comes in: makes sure that you test at the SAME time on the SAME day every week. Ideally, you should try to match the condidtions as closely as possible. This means similar hydration levels, stomach volume, etc. I always recommend that people get their body fat tested in the morning, after using the bathroom but before eating or drinking anything.
As an aside, I always take my measurements on Wednesdays. Why? Because Wednesdays are otherwise boring and this gives me something to loook forward to.
In my next post, I’m going to cover the FOUR most popular methods from the comments section.
So if you want to see your method covered—both its pros and cons—you NEED to comment and let me know what you’re using!