By Personal Trainer & Health Consultant |
If there is one thing which all gym goers have in common, it is the desire to make progress. Whether it is lifting heavier weights, running faster times, or dropping a few pounds, it is important to have goals to strive towards, with a target in sight.
For many people, there is a desire to lose weight, and to this extent, a set of scales is a great way to track you’re progress, but one massive disadvantage to a standard set of scales is that they don’t tell you whether it is changes in lean mass or changes in fat mass that is responsible for changes in weight.
From a performance point of view, as well as aesthetically, you often want to reduce body fat whilst simultaneously keeping your muscle mass as high as possible. You can track this to some extent by simply looking in the mirror, however to measure progress accurately you will want a quantifiable way of tracking changes, and measuring body fat percentage is the perfect way of doing this.
How To Use Skin Fold Calipers
One of the most cost-effective ways to measure body fat percentage is the tried and tested method of skinfold measurements, using body fat calipers to pinch different areas of your body. These calipers are widely available online for minimal cost, and can be used over and over again.
How to Obtain a Skinfold Measurement
✓ All measurements should be made on right hand side of the body for consistency.
✓ You can try and get measurements yourself, but your best bet is to get someone else to do it for you.
✓ Subject should be stood up, and relaxed while measurements are taken, with no tensing.
✓ Pinch with your fingers, and then use the caliper about 1cm away from your fingers. Maintaining the pinch with your fingers at all times during measurements.
✓ The pinch should be placed midway between the base of the fold, and the top of the fold.
✓ It is good practice to obtain 2 or 3 measures at each site, just to make sure that the first one wasn’t a mistake, and then take an average of the measures.
✓ To make tests more reproducible, rather than guess the sites using naked eye, it is better to get a tape measure out and accurately mark out sites, so that next time you get body fat measured, you know you’re measuring in exactly the same place.
Where To Measure?
There are 2 widely used methods of skinfold measurements, the 3-site, and 7-site method, which are based on research by Jackson and Pollock (1, 2).
The advantage of the 3-site method is that as it is only 3 sites, there will be less variability each time you measure body fat, so in theory it is the most reproducible method, as well as being quicker to complete than the 7-site method.
There are different sites for males and females, with males to obtain measurements of chest, abdominals, and quads, and females to obtain measures of triceps, suprailiac (hip) and thigh.
The 3-site method
Measurement should be done half-way between the nipple and armpit crease. The pinch should be diagonal, pointing from the armpit crease to the nipple, rather than being vertical or horizontal.
Pinch about 2cm to the right of the navel, to create a vertical fold in the skin.
Measure out half way between the top of the kneecap (proximal patella) and the fold in the hip when the right leg is raised (inguinal crease). Pinch to create a vertical fold in the skin.
Measure mid-way between the bony part at the top of the shoulder (acromion process), and the point of the elbow (olecranon process). Create a vertical pinch.
Take a vertical line directly down from the front of the armpit, until you get to the top of the hipbone (Iliac crest). From here, move up 2cm, and take a pinch that runs at a 45 degree angle pointing down across the front of the body.
As above, measure out half way between the top of the kneecap (proximal patella) and the fold in the hip when the right leg is raised (inguinal crease). Pinch to create a vertical fold in the skin.
The 7-site method
The advantage of the 7-site method is that the additional measurement sites give a better picture of all round body fat percentage, however it is obviously more time-consuming than the 3-site method. Also, it relies on you obtaining measures in the exact same place each time, so there is greater variability.
The first 5 sites are measured as above, and both males and females should obtain measurements in the same place.
✓ Chest, Abdominals, Thigh, Triceps, Suprailiac +
Ask subject to raise their right arm, and find the bottom of the sternum (breastbone), then move horizontally until you are directly below the armpit. Take a vertical fold and measure.
Ask subject to move their arms behind their back, which allows you to identify the inferior angle of the scapula (bottom of the shoulder blade). Move arms back into a rested position by their side, and take a measurement 2cm below the inferior angle, with a skinfold running diagonally up towards their head.
Once you’ve obtained these measurements and written them down, many calipers will come with information which converts the sum of these body at measurements into an overall body fat percentage based on gender and age.
How accurate are skinfold measurements?
There is a lot of debate over the best method to measure body fat percentage. Skinfold measurements can differ if the site measured changes slightly, or the person taking the measurements changes. For this reason, consistency in collecting measurements is the most important part. Using calipers may say your body fat is 16%, however a DEXA scan could say a 12% body fat.
✓ The important thing is that if the next time you use calipers, you measure in exactly the same places, and your body fat score comes out at 14%, then you know you’ve reduced your body fat.
So rather than get hung up on the absolute numbers, it is worth focusing on changes seen each time you measure!
What is a good score?
There is no such things as a ‘good’ score, with different activities suiting different body fat percentages. Females typically will have higher body fat percentages than males, which is due to hormonal differences.
✓ Generally bodybuilders stepping onto stage will have a body fat percentage around 4-7% for males and 10-12% for females, however figures this low are not sustainable year-round.
✓ A lean physique would be 8-12% for males, and 12-18% for females. Healthy levels would go up to about 25% for males and 30% for females, however if body fat is above these values, it is definitely worth considering trying to reduce this.
Alternative methods to assess body fat percentage
There are many other ways of assessing body fat percentage, including bio-electrical impedance, which sends electrical signals through your body and can differentiate between muscle and fat tissue.
Other methods include underwater weighing and DEXA scans, and all have advantages and disadvantages, whether it be accuracy or cost.
✓ The key is to be consistent in your methods, and track whether the values are increasing or decreasing rather than worrying about absolute values.
Take home message
Body fat measurements can help you track changes in body composition with greater detail than using weight measurements alone.
Body fat calipers are a relatively inexpensive way to find out your body fat percentage.
You can use the 3-site or 7-site method, depending on personal preference.
The key is in consistency, so be prepared to identify sites with a tape measure to get the most repeatable measures of body fat percentage each time you measure.