Gareth Sapstead | UK Personal Trainer
Most of us are concerned with achieving a leaner, more defined physique; a look that combines some muscularity or shape, and a low level of body fat. For men at 12% body fat some definition should be seen, with the line down the middle of the abdominal area (referred to as the Linea Alba) clearly visible.
At 10% a ‘six-pack’ should start to be seen, and less than 8% we’re talking about cover model lean. For women 20-22% body fat could be considered ‘in-shape’, while 15-17% would give a slightly more defined look. Below 10-12% body fat for women would give a more ‘ripped’ athletic look.
Whatever your body goals are, knowing your current levels of body fat are a great way to know how far you are from your targets. By accurately measuring and keeping track of your body fat, you can find out not only your percentage of body fat, but the amount of both fat mass and lean mass you have.
Tracking changes in lean mass is of particular use as changes in this number can represent gains or losses in muscle mass. On the other end of the spectrum; when trying to diet down and drop body fat, you can ensure you’re losing fat only, and not losing precious muscle tissue as so often is the case.
The Best Ways To Measure Body Fat
There are a number of scientific, and mostly laboratory-based methods for assessing body composition, including Hydrostatic Weighing, DEXA and Bod Pod, to name a few, however – we’re more concerned with practical and ‘accessible’ forms of body composition assessment.
For these we’re talking about what could be available to YOU and what you need to know about their limitations before running out to go and get your body composition assessed.
#1 Bathroom/Gym scales
Most of us have been on a set of these scales and wondered if the body fat reading we’re getting is actually accurate. These work through something referred to as bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA).
BIA is one of the easiest and simplest ways to analyse body composition and works through sending a very low-level electrical signal through your body.
BIA can come in the form of stand-on scales, a hand-held device, or a combination of the two where you stand on a set of scales and hold on to something at the same time.
By measuring the rate at which the electrical signal travels through various body tissues (fat, muscle) the device can estimate body fat percentage, as well as a number of other measurements. The downfall to BIA is that it can easily be affected by a persons’ level of hydration, food intake and even skin temperature. Quite often these devices over-estimate body fat percentage when compared to other methods, by up to a few percent.
Research indicates that BIA may be adequate for tracking differences in groups, but not necessarily for individuals. In short, the reading you’re seeing on these devices could be a useful (albeit rough) reading to use when monitoring your body composition, but you should try to perform the readings at the same times of day under the same conditions in order to minimise the inaccuracy. Or even consider another method.
#2 Body Fat Calipers
With the help of a Fitness Professional or friend
As far as useful and practical ways to get your body composition assessed goes; this method will produce the most accurate readings.
It’s not within the scope of this article to go over exact testing procedures, but in short, the tester measures the thickness of your subcutaneous body fat by carefully pinching certain areas of skin on the body.
The specific sites vary depending on the method and procedures used, but usually, 3 to 7 skinfold sites are chosen. The readings from these sites are put in to an equation, which can also be found on many useful phone apps or online, and used to calculate body fat percentage, lean mass and fat mass.
#3 Girth measurements
Another practical and accessible way to measure body composition is through the use of girth measurements, as well as taking before and after photos.
Although these aren’t exactly ways to calculate and estimate body fat percentage, they can be a great way to track progress.
Take a ‘before’ photo (from a front and sideways angle), and store it on your phone, or email it to yourself for personal use. 6-10 weeks down the line you can then repeat the process (same place, same lighting, same angles) and see if you can notice any changes, and areas which may have improved or you may want to work harder on.
Girth measurements work in the same way. Measuring specific areas over your body, or areas that you may not be happy with, meaning you can monitor progress and make changes to your programme where needed.
✓ Overall, it’s up to you how you choose to measure your body fat and composition, depending on your access to certain equipment, professional help and advice, and personal preference, providing you’re aware of the limitations of each method.
✓ As far as obtaining a fat percentage reading goes, from personal experience I have seen methods vary by up to 5-10%. Accuracy is, of course, important in these things, but consistency is even more so.
Take Home Message
When setting goals for body composition, or during any body transformation programme, the following parameters should be considered. In order of importance:
✓ How you feel in your own skin, in your clothes and the reflection in your mirror (since this is the most important thing, right?!)
✓ Before/after photos, girth measurements, and body fat percentage.
✓ Your body weight.
Establishing appropriate body targets for yourself is one of the most important aspects of programming, and should be the first thing established before throwing yourself into any new programme.
A lack of realistic expectations in terms of progress is one of the primary reasons why people quit programmes, nutritional plans, and even exercise altogether.
Set the right body composition expectations for yourself, according to the list above in order of importance, and you’ll have a much greater chance of succeeding at your goals both short- and long-term. Remember; progress, as well as the maintenance of progress, are the keys to long-term success!