When it comes to losing (or gaining) weight, measuring body fat percentage is an awesome tool. But I don’t think it is utilised as much as it should be.
When following a fitness program, where the goal is to lose fat or to be build muscle, everyone seems to be obsessed with their body weight. They want to know what the scales says! But the problem with this is sometimes your body can be making positive changes, but your body weight will stay the same. Or you might be trying to lose fat, but your weight may even INCREASE! Occasionally you can be losing body fat but gaining muscle at the same time (this is often termed a “Body Recomposition”). If so, your body weight measurements won’t demonstrate that any changes have happened! This is why it is really useful to also take an estimated body fat reading. You will be shocked by some peoples’ drastic transformation photos, but you will never believe that often their scales weight stays the same!
Emphasis on scales weight
Why so many commercial diet programs emphasise scales weight only is a mystery. Or even worse, are the diets that focus on BMI (body mass index) too. Take someone who is carrying a lot of muscle mass, or even just a thicker set person who is simply inclined to carry a larger amount of body weight. They could be exceedingly healthy, but their BMI could incorrectly class them as “overweight” or even “obese”!
It could be that so many neglect estimating body fat out of laziness. They perceive it to be too much effort to calculate their body fat, so think that just going by body weight is an easier option. They would be wrong, because estimating body fat really doesn’t have to be that difficult at all. I am going to show you how it can take just a few minutes to get an estimate. Plus, you can do it at home by yourself!
Take the scenario that someone is eating in a “calorie surplus” while following a bodybuilding hypertrophy focussed weight training program to gain muscle mass. If they are eating in a “calorie surplus”, they are eating more calories than their body is burning, so they will inevitably gain “weight”. It would be useful for them to know how much of that gained “body weight” is muscle compared to body fat. When trying to gain muscle, it is almost unavoidable to gain some fat at the same time. However, by checking their body fat estimate each week or two, they will know if they are gaining “too much” body fat too quickly. If so, then they know to cut back on the food intake for a little while.
Alternatively, imagine if someone is trying to lose weight by eating in a “calorie deficit”, so they will have cut down their usual food intake. If they find that their body fat estimate is remaining the same, despite their scales weight decreasing, this is a bad sign. This indicates that the weight they are losing is muscle mass rather than body fat! No one wants to be “skinny fat” or be “smaller” but “flabby”. They could then take action by either increasing their protein intake, or possibly tweaking their program to incorporate more resistance training. This will then help them maintain or even gain muscle.
Or as previously mentioned, if someone was trying to lose weight, but found their body weight to be unchanged, a body fat estimate may show that they have actually lost body fat. Their body weight remaining the same would indicate that some of that body fat was replaced by added muscle mass!
Note: a helpful app for tracking your weight fluctuations is https://happyscale.com/
NOTE: I am aware that there are scales available that also give you a body fat percentage reading. Use the scales to take your weight, but don’t waste your time with the body fat reading it gives you! I have never seen any of these scales to date that give an even remotely accurate body fat reading. This is why I want you to use calipers!
How to do it yourself at home!
The method I am going to show you, is how to use Skinfold Calipers to take a single site reading by yourself. This reading will not be 100% accurate by any means. But it doesn’t have to be. It is simply to give you a rough idea that you can check again every week or so to monitor for changes. See the video below!
NOTE: let me stress again that this method WILL NOT be particularly accurate, but it doesn’t have to be! This is just to give yourself a benchmark to compare to each week or so to track your progress! My bodyfat percentage came out at 4.5% here, which I know is certainly INCORRECT. I’ve genuinely been at 5% bodyfat before, and I was a lot leaner then than I am here in this video!
What you will need
You will need a set of skinfold measuring calipers. I recommend you use these ones (please note this is an affiliate link)
How to do it
You are to take a reading of the suprailliac, which is approximately one inch above the right hip bone. Holding the callipers vertically with your right hand, use your left hand’s thumb and forefinger to firmly pinch the skinfold. Keeping hold of this skinfold with the left hand, use the right hand to squeeze the calipers over the pinch until the calipers “click”. More details of how to do this, as well as a measurement chart to interpret the reading, can be found here:
“Healthy” body fat ranges
It is claimed that the “healthiest” body fat range for men is roughly 11% – 22% percent. It is 20% – 33% percent for women. However, it seems that there is nothing inherently “unhealthy” about being beyond these recommendations. Say that a man was estimated to be at 22% body fat, but they exercised frequently and ate fairly well. In my opinion, they would still probably be “healthy”.
Body fat range for a “six pack”
In order to have visible six pack abs, men need to be at about the 10% body fat range. For women to have six pack, the range is about 17% body fat.
As previously mentioned, the method I have shown you of estimating body fat percentage yourself is certainly not particularly accurate. But remember, it doesn’t have to be! This reading is simply something we can use as a benchmark to compare against week after week to assess progress.
There are other more high-tech methods to estimate body fat, and these include DXA scan and using the Bod-Pod. However, these are only really available at elite institutions and are used primarily for university research. They are rarely available to the public, and if so they are expensive to access!
Alternatively, there are also online body fat calculators available that estimate your body fat percentage based on measurements of the waist, hips, forearm and wrist. But these calculators are probably even less accurate than taking a single site reading yourself with the calipers!
If you wanted to, for a more accurate estimate, you could always get a fitness trainer to take a 7 site or 9 site skinfold caliper reading.
Realistic rates of fat loss
Tracking your progress weekly is a good habit, but please keep in mind that you can’t expect to see changes every single week.Alan Aragon, absolute don in the fitness industry, mentions that from his experience these are realistic rates an intermediate exercising person can decrease their body fat percentage:
Obese (>25%) 3-4% month
Overweight (20 – 25%) 2-3% month
Average (13 – 19%) 1-2% month
Lean (<13%) < 1%) month
Body fat percentages of college athletes
Just for your information, a 1983 study of body fat percentages of college students came up with the results below. The same study today would probably find higher levels of body fat for the average male student and lower levels for some of the athletes.
Average college male 15% body fat
Canoe and kayak 13% body fat
Swimming 13% body fat
Weight-class athletes (boxing and wrestling) 6.9% – 7.9% body fat
Sprinting (100 and 200m) 6.5% body fat
Marathon 6.4% body fat
Note that bodybuilders diet down to body fat in the range of about 5% for contests. However, they can only stay at this low level for a few weeks at a time. Also keep in mind that many will be on performance enhancing drugs to help them do so too!
These are the calipers I use here (affiliate link):
Ursula Kyle et al, “Body composition interpretation: contributions of the fat-free-mass index and the body-fat mass index”, Nutrition (2003), 19(7-8): 597-604; R. Paul Abernathy and David Black, “Healthy body weights: an alternative perspective”, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1996), 63(S3): 448S-451S.
Steven Fleck, “Body composition of elite American athletes”, American Journal of Sports Medicine (1983), 11(6): 398-403; Lindy Rossow et al, “Body composition changes in elite male bodybuilders during preparation for competition”, Australian Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport (1997), 29(1): 11-16.
Lan Ho-Pham et al, “More on body fat cutoff and points”, Mayo Clinic Prodceedings (2001), 86(6): 584.
Lou Schuler and Alan Aragon, “The Lean Muscle Diet: a customized workout plan – eat the food your love to build the body you want and keep it for life”, Men’s Health, Rodale Inc. (2014).