By now, I hope that most people reading my blog will know that bodyweight is not a good measure of success. When you gain muscle, you will most likely gain weight along with it – a concept that doesn’t fly well with many females in particular. Simultaneously, when you lose weight it is difficult to know whether you have lost fat, muscle or both.
One often suggested solution to this problem of understanding body composition is the use of body fat measurements. By taking a measurement of body fat, you can ascertain how much lean muscle mass you hold relative to fat. For example, if a 65 kilogram female has a body fat measurement of 20 per cent, she is essentially made up of 52 kilos of muscle mass and 13 kilos of fat. If her weight increases to 67 kilograms but her body fat measurement has reduced to 16 per cent one year later, she has simultaneously gained muscle and lost fat with 56.3 kilos of muscle mass and 10.7 kilos of fat.
While measuring body fat as a true indicator of progress is a great idea in theory, it is a flawed concept. There are a number of ways to measure body fat. The most accurate, but also most unpleasant, involves being submerged in a specialised tank of water for hydrostatic weighing. A person with a larger percentage of lean muscle mass will weigh more under water, and have a lower percentage of body fat. The test can be uncomfortable and is also expensive.
Another highly accurate procedure involves using a DEXA scan, which divides the body into total body mineral, lean mass and fat tissue mass. The advantage of this method is that you can see how fat is actually distributed around your body. This test is usually more expensive than hydrostatic weighing.
A cheaper option is using bioelectric impedance analysis, which measures the resistance of electrical flow through the body. A person with a greater proportion of fat will impede more of the electrical flow. Such devices are usually built into scales, but can be quite unreliable due to the effect of hydration levels.
The most common measurement is taken with calipers. As part of my personal training certification, we learnt how to perform a four-site skin fold caliper test to measure body fat. A measure of fat is taken at the bicep, tricep, shoulder blade and pelvis. I don’t know about you, but three of those areas are my leanest body parts. In fact, when we practiced the measurements, my partner could not even take a measure at my biceps or triceps – leaving me with an arm fat measurement of 0 per cent. However flattering that may be, we all know that is impossible!
Overall, using the four-site skin fold test, my body fat was measured as 7 per cent. My partner, who was significantly leaner than me, came back with a measurement of 18 per cent. In reality, I eyeball estimate myself to be around 17-18 per cent body fat, and he would have probably been around 13 per cent. But because of the inaccuracy of the test, on paper I appeared to be stage-ready!
Of course, there are seven- and even 12-site skin fold tests, which are far superior to using only four points. Nevertheless, unless you are shelling out to do the most accurate measurement of body fat, you cannot assume the numbers are accurate. However, provided you have the exact same person measuring you each time and measuring the exact same spots, you can use less advanced measurements such as a caliper test to gauge whether you are improving or not.
In my opinion, the absolute best measure of progress is just looking at yourself in the mirror. But, because you see yourself every day, any changes are likely to go unnoticed. Take progress pictures every month or two, and it also helps to take measurements of your biceps, thighs, hips, waist and chest. If you’re completely fixated on body fat measurements, I would honestly judge it by the level of muscle definition you see. Females can see their abs at around 15 per cent, while in men it’s around 10 per cent.
Keep an item of clothing in your closet – preferably one that you don’t wear very often, to avoid factoring in changes related to general wear and tear – and monitor how it fits you. Notice how you feel about yourself on the inside, instead of stressing over a probably incorrect body fat measurement or misleading number on the scale.
How do you monitor your progress?