Body fat estimations are a frustrating but necessary aspect of successful physique-change programs.
They are frustrating because the numbers you come up with, regardless of what method you employ, are rarely all that accurate. I’ve known noticeably chubby people to claim a body fat percentage of 10 while those sporting signs of a six-pack lament over a percentage of 20.
What gives? Well, all body fat estimator methods are flawed. The possible exception to this is dissection. So if you really want to get an absolutely accurate body fat percentage, find a qualified doctor to dissect you.
Those of us who don’t want to be dissected are left to seek out a more workable and less final method for measuring body fat even if it won’t give us a number we can bet the farm on.
Understand this, the actual number is really meaningless. Would you rather be the chubby guy with a 10 or the one with the six-pack and a 20?
Ultimately, the best indicator of your true body fat percentage will come when you lift up your shirt.
What we need is a method that will tell us how our training is affecting our body composition. Are we gaining lean muscle mass or are we gaining body fat? We need a convenient and consistent body fat estimator that will tell us every two weeks or so in what direction we are headed. From this information, we can determine if adjustments to our diet or weight training are necessary.
Like with measuring our bodyweight as discussed back on the Tracking Your Bodybuilding Training Program page, there is no reason to get fussy about the accuracy of the individual measurement. Rather, we just need to know if our body fat percentage is increasing or decreasing.
Six Impractical Body Fat Estimation Methods
- Underwater weighing measures body fat by water displacement.
- Body Pod attempts to measure body fat by air pressure changes.
- DEXA or DXA x-rays the body at different energy levels which discern the differences between fat and muscle.
- Ultrasound measures the thickness of fat tissue and can then estimate a body fat percentage.
The above methods are very accurate but, along with other high tech methods, are expensive (can cost $200 and more) and inconvenient (they take time and require appointments).
More simple and common methods…
- Body tape measurement methods use girth measurements plugged into a formula to get a body fat estimate.
- BMI uses height and weight to get a very rough estimate of body fat.
These methods are as quick and simple as it gets. Unfortunately, they have little value to the bodybuilder or fitness enthusiast. Because they do not discern the difference between fat and muscle, they aren’t really providing an accurate picture of what is going on with the body of an active trainer.
The Two Practical Methods…
The two methods that can realistically provide you with a relatively consistent and convenient way of measuring your body fat percentages are bioelectrical impedance and skinfold measurement methods.
Bioelectrical Impedance – Bioelectrical impedance methods are basically special body fat scales or hand-held devices that send a safe electrical signal measuring its return through the body. The signal will travel faster with water and since muscle is 70% water and fat contains little water, the body fat scale is able to make a distinction, plug the information into an algorithm and give you a reasonable body fat percentage estimate.
Bioelectrical impedance is simple and quick. The scales are not outrageously expensive, usually $30 to $200, which makes it a practical method (I wouldn’t recommend the really cheap ones, the ones in the $30 range, they will typically just spit out mind-boggling, useless numbers).
Tanita and Omron make some good ones. I currently use the Omron Body Composition Monitor and have been very pleased with it. It has, by far, been the most consistent one I’ve used. It sends the electrical signals through the hands and the feet simultaneously in an effort to improve accuracy and consistency. In my experience, accuracy is indeed improved.
The consistency of the measurements these scales is always a bit questionable. Changes in water retention, food intake, skin temperatures and minor posture changes among other things can affect the readings given by these devices. These variables can leave you with some perplexing numbers.
While the bioelectrical impedance methods won’t be as reliable as skinfold measurements methods, they are better than not getting a number at all. So if you’re not a very patient person (and learning to get consistent body fat percentages with skinfold measurements will require a little practice and patience), body fat scales can provide serviceable body fat calculations.
For best results, try to keep all factors as close to identical each time you jump on your body fat scales (temp, posture, etc.).
Skinfold Measurement –Skinfold measurement methods will, with practice, give you a consistent and economical method for body fat calculations.
For these you will need a body fat caliper with which to take a skinfold measurement at various places on your body. You then plug those numbers into a formula which will give you an estimate of your body fat percentages.
With some practice, this is the best method for regularly monitoring your body fat percentage. So, if you’re game, you can learn how to take skinfold measurements here and then use the Guide’s online body fat calculator to get your number.
Body Fat Percentages Chart: What The Numbers Are Telling You
Understanding that completely accurate body fat percentages are difficult to come by and you shouldn’t put a lot of stock into whatever number you come up with, below is a general chart to check the status of your physique change program against…
Less than 10%
|When you get to percentages this low you are in great shape. This is where you can start to see abdominal definition (six-pack abs).|
|Below 15% for men and 25% for women and you are in good shape to start a mass gain program if more muscle is what you desire.|
|This is “gray area.” It is average and you can go either way as far as putting your focus on mass gain or cutting. Generally, you are probably best cutting a bit to get below this level before going all-out on a mass gain program.|
More than 20%
|This is higher than average and if you reach these levels, the focus of your program definitely needs to be on cutting the body fat levels down.|
Body fat percentage tells you WHAT you are gaining, but how do you know WHERE you are gaining?
To find out where you are building muscle, you need to track your body tape measurements. The above page will tell you how and where to take girth measurements.
With that information you’ll know which body parts are responding to your training and which may need to be attacked in a different way.