Why Your Body Fat % Isn’t as Important As You Think… (part 1)
What’s your current body fat %?
What body fat % do you need to have to see abs?
What body fat % are you on stage?
How much body fat % do I need to lose?
I’ve seen X person on Instagram saying they sit at sub 10% body fat all year round, how can I get to that level?
These are just a few of the MANY questions I’ve had over the years when it’s come to body fat %, so I thought it was about time I put together a blog post that would provide a full breakdown on my thoughts and opinions on the body fat bonanza and whether monitoring and using your body fat % is a good a tool for tracking fat loss and body composition.
I want this article to be the hub and the first place I and my fellow coaches can now send people whenever asked about body fat %. My intention here is to provide a comprehensive view of both my own personal experiences, the differing measuring tools we have available and why and if measuring body fat will come in handy when embarking on your own transformation journey, from both a coaching and client perspective.
What can we use body fat % for?
Body fat % readings can be used to track body composition changes by measuring fat mass and fat free mass, which will allow you to work out Lean Body Mass LBM (all non-fat tissue on the body). This can then inform part of the equation to work out your calorie intake, dependent upon the method you use. Yet in my personal experience and opinion, this isn’t something I use or particularly focus on due to the differing fluctuations and accuracy of readings.
Okay, so how can I work out my body fat % more effectively?
Before we get into my personal experiences and some key considerations that need to be made when looking at using body fat % as a tool for tracking and monitoring body composition, we firstly need to understand:
⦁ What are we measuring?
⦁ What different measuring tools do we have available and what are the pros and cons of each?
⦁ What am I using these readings for and in what context?
⦁ Do you actaully need to know your body fat %?
It’s important to note that some of the methods highlighted below are more accurate than others, none of them are perfect and are all based upon assumptions, imperfect estimations, and data calculations, which are all also subject to manipulation (which I will come onto later).
Practicality and accessibility to resources will also play a HUGE role in the measuring tools you may use as unless you have access to a sport science lab which will be out of the equation for most.
Callipers along with BIA (the scales you stand on at the gym) will probably be the two measuring tools that you’ll most likely have access to and use of.
Skin callipers are used on the most simplistic level to measure the folds of the skin (your subcutaneous adipose tissue.)
Body fat site readings can vary from 3 points through to 8-point sites across the body and in some cases, I’ve even seen some 18+ calliper site readings given. In my personal experience and having studied body comp tracking through ISAK (International Society of Kinanthropometry), working off an 8-point calliper reading provides more than enough data. However it’s going to be individual dependent and based upon the practitioner and often doing something as simple as a 3-point reading can be pretty simple and provide some additional data if needed.
(A set of Harpenden Skin Fold Callipers)
Key considerations for using skin fold callipers
⦁ Skin callipers can be quite invasive and can make some feel uncomfortable, so the clients I use callipers for are entirely dependent upon their circumstances and where they are in their journey.
⦁ The person measuring and taking the calliper readings will make a HUGE difference to the numbers and % results you’ll get. Anybody can purchase a set of callipers online and get to work on pinching your skin but there is a skill and a set method that will increase the accuracy of readings and areas of sites taken.
⦁ The pinch size somebody takes. This will vary from person to person which is why it’s important you have the same person taking your readings if you are going to be frequently measured, but even with that there will still always be standard human error that’ll need to be taken into account.
⦁ The type of callipers used, and calibration of the callipers will alter the readings given.
⦁ Hydration status, food intake and the time of day. For example, taking readings hydrated after training, in comparison to taking a reading first thing in the morning fasted and dehydrated will alter the readings and accuracy.
⦁ Skinfold callipers can and will be consistently inconsistent. Let’s say for example your body fat % reading comes out at 12% but you are actually 10%, if this reading the next time you go in goes down by 3% we can assume and be pretty confident that the relative drop in body fat was accurate. Focus on the overall trend over the course of several weeks that’s most important.
⦁ Again, with my clients when/if measuring body fat %, I actually focus more on the readings across each body part site rather than the total %. For example, the reading on a triceps may come out at 7.7mm and in week 4 it may drop to 6.1mm, I’ll compare and contrast these drops and readings rather than look at total body fat %.
Skin callipers can be a good TOOL that can be used to track, monitor and provide additional information in the right circumstances.
This is either a handheld device and now more regularly seen at gyms that you can stand on and hold onto the handles that sends imperceptible electric current through your body to measure body through the resistance of the tissues to the electrical current.
Again, fluctuations in hydration size, time of day and food intake will alter these readings and much like the calliper readings context is KING here.
A DXA scan uses low energy X-Rays to determine body fat. Whilst the DEXA measures fat mass and fat free mass the other main benefit of a DXA is the ability to measure bone mineral density.
Again, hydration and the time of the day can alter the readings of a DEXA scan which is why it’s important that if you are to use these measures as readings they are controlled and done under the same conditions each time.
Additional forms of measuring body fat readings can come through:
⦁ Underwater weighing (Since muscle is denser than fat (muscle sinks, fat floats) they can use this to approximate the percentage of body fat.
⦁ Bod Pod is an air displacement plethysmograph which uses whole body densitometry to determine your body fat.
Both of which in all honesty having not used I know little about and with the limitations in access to these resources I won’t elaborate anymore.
In my opinion, there is no GOLD STANDARD for body fat testing. I once thought it was the DEXA scan but upon using this a tracking tool for a competition prep a few years ago my opinion has now changed slightly. The most important thing when it comes to body fat testing is you are consistent with the method that you choose and the conditions in which you do them in as mentioned above.
Regardless of the method you use, you need to take into consideration all of the differing variables that may alter your readings as highlighted above and also the relevance of undertaking these readings as for the majority of people they in my honest opinion needn’t worry. Unless clients specifically want their callipers taken as a tool for progress OR I’m working with comp prep/photoshoot clients I will base feedback and progression based upon all of the measures in the final section highlighted below.
People often get too caught up in numbers, when in fact body fat percentage means very little, it’s how you look and feel. Another HUGE consideration to make is person A with 10% body fat and person B with 10% body fat may look COMPLETELY different due to anatomical make up, body fat distribution and muscle mass. Which is why if you stand on a beach on holiday or stand in a pair of pants on a bodybuilding stage, nobody judges you based off your body fat %, but how you look and carry yourself.
Stay tuned for part two of this blog post where I will talk more about my personal experiences and opinions on the most effective methods of monitoring and measuring body fat percentages.
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