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8 Ways to Measure Body Composition
The scale is commonly used to measure progress when it comes to health and fitness. In fact, the vast majority of our clients come to us with the goal of losing a certain number of pounds or getting to their desired bodyweight. The problem, of course, with using weight as a metric, is that it can lead us astray. I’ve seen a 175lb woman rock a bikini because she was toned and muscular. I’ve also seen a 120lb woman who carried all her weight in her midsection and arms and refused to wear a tank top. What does it matter what you weigh if you are lean, confident, and toned? Measuring body composition, or bodyfat percentage, is a better indication of long term health as it takes into consideration the various components that make up your weight, in particular muscle mass, water mass, and fat mass. So what are the different ways to measure body composition?
The most common and least expensive way to estimate body composition is bioelectric impedance. It works by measuring the speed of an electric current going through the body. You can buy a bio-impedance scale at any department store. Although it is fairly convenient, the lower priced bio-impedance scales can be quite inaccurate. Hydration, electrolyte balance, clothing, as well as stomach and bladder contents can change the results. For this reason, I recommend using a professional or commercial impedance scale and conducting all your measurements under the same conditions so that you get consistent readings. At CFW, we use a commercial InBody scanner, which is significantly more accurate than at home versions.
Hydrostatic, or underwater weighing, has historically been the gold standard for measuring body composition. The idea is to measure water displacement based on the Archimedes principle. It can be quite accurate, as long as you are able to completely empty your lungs of air during the procedure. The downfall is lack of convenience. The procedure itself is quite involved, you cannot do this on your own, and it’s generally not a good idea if you are afraid of getting underwater.
The new gold standard is the DEXA scan, or Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry scan. This is essentially an X-Ray machine that was originally used to measure bone density. However, it can measure the body’s fat mass, bone mass and lean body mass, so it is extremely precise. I love this method, as it’s the best way of measuring visceral fat, or fat inside the body around the organs. Even though these methods can be quite accurate, they are generally more expensive and less convenient than other methods, so it might be more appropriate to use occasionally, rather than on a regular basis to measure progress over time.
Taking skinfold measurements a.k.a. “pinchy-pinchy”, is another common way to estimate body fat. Skinfold callipers are used to to measure the thickness of folds of subcutaneous fat and the measures are then use to provide an estimated body fat percentage. The accuracy of this method depends on the skill and experience of the person using the callipers. This can be a great option if you can get measured by the same experienced person regularly. The cost of calliper measurements will depend on the practitioner. Some trainers measure 3 or 4 sites and use a very simple formula, while others measure up to 12 sites and use special software designed to calculate and analyze body composition. I was trained to use callipers by the late great Charles Poliquin. I remember him saying that we were going to suck at measuring until we’d done it at least 1000 times. That was 10 years ago and I’ve hit that mark many times over. What I like about Poliquin’s Biosignature methodology, is that I can analyze WHERE you are storing your excess bodyfat, and make some specific recommendations based on this information.
The 4 methods listed above generally need to be done by a professional, and are difficult to do on your own at home. So what if you are on a budget? What if you want to get a baseline measurement right now, without having to leave the prvacy of your own home? Glad you asked! Here are my top 3 FREE ways to track body composition.
The Tight Pants Test
I stole this one from Robb Wolf. Pick a pair of pants or a dress that is just a bit too tight for your liking. You should be able to fit in the pants if you really work at it and suck in your gut, but generally the “before” photos won’t be pretty, and you might not be able to do up the zipper all the way. You’ll take a photo of yourself from the front, back and side wearing the pants.
Waist to Hip Ratio
Take a tape measure and measure around your waist and hips and calculate your waist to hip ratio. I like to measure the waist at the navel, and the hips at the widest part. This makes the measurements more consistent. A waist-to-hip ratio greater than 1.0 is indicative of a higher than normal risk of developing heart disease. A healthy WHR for women is under .80 and a healthy WHR for men is .90 or less. Make sure that you are making changes to move the needle in the right direction.
This is very similar to the tight pants test, except that you’ll take photos wearing as little clothing as possible, ideally a swimsuit or underwear. Feel free to use ratty old granny panties and nude coloured bra, especially if you don’t plan on letting anyone see the photos. But my recommendation is to set yourself up for success by wearing your best bikini. You know, the one you bought a few years back when you decided to get in shape. The one you want to wear to the lake this summer. Don’t worry if you don’t look great in it today. that’s the whole point – imagine how great you’ll look after a few months of training.
Relative Strength Test
There are some exercises that correlate directly with body composition. How many obese people do you know who can do 10 pull-ups? Maybe you don’t have a pull-up… yet. That’s ok, you can choose any exercise where you are moving your bodyweight. This can be burpees, pushups, chin-ups, body rows or ring rows, etc. Set a time for 1 minute and do as many reps as you can. That’s your baseline number. As you progress in your fat loss journey, you can retest. As you lose bodyfat and gain muscle, you will see this number increase.
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