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On Bodyfat Measurements: Skinfold Testing

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In the two most recent blog posts, we’ve covered various aspects of body fat testing.

From the importance of accuracy vs. consistency for measuring progress to a number of methods for measurement.

The methods we’ve covered really run the gamut in terms of convenience and reliability.  There are those are  uber-convenient but slightly unpredictable, like bioelectrical impedance.

On the other hand, there are those that are theoretically reliable but somewhat impractical, like hydrostatic weighing.

All have ups and downs.  That said, I’ve saved the best for last.

Or at least, the best as I see it.

 

Old Faithful

Although it’s recently fallen out of favor as being somewhat “unreliable,” I have to be honest and admit that my favorite method for measuring body fat is still old-fashioned pinchy-pinching with body fat calipers. It’s cheap, and assuming you have a competing pincher, it’s both practical and has a high level of relative reliability.

More importantly, it gives you some insight as to where fat is being lost from, as opposed to simply how much fat you’ve lost; and when you deal with programming which helps to address regional fat storage (as with Final Phase Fat Loss), that knowledge can make a huge difference.

Training aside, for those of us who also use supplementation to address regional fat storage, this knowledge is important for helping to adjust those protocols.

In any event, before we go too much further, let me just give you a brief rundown of  how skinfold testing for bodyfat measurement is done.

Skinfold testing is performed with calipers, which are used to pinch a fold of skin, in order to take measurements at various sites of the body. Once those measurements have been taken, there are a few different methods that can be used to determine body fat.

While there are a few formulas, and the two that I prefer to use are the Jackson/Pollock formulas, and the Parillo formula.

Using J/P gives you a number of options based on how many sites you want to measure. Here is a list of a few, along with the sites pinched:

  • Jackson/Pollock 3 Site Method: Chest, Abdominal, Thigh
  • Jackson/Pollock 4 Site Method: Abdominal, Thigh, Tricep, Suprailiac
  • Jackson/Pollock 7 Site Method: Chest, Abdominal, Thigh, Tricep, Subscapular, Suprailliac, Midaxillary

I personally feel the more sites measured, the more accurate the result will be, and so I prefer the Parillo 9-site reading.
(NOTE: Charles Poliquin has a more involved method known as BioSignature which measures 12 sites, and is based almost entirely on hormonally influence fat distribution. Worth checking out.)
In any event, once you take measurements, you need something to do with them.

You could compute the formulas manually, but the Internet is filled with very excellent calculators, so it’s a much better use of your time to just use one of those.

I really like the body fat calculator over at Linear-Software, because it allows you to pick which formula you want; and, assuming you have taken enough measurements, test them against one another.

Here’s a link:

http://www.Linear-Software.com/online.html

Okay, that’s a pretty basic overview of how it’s done, but the specifics of measurement are easy to find.

Of course, it must be mentioned that because this method does rely on a person to take the readings, there is a higher margin for human error than any other method—which tends to the argument a lot of coaches make against using caliper testing. These coaches posit that the majority of people you’ll find to test you (either a friend, or a random trainer in a random gym) aren’t going to be very good at it, and your reading will be in accurate.

This can certainly be the case, but as I addressed in a previous post, consistency and measuring progress is more important than absolute accuracy.

For my part, while I’ll agree that most people aren’t robotically accurate, I find that if you have someone who at least understands the basics of how readings are supposed to be done, if you take enough readings, the margin of error tends to shrink quite a bit, and you can get a damn good idea of where you’re at.

As most people recommend, I always take AT LEAST three separate readings when testing with calipers—and, time allowing, the more readings, the better. The reason for this is that even a very experienced trainer will pinch a bit differently each time.

I’ve been using calipers to test body fat for nearly a decade, and in that time I’ve never seen all three readings come out identically.

Of course, everything is usually fairly close; taking more than one measurement just allows you a more accurate look at what’s going on. Once you have multiple readings, you can take their averages and continue from there.

To give you a break down of exactly how I do it, we’re going to use the example of one of my clients, Stephen.

Steve is actually one of my online coaching clients, but it turns out he lives in NYC; ironically only about 12 blocks from me. He was getting pretty inconsistent readings on his bioelectrical impedance scale, so we decided to meet up and just do it the old fashioned way.

What you’ll see below are charts of Steve’s actual measurements and all relevant stats, which were taken the Saturday of Week 4 and Week 8, respectively.

For Steve (and in fact most clients), I used the Parillo Method, which 9-site caliper reading.

The formula for this method, out of interest is:

S = Sum of all nine folds
Bodyfat[%] = 27 * S / weight[pd]

Here is the first chart.

Site Measurements, Week 4

Body Weight 182lbs

Site

A

B

C

Mean (A+B+C/3)

Lowest

Highest

Chest

12

11

12

11.6

11

12

Abdominal

22

22

22

22

22

22

Thigh

21

22

19

20.6

19

22

Bicep

11

10

10

10.3

10

11

Tricep

19

20

19

19.3

19

20

Subscrap

20

18

22

20

18

22

Suprailiac

23

21

20

21.3

20

23

L Back

29

28

27

28

27

29

Calf

9

9

8

8.6

8

9

             
BF %

24.63

23.88

23.59

23.99

22.85

25.22

Total FM

44.82

43.47

42.93

43.66

41.58

45.90

Total FFM

137.18

138.53

139.07

138.34

140.42

136.10

So, to get back to it, I first take three individual measurements (represented on the chart as A, B and C). As you can see, there is some variance in most of the site readings from measurement to measurement—in fact, the only reading that was unchanged, was the abdominal measurement of 22mm.

The results of each of these tests were: 24.63%, 23.88% and 23.59% – which are close, but not THAT close. Reading A and C differ by a full 1 percent.

If you’re taking multiple readings, the closer they are to one another, the more likely it is that you’re getting an accurate reading.

However, “close” is a relative term, and in terms of body fat measurements, unfortunately, 1% just isn’t that close.

To get a more accurate result, I take the mean average of all three measurements of each individual site that was measured.

In this case, that gives us a reading of 23.99%. And, honestly, we could leave it there (as most trainers do) and feel pretty good about it.

I like to go one step further: I also compute measurements based on lowest reading at each sit, as well as the highest at each site.

In this case, that gave Steve a “best case” reading of 22.85% and a “worst case” of 25.22%–which is a pretty big difference. From there, I average those two numbers together, and we get 22.85%.

Finally, for no other reason than I like doing math and I felt like making the charts even more complicated, I take the high, the low, and the mean average from earlier, and come up with the FINAL measurement of 23.92%…which, HOLY SHIT – is nearly identical to the measurement based on the mean averages of our site readings.

Which really just illustrates my point—absolute accuracy isn’t really possible. None of these readings are EXACTLY right.

However, because we took a number of readings, did some math, and got most of the numbers to agree with each other, it’s a pretty save bet this final number of 23.92% is as close as we’re gonna get.

Other Results of Note

  Means of High and Low Readings Average of High, Low and Mean Readings
BF%

22.85%

23.92%

Total FM

41.59

43.53

Total FFM

140.41

138.47

Taking measurements just once, though, is of no real value, regardless of how accurate you manage to make the reading. The point of any measurement methodology is to measure not only body fat, but more importantly, CHANGES body fat, which give us an understanding of progress.

Stephen and I met again, for weeks later—and boy was there progress.

The differences are represented in this chart:

Site Measurements, Week 8

Body Weight, 175 lbs

Site

A

B

C

Mean

Lowest

Highest

Chest

10

9

9

9.3

9

10

Abdominal

16

17

17

17.3

16

17

Thigh

19

18

18

18.33

18

19

Bicep

9

9

8

8.67

8

9

Tricep

10

9

11

10

9

11

Subscrap

15

15

16

15.3

15

16

Suprailiac

20

18

19

19

19

20

L Back

26

26

25

26.67

26

27

Calf

8

8

9

8.67

8

9

             
BF%

20.52

19.90

20.37

20.55

19.75

21.29

Total FM

35.91

34.83

35.64

35.97

34.56

37.26

Total FFM

139.09 140.17 139.36 139.03 140.44 137.74

And also in this one:

Other Results of Note

  Means of High and Low Readings Avg of High, Low and Mean Readings
BF%

20.55%

20.53

Total FM

35.96

35.93

Total FFM

139.04

139.07

Is getting caliper measurements the most convenient thing in the world? No.

Is it going to read out at 100% accuracy? Nope. But, because of the reasons I’ve touch on so far, as well as those I mentioned in the video, it’s simply my favorite and the one I’ll continue to use with my clients.

Finally, I’m going to show you guys how I take measurements on one of my favorite clients. And so, without further adieu, I present that to you:

Okay, what’s YOUR favorite method of testing body fat?  What was your BEST measurement ever? 

About the Author

John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.

  • john

    Hello roman first of all congrats on your book, looking forward on starting the program. Quick question roman on the the first chart for site measurement week 4 as you mentioned on your web page, how did you com up with the final measurement of 23.92% when taking the high, low and mean Average?? i was comparing the first chart with the 2nd chart bellow for site measurement, week 8 to see if it would help me figure this one out but both charts dont seem to follow each other with the the same calculating principles as you mentioned for the first chart at the beginning of your article. Reason i ask is cause Im a personal trainer myself and use something like this but I find your method a bit more practical and if you could answer my question It would help out or if anybody can explain this to me.

    Thanks roman.

  • Charles McLaughlin

    I use an online formula that uses the neck, waist line, body weight, and height to determine the amount of body fat that I have. It is pretty accurate when I tested it against body weight scales that measure the amount of body fat that I have. I currently have 13% body fat at 178 lbs. I will hit at least 10% before the end of the summer.

  • ChuckS123

    I’m pretty fat, so just measuring around my belly is good enough for now. I’ve seen sites that take that and a few other measures and tell % bodyfat. Maybe when the belly is halfway decent I’ll start looking at the others.

  • Anonymous

    Am I getting your email 3 years late, or is your integrity really that bad? Maybe I’m just behind on marketing, but telling people you put something up today usually implies that you did.

  • DanceAce

    Do you indicate anywhere what our body fat percentage should be for those of us who don’t have a clue.

  • mac

    Got the BF, but what is the FM and FFM

  • John

    The link to Linear Software doesn’t work – looks like the site is either down or doesn’t exist any longer.

    • It’s working for me. Try just googling “linear software body fat”

  • TylerCarter

    Do you have a resource for reference points? I use calipers more to gauge my level of leaness by difference in total mm, or difference in a particular area, but I know the skin at subscap is going to be thicker than at bicep, regardless of my conditioning.

  • Celeste

    I loved you blog :)

    Now that I know how to use the calipers I can now use them :)

    And I loved your video :) :) :)

  • Michael Custer

    Roman, that has to be your mom's house in the video, huh? The dresserhutchwhatever that is in the background is the give away :)

    I used calipers in the past, though I admit, I've barely done any bodyfat tests.

    • Haha yes, that’s Momma Roman’s place. Mr. Brock refused to adapt to city life, so he lives with her now. Shot it when I was visiting her last fall.

  • Tina

    I'm still wating for my calipers that I ordered a while ago. For now, I rely on simple tape measurements. They may not be as accurate but have indicated a loss in body fat from 22% to 17.5% since May.

  • Jeff

    Roman…I take bodyfat via calipers for my clients…it just seems way more professional to me than just 'stand/hold on this while I do nothing but push a button'…and being the grammar nerd I am, it's not ironic that your client lives close to you, it's coincidental…keep up the good work

  • Denis

    Well Roman, I certainly found your info interesting. When I first started looking in programs to lose fat and get a better health I quickly got confused with all the differences that there was. Finally I concluded just about like you said. I decided to take the caliper and always read at the same place, the same way at a regular pace and the difference in reading was m y indication without any formulas to find out if I was indeed losing fat.

  • DUDE. Just downloaded this – awesome awesome awesome.

    THANK YOU. This is great. Much appreciated.

  • Matthew

    For those with iPhones (maybe other smart phones?) Fat Caliper 3.6.1 is a great little app that allows you to choose from several methods, Jackson Pollock & Parillo included.

    After calculating it puts up the percentages and mass pounds and allows you to save client info. Its a great little tool.

  • Angela

    Great in depth info on BF testing. Thanks alot

  • Sky

    Such a good dog. :)

  • Roman, have the same calipers that you used – got 'em from bodybuilding.com and they are real cheap, like 5 bucks I think. My method of choice though is my digital calipers made by “Warrior” – about 20 bucks from a variety of sources. 3 site measurement and automatic calculation after having entered age, weight and gender. I think this method is pretty accruate assuming the pinch is good. My latest measurement was 6.7% which has been consistant for several months which is good for a 63 year old male I think!

  • Marie

    Great information. Thanks for sharing this 3-part blog. I'm still using calipers, but not so many parts 'cause I can't reach my back! You taking a road trip to Canada soon?? lol

  • Debbies21

    Is there a way to take measurements by yourself.

  • Doug

    S = Sum of all nine folds

    Bodyfat[%] = 27 * S / weight[pd]

    Is it always the same formula regardless of the number of points you measure? I measure 7, but had no idea how to calculate the BF% from these numbers.

  • Great article, I think you covered everything there.

  • Thanks for sharing!

  • Lindsey

    Great post! I have a really hard time getting a good pinch on my leg. I feel like no matter what I do I can't get the skin to separate from the muscle, and then when I take a measurement anyway I get a ridiculous high number. Any tips for a more accurate reading??

  • Rachel

    OMG how adorable is Brock. So patient with you. I love him :)

  • Ted

    So…what was Brock's BF?

  • Gerry

    Hey Roman, two questions:-

    How do you get your hair like that?

    What's your view on the DEXA scan as a bodyfat measurement method? I just had mine done and it was very revealing.

  • @Ylwa – well, that's one reason I recommend just punching your measurements into an online calculator–it will give you an accurate read out for the age of the client.

    Yea, age does change the results a bit, for a variety of reasons.

  • Ylwa

    I've been wanting to give caliphers a go for a while, but haven't for several reasons. One of them being that I've heard that the equations for each formula also differs from age. In other words, if I were to measure myself and a client who gets the same results as I do but is 10 years older, we could not use the same equation, or the measurements would be off? Anything you've heard about? True?

    Otherwise, I think I'm going to give this a go.

  • Amazing input! mostly liked how your comparing the results and adjusting the supliments according to the hormonal abnormalities…