Because you need to know where you’re starting if you want to have an idea of how go get to your destination.
That’s a really lame way of introducing this post, and I apologize for it. However, I have so much cool information that you’ll forgive my lack of cleverness.
It’s a bit of an interesting dilemma – fitness pros and diet books and all sorts of health websites try to give you dietary advice and insight on your calorie intake, all of which is based on a number of variables and metrics. In my recent post on calorie formulas, I did the same.
One of these, of course, is your body composition; that is, how much of your total body weight is composed of Lean Body Mass (LBM), otherwise known as as Fat Free Mass (FFM), and how much is Fat Mass (FM).
Your LBM isn’t just muscle, by the way—that number is made up of muscle, bone, and all other non-fatty tissue. Your Fat Mass is all of the fat on your body, which includes both subcutaneous fat (the “visible” fat that lies underneath the skin) and visceral fat, which is fat between your organs.
As you no doubt know, in almost all cases, your body composition is given in a percent; for example, if you weight 200 pounds and have 20 pounds of fat on your body, your BF% is 10%.
Once you know your body fat percentage, you can use a Calorie formula to help determine how much to eat.
However, getting from the measurement to the diet isn’t as easy as we’d like it to be, because unfortunately, the measurement of body composition is not really an exact science.
Confusion about body composition measurements is one of the most common problems seen by beginner and intermediate trainees. In this series of posts, I’m going to detail the problems inherent in measuring body fat, as well as go over the most common methods, and how to use them effectively.
Today, I want to discuss the main problems with the idea of measuring in general, starting with the most obvious one: not actually measuring.
Firstly, far too many people are trying to gauge body fat without actually measuring it. They look at a few photos online showing people in various body fat ranges, and then look in the mirror to try and “eyeball it.” Which would be fine, if they actually knew what they were talking about–but, of course, they don’t. And so for most people, the problem with eyeballing it is that it’s completely useless.
Unless you have a lot of experience with these things, either with your own body or with your clients, you’re going to get it wrong. If you’ve never been 6% body fat, you don’t know what it looks like; you also don’t know what it feels like. The more times you get ot 6%, the easier it is to recognize.
So, if you’re an advanced bodybuilder or model and have dieted down to a specific percentage ten times or more, you can eyeball it. After nearly a dozen times, I feel that someone knows the look and FEEL of 6% and isn’t at such a disadvantage.
Are you a competitor who has dieted to competition shape nearly a dozen times? You’re not!? Well, I am shocked. And you, my friend, are completely out of your depth.
For “regular” people, the main issue is that most of the time you’re just looking at your abs. If you can see them well, automatically people think they’re below 10%–which is usually true. But not always.
You see, guesstimating isn’t great because it fails to take regional distribution into account. If you’ve read any of my work on hormones and fat storage, you’re aware that your hormonal environment can heavily influence where you store fat. If you don’t take this into account, using the mirror and the relative visibility of your abs as the sole arbiter of leanness is a grave misstep.
Meaning that some people (like me) can have very visibile abs, but store fat elsewhere. In my case, it’s my love handles and lower back. For most women, it’s their hips and thighs. And so, if you’re assuming you’re 10% body fat because you see your abs, it’s possible that you’re underestimating because of regional fat storage. If you use that 10% as a jumping off point for calculating calories, you might wind up overeating by a potentially significant amount, preventing you from getting leaner.
Obviously, you need to actually measure to be sure. However, that actually doesn’t help much, because there are so many different ways to measure…which leads us to the second problem.
This is one of those things that seems like it would be a good idea; after all, you’re getting a lot of data and it could give you a more comprehensive view of your body composition, right? Wrong.
First you hop in the BodPod, then you decide to get your skinfolds pinched, and the on top of that you grab on to your handheld bio-impedance device. What’s the end result? A lot of measurement variability and frustration, that’s what. No bueno.
So before I go any further, if you take just one lesson home from this post, let it be this: Pick one method and stick with it for the duration of your training career—or AT LEAST for the duration of your diet and training program.
Now, during the second and third post in this series, I’m going to cover all of the most popular methods for measuring body fat. But, you should know that the only method that is 100% accurate is to cut you open and dissect you.
While this level of accuracy would be great for determining your caloric intake, it would ultimately kill you dead, so you couldn’t eat anyway. And once you die, your caloric intake is always Zero, anyway…unless you’re a zombie.
…but that’s a different post altogether.
All of which is to say that while I’m going to explain all of the most popular methods and their pros and cons (as I see them), the important thing is this: regardless of which method you choose, stick with it. It’ll give you the most consistent measurement–and that is the key.
If I had to boil it down to a soundbyte, the simple fact of the matter is that it doesn’t really matter which method you choose, as long as you use that method consistently.
Interestingly, absolute accuracy isn’t as important as you may think for measuring progress. When tracking body fat measurements, absolute accuracy is not nearly as important as convenience, consistency, and relative reliability.
To be clear: accuracy is important when trying to determine Caloric intake. It is NOT important for tracking progress.
Obviously, for the purposes of constructing a diet, we want the best information we can get to come up with our best estimate for Caloric intake; however, as I’ve written before, the unfortunate truth is that Calorie formulas are, at best, a crapshoot.
Calorie formulas allow us a framework for understanding how food is affecting us; from there, we make modifications based on observation–and therefore having an accurate starting point is nice.
However, when it comes to tracking progress, the absolute measurement is by far less important than the differences in your measurements relative to one another.
Ultimately, body composition measurement is merely a tool you use to track your progress in the gym. Assuming your methodology is consistent and reliable, even if your measurements are a bit off from your absolute numbers, you’ll be able to monitor your progress via the changes you see in both your fat mass (FM) and fat free mass (FFM).
This becomes incredibly important for anyone who desires to drop fat and/or to pack on muscle. You better know the composition of the weight that you’re dropping or adding; if you’re losing LBM, you probably aren’t eating enough and need to make some changes. The starting point for all of that is knowing your body fat.
All of which means something like this: if your body fat scale reads you at 12% and you’re really 14%, that doesn’t freakin’ matter. Ultimately, it’s just a tool to gauge progress. As long as you use that same scale and you see that reading going down, you’re making progress.
So, whether your goal is to lose fat, gain muscle or both, you’re going to have to track those changes. Don’t be bogged down in what you’ve heard about the accuracy of various body composition measurement tools. Simply find a method that allows you to check your body composition frequently, reliably and conveniently.
As an aside, I always take my measurements on Wednesdays. Why? Because Wednesdays are otherwise boring and this gives me something to loook forward to.
As I mentioned above, the remainder of the posts in this series will cover the most popular methods of testing, as well as the method that I use for my clients.
In order to make this series as useful to you as possible, I am going to cover the most popular methods that MY READERS use. So, please drop a comment and let me know which method YOU prefer for testing body fat.
So if you want to see your method covered—both its pros and cons—you NEED to comment and let me know what you’re using!