This sounds like a simple enough question right with a simple yes or no answer required? I will always answer this question with a question…….. WHY? Why do you want to know your body fat percentage? To which I will be met with a kind of surprised look and a confident answer of:
- I want to track my progress
- I want to know what my body fat percentage is to know where I am at
I’m not going to say either of those answers is wrong but I will question why you want to use your body fat percentage as a way to judge or track your success. I will judge this process more harshly if the result of the test has the ability to influence your mood or your self-worth. Further, different levels of body fat look different on every individual and can change when you change composition by gaining or losing muscle. If nothing else, this article will definitely make you question the next time someone claims to have lost 8kg of fat and gained 5kg of muscle using a Bioelectrical Impedance device to measure.
Let’s start with the types of tests that we have access to and rate them:
Calipers can be kind of accurate to very inaccurate. If used correctly and the same way every time to track progress they can provide a decent gauge. The bad news, maybe 0.5% of trainers in the industry will have the experience and time to achieve this. Further, it’s kind of intrusive and not fun. Many personal trainers will “fudge “the figures to ensure you are making “progress”. Of course it’s in their interest so you keep training with them. Overall this method gets the thumbs down regardless of your reason.
This is a relatively cheap method and one offered at a lot of gyms on machines like Inbody Scanners. This method relies on a principal that electricity flows differently through fat and lean body mass and is measured via the resistance of the flow through different parts of the body. This method makes absolute scientific sense in a controlled clinical environment but it fails at a field retail level for individuals. Without getting to heavily into the science, electrical currents will follow the path of least resistance, put simply if you carry high percentages of body fat just below the skin, it will alternatively pass through internal tissue. You can also get drastically different results at different levels of hydration. Overall this method gets a thumbs down review regardless of your reason.
Utilised perfectly, this method of testing is fairly accurate and is a way that you can track progress overtime. Accuracy can be affected by individuals being able to exhale all air completely before submerging as people can hold 3-4 litres of gas in their system at any one time. This is also not a great test to compare different people as everybody has different bone density. Overall, if completed properly, this method is satisfactory for comparison of composition over a period of time in an individual.
I will refer to the Dexa scan as the gold standard for measuring body fat. It is a dual x-ray machine which works well for most but are not as accurate for the morbidly obese. Of all of the methods mentioned, if you must know your body fat percentage, this would be our recommendation.
Now to move on to whether YOU should get a body fat scan and we are going to look at this from a psychological perspective. For this I will ask you to refer to the diagram below. Will it make a difference to your happiness is my question. Does this change how you look or most importantly, how you feel when you look into the mirror? Does it change the way that you value yourself or your achievements? Taking into consideration my review of methods above, is the method you are utilising even accurate?
Remember you work out to feel good and to progress. There are many ways to track progress but the most important gauge by far is how you feel about and value yourself. I hope if nothing else, reading this puts this method into perspective as a tool but certainly not a requirement.