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The Ultimate Guide To Measuring Your Body Fat

measuring your body fat

There are a lot of definitions of what it means to be fit and healthy.

For some, it means having a lot of muscle mass.

Others measure it largely in terms of strength or think cardiovascular endurance is the true sign of fitness.

But for many people, they’ll end up obsessing the most about the amount of body fat they have.

As a trainer, I find that there is a lot of confusion surrounding this particular topic.

In fact, I would say that most people have no clue how much body fat they actually have, much less how to measure it properly.

Does any of this actually matter?

Well, I would say that if it’s important to you, it matters!

And while it is advisable, for health reasons, to be in a certain body fat range (we’ll get to that in a second), some people just want that ripped look – either as a challenge or just cause it looks cool.

This article will go through everything you need to know about accurately measuring your body fat – but first, let’s quickly go over a few things…

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What Is Body Fat?

The most basic way to think of body fat is simply as the amount of your total body that is comprised of fat!

This, as a percentage of everything else that makes up your body, is what is commonly referred to as your body fat percentage.

If you want to get more technical, you can divide body fat into 2 separate categories:

  • Visceral Body Fat – this is the fat the surrounds your organs and helps to protect them.
  • Subcutaneous Body Fat – this is the fat that is beneath your skin, and generally makes up around 80% of body fat.

I should also mention that men and women naturally have very different levels of body fat.

For guys, getting down to 6% body fat is attainable; however, for women this would be extremely unhealthy, and would almost certainly cause hormonal problems.

Ok, now that we’ve established the basics here, let’s get to the next important question: what level of body fat you should be aiming for.

How Much Body Fat Should You Have?

There is no definitive answer to this question, since much of it comes down to personal preference and choice of lifestyle.

That being said, there are specific ranges that you should be in if you want to achieve a certain look, or a certain level of performance – or just to be a healthy guy.

To get a sense of this, take a quick look at the following list that compares these different ranges of body fat for both men and women.

  • Essential: 2-4% for men; 10-12% for women
  • Athlete: 5-13% for men; 13-20% for women
  • Fit: 14-17% for men; 21-24% for women
  • Acceptable: 18-25% for men; 25-31% for women
  • Fat/Obese: Over 25% for men; over 31% for women

From this list, the first thing that really jumps out is that the difference in percentages for men and women is absolutely massive within any given range.

So a female athlete may be completely shredded at 14% body fat, whereas a man holding the same percentage wouldn’t be showing nearly as much visible definition.

And then there is another thing that I want to quickly make clear…

Everyone needs a certain level of body fat to survive, and it becomes unhealthy if you try to go below that level.

Yes, if you had 0% body fat, you would be dead.

And if you’re a guy that is 4% body fat or lower, you are likely to experience a variety of negative side-effects – including hormonal imbalances, insulation issues, and a whole host of other unpleasant problems.

This obviously isn’t going to be an issue for most of you, but you should be cognizant of the fact that lower is not always better.

Now let’s get down to brass tacks and examine how you can expect to actually look at different levels of body fat.

What Do The Different Levels Of Body Fat Look Like?

Basically, if you want to look like Brad Pitt from Fight Club, you are going to need to drop down to about the 7-8% body fat range.

That is probably as ripped as you’ll want to go, and getting there has its challenges in terms of maintaining strength and muscle mass.

On the other hand, if all you want is a little ab definition, then you’ll typically start seeing that when you get below 10% body fat. This is perfectly achievable and sustainable for most guys, so don’t sell yourself short by thinking that you can’t get that lean.

However, if you don’t really care about abs, and simply want to look good without your shirt on, you should just aim to stay under 15-16% or so.

Finally, if you just want to be in the healthy range, but aren’t that concerned about the appearance-related factors, then keep it within the 17-25% range.

Anything above that and you are entering obesity territory, with all of the health issues that come along with it.

Sometimes this can all be hard to picture in your head, so take a look at the following photos to get a better sense of what you can expect to look like at each of these levels.

 

Image courtesy of Built Lean

As I mentioned before, there is no right answer to this, and the most important thing is to work towards a body fat percentage that you’re happy with.

It is also worth noting that body fat has absolutely nothing to do with muscle mass!

You will look very different with low body fat and hardly any muscle then you would with low body fat and lots of muscle mass.

Finally, bear in mind that these are just examples, and you’ll often find 2 guys with approximately the same amount of body fat and muscle still looking very different.

This comes down to other factors such as height, bone density, and water retention, just to name a few.

How To Measure Your Body Fat

It would be nice if there was a really easy way to determine your body fat percentage.

Well, I am sorry to tell you that this isn’t the case!

There are various different ways of measuring your body fat – but all of them have their pros and cons, and in my opinion there isn’t one ideal way that is the best for everyone to use.

That being said, measuring your body fat is still a good thing to consider doing, especially if you are quite focused on getting lean and building muscle.

In fact, I’m a pretty big advocate of tracking your body fat over time, since it will help give you a sense of how much lean muscle you’ve gained at any given weight.

For this reason, if you do decide to start regularly measuring your body fat, I would suggest doing so in the same way that you keep track of your weight.

That is, picking a consistent time to gauge your body fat each week, just like you do when you weigh yourself.

Doing it this way will help you get a fairly accurate sense of where you are and how you’re progressing, rather than just taking your measurements at random intervals.

Now there are 6 main ways that you can measure your body fat. I’ll go through each of them so that you can figure out which one, if any, makes the most sense for you.

The Visual Method

measuring body fat mirror

I know, how unscientific, right?

Still, using your eyes to measure your body fat isn’t a terrible method at all – you just have to know what to look for.

As I mentioned above, different people can look fairly different at the same levels of body fat, depending on other factors.

So how should you get a good visual estimate of your body fat percentage?

The best way I’ve found is to find photos of what different people look like at differing levels of body fat (much like that picture I included above).

You can find these easily online, by Googling “10% body fat man” or “22% body fat woman” etc.

Obviously you’ll need to use some discretion here, but after you familiarize yourself with different levels of body fat, it shouldn’t be too difficult to get a reasonably accurate sense of yours just by looking in the mirror.

The operative word here, of course, is reasonably. This approach isn’t going to give you the most accurate sense of your body fat, compared to other methods, but it’s simple and good enough for most.

Body Fat Scale

measuring body fat scale

Next up, we have body fat scales.

These are essentially just like your regular scales, except that they use electrical impedance to try to estimate your body fat too.

Unfortunately, these are known to be extremely inaccurate, and aren’t very useful for anything more than a relative gauge of your body fat (if it has increased or decreased from the last measurement).

However, on an absolute basis, the reading you get can be quite different to what your actual body fat percentage is – considering that electrical impedance is impacted by all sorts of other things, like bone density and water retention.

On the positive side, this is an easy and affordable option for people that just want to get some sense of their body fat, or want to gauge relative changes (although even there it isn’t going to be very accurate).

Overall, I would generally recommend against using this method.

Calipers

measuring body fat calipers

This is one of the most popular options for people looking to regularly measure their body fat.

They are really cheap (about $5), and give a pretty accurate sense of your body fat (within a few percentage points).

The main downside is that they take some skill to use properly. You’ll need to read up on how to take your body fat with calipers, and then practice a bit, before you are able to take your readings accurately.

Still, this is a great, affordable option, so if you think this makes sense for you I would recommend going to this website for specific instructions on how to use calipers properly.

And if you do decide that you’d like to order them, I would recommend picking up the Accu-Measure Fitness 3000 from Amazon here.

The Bod Pod

measuring body fat bod pod

I know, Bod Pod sounds a little strange, right?

Well, Bod Pods are basically these human-sized compartments that you sit in for a few minutes to get an accurate reading of your body fat.

There are Bod Pod locations all over the country, and it only takes about 10 minutes for a full reading, so it is fairly time efficient.

In terms of cost, these things are on the expensive side – coming in at around $75 per session!

So they’ve got accuracy and speed going for them, but certainly not cost or convenience.

If you want to try one of these, you can find the closest location to you here.

Hydrostatic Displacement

measuring body fat hydrostatic displacement

Sounds pretty fancy, huh?

This has been a preferred method for years, and uses water displacement to get a very accurate sense of your body fat.

You essentially just sit in this large tank of water, and the amount of water that your body displaces will help determine your body fat percentage.

For those of you that are interested, this method is based on the Archimedes Principle, which states that the buoyant force on a submerged object is equal to the weight of the fluid that is displaced by the object.

It can be used to accurately determine body fat, since the density of lean tissue – such as muscle and bone – is more dense than water, whereas the density of fat is less dense than water.

In a nutshell, this means that fat floats and muscle/bone sinks.

Therefore, a person with higher levels of body fat will weigh less underwater (and be more buoyant), whereas a person with greater muscle mass will weigh more underwater (and be less buoyant).

Anyway, I wouldn’t recommend this method for the average person.

Although incredibly accurate, it is expensive, inconvenient – and the whole process is more of a hassle than the Bod Pod.

DEXA Scan

measuring body fat dexa scan

I am somewhat hesitant to even mention this method, since it isn’t really suitable for many people, but for the sense of completeness I’ll include it anyway (this is an ‘ultimate guide’, after all).

A DEXA scan is a type of full body x-ray scan that can measure and diagnose all sorts of things.

This includes accurately determining bone density, finding spinal fractures – and, of course, determining your body fat percentage with the utmost accuracy.

As you might have guessed, this isn’t going to be cheap. Typically you’ll pay over $100 to get one of these done.

If you’re interested in this, I would recommend finding a Radiologist and getting it done there.

Although, to be clear, this is not a recommended option for most people just looking to get a regular sense of their body fat, despite it arguably being the most accurate method on the list.

Which Method Is Best For You?

That completely depends on your personality and goals.

If you aren’t that concerned with your body fat, I would honestly recommend the visual method.

Eyeballing your body fat percentage is free and accurate enough for a lot of people that don’t have specific muscle building or fat loss goals.

For most people that are actively working out to improve their body composition, however, I would recommend ordering a set of calipers and getting familiar with how to use them.

This is cheap, easy to do (once you get used to it), and accurate enough for the vast majority of people.

Finally, if you’re on the more obsessive end, have the funds, and there is one nearby, then you may want to opt for the Bod Pod.

With the increased level of accuracy over the calipers, and it only taking 10 minutes out of your day, this isn’t a bad option depending on your situation.

The other methods I mentioned are either too inaccurate (body fat scale) or prohibitively expensive and tedious for regular measurements (hydrostatic displacement and DEXA Scan).

Some Final Thoughts

Hopefully you now have a good idea of what body fat is, what the different levels look like for most people, and how to measure your own body fat effectively.

I just want to leave you with a couple final things.

Firstly, as mentioned above, I really want to hammer home the importance of taking your body fat measurements at consistent times.

Just like with your scale weight, your body fat readings can vary wildly day-to-day, depending on all sorts of factors.

The best way to avoid being misled by these fluctuations is by testing your body fat once per week, first thing in the morning, before you eat or drink anything.

If you are even considering taking body fat measurements, I am going to assume that you are already regularly weighing yourself, so it’s easiest to just do it right after you’ve stepped on the scale for the week.

Secondly, while keeping track of your body fat can be useful, I would caution against getting obsessed with it.

I’ll see some people get all hung up on a certain number – feeling that they need to be, say, 6% body fat.

But at the end of the day, that number is arbitrary; really, what they’re going for is a certain look.

For that reason, I would say to let your body fat measurements guide you, but at the end of the day don’t obsess about a specific number too much.

Use the mirror as the basis to determine if you’re happy with the way you look – whereas scale weight and body fat measurements should be used as supplemental pieces of information to help figure out if you’re moving in the right direction.

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