There’s been a lot of chatter in recent years about whether it’s worth it to measure body fat percentage. A number of coaches have stopped doing these tests for their clients. Many consumers complain that body fat scales (bioelectric impedance analysis) seem unreliable and that skinfold calipers are hard to use. They wonder about accuracy.

waist measurement

In the last scientific study I read, which was about determining the right calorie surplus for muscle gain, I found it interesting that researchers did take skinfolds with a caliper. However, they only measured and reported the change in skinfold thickness. They didn’t bother to plug the numbers into the equations to estimate body fat as a percentage.

Why are there so many questions about the utility of body fat testing lately? The main reason is that we all must admit these tests are far from perfect. There’s lots of margin for error, which may include operator error, equipment error, or prediction equation error. Even some of the high-tech methods like DEXA can have issues.

I’ve always liked using body composition tests. I still do. I’m not here to dismiss them. I  find the data extremely valuable. An experienced caliper user can get consistent skinfold readings. I even saw a study out of Grant Tinsley’s lab at Texas Tech recently suggesting that some of the body fat scales today can be fairly accurate, including cheap consumer models.

But we do have to acknowledge that there are potential downsides to all body fat testing methods, even the high tech ones.

In our Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle body transformation challenges, we still use body fat tests, but we also take the results with a grain of salt. We keep requiring that participants measure body fat because we want them to have their minds focused on body composition (fat vs muscle) and not just scale weight.

In your personal body transformation endeavors, if you’re one of the people who wants to let go of body fat tracking, or if you simply don’t have access to a measurement tool that you trust is accurate and consistent, here’s some advice:

First, remember that tracking your progress is not exclusively about measuring your body fat percentage. That’s only one way to chart progress.

And we all know that just like body weight, body fat numbers can mess with your head if you get wonky results from false positives, false negatives or testing with different methods.

It’s incredibly important to track your progress in your body transformation journey. It’s a maxim in sports, business, and almost every other endeavor in life that if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it. In addition, it’s well known that tracking your results can improve your results without any other changes.

But what if you don’t have access to accurate body fat testing? What then? The good news is, there are other ways to track your progress. Here are four of the best of them:

1. Body weight.

It’s true that body weight can fluctuate a lot, over a period of days, or even within a single day. However, if you focus your attention on the trend over time and combine that with the other 3 methods below, the scale will give you accurate and valuable feedback.

One way that you can deal with the inevitable daily fluctuations is to weigh yourself daily and keep track of the weekly average.

2. Waist measurement.

Waist circumference is another great way to measure fat loss progress. It doesn’t tell you what your body fat percentage is, but it’s a great proxy for body fat. If your waist is going down, then your body fat is almost always going down.

The important thing is to be consistent with your technique. Be certain to measure in the same spot, keep the tape level, and apply the same amount of tape pressure. Also measure under the same conditions, for example, first thing in the morning after emptying your bladder and before eating.

If you don’t measure your waist, then at least be sure keep track of how your pants are fitting. (And don’t get into the habit of always wearing pants with elastic waistbands).

3. Workout performance (especially strength).

You may have already known that your waist size is a good indicator of what’s happening with your body fat. But did you also know that your strength is a good indicator of changes in your lean body mass?

It’s not a direct measurement, but there’s a good correlation:

  • Strength going down: lean body mass might be going down (especially if you’re losing weight).
  • Strength going up: Lean mass probably going up, especially if you’re gaining weight and don’t look fatter.

Note: this may be specific to the muscles you’re training: Is your squat is tanking? You might be losing leg lean mass. Is your shoulder press strength is going up? You’re probably gaining shoulder muscle. Also, when we talk about getting stronger, that doesn’t have to mean 1 rep maxes. I’m referring to your strength level in your normal rep ranges like 6 to 12 or so.

Another huge reason to track training performance is for motivation. If your strength is increasing and or you’re doing more reps than before, it keeps you motivated in the times when the scale and body fat tests aren’t showing progress yet. If your strength keeps going up, it’s going to show in your physique soon enough.

4. Visual assessment.

If your goal is body transformation or bodybuilding, a look in the mirror or at a photograph could be worth as much as any gold standard body fat test. When it comes to competitive physique sports, the judges don’t weigh you or test your body fat. The way competitions are scored is 100% visual.

If you like what you see in the mirror, and even more important, if you like the improvement you see in the mirror over time, does it matter what the scale says or what any body fat test says?

The only downside of visual assessments is that it often takes a while for you to notice a difference. You usually can’t see visual improvement from day to day, though daily change may be visible occasionally. Even after a week, many people don’t really notice the changes yet, even if the scale moved in the right direction.

Tracking visual improvements in the short term sometimes feels like watching the grass grow. But certainly, after two or more weeks, the improvements should be showing. If three or four weeks go by and you’re not seeing any change, that’s telling you something.

Concluding advice

If you can get accurate and consistent body fat measurements, I encourage you to do so. It’s only one progress tracking tool, but it’s a valuable one. If you think you can’t get reliable body fat test results, then simply fall back on these other four progress tracking tools. Best case scenario: use all four of these and measure body fat.

A good thing to remember is that sometimes your weight or body fat numbers can mess with your head. You may show no apparent progress and that’s a downer on your mood and motivation. But if you’re tracking all five of these data points, you might see evidence revealing that one of your tests was wrong.

For example, your goal is weight loss but the scale didn’t budge in two weeks. Yet your body fat test shows a decrease in skinfolds and body fat percentage, your waist is down, and you’re getting stronger. In this case, there’s a good chance you gained muscle and lost fat at the same time (body recomposition). That’s the holy grail of fitness goals, and yet if you were narrowly focused only on your weight, you might have been discouraged (or worse – quit).

Or, if the body fat test shows that your fat level actually increased, yet your scale weight is down, waist is down, and you look noticeably leaner in the mirror, what does that tell you? Obviously, it means that the wonky body fat test result was incorrect. Probably a mismeasurement.

So whatever you do, be cautious about tracking progress only one way. And when you use more than one way, remember that you can use these multiple data points to confirm or refute the results you’re seeing with one of the other methods.

Train hard and expect success!

-Tom Venuto,
Author of Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle
Founder of Burn the Fat Inner Circle

tomvenuto-blogAbout Tom Venuto, The No-BS Fat Loss Coach
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss expert. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and today works as a full-time fitness coach, writer, blogger, and author. In his spare time, he is an avid outdoor enthusiast and backpacker. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle is an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 52,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here for membership details

Strength going up: Lean mass probably going up, especially if you’re gaining weight and don’t look fatter.

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