When It Comes to Measuring Body Fat, Forget The Fancy Electronic Scales and Instead Reach for The Body Fat Calipers
In my mind, there is no single piece of fitness, bodybuilding or health equipment that more useful than a good pair of body fat calipers.
Yes, they are made out of plastic. Yes, they take a little bit of practice to get right. And yes, they won’t give you instant, flashy digital results (which are usually inaccurate anyway.)
If you want high tech, go ahead and fork over $50 for an electrical-impedance body fat scale. Chances are you’ll get different body fat readings each time you step on the scale — even if that’s five minutes after your took your last measurement.
Or you could try to convince your doctor to order a hydrostatic body fat test, which is considered the gold standard in body fat measurement, but is unlikely to be covered by your insurance or employer (unless you are LeBron James) and will set you back hundreds of dollars for just a few extra percentage points of accuracy.
So unless you are an elite athlete with a cadre of sports trainers at your beck and call, you should be able to get along fine with a single-measurement reading from a quality body fat caliper.
Why Measure Body Fat Percentage?
Unlike bathroom scales or the body mass index (BMI) which only measure weight, fat calipers allow you to measure the percentage of your body mass that is fat versus lean tissue like muscle, bone and internal organs. This gives you a much more accurate idea of what your actual body composition is.
For example, a 130 lb female fitness model might have a body fat percentage of 13% — which is very lean — while a 110 lb Hollywood actress of the same height might weigh 110 lbs, but have 20% body fat.
Which is leaner and which is more fit?
If you went by scale weight alone, which does not take into account the composition of that weight, you’d probably say the 110 lb actress. But you would be wrong. The fitness model has a higher proportion of lean muscle to fat, which visually means she’ll probably look more “toned” and in shape, with less jiggle.
So knowing what your body fat percentage is enables you to focus on the right goals.
Ironically, pursuing weight loss as your main objective can actually result in a person becoming “fatter” as a they sacrifice lean tissue in the process of making the digits on a bathroom scale go down.
However, when you use percentage of body fat (%BF) lost as your primary measurement for progress and success, you’ll generally know whether you exercise and diet routine are causing you to actually lose body fat (which should be your goal) and not precious lean muscle along the way.
Why Body Fat Calipers?
While there are all kinds of fancy (and often expensive) ways to measure body fat percentage, at the end of the day, a good pair of inexpensive body fat calipers like those made by Accu-Measure will do the trick just fine for 90 percent of all people.
While it may be tempting to buy the one of the myriad of electronic body fat testing scales, monitors and hand-held devices out there, you’ll typically get more consistent and accurate results with a manual body fat caliper.
Most electronic body fat scales and monitors use electrical impedance to measure body fat percentages, which is notoriously inaccurate since it can be influenced by things like hydration and electrolyte balance. Manual body fat calipers, when properly used, typically don’t run into these issues since they are taking physical measurements which are not as easily influenced by these biological variables.
Body fat calipers are also inexpensive (typically under $10) and portable, allowing them to be thrown into your workout or gym bag. Try fitting an electronic scale in there. And if you happen to misplace them, at that price-point, it’s generally no big deal.
And then there is privacy.
Some people simply don’t feel comfortable having their body fat measured at the gym, either by a trainer or on one of the electronic body fat scales. Using calipers allows you to measure and track your body fat percentages in the privacy of your own home, or in the locker room at the gym, which will make you more likely to consistently track your progress.
Are Body Fat Calipers Accurate?
While it might seem that electronic measurements would provide more accurate body fat percentage readings, manual body fat calipers are surprisingly accurate when consistently used correctly.
A study published in the 1998 issue of the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research compared a single-site manual body fat caliper (in this case, the Accu-Measure 3000 skin fold caliper) against the Futrex 1000 Near-Infrared Device (NID) and a Lange multi-site caliper (administered by an experienced technician.)
Measurements for the three devices were then compared for accuracy against hydrostatic or “underwater” weighing — considered the “gold standard” in body fat testing.
The researchers found that the Accu-Measure single site body fat caliper was accurate within 1%of the measurement given by the under water weighing. This held true for measurements in both men and women. The Accu-Measure calipers also were more accurate than the more sophisticated and expensive Futrex 1000 NID, which tended to over estimate body fat levels compared to the body fat calipers and under water weighing.
These findings were consistent with earlier studies comparing the accuracy of manual body fat calipers — using both single skin fold tests and multiple-point skin fold tests.
There is some evidence, however, that skin fold tests become less accurate as the obesity of an individual increases, leading to under-estimations of %BF in these individual.
However, the phenomenon is true not just for caliper-based skin fold tests , but also bioelectrical impedance and near-infrared devices. In non-obese individuals, all three methods provided %BF within accepted ranges of accuracy.
In other words, used correctly, single-site manual body fat calipers work nearly as well as under-water weighing for measuring percentage of body fat, and significantly better (at at least as well) than some of the more expensive high-tech tools like Near-Infrared Devices and bioelectrical impedance.
How to Use Body Fat Calipers
There are two types of body fat calipers: single skin-fold test caliperslike the Accu-Measure 3000 Body Fat Caliper and Lange calipers that take multiple-skin fold measurements.
For most people, a single skin-fold measurement will do just fine and will provide fairly accurate measurement, provided the caliper is used correctly and consistently.
Single skinfold caliper measurements work because there is a high correlation between abdominal fat and overall %BF levels. This is the old “pinch an inch” test — which is made more scientifically accurate via a caliper reading and a formula that extrapolates total body fat percentage based on that measurement.
The Accu-Measure body fat caliper works by taking a single measurement at the suprailliac site, which is approximately one inch above the right hipbone.
Here’s how you take a body fat measurement with the Accu-Measure 3000 Personal Body Fat Tester:
- Locate the suprailliac site, which is about one inch above the right hip bone
- While standing pinch the suprailliac skinfold between your left thumb and forefinger and hold it in place
- With the body fat calipers in your right hand, place the jaws of the fat caliper over the fold and close it until it “clicks” into place. The slide member will automatically stop at the correct measurement.
- Record the number
- Repeat two more times and use an average of the three readings for your final measurement
- Use the body fat interpretation chart that comes with the Accu-Measure body fat calipers to determine your %BF based on the skinfold test measurement.
It’s really that easy.
How To Ensure Accurate Caliper Readings
The key to accurate body fat caliper readings over time is to make sure you are consistently measuring in same location.
If you are measuring it too high or too low on the suprailliac site, your results may very from reading-to-reading. Averaging tends to overcome this, but as you get better at locating the site, accuracy will tend to go up.
On a side-note, one female reader who owns a pair of Accu-Measure Fat Calipers had the ingenious idea of getting a small tattoo at her suprailliac site so she would always be measuring at the same place. While I thinkshe was joking, if you’re into body ink, it’s a novel — albeit, somewhat extreme — solution to the “am I measuring at the right point” problem. Just be sure to pick the right tattoo, since you’ll have to live with that ”Heartbreaker” just above your hipbone for the rest of your life.
What Does It All Mean? Using Body Fat Measurements Wisely
While the initial reading that you’ll take with a body fat caliper will give you a general idea of your percentage of body fat, that alone doesn’t really help you much aside from satisfying your curiosity and — depending on the results — making you feel elated or depressed.
What your current body fat percentage is doesn’t really matter. What matters is what happens to that body fat percentage over time as you increase your activity, clean-up your diet and tweak your exercise and workout routine.
Body fat percentages are really only valuable relative to each other. It’s a way to gauge your progress that doesn’t really on the inaccuracies of scale-weight alone. Even if the calipers aren’t 100% accurate compared to other methods like underwater weighing, they should be fairly accurate in relation to past caliper readings, provided you are consistently measuring in the same place.
Don’t expect to see a major change in your readings over night — because the calipers measure in millimeters, it will take some time to see your fat loss add up. We’re talking weeks and months, not days. Take a weekly reading, write it down, and then revisit the starting point in about two months. If you’re doing the right things, you will see a decrease.
And remember that evenfairly small decreases in the skinfold translate into fairly large reductions in body fat percentages. Each millimeter reduction roughly corresponds to a 3% reduction in total %BF.
So losing even a couple of millimeters over a few months will have a clear and marked impact on your body fat and appearance.
Calculating and Monitoring Lean Body Mass to %BF Ratios with Calipers
Taking weekly body fat percentage readings with calipers in conjunction with weighing yourself on a scale can also help you better gauge whether you are losing body fat or lean mass or both. To calculate your lean body mass (LBM):
- Take your percentage bodyfat and multiply it by your scale weight to arrive at total lbs of body fat
- Subtract the total lbs of fat from your scale weight. The resulting number will be your lean body mass.
So let’s say you are a 180 lb male at 20% body fat. Multiply .20 by 180 to get 36. This is how many lbs of body fat you are currently carrying. Now, subtract 36 from 180 (your scale weight) to get 144. This is your lean body mass.
So to recap: A 180 lb male at 20% body fat has 36 lbs of fat and 144 lbs of lean body mass.
Why does any of this matter?
Well, let’s say you are that 180 lb man you’ve been trying to lose weight. You’re pretty happy with yourself: Your scale weight has gone from 180 to 170, and your body fat from 20% to 17%. All is good, right? You lost weight and you lost body fat.
Not so fast, though.
Instead of carrying 36 lbs of fat, you now have reduced that to 28.9 lbs. However, your lean body mass is now 141 lbs. That means you actually lost muscle along with the body fat, to the tune of three pounds. Not so good.
While some loss of lean body mass will typically occur along with fat loss, you want to minimize it as much as possible. In the above scenario, you might have cut your calories back too much, been performing too much cardio, or even not performing enough weight training to maintain your lean body mass.
But without using body fat calipers to measure your %BF and comparing your fat loss to muscle loss, you would never have known that. Now that you do, you can tweak your diet or workout routine to minimize the loses in LMB.
Where To Buy Body Fat Calipers
You can purchase body fat calipers at many sporting goods or fitness stores or online at Amazon.com. Many gyms will also sell body fat calipers, including the Accu-Measure products.
I am partial to the Accu-Measure products, because I have used them myself with good results.
They are easy to use, well-made and come with good instructions. They are also inexpensive, which makes them accessible to nearly anyone regardless of their budget. While Accu-Measure offers several fat calipers, including a digital skinfold caliper, I still recommend going with the basic Accu-Measure 3000 calipers.
If you are a gadget geek and money is no object, go ahead and splurge on one of the digital versions. However, in terms of accuracy, there is little difference between the manual fat calipers and the digital.
One nice feature of the Accu-Measure FatTrack Prodigital body fat caliper is that it will do the %BF and lean body mass calculations automatically for you, but it does come with a hefty $69.99 price tag. So it really comes down to how much work you want to do yourself and what you are comfortable spending.
You can buy the Accu-Measure 3000 Personal Body Fat Tester Calipers new and used on Amazon.com for under $10 and sometimes you can pick them up for as little as $4.
Category: Fitness and Exercise Gadgets