Measuring Your Progress
By John P. Hussman, Ph.D.
All rights reserved and actively enforced.
When you start your fitness program, you should take several measurements. At minimum, these should include your weight, your bodyfat reading, and your waist circumference.
There are several ways of obtaining bodyfat readings, ranging from hand-held calipers to water submersion pods. I prefer calipers. You can have somebody at a local health club do it, or you can follow the directions below. Used correctly, they allow you to monitor your own progress nicely. True, there are "bioelectrical impedance" devices that pass electrical currents through your hands or the bottom of your foot. But the measurements you'll get will vary wildly throughout the day. So while they're "objective" in the sense of giving you an exact number, they're not very consistent and require very specific conditions to be reliable.
You may wonder how it's possible to estimate bodyfat percentages just by measuring from one or two sites on your body. The reason is that the thickness of human bodyfat layers is relatively proportional. While the fat layer over the abdomen is generally thicker than the fat layer over the tricep, when you gain weight, the new fat distributes itself roughly proportional to how the existing fat is distributed. Similarly, when you lose fat, it comes off in sheets, like an onion. You cannot, cannot "spot reduce" the fat from a particular area of the body by working it more aggressively. You can certainly develop the muscles in that area through focused intensity, but fat comes off evenly from the body.
How to Use Skinfold Calipers, Step-by-Step
With your right hand, pinch the skin on the knucle of your left middle finger. Really. Look at it carefully - that's a skinfold. just 2 layers of skin over each other.
Alright, now turn your left hand over, and pinch the lower third of your middle finger (the fleshy part at the bottom). That's *not* a skinfold - there's too much tension in the skin to get a true layer-over-layer fold, so you're catching all sorts of tissue in-between.
Now go to your waist, in a straight line up from your right leg and above the tip of your hipbone, and grab as much as you can of that love-handle with your whole left hand. That's *not* a skinfold either - you're catching a lot of tissue in between, and you don't have a true layer-over-layer fold.
Finally, take left thumb, and either your forefinger or the first 2 fingers, and pinch that love handle again. Now pull it outward away from your body, and wiggle it between your fingers for a second. Still holding that fold firmly, take the jaws of your caliper and set them about a half-inch from your fingers, and close the calipers. Hold the calipers alongside your waist like you're reaching for your 6-gun, rather than at a 90 degree angle to your body. You now have a skin fold between the calipers, and even if you try that 3 or 4 times, you should still get roughly the same reading. You'll get a slightly different reading if you do the left side of your body rather than the right, but the difference should be pretty consistent. You've just taken your "suprailiac" reading.
The Slim-Guide caliper is clunky but consistent, available through www.bodytrends.com for about $20. You can click below to estimate your bodyfat level using your suprailiac reading. (One step closer to that Broadway musical... Now all I need is a couple of showtunes, and I'll be up for a Tony):
CLICK HERE TO INTERPRET YOUR CALIPER READINGS
How to Calculate Changes in Body Composition (Fat Mass and Fat-Free Mass)
Now some calculations. Take your weight on the scale and multiply it by your bodyfat percentage. That gives you your "fat mass" (e.g. if you're 180 pounds and 25% bodyfat, 180 x .25 = 45 pounds of fat)
Next, subtract the fat mass from your total scale weight. That gives you your "fat free mass" (e.g. 180 pounds - 45 pounds of fat = 135 pounds of fat free mass).
These are the numbers you will track from week to week. What you basically want is a gradual reduction in fat mass and a stable or increasing amount of fat free mass. But be careful in how you interpret these. Notice that I've used the clinical term "fat free mass" rather than calling it "lean weight" or "muscle". The reason is that "fat free mass" includes the weight of bones, blood, water, breakfast, and the gummy bears you just ate. The measurement tools you have can't tell the difference. Very minor changes in water retention, coupled with small errors in bodyfat measurement, can make it seem that you've gained or lost an incredible amount of fat free mass, and if you jump to the conclusion it's all muscle, you'll freak out.
Day by day, you're trying to measure your progress in the mirror, on the scale, with calipers, and so on. The problem is that all of the changes are taking place under the skin, along with a lot of other things you can't see, like increased blood volume and fluid retention. Don't place too much emphasis on numbers such as scale weight, fat weight and estimated muscle gain until the changes become significant as a proportion of your body weight. Until then, it's just next to impossible to get a reliable reading, because the tools you are using all have measurement error. A meaningless two-millimeter caliper error translates into about 2.5% bodyfat, and can drive some people to tears. And as I explain on my Q&A page, the muscle gain figure can easily be off by 4% of body weight.
If you're easily frustrated, brace yourself when you step on the scale. Just on the basis of water retention, digestive contents and other factors, your scale weight is going to fluctuate by as much as 3-4% of body weight almost on a weekly basis. If you've eaten a lot of carbs, you'll tend to retain a lot of water for a couple of days. People often freak out about this, thinking they've "gained" 5 pounds because of a single free day. Conversely, people often get excited that they've lost 5 pounds over a few days, and think it's all fat. Then the scale jumps up again, and they get upset and give up on their programs. Please don't take these fluctuations seriously.
Think of it this way. A woman doing relatively well on her fitness program might be losing over 1 pound of fat a week, while gaining a fraction of a pound of muscle. So while she might be on track to lose 12-15 pounds of fat and gain a few pounds of lean muscle over 12 weeks, by the 5th week she might be looking at a scale change of less than 4 pounds. And since that's about the weight of a meal and a couple of glasses of water, she may not even see the scale move at all. This is especially true at high bodyfat levels, where shifts in water retention over a monthly cycle can be quite large. But gradually, the changes are happening anyway, as long as she doesn't give up. For women at high bodyfat levels, progress may not show for weeks at a time. The reason is that your readings will zig-zag within their downward path. If you measure from a peak in weight to a recent trough, you'll be elated at the "jump" in your progress. But other times you'll get a trough-to-peak reading and be totally frustrated. Don't extrapolate either of these impressions. Chart your numbers and measure progress from peak-to-peak or trough-to-trough.
Why measure waist circumference? Well, insulin resistant individuals often have significant visceral fat deposits in the abdominal area (fat around the organs). This depot is reduced somewhat faster than subcutaneous fat. Often neither the scale nor caliper measurements will capture the full extent of fat loss, and tracking waist circumference using a tape measure can indicate fat loss that may not be apparent otherwise. You might also keep a tight fitting skirt or pair of pants in the closet and just try putting it on every couple of weeks.
Bodyfat percentages of 6-14% for men and 12-18% for women are generally considered "lean". Those lower bounds should be respected. Women with significantly less than 12% bodyfat typically wreak havoc with their estrogen regulation, and put themselves at risk for osteoporosis. Below 6% for men and 12% for women is not healthy (a lot of nutrients rely on fat-solubility to be stored in the body). Conversely, bodybuilders only have to gain a few percent in fat in order to look unfit.
Men generally need bodyfat at about 9-11% to look "cut". That's really when you'll see that "six-pack" in the abdominals (you actually already have a six-pack - everybody does - it's just that you may need some fat reduction to show it). The percentage is closer to 14-16% for women. Physiologist Covert Bailey notes that in women, the thighs typically begin to slim noticeably at about 18% bodyfat. Think of a roll of paper towels. As you unroll it, you can take off a lot of paper and not see much effect. But as you get further along, even taking off a small amount of paper from the roll will thin that baby down to the cardboard. Depending on where you started, it may take more than a few months to get there (which is fine ).
How much muscle gain is reasonable? In general, even a fraction of a pound a week is great, and a pound a week is outstanding. If you calculate that you've gained several pounds of muscle a week, with a similarly dramatic fat loss, you've probably either overestimated your initial bodyfat level, or underestimated your current bodyfat level. As Lee Haney (who has won more consecutive Mr. Olympia titles than anyone in bodybuilding) states "The first year you train steadily, you might be fortunate enough to put on 20 pounds of muscle, but the second year it may be only 10, the third only 6, and the fourth only 4-5. Since it gets harder and harder to make gains in lean body mass, I'm happy with an average of 2-3 new pounds yearly." Muscle gains can be unusually fast for beginners, but be realistic in your goals and progress estimates.
How much fat loss is reasonable? Well, as noted in the calories section above, it's not unreasonable to target fat loss of as much as 1 to 2 lbs a week for women, and as much as 2 - 3 lbs a week for men. But be honest with yourself. You'll only get those kinds of results with planned discipline and careful monitoring of your exercise and food intake.
The Paper Towel Theory
As it turns out, you can get fairly good estimates of your bodyfat composition simply from a single skinfold, or by passing a tiny electrical current through your foot, ankle or hands. What this really means is that fat is distributed fairly precisely on the body. And while it's true that some people have larger fat deposits on some parts of their body than others, it's also true that percentage-wise, the fat on your body comes off fairly evenly.
That's important to remember when you measure your progress. See, one of the first places you're probably looking for fat loss is on those areas of your body that you think are "too fat." But in fact, that's the last place you should look, because I can guarantee that those areas are still going to look "too fat" for a little while.
Think of it this way. If you have a roll of paper towels (or a cassette tape), and you start to unravel it, you can get a good amount off of the roll before you really see a visible change. But as you get further down that roll, even taking off a little more is very apparent.
The same is true with your body. The first place you're going to see greater definition is at those areas where the fat deposits are relatively thin already. For most people, this is around the shoulders and clavicles (the two long bones that run just under your neck, connecting your two shoulders to the breast plate).
Another reason why this is important is that advertisers often prey on the belief that fat can be "spot-reduced." All the twisty ab-crunchers on the market are perfect examples. Basically, these companies get a fitness model that has followed months or years of weight training, aerobics, and proper nutrition, and have them roll back and forth in one of these things, as if they actually got in shape that way.
Or look at all the books promising to help you lose fat "for your type" - pear shaped, apple shaped, dodecahedron shaped - you name it. It's true, for example, that people who are insulin resistant tend to store more fat in the midsection, and that women tend to store more fat in the thigh area. But so what? If you lose the fat, it comes off EVERYWHERE. If a problem area looks "too fat", training that area with exercise may very well improve the definition of the underlying muscles and the overall form of that area. But it will not accelerate fat loss relative to other parts of your body.
If the body didn't lose fat uniformly, we'd all wobble around like Weebles because our relatively fixed bone and muscle structure wouldn't be able to tolerate the variation. The best way to change the size of your body is through caloric deficits. The best way to change the shape is through resistance training. The one thing you need to achieve a total physique and fitness transformation is to do EVERYTHING - aerobics, intervals, resistance training, cross-training (physiologist Covert Bailey calls these the "four food groups of exercise"), small frequent meals, high-quality protein and carbohydrates, low-glycemic nutrition, proper supplementation, water, and rest. As Shawn Phillips says, "the one thing, is everything."
So again, if you're looking for results in the mirror, look for the first signs of improved definition at those areas where muscle is relatively close to the surface. For most people, this is the upper chest and shoulder area. After two weeks, you probably won't see enormous visible changes elsewhere. But those changes are happening anyway.
You should definitely be keeping track of how your clothes feel. Go to the closet and pick out an outfit that's just a little too tight. Put it aside. You'll want to try it on occasionally. Waist measurements can also capture fat loss that isn't necessarily evident in the mirror.