In previous parts of this series, I’ve examined what body composition is, showed you some body composition calculations along with looking at what a good body fat percentage is for different goals. I also examined methods of measuring body composition along with some problems with those methods. To finish up, I want to finally make some body composition recommendations in terms of what methods you might use, when to measure and how to make use of all this information.
Lean Body Mass and Fat Mass Problems
As I’ve at least mentioned in earlier articles in this series, all lean body mass and all fat mass aren’t identical and this provides another place where body composition measurements can be a problem. For example, there are at least three primary types of body fat (in The Stubborn Fat Solution I describe five different types but that’s more detail than we need here) which are
- Visceral fat (deep, around the gut)
- Subcutaneous fat (under the skin, the stuff we can see)
- Essential fat
And depending on which method of measuring body composition you’re using, loss of one vs. the other is difficult to track (e.g. calipers only measure subcutaneous fat). Now, the essential fat issue isn’t a big one since you won’t generally be losing that and, if you are, you’re probably starving to death and about to die.
But an inability to measure losses of visceral fat by some methods causes problems because measurements that don’t measure it will show visceral fat loss as a loss of lean body mass (which leads people to think that they are losing muscle mass). Calipers are a prime example, since you can’t pinch visceral fat with them, a loss of visceral fat on a diet will show up as LBM loss by those calculations.
Recall that lean body mass (LBM) actually constitutes a lot of different things including muscle mass, glycogen, water, minerals, organs and a few others. For this reason, some researchers have started to differentiate between essential LBM (muscle and organ mass) and inessential LBM (connective tissue).
In general, inessential LBM tends to be lost first and essential LBM later. However, depending on the setup of the diet (primarily protein intake and whether or not the person is exercising), there can be essential LBM loss early in a fat loss diet. Just looking at LBM loss can’t differentiate between the two.
Now, the LBM issue can be avoided to some degree if someone is performing resistance training (which everyone should be while dieting). What’s happening to strength in the weight room tends to act as a rough metric for what’s happening to muscle mass; if someone is more or less maintaining their strength levels, odds are that muscle mass isn’t being lost. If strength is dropping like a rock, muscle is probably being lost.
It’s worth nothing that rank beginners can’t even use that method because beginners can gain strength (through neurological adaptations) even if they are losing muscle mass.
Which isn’t to say that I think body composition monitoring is useless; if that were the case I wouldn’t have written 6 articles about it. I’m just trying to make the point that it’s not perfect.
Gaining Muscle Mass
Although I’ve focused primarily on fat loss in this series (simply because, statistically more people are trying to lose fat), the same comments and issues apply equally when someone is trying to gain mass or strength. Athletes and bodybuilders want to know the composition of the weight that they are gaining, how much muscle mass they are gaining versus how much fat.
And the same issues that I’ve discussed crop up. Many methods of measuring body composition can’t measure changes in glycogen and water (and certain diets and supplements will use this to their advantage, causing the body to hold more glycogen and water to make the lifter think that they are gaining radical amounts of lean body mass).
Recommendations for Tracking Body Composition
Ok, enough of that, let’s look at what I actually recommend folks use to track changes in body composition, starting from the least to the most complex. Normally, I suggest a combination of methods rather than just one since that tends to help avoid problems inherent to any single method. These recommendations apply to both fat loss and muscle gain plans.
The simplest method, of course is the mirror which I imagine nearly everyone has. You can get naked if you want to (put them on the Internet and you might make some good money) or wear a bathing suit.
If you can be honest with yourself, the mirror may tell you all you need to know. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for most to be honest. As well, things like lighting, water retention can impact visual appearance and few folks can be truly objective with what they are seeing.
The other problem with the mirror that i noted was that small daily or weekly changes can be tough to see and people may get depressed when it doesn’t appear that anything seems to be happening. Enter pictures. Taken 4-6 weeks apart, these will often provide much more visual indication of what’s going on since the contrast will tend to be greater.
It’s the same phenomenon by which you don’t think anything is physically happening but then you run into someone you haven’t seen for a couple of months and they go “My god, you look totally different.” Again, make sure to wear the same outfit, put the camera the same distance away, use the same lighting, etc. to make the pictures as comparable as possible.
Next up would be the standard bathroom scale. I think I covered this one pretty thoroughly already. For individuals carrying a lot of fat, the scale can actually work pretty well by itself since weight loss will pretty much be identical to fat loss.
As individuals get leaner (perhaps 15% for males and about 22% for females), this is no longer the case and weight changes by themselves can be misleading. Females have the additional issue that changes in water balance can screw everything up. I’ll come back to this when I talk about when and how often to measure.
I should mention that tracking weight changes along with performance in the weight room can often be most of all that’s needed during a fat loss diet. If weight is dropping but strength in the weight room is staying relatively consistent (and the person isn’t a beginner), that indicates that what is being lost is not muscle mass; by extension it should be fat.
For optimal results, scale weight should be taken every morning and a running average tracked.
The Tape Measure
The next addition would be the tape measure, which can at least give you some indication of where the weight (hopefully fat) is coming off. For fat loss purposes, it’s often useful enough to measure one or two indicator areas. For men, changes typically occur around the midsection: when the waist is going down, fat is being lost, if it’s going up, fat is being gained. Women might use thigh.
Of course, if someone is trying to gain muscle mass, measuring the target muscle groups would be logical; along with changes in strength in the weight room, this can tell you what’s going on (e.g. is the target muscle group growing or not).
A related method to the tape measure is to use clothing as a gauge. You might have a standard pair of pants or dress or whatever that you try on every so often. If it’s fitting more loosely, you’re losing weight and/or fat. If it’s tighter, well…..
Related to this, it’s worth noting that studies of successful weight losers have been found to monitor their weight more regularly (and a piece of clothing that you wear regularly is a quick way to do this); contrast that to people who wear nothing but elastic band clothing and one day ‘wake up fat’ without ever noticing what’s happening.
It’s worth commenting again, that that tape measure can be misleading as well. A drop in tape measure measurement might suggest muscle loss but actually be due to glycogen and water depletion. A loss of 1/2″ or more on the arms isn’t uncommon with complete glycogen depletion (as occurs in my Ultimate Diet 2.0 plan). Bodybuilders tend to hate carbohydrate depletion for this reason: they feel flat and small and can’t get a pump in the gym.
Body Mass Index (BMI)
As I mentioned other methods such as the Body Mass Index can be used to track changes and, for untrained individuals, can actually be used to get a rough estimate of body composition (I use this method in both The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook and A Guide to Flexible Dieting). Waist/hip ratio can tell you a little bit about what’s going on too.
I should note again that there are reasonably accurate equations that use the tape measure to estimate actual body fat percentage and they can be used in that fashion in addition to just tracking changes in girth. You can find those links and equations here.
Although the Tanita scales are very popular, my concerns with most people’s inability to adequately standardize hydration status leads me to not recommend them widely. I suppose if you always measure at the same time of the week and day, they can be at least workable. And they do avoid a lot of the issues with proper caliper technique.
Which brings me to calipers which I still tend to recommend the most widely. Once folks get decent at measuring themselves, they can track changes fairly reasonably. Even if the actual equations aren’t used, like the tape measure, certain key sites can be tracked to measure changes in body fat.
Males will typically use abdominal or the iliac crest (the love handle) and females can measure the thigh. Often that one measurement alone tells you everything you need to know even if you can’t actually estimate true body fat percentage from it.
The higher tech methods such as underwater weighing, DEXA or the BodPod might be used if you can get access to them relatively cheaply (or free); I’m told that BodPod readings can be had fairly cheaply if you can actually find a place that has a one. DEXA is also useful for females to keep tabs on bone density to save them problems down the road (when they get older).
As I mentioned in a previous article, something that may be worth doing it calibrating one of the lower tech methods with the higher-tech method. So get a caliper reading done along with underwater weighing or DEXA or what have you to see how closely they match up. Then just use the cheaper methods going forwards.
The Ideal Combination of Methods
If I had to pick a single combination of methods for most applications, it would probably be the scale, a tape measure, and calipers. And probably throw in the mirror and pictures for good measure.
The mirror/picture will give you an idea of what’s happening visually and between changes in weight, selected tape measure measurements and caliper readings, you should be able to keep pretty good track of what’s changing (or not) physically with either a diet or muscle mass gain program.
As I mentioned above, for the exceedingly low-tech out there, simply looking at scale weight and strength levels in the gym will tell most of what’s going on. If fat loss is the goal, you want a drop in weight with little to no change in strength in the weight room. If that’s happening, most of what you’re losing is fat (or at least it’s not muscle mass).
For muscle gain it’s a bit more difficult but as long as you keep weight gain per week reasonable (0.5-1 lb per week or so), if you’re getting stronger in a medium repetition range, odds are most of what you’re gaining should be muscle mass.
Again, I know a lot of folks like BIA scales and, as long as you control hydration state, they can work ok. I’m personally still biased to calipers since, once you learn to use them, I think they work better. And they are cheaper if nothing else.
When to Measure Body Composition?
When I looked at problems with measuring body composition I mentioned that we are ultimately more concerned with consistency than accuracy. That is, we want to be able to compare measurements over time to one another to see what the changes are.
And one aspect of consistency is actually taking the measurements under the same conditions. Now, there are a couple of weird exceptions where you would deliberately take measurements under different conditions (e.g. to determine if a carb-load worked or not) but, under most circumstances, taking any measurements under identical conditions is important to be able to know what’s going on.
So, depending on preference, you might take 10 minutes every Monday morning to take a quick set of measurements. So first thing, after going to the bathroom (but before eating), hop on the scale, throw a tape measure around a couple of key sites (again, usually waist for men and thigh for women) and do a couple of quick caliper measurements.
Write it down and then get on with your day. This will give you measurements that you can compare week to week to see what’s happening. Of course, if you’re doing pictures, you may need to pick a different time of day so that you have time to do it without rushing. My point is simply that you need to keep everything consistent.
What NOT to Do
What won’t work is measuring at drastically different times since this won’t make the measurement comparable. Doing a set of measurements on a Friday afternoon after you’ve eaten several meals and been running around all day to first thing Monday morning after you wake up won’t give values that are meaningful.
And while people do this all the time, you can’t compare measurements taken immediately after a workout to those taken before it (we’ve all seen people get on the scale before and after training, to see how much weight they ‘lost’ I imagine). Sweat and water redistribution to the skin will throw everything off. So pick one time to measure and keep it consistent.
Oh yeah, if you’re using tape measure measurements to check changes in muscle size, a question that often comes up is whether or not to take the measurement flexed or unflexed. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter, make your choice and keep it consistent. That’s all that matters, the consistency so that you can compare measurements.
Regarding calipers, if you’re not going to do your own measurements (and some of the spots are impossible to get at unless you’re a contortionist), it’s best to have the same person do them every time since individual technique can vary a bit.
This is a problem as most commercial gyms have a lot of employee turnover and the same person who took you measurements initially may not even be working there now. In that case, consider teaching your significant other to do it. Or your kids; make them useful for something other than pooping and leaving their toys on the floor.
Finally, there’s women who, as always, have the most interesting issues. Changes over the menstrual cycle, especially with water balance, can make tracking real changes in body composition a real pain in the ass.
As well, there is just huge variation in this; some women gain little water and others will swing 10 pounds in a week. This will not only throw off the scale (and of course BIA) but also tape measure and calipers.
For women, it may be best to stay away from weekly measurements and just measure once a month and compare those values. Or, if weekly measurements are made, only compare the same weeks of the month.
So compare week 1 to week 1 (of hte next month )and week 2 to week 2. If you try to compare week 1 (when you’re not holding water) to week 2 (when you are), you are likely to go crazy because of the changes.
I discuss this topic in far more detail in The Women’s Book Vol 1.
How Often to Measure Body Composition
Let’s face it, most people measure themselves too often.. As I mentioned, we’ve all seen people get on the scale before and after a workout, presumably to see how much weight they lost during the workout. I’ve seen guys trying to get big do the same, I guess they want to see how much muscle they built (ha ha). At home, dieters will get on the scale before and after they poop just to watch the numbers drop. I’ve done it and you have too.
Clearly this isn’t effective as changes can’t happen that quickly and, in general, I see little reason to measure more than weekly. And sometimes, or in specific situations, even that can be misleading. Between shifts in water weight (that happen to everyone), women’s menstrual cycles, etc. weekly measurements may indicate that nothing is actually happening when it is.
One solution to this is to take a rolling average of changes and plot them on a spreadsheet. As long as they are showing a trend downwards over time, that’s most of what matters. If you don’t know how to do this, get one of your nerd friends to set it up for you in Excel.
Add to this an odd phenomenon that is often referred to as the “whoosh” (a topic I discussed seriously in The Stubborn Fat Solution). What sometime happens, and this is assuredly related to issues related to water balance, is that someone will be dieting for a few weeks with no changes.
Suddenly, almost overnight, there is the “whoosh” and they wake up several pounds lighter and visibly leaner. Suddenly the diet that wasn’t working” for 3 weeks just generated a massive change. My point being that this can make weekly tracking annoying and misleading from time to time.
At the same time, it’s also possible to track things far too infrequently. As I mentioned above, studies of successful dieters show that regular tracking of weight and body composition is one way that they avoid weight regain.
Basically by keeping tabs on what’s happening, they know when they are starting to slip off the wagon and can tighten up their diet or exercise program. This is probably a good strategy for folks who have to really fight to keep from falling back into old dietary and non-exercise habits.
What doesn’t work is avoiding the scale or mirror or tape measure for months on end and then ‘waking’ up with the same 42 inch waist you started with. Measuring at least semi-regularly during weight maintenance, perhaps every 2-4 weeks, is a good way to keep yourself honest. If the numbers start to go the wrong direction, it’s time to get a little more diligent about your diet and training.
In general, body composition doesn’t change that drastically week to week although there are exceptions. On extreme diets, such as The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook, often there are visible and measurable changes week to week. But on more moderate diets, usually changes week to week are not much more than background noise to the measurements.
And in that situation measuring too often can lead people to think that things aren’t working and make them start doing goofy things (like drastically increasing activity, cutting calories severely, or abandoning the diet outright). Measuring every 2-4 weeks is probably better and it is worth commenting that if you haven’t seen any visible or measurable changes in 4 weeks, your diet and training probably should be modified becuase it’s not working very well.
One odd exception that I’ve seen is that beginners (and usually females more than men) often won’t see any changes in the first 4 weeks of their new fat loss program. This can be frustrating and cause a lot of drop outs. So they’ll be plugging along with the exercise and diet program and nothing is changing.
But then they invariably get the “whoosh” about week 4 or perhaps a little bit later; it always happened by week 8 in any case. Almost overnight, they drop 4-5 pounds and look visibly different. Patience is a virtue here and I highly recommend that folks just starting out show a little patience when they start trying to lose fat (or gain muscle).
Another exception to the above is folks who are very lean and this usually means contest bodybuilders or athletes. When body fat levels are already very low it’s not uncommon to see changes occurring much faster and tracking every 1-2 weeks may be necessary to keep tabs on what’s going on (there is often a time constraint here so it’s critical to keep tabs on the changes). Measuring weekly with calipers, etc. may be necessary to make sure they are coming in on time.
Of course, those athletes aren’t immune to the “whoosh” either and often 2 weeks of apparently no changes will be met with a massive change almost overnight. This seems to be very individuals, folks who are prone to water retention see “stalls” and “whooshes” and those who don’t usually don’t.
If you’re wondering why the huge discrepancy between the very lean and folks carrying a lot of fat in terms of changes, I think it’s actually pretty simple math. When someone is carrying 30-60 pounds of fat, a 1 pound loss per week isn’t very much (3% or less of the total) and that’s less than what the best body composition method can actually pick up.
In contrast, when someone is very lean and down to the last few pounds of fat, even a small fat loss may represent a massive percentage of what’s left; it’s not unheard of for bodybuilders to change visually day to day at the end of their diets.