Is It Better To Forget About Body Fat Percentage?

Competitors worry about appearance, not body fat percentage scores.

Let me tell you a dirty little secret – I don’t use body fat percentage as a measure of progress with clients.

There are fewer sure-fire ways to upset a gym rat than to tell them their body fat percentage is higher than they thought. Yet nearly everyone believes they are leaner than they actually are.

People get obsessed over this number as if it is directly attached to their self-worth. It’s sad really as it’s completely unnecessary. Let go of this number from your mind. – It is not necessary to know, you’ll save yourself getting into arguments, and most importantly, trying to track it may actually hinder you from progressing.

In this article I’ll explain why I think you should forget all about body fat percentage.


1. Everyone underestimates

You are either as lean as you like or you’re not. Simple as that.

There are a few reasons why nearly everyone thinks they are leaner than they are:

  1. We look in the mirror and see ourselves only under just the right lighting conditions.
  2. Overly generous measurement machines (I’ve even seen a BIA machine with a “lean” measurement setting.)
  3. Pride.
  4. Reconfirmation of (inaccurate) estimates online – fitness forum users and pictures tagged with the wrong bf% coming up in google images.

2. Measurement tools don’t work

Sorry, but it’s true. I know that no-one wants to believe that the expensive machine or analysis they have paid for could be wrong, but unfortunately they are wrong all the time. (Yes, despite the pretty printouts provided.)

The measurement tools we have available are either flawed, too expensive or too inconvenient to use on a regular basis, and thus useless for tracking progress from which to make decisions.

Body Fat Percentage Tools

BodPod, BIA machine, Caliper, Hydrostatic weighing (left, top, bottom, right)

“Isn’t inaccurate fine as long as they are consistently inaccurate? That way we can track change over time?” The problem is that the most commonly available methods to us don’t give consistent results. Here is a list of worst to best:

  • BIA machines – those things with metal contacts you hold or step on bare-footed – are the worst for variance.
  • Calipers - tough to use on yourself, people need to be trained to use them, and   they miss all the visceral (internal) fat changes.
  • BodPod - tries to calculate it via air displacement.
  • Underwater/hydrostatic weighing - you’ll be dunked in a tank of water.
  • DEXA scan - uses x-rays.

This is a big business, and the manufacturers will of course claim accuracy. Don’t be fooled. Some of these methods may be fairly accurate on average across large groups, but not for individuals. This is a very important point. – It means you could have lost 5-10% body fat but actually show no change!

If you cannot get a reliable result, then it is dangerous to track it and base decisions on that.

If you want to find out more about the reasons for the specific flaws and studied variances of each method then James Krieger has an excellent series of articles on it.


3. It adds a layer of complication

If you are cutting (help on deciding that here) you are either as lean as you like or you’re not. - Simple as that. In the case of the latter, you need to get leaner. Don’t complicate the issue by worrying about how many more percentage points you need to lose or how much weight this will equate to. If it’s your first time dieting you’ll likely underestimate this anyway and you’ll just end up frustrated. Just keep going, be steady and patient and take things as they come.


So When Is Body Fat Percentage Important?

Initially, when setting up your macros.

This allows you to find out your protein intake requirements and guess your BMR.

To get an idea of your body fat percentage for this initial calculation ask a knowledgable friend (beware of responses given by people if you post your picture on a forum), compare yourself with the photos in this article by Leigh Peele, and perhaps use a couple of the methods criticised above (am I being hypocritical?). Use your common sense and take the average if you are unsure.

Don’t stress about this too much. I certainly don’t think it’s worth running out and getting an expensive DEXA scan.

People place far too much emphasis on the initial macro calculation thinking there is one perfect set of figures. – There aren’t, and you’ll need to adjust your macros as you progress with your diet anyway (reason covered here), so even if you over, or underestimate slightly it’s not a big deal. Furthermore, if you’re following the guides on the site then your protein intake will be set conservatively anyway. This will help ensure muscle mass preservation.

When working with clients I make my initial estimate by drawing on experience. I look at front and side photos, and take into consideration weight, height, training history, lighting, pose and lifting stats. After initial calculations I forget about the figure and don’t encourage clients to think that way. Guess it once then forget it.

A guide to the tracking system I use is in the links below. I hope you find it helpful, it’s worked pretty well for these people.

Thanks for reading. – Andy

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34 thoughts on “Is It Better To Forget About Body Fat Percentage?

  1. Pingback: Dreambulkeritis | RippedBody.jp

  2. Hi Andy,

    Notwithstanding the very sensible points you make about overvaluing body weight %, I was wondering what you think about ultrasound methods, and whether you know of a reliable calculation system if you have access to a reliable operator?

    Cheers,

    Brad

    • Brad, thanks. There are two types of fat. The stuff under your skin (subcutaneous) and the stuff around your organs (内臓脂肪… the English word eludes me at the moment). The ultrasound is only going to detect the skin stuff.

      It’s the internal fat that’s most linked with ill health, and your body knows this and burns that preferentially when dieting.Internal fat is much lower the leaner you get generally.
      Men also tend to have more than women. (Go poke a fat man down your local pub in the gut, was it quite hard rather then squishy? That’s a lot of internal fat.)
      Equations may well have been done, but there are individual differences which have to do with genetics that will cause variance, and I believe that diet can affect this too.

  3. Thank you so much for your work, and explaining more in depth the leangains approach. I come from an extreme endurance back ground ie. ultramarathons, triathlons. I am 41 and looking more towards aesthetics now. 5’8″ 160, don’t know body fat and don’t care, I just want shoulders, abs and vasculature. I am 1 month into leangains approach. My strength is climbing really fast.

    1) Can I still some basement trainer on my bike and and walk/jog 1hr or less to help with fat loss?

    2) A long with that does my carb macros stay fairly the same if I do the bike/walk as the lifting days?

    Thanks.

    • Hi Judd. Don’t do the cardio for fat loss, but do it if you enjoy it. Consider adding in extra carbs on a per cardio activity basis rather then altering your training-rest day split. (Training = weight training day.)

      • Thank you Andy. I do the 3 day split M W F. After my lifting (say it takes 30 min), then the next I do slow cardio like treadmill walk or bike and read on my trainer. I know my heart rate it 115 to 125, which based on the MAF is suppose to be in fat burn. On the off days I’ll take my dog for a walk for 1/2 hr or ride 1/2 hour then walk. These are very slow and casual as I do not want to be catabolic.

  4. Hi Andy, back from burning man and diet breaking and eager to begin my lean bulk! Couple questions:

    1) I’ll be doing as you’ve advised and adding 50g carbs to my training days and 25g on rest days in addition to extra fats. Do I add those carbs from the last macros you set for me?
    2) When should I add more protein? Would I find more benefit to ever increase protein instead of carbs when I stall on strength gains?

    • Tim, thanks for the questions.
      1. Yes.
      2a. Your protein requirements will increase as your lean mass increases. That is only going to be a very small change over time though. See the macros guide post to see my recommendations for that.
      2b. Protein intake above a certain point (the threshold suggested in the macros guide) isn’t likely to help with either strength gains or further muscle protein synthesis.

      • Thanks for the quick reply Andy! Admittedly, I did get impatient and take my carb numbers a little under advised for the last month or so, but I’ll be sure to add the 50g to the carbs from our last session together. Very excited to chase strength gains again!

  5. I believe you that BMR calculators tend to overestimate caloric requirements – i’ve been “cutting” with a BMR of 2000 cals for like 6 months, with nary a pound lost (i am getting much, much stronger, though). I’m curious, though, if you run into this type of situation, what do you like to try first: macro adjustment (i’m thinking of cutting back on the 300+ carbs for training day and shifting those calories into fat (saturated)), or a reduction in total caloric intake?

    Also, as an aside, it would be more helpful on the self-setup if you explained the recommended fat requirements a bit more. Your description is fairly general and, i suspect, more important from a hormonal perspective than you explicitly state. Also, if that’s the case, i’d rather hit my fat right on non-training days so that i don’t go into a hormonal slump. Anyway, it’s just difficult to determine how much fat i should be getting (that is, if the macro ratio is really all that important as compared to overall caloric deficit).

  6. Hi Andy,

    I’ve been doing IF for 2 months now, and it’s amazing how i could get rid of fat easily. I’ve been able to reduce my bodyfat from 20% to 14% now.

    But now i’m having trouble to get even lower bodyfat. it seems i’m having a plateau.

    What should i do? reduce calories even further? or should i do cardio after Weight training session?

    Thx

  7. Pingback: How To Track Your Progress When Dieting | RippedBody.jp

  8. Great article Andy! I’d also like to mention that James Krieger has an excellent series on the flaws of body fat percentage testing which I am sure you are aware of. Others should give it a proper visit if this topic interests them.

  9. gym rats also hate it when you are leaner than they are and you put in half the work (and food consumption) because your a lean gains warrior! LMAO!

  10. Pingback: "Is it better to forget about body fat percentage?" - Thompson Plyler

    • When in the lower body fat ranges, sometimes yes. Long term, yes. However definitely not when you can’t see abs/for those with a higher body fat percentage on a shorter term basis. Often the measurements will show progress when you can’t see it.

      Also, for those that can see abs the mirror won’t show the fat that is being lost off the lower back at this stage – the lower ab/stomach measurement is very useful at this point.

      • I found that calipers were useful down to the point before my upper abs started to show. The measurments would then more or less stay the same for months despite relatively significant drops in the waist circumference. In fact, sometimes the calipers measurements got WORSE despite dropping both scale weight and tape waist measurments. I still do the caliper measurements but only because because I have calipers right next to the tape and it doesn’t take much time. It is pointless for tracking progress though because you can’t spot trends. For anyone already pretty lean they are in my opinion as useless as the bodyfat tables they came with.

        One thing that is really frustrating is that often pictures don’t do a level of leanness justice. Photographing an “ab noodle” has been like trying to see a vampire in a mirror. I can see the damn vein in the mirror but I when I snap the picture it isn’t there and neither is most of the definition I see. Some people seem to be able to photograph well so either they are much much leaner than I am or just know how to work their camera. Since nobody around me is that lean It is hard to know if it is the former or the latter.

  11. I was always more interested in bodyfat % as a guage of whether I’m losing lean mass while cutting. I know some suggest if you’re not losing strength in your lifts, then you’re not losing mass. It gets confusing though. Some strength is neural (CNS related) rather than strictly mass related. So, is maintaining strength a reliable guage of whether one is retaining their lean mass?

    • In intermediate lifters there isn’t likely to be CNS related strength gains and so strength is a fairly good gauge.
      In beginners though there will be strength gains despite cutting. – Some CNS related and some muscle gain related. So if a beginner isn’t making any progress with their lifts then things need adjusting. Where does one draw the line? – It’s blurry.

      • Hi Andy, FYI – I have notice significant strength gains in lifts that had stalled on a cut by including speed work on an unrelated day. This has been true for deadlifts, overhead press and bench – all of which had stalled or flatlined. For instance if deadlift day is wednesday and I’m doing 3×5 heavy, on Monday I will fit in 6 sets of 2 with 50% of the weight I plan to use on wednesday with a 1 minute rest. The same thing works for the othe rlifts. It feels easy but allow you to concentrate on form and explosion. I’m not sure how you classify an intermediate but doing this has allowed me to reach/break through through the bodyweight barrier for ohpx5 (now bodyweight+5) despite finishing up another cut. . . . sort of an abbreviate version of some Westside.

  12. YES. I absolutely agree.

    People want to know their specific percentage because they marry a number in their mind — really there are many better ways to measure progress.

    Plus, people store higher and lower levels of fat in certain areas of the body, making the mirror/gym a much better assessment tool.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Mike

  13. yeah fat % is important, just like eating healthy foods, but….
    it’s physically unhealthy to stuff your mouth with “healthy foods” and…
    it’s mentally unhealthy to be thinking about body fat % all the time lol

  14. Good stuff Andy! Your perspective and attitude on diet, weight loss, and lifting is refreshing and encouraging. We have a tendency of getting caught up in the minutiae, twisted all out of sorts over daily occurrences, while neglecting the slow trend…
    When seeking guidance for my next plan with a buddy of mine, he looked at me and said, “just have fun.” It put things into perspective, enjoy the journey, work hard, but enjoy the process! Thanks for the sanity!

  15. Nice article Andy!
    That’s so true! I always have people telling me they are 5% bf or less! I just laugh to myself. Now that I’ve achieved my best shape ever, I get compliments all the time, telling me I’m like 5% BF and guess what? I know for SURE I’m @10~. I mean I’m not huge ( I’m a triathlete so beign huge isnt good for me) but now, thanks to your guidelines, I have improved in many ways!
    As an advice: Keep it Simple! Results will come alone if you are patient.

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