Competitors worry about appearance, not body fat percentage scores.
I don’t use body fat percentage as a measure of progress with clients.
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 due to the inaccuracies in every tool that we have available to us to measure it.
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 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.
There are a few reasons why nearly everyone thinks they are leaner than they are:
- We look in the mirror and see ourselves only under just the right lighting conditions.
- Overly generous measurement machines (I’ve even seen a BIA machine with a “lean” measurement setting.)
- 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
- Unfortunately not. The fluctuations in result are what make these things most perilous.
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.
“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 (Unnecessary) 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