Whether you are a beginner that is just starting his weight loss journey, an advanced trainee or even a professional bodybuilder, knowing your body composition is highly important. Body composition includes the measurement of body fat, muscle tissue, bone mass and water. Knowing all of this information can help you to keep accurate track of your progress and be able to set realistic goals. If your dream is to have abs like that professional bodybuilder who is under 6% body-fat and you are an over-weight guy starting at 30%, then you must be aware that your goal is unrealistic on the short term and it will take many years of hard work and dedication to achieve it.
There are many ways to measure your body fat percentage, some being more accurate while others having a wider range of error. In this article we'll discuss the most accurate ones and we'll take a look at both the pros and cons of each one:
1. Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA)
This is by far the most wide spread method of all and it's accessible to millions of people who own a BIA scale analyzer. There are many types of devices but they all work the same way: they send tiny electrical impulses through your body and measure how fast they return. Depending on the type of tissue they travel through (fat, muscle, bones or water) the device will then determine the percentage for each one.
Pros: One of the benefits of BIA scales is that they are quite cheap and easily available in super-markets and online stores. They are also very easy to use and a person doesn't need any knowledge or experience. After pressing a few buttons, the measurement takes only a few seconds.
Cons: Even though it's such a simple and affordable method, it's not very accurate. Readings can be easily affected by your level of hydration (being hydrated will give better results), by meals (a recent meal may affect results), as well as by a workout (measuring right after a workout might also give better results regarding body fat). So in order to get the most accurate results with BIA devices, make sure to measure yourself under the same conditions (same time of the day, with the same level of hydration and with the same amount time after a meal and a workout).
2. Skin Calipers
The calipers used for this method are also widely available in stores and websites and are much cheaper than BIA analyzers. But even though they are accessible to anyone, they can't be used by anyone because they do require some knowledge. They are small devices that are used to measure the thickness of the skin fold for different parts of the body. You must know the exact places, pinch the skin in those places, measure the thickness and then input the results into a formula (or an online calculator) and find out your results.
Pros: Like we said before, this is the cheapest method of all, a pair of skin calipers costing just around $10. Another advantage would be that if you know how to do it, you can take the measurements in a matter of minutes, any place and any time.
Cons: Even though they are cheap and widely spread, they do require a certain level of knowledge and experience. So a beginner might not be able to take accurate measurements by himself and will need the help of a trainer or a doctor. And even if you find an experienced person to do the readings, you must pinch the EXACT spots every time, even if the readings are 1 month or 1 year apart. Even so, the readings are not 100% accurate.
3. Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA Scanning)
This method involves you going to a hospital or a clinic, lying on a table while a machine scans your entire body with X-ray beams of different intensities. The machine will then give very accurate readings of body composition as well as bone density and it even shows the results for various body parts.
Pros: The main advantage of the DEXA scanning is that it's a very accurate method. Another accurate method is the hydrostatic weighing (see below), but that one involves you getting dunked into water. So compared to that one, the DEXA scanning is a dry and painless method.
Cons: This is definitely not a method that is available anywhere and anytime. First of all you would have to find a clinic in your area that has such a device, then make an appointment and then pay a pretty good amount of money for a scan, depending on your location. While you can take a DEXA scan every 6 or 12 months to see your overall progress at the gym, it's not that easy to take one every week or every month (but not impossible either).
4. Hydrostatic Weighing
It's also known as underwater weighing and as the name implies, you will have to dunk underwater. A special device will measure your weight underwater, which will then be compared to your normal weight. Using these numbers and the density of water, the specialist operating the device will then calculate your body composition.
Pros: Like we said before, this is also an accurate method of measuring your body fat percentage, some people even considering it the most accurate of all.
Cons: But unfortunately a underwater scale is not available to anyone and you must find a lab or a performance center that has such a device. So it's an inconvenient and quite expensive method. For the price of just one reading (around 50$) you can buy 5 skin calipers or a pretty good BIA analyzer that you can use for hundreds of times. Besides this, the method is a bit uncomfortable and you will have to dive completely underwater for a few seconds with as little air in your lungs as possible, to avoid error readings.
Another accurate but high-tech and inconvenient method is the Air-Displacement Plethysmography. But no matter which method you choose, the idea is to stick to that method, take readings in very similar conditions and see if you progress or not. If you measure yourself once with a BIA calculator and do a DEXA scan next month, you might notice that you haven't lost (or even gained fat), even though that might not be the case...just a difference in readings.
So just look for the method that is the most accessible to you and stick to that one. Don't measure yourself every week (and definitely not every day), but give your body time to react to your fitness program or diet (try to have 6-8 weeks between readings in order to see real progress).