If you recently started making some positive changes to your lifestyle by adding a fitness and nutrition program to your daily regimen, or improved your already existing programs, one thing you’ll absolutely want ensure is that you’re keeping accurate tabs on your body density by measuring body fat.

Measuring body fat will allow you to fine tune your diet and give you complete insight into whether your current plan is a success or failure.

When looking to see what kind of progress they’ve made with their fitness regimen, most people are quick to jump on the bathroom scale, check out their total body weight, and use that number as an indication of whether their diet and exercise programs are working. Unfortunately, there are several issues with that approach. The biggest issue is inaccuracy.

Using a bathroom scale alone to estimate your body fat is a far less than ideal route to take when monitoring progress. The scale alone will not tell you whether you’ve lost or gained actual body fat or lean muscle mass. All that number on the scale will tell you is whether your overall body weight has increased or decreased. And your overall body weight includes not just the weight of your fat, but also your muscles, bones and the rest of your insides. It’s quite normal for individuals who are just beginning their fitness journey to see a rapid loss in body fat and gain in lean muscle mass. This means you could likely see the scale fluctuate dramatically in either direction. These fluctuations do not necessarily indicate progress or setbacks. It just means that your body is responding and adapting to your lifestyle changes, which is what it’s designed to do. Unfortunately, these rapid changes will eventually subside and you’ll need to make adjustments to continue seeing positive results.

If you are on an effective diet that promotes fat loss, and combining that with a well-rounded fitness routine, chances are pretty good that any decreases in body weight are coming from fat loss, water loss, or both. And when I say “water loss,” I mean that your body is starting to regulate water correctly and no longer retaining it. Water retention has a tendency to add useless pounds to your total body weight and make you look bloated, so ensure you’re getting enough water daily to help speed up your progress. As soon as you start accurately measuring measuring body fat percentages, you’ll be able to determine whether your losses are coming from fat or muscle.

As an added bonus, measuring body fat will help you estimate your current state of health and your risk for a number of diseases. Those who maintain ideal body fat levels will likely see a lower risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, as well as other metabolic related conditions that set you up for disease over the long haul.

So are you ready to being measuring body fat? There are a number of methods you can use when measuring body fat – all with varying degrees of accuracy. By familiarizing yourself with these methods, you’ll have the flexibility to choose the one that’s most convenient for you.

Handheld Devices for Measuring Body Fat

One method of measuring body fat is by utilizing a handheld device. Handheld devices send an electrical current through your body and calculates how quickly it travels.

The theory is that the electrical current will travel very quickly through lean body tissue (muscle, bone, organs, etc.) and much slower through fatty tissues. So the slower the current is traveling, the higher the overall body fat percentage should be. In theory.

Unfortunately, although easy and convenient, handheld body fat measurement devices have a tendency to be extraordinarily inaccurate, even between two readings taken within a short time apart by the same individual. Furthermore, handheld devices for measuring body fat are heavily impacted by several factors, including level of hydration and foods you have recently consumed. While these devices could give you a rough estimate of body fat, they are usually never used as a practical and reliable indicator of actual body fat percentages.

Measuring Body Fat with a Skinfold Caliper

One of the most cost-effective and accurate ways of measuring body fat is by measuring skinfolds with a skinfold caliper. Skinfold calipers will help you identify the thickness of various skinfolds from around your body. These measurements can then be dropped into one of several different body fat formulas. Some popular body fat formulas include Jackson-Pollock 3, Jackson-Pollock 7, and Durnin-Womersley, to name a few. The body fat formula you choose will determine the skinfold test sites. Generally speaking, Jackson-Pollock 3 is a good choice for solo users since all of the skinfold sites are relatively easy for an individual to reach. Other formulas for measuring body fat utilize skinfold sites that tend to be difficult to reach. These formulas may require the assistance of a personal trainer, physician or friend.

Using a pair of skinfold calipers is quite easy and is a widely adopted practice for measuring body fat. It’s very common in gyms and doctors’ offices. To use a skinfold caliper, you simply pinch predetermined locations from around your body with one hand, which creates a skinfold. Then, holding a body fat caliper in the other hand, gently close the caliper arms over the skinfold and read the thickness indicated on the caliper.

After you acquire all of the required skinfold readings, simply plug them into the body fat formula you selected. The result will be a fairly accurate calculation of your actual body fat percentage, which is usually within 1-percent of your true body fat percentage, if done correctly.

There are some pros and cons to the skinfold caliper method. The con is that it’s only useful for assessing subcutaneous fat located just beneath the skin. Caliper testing does not take into account the visceral fat located deeper within the body. Visceral fat protects vital organs and whatnot. While an approximation of visceral fat will be worked into the equation, that’s pretty much all it is – an approximation. Visceral fat levels often vary between individuals so this could mildly skew the results.

With that said, skinfold calipers and their accompanying formulas may not be able to provide a perfectly accurate calculation of total body fat. However, these tools are extraordinarily useful at helping you track changes in body fat levels over time. Most people don’t mind this small tradeoff, considering the low cost of purchasing body fat calipers.

As long as you use the same formula each time you’re measuring body fat, you can reliably tell whether you’re gaining or losing body fat over the long haul. Given the fact that caliper testing a very cost-effective method, it’s currently the best option for those who are looking to affordably track their body fat on a regular basis.

With recent technological developments, such as mobile apps like FatCaliper+, you can simply enter your skinfold measurements whenever it’s convenient for you right on your mobile phone. Apps like this do all of the calculating and tracking for you, which makes it an easy and time-saving way to manage your body fat on the go.

Measuring Body Fat with Underwater Weighing

Another good body fat measurement method is underwater weighing. Underwater weighing is actually proven to be quite accurate when done properly. This method involves you being completely submerged into a tank of water, just after exhaling all of the air in your lungs.

The person administering the test will then measure the total amount of water displaced by your body, which can give a highly accurate indication of total body fat. As fat tissue will displace water to a much greater degree than lean tissue, this method can serve as a great way to assess both visceral and subcutaneous body fat.

The biggest problem, however, comes from the fact that many individuals are unable to completely exhale the air in their lungs, which can lead to inaccurate results. Additionally, the fact that individuals typically need to visit a university where these “dunk tanks” can be found, is just not very practical for the average user.

Measuring Body Fat with a DEXA Scan

Another method of measuring body fat is with a Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) scan. The DEXA method involves an individual being placed under a large scanner. The scanner digitally divides your body into total body mineral content (i.e. bones), fat free mass (i.e. muscle, organs, etc.) and total fat mass. DEXA scans are exceptional at measuring body fat. They also provide insight into your bone density levels. DEXA scans are frequently used by the medical community and often utilized to assess patients who are suffering from osteoporosis.

DEXA scans are usually considered the “gold standard” method for measuring body fat. DEXA scans are highly accurate and quite easy to conduct. DEXA scans usually take approximately 20-30 minutes to complete. While DEXA scans utilize a very low-level x-ray while measuring body fat, it’s considered to be safe for almost all individuals.

The downfall of DEXA scans is that they can cost several hundred dollars per test. Companies that offer them are also sometimes difficult to find. For the average individual simply looking at measuring body fat and improve fitness levels, DEXA scans aren’t a very practical solution.

While there are other techniques on the market for measuring body fat no method is going to beat the skinfold caliper in terms of cost, convenience and availability. If you’re like most fitness-minded individuals and are simply looking to track your progress and determine whether your program is effective, caliper testing is likely the best fit for you. To get started, just purchase a relatively inexpensive skinfold caliper and a calculator for measuring body fat. For calculators, I recommend the FatCaliper+ app. With these tools you’ll have everything you need to start measuring body fat and tracking your progress.

About the Author

Robert Martin

Robert Martin is the founder and author of Fitties. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, Robert is a veteran advertising and marketing professional and has proudly worked with industry-leading media, including CNN and Associated Press.