How to Measure Body Fat, Track Your Progress, and Know if Your Program is Working
It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to become Tyler Durden or the goddam Incredible Hulk – You need to know if you’re moving closer to your goals or not. This means learning how to measure body fat and track your progress. You know, because almost everyone wants to get leaner and body fat percentage is the measurement of how lean you are.
While many people take a haphazard approach to getting in shape, never really knowing if they’re making the most of their time, you’re going to do something better.
You’re going to take a systematic approach to getting in the best shape of your life. An approach that will nearly guarantee your success.
Imagine going through a program, any program, and knowing with absolute certainty whether it was working. Wouldn’t that be great? Yes. Yes, it would. I’ll show you how.
First, there is an important concept for you to understand.
“What gets measured gets managed” – Peter Drucker, Management OG
You want to get ripped? Ok, cool. Now tell me how you know when you’re ripped.
Is it when you have sub 10% body fat? Crazy vascularity? Or when you start doing laundry on your washboard abs?
The definition is up to you, but what’s important is being able to measure your progress along the way to know if you’re on track for your specific goal. Why? Because you don’t get teh abz overnight and unlike Bruce Banner, you’re not going to become The Hulk just because you’re angry about your favorite Game of Thrones character dying. Sorry bro, it’s going to take some time to get the results you want.
Which brings us back to that quote…
“What gets measured, gets managed.”
For someone who wants to develop their ideal physique, this means measuring the variables that indicate your success – body composition, physical performance, etc.
You don’t have to go full Tim Ferriss with your tracking, but you should choose relevant measurements based on your goals.
So…where the hell do you start?
Step 1: Establish a Baseline
To figure out if your program is working, it’s beneficial to start by measuring your body composition. Follow that up with some physical performance tests and even some blood work and you’ll have everything you need to establish a baseline.
From there, you’ll measure your progress at regularly scheduled intervals.
I’ll show you how to measure body fat, ways to measure your physical performance, and how to put it all together so you’ll know for sure that your program is working.
3 Guidelines for Body Composition Testing
As you probably know, your body composition is the percentage of muscle, fat, bone, water, and all other tissues that make up your body. Typically, this is separated into Fat Mass (FM) and Fat Free Mass (FFM) with percent body fat being the number people care about. For example, a 1,000 pound green giant with 100 pounds of body fat has 10% Body Fat.
Measuring body composition is tricky. You’re going to learn about the best methods, including Roman’s favorite, but first you need to do a few things:
- Pick ONE method, just ONE, and stick with it. Trying to measure your body composition seven different ways each time is going to drive you mad because you’ll see varying numbers from each method. Save yourself the headache…just pick one.
- Understand the difference between accuracy and progress. More important than being 100% accurate with your body composition testing is using consistent and reliable tests. With consistent and reliable tests you’ll be able to see if you’re making progress and progress is what matters most.
- Pick ONE method. Oh…wait…I said that already? Yes, I did, because it’s that fucking important. Got it? Cool.
Body Fat Calipers
One method for measuring body fat that you’ve probably seen before involves using the ole’ body fat calipers. You know, where you have someone do a bunch of pinching all over your body. You’ll get much more consistent and reliable data if you have the same person perform the test each time, so find a buddy and stick with them.
Are body fat calipers the most accurate method? No, but remember what I told you before – progress matters more than accuracy in most cases. If you go from 15% body fat using body fat calipers to 14% body fat you know you’re heading the right direction.
Body fat calipers are also cheap and easy to use, so they’re definitely a viable option. Just remember, you need a buddy, the same one every time, so text Mike or Jen and let them know you need their help.
One of the most common methods for body fat testing involves using some type of bioelectrical impedance device – a scale or handheld version. These devices are incredibly easy to use, so this isn’t a surprise.
Though easy to use, this test is going to have the most variability. Why? Because bioelectrical impedance figures out your body fat percentage from the conductivity of an electrical signal that’s sent through your body. This means that your hydration level will fuck with the results.
To keep results consistent, it’s important to use bioelectrical impedance on the same day of the week and at the same time of day each time you test.
The Bod Pod
The Bod Pod is the method I like most. I had my body composition measured with it at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and it cost $50 each time. It’s pricier and more inconvenient than bioelectrical impedance or body fat calipers, but more accurate and reliable.
With the Bod Pod you sit in an enclosed egg-shaped structure and it measures your body composition through air displacement. It’s a bit claustrophobic and if I had remembered what it was like inside my mother’s womb, I’d probably say it was like that, but with a window and a nice seat.
The Bod Pod has also been used to measure body composition at the NFL Scouting Combine for more than a decade. If you have the money to pay for regular tests, it’s worth the investment. You can find a location near you here: http://www.cosmed.it/en/test-site-locator
Like the Bod Pod, hydrostatic weighing isn’t something you can do at home, but it’s an extremely accurate measure of body composition. Not 100% accurate, but damn near.
If you don’t mind being submerged underwater while blowing out all the air you possibly can…hydrostatic weighing could be for you.
While I could talk more in-depth about this method and all the science and equations, I’ll just refer you to John Romaniello’s article on hydrostatic weighing.
DEXA (Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry)
The most expensive, yet intriguing, method for measuring body composition is the DEXA scan.
Not only does a DEXA scan measure your fat mass and fat free mass, it also measures your bone mineral density. It even shows you the composition of each body part. So if your right arm has more muscle than your left arm, you’ll know about it. Only you know why…
For the DEXA scan you lie on your back while a scanner goes over you, shooting low level X-Rays through you to the detector you’re lying on. Magic ensues, and you find out how lean you are.
Aside from body fat tests, girth measurements are another method for measuring changes in body composition.
You want to lose a few inches off your waist? Add a few inches to those delts? Girth measurements are your friend.
All you need to take girth measurements is a sturdy tape measure and a partner. The following areas are the most common to measure and will give you a good idea of where you’re at now:
- Upper Arm (Relaxed)
You can measure in inches or centimeters, just be as precise as you can, and use the same units each time. Seems obvious, I know, but I’ve seen that mistake happen before.
Beyond Body Composition: Physical Performance Testing
Body composition is your starting point to know if your program is working, but you don’t want to simply have a lower percent body fat and lose all your strength do you? No, no you don’t.
While looking fucking amaze-balls is the desire of everyone, it’s not everything. There’s more to life than being really, really, really, ridiculously good looking.
That’s where physical performance testing comes in.
Remember that whole “measure your progress along the way to know you’re on track for your specific goal” thing I mentioned earlier?
Well my friend, physical performance testing is useful not only from the objectiveness of being able to do 5 more pull ups or add 30 pounds to your deadlift, but also from a psychological perspective.
Look, you’re busting your ass in the gym, finally listening to mom and eating some damn veggies, and the worst thing that could happen right now is for you to NOT see progress. It would be devastating. Worse than seeing Mufasa die in The Lion King.
Having different progress markers allows you to know that real change is happening. Mentally, this is a big plus, allowing you to believe in what you’re doing and KEEP MOVING FORWARD.
Before you do any of these tests, make sure to engage in a little training foreplay. You know, so you can bang out your best numbers.
Here are the basic performance tests I’d suggest:
- 1 rep or 3 rep max. Typically used with deadlift, squat, or bench press, but could be used for other exercises as well like weighted chin ups or military press. Record the heaviest weight you lifted and how many reps. Hint: It should be 1 or 3 reps.
- 3 minute push up or chin up challenge. Stole this one from Martin Rooney of Training for Warriors and it’s a “Fun” method for measuring upper body strength endurance.
- Max push ups or pull ups. An alternative to the 3 minute test above, just do one set and as many reps as you possibly can.
- 10 rep max. Best for maxing out on machines or for beginners who really won’t be getting up to a true 1 RM or 3 RM. Still, it allows you to see progress and compare.
- 5 mile run. This is part of the Navy Physical Readiness test. Do you have to do a 1.5 mile run? Hell no. You could do an 800m run, mile run, 2 mile run – It’s up to you. I can’t stress this enough…It’s just something to compare to later.
- The goddam Pacer Test. Hated by everyone in high school gym class except for those cross country runners, the Pacer Test, I have to admit, is a viable option for measuring cardiorespiratory fitness. I know. You don’t have to do it. I wasn’t actually serious about this.
- 2,000 meter rowing test. Running not your thing? That’s cool. Hop on the Concept2 indoor rower and go H.A.M.
- VO2 For those of you who want to go above and beyond with testing, the VO2 max test is an option. You’ll have to find a lab to do this at, but you’ll get a clear picture of where you’re cardiovascular health is at.
The last option for physical performance testing is to simply make up your own test. Seriously. Just be sure to write down the parameters and follow the exact same way next time. Have some fun with this for goodness sake!
For example, Martin Rooney made the Mantathlon a few years ago:
- Bodyweight Bench Press for Reps
- Bodyweight Chin-ups for Reps
- Half-Bodyweight Overhead Press for Reps
- 1.25 Bodyweight Dips for Reps
- Half-Bodyweight Barbell Curl for Reps
For all physical performance test, take the same amount of rest days beforehand, test at the same time of day, and do the tests in the same order.
Blood Work: Diving Deeper into Measuring Progress
Want to really nerd out and get serious about testing your program’s effectiveness? Get your blood drawn and have it tested.
With companies like WellnessFX, that do in-depth analysis of your blood, you can find out just about anything – your cardiovascular, metabolic, liver, and kidney health, why the eagles didn’t just fly Frodo to Mount Doom, your vitamin and mineral levels, blood health, electrolyte levels and fatty acids blood levels.
Whoa. I know. That’s a lot of shit. Definitely something to consider doing.
2 Final Measurements
You’ve learned about body composition testing, physical performance tests and even blood work as means to measure progress. The last two measurements I have for you are MUCH easier and completely painless. No submerging in water tanks. No max exertion cardio. No blood drawn. They are:
- Progress pictures. Nearly everyone has a smartphone. Smartphones have cameras. Use one. Take front, side, and rear pictures to establish a baseline and have something to compare to as you build your ultimate physique.
- General changes. I get it. This is vague and not really a “measurement” per say. Let me explain. There are a few general changes to be aware of – how your clothes fit, your energy levels, sleep quality, and even just your mood. How can you keep track of these? Easy. Write down how tight or loose your favorite clothes are right now and give yourself a 1-10 ranking on all the rest.
Step 2 – Find Weaknesses
Step 1 in determining if your program is working was all about establishing a baseline – measuring your body composition, physical performance, blood work, taking photos, and being more aware of things – now is when you start evaluating what you’re doing that is leading to your results.
How do you start evaluating what you’re doing?
By tracking various activities– What you’re eating, what you’re doing for workouts, how many times you’re having sex…you know, stuff like that.
You don’t have to go crazy with this or even track all of these forever, but if you want to stop playing the guessing game, this is the way to go.
By tracking your nutrition and workouts you’ll be able to find weaknesses, see how diligent you really are, and, most importantly, know what you need to work on next. There’s no point in doing all of this testing if you don’t make adjustments as you go.
Step 3 – Put it all Together
How do you make all of this tracking and measuring as easy and as convenient as possible? By doing two things:
- Use Google Calendar or your Apple Calendar to schedule your tests. Choose the exact time that you’ll do them. 7:00a.m. on Monday? 6p.m. Wednesday? Doesn’t matter. Write that shit down. But Justin, how frequently should I do these tests? I’m glad you asked:
- Body composition – Measure once a month. This gives you time to actually make some progress.
- Performance – Measure every 4-8 weeks. Again, you need some time to make improvements.
- Blood work – Annually.
- Progress pics – Take these once a month.
- Clothing fit – Be aware of this daily.
- Energy levels, sleep, and mood – Be aware of this daily, keeping track with a 1-10 rating.
- Track what matters.
- Nutrition – Use apps like LostIt, MyFitnessPal, Mike Vacanti’s Macros App or just log the food in Evernote or a physical notebook. Remember, you don’t have to track forever.
- Training – Use a little notebook or Evernote to track the weight you lifted, sets, reps, the exercise duration, and how you felt during the workout.
- Everything Else – Store it in Evernote, an actual notebook, or some other note taking app…whatever is easiest for you.
You have the framework for evaluating the effectiveness of any training program on the planet, any program at all, so get out there and start experimenting.
You just have to get started – Measure your body fat and performance, choose a training program, and take notes on what you’re doing each day.
The results will come.