Competitors worry about appearance, not body-fat percentage scores.

I don’t use body-fat percentage as a measure of progress with clients.

There is no way to accurately and consistently measure body-fat percentage that makes tracking it worthwhile, and it’s destructive to the assessment and decision-making process to try to do so.

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 about your body-fat percentage, which lays the groundwork for my alternative method of tracking progress that I use when assessing clients and making decisions to keep them progressing.

The Three Reasons To Not Regularly Track Body-fat Percentage

1. You are either as lean as you like, or you’re not.

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:

  1. We tend to 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. The confirmation bias 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

“Even if it’s wrong, at least it will be consistently wrong.” 

Unfortunately not. The fluctuations in results 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.

Body Fat Percentage Tools
BodPod, BIA machine, Caliper, Hydrostatic weighing (left, top, bottom, right)

“Aren’t inaccurate results fine as long as they are consistently inaccurate? That way we can track change over time?”

– Sorry, I realize I’m repeating myself but 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-ray technology and a bit of math.

This is 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. (BIA Machine flaws / Bodpod flaws / Underwater weighing flaws / DEXA scan flaws)

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 Estimating 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 you can use the method developed by the US Navy which uses neck and waist circumference measurements. I’ve put together that calculator for you in this article: A Quick Guide To Estimating Body-fat Percentage.

Don’t stress about the result 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.

From there you need to track your progress, and here’s how I suggest you do that: How To Track Your Progress Like A Pro, To Ensure Body Recomposition Success.

I hope you find it helpful, I think you’ll agree that it’s worked pretty well for these people.

Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments as always.

– Andy

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Mike Bores
Mike Bores

It works for me =)

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Maximus Decimus Meridius
Maximus Decimus Meridius

Well, got a Dexa scan today. Have BIA scale at home and it was telling me I am at 13%. Dexa came back at a whopping 24%. How could this be??? Here is what I look like: https://imgur.com/I42GShe . What do you think of my fat %. I don’t know if I should trust Dexa at this point and cut my calories even more.
Am skinny fat already. If I go by the Dexa numbers, I am going to very skinny at the end of my cut.

Maximus Decimus Meridius
Maximus Decimus Meridius

Thanks Andy! Read that post. Great info. I am a bit confused on how much to lose per week. From the pictures it seems your clients were losing 1.5 pounds per week. In your post it says to lose 0-1 lbs. If I want to be close to 10% body fat to start my bulk, I need to lose ~20 lbs of fat. At my current rate, that will take 30 weeks. Should I rush the cut just to get to the leanness I need to be to start my bulk?

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Aisha
Aisha

This is so true. I have literally got myself fixated with my body fat percentage. I am getting married in 8 weeks time and I actually feel really good with my body now apart from one area. However, I have got myself fixated on the fact that 2.5 years ago I got down to 18.5% body fat in the morning compared to 24% body fat now at around the same weight (I am just 5 pounds heavier). At 5ft 4in and 117 pounds, I would have to dip to 7st 12lbs to get down to even 19% body fat. I honestly can’t see where the extra 4ibs on fat in comparison would be stored.

I am happy with my figure now but I just can’t get out of my mind that my arms must have been a lot fatter (dropping a cup size more like I did before would only lead to a small swing of 1%). So now I feel like my wedding will be ruined if I don’t have skinnier arms and push myself, but I’m pretty sure that before my arms were around the same and my breasts look better one / half a cup size bigger.

If only I had just used before and after photos and measurements like you advise!

Is it possible that the same machine (I used one at my gym which I remember testing once or twice to be the same as the one at home) could somehow now be consistently higher for no good reason i.e. not consistent? I used to measure myself at the gym regularly then “tested” it against my one at home once or twice I think. I’m sure my measurements for a higher weight but much lower body fat from read-outs before were at times when I felt flab on my waist and bulging over my bra. Is it possible that this time, as I lost the fat more gradually this time, the fat has lost in different areas and the scales have somehow picked it up differently? See – https://weightology.net/weightologyweekly/?page_id=218 , where I found you?

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Brad
Brad

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

judd
judd

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.

judd
judd

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.

Tim Wut
Tim Wut

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?

ohWut
ohWut

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!

Bob
Bob

Sorry. this should probably be under your June 10 article.

Bob
Bob

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).

Scott
Scott

Looking forward to that article Andy. Any idea when it’ll be posted, as I am curious about this subject myself? Very helpful site btw.

Theo
Theo

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

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Hi Theo, have a look at the tracking post and the patience post.

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Jeff
Jeff

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.

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Thanks for the heads up Jeff. I’ll link to that in the article.