I recently completed 90 days of the P90X3 Challenge and upon finishing the program I wanted to know how to accurately calculate my body fat percentage. My goal was to drop weight while maintaining my muscle mass. First thing I have to realize is the only way to get lean is to lose body fat while maintaining muscle. So, how do we go about it, do we track body fat or muscle or both? I go over a few different ways to measure body fat below and which one I use myself.
Understanding Body Fat
Most people focus their goals on weight loss when they should instead be thinking about fat loss. They are two very different things. In fact, as you get in better physical condition, you may not lose nearly as much weight as you expected. This is for one very good reason: the more you work out, the more you build muscle. Here is something you probably don’t know: muscle is more dense than fat. So in the same amount of space it weighs more.
It is good to lose weight, especially if you are at an unhealthy number right now, but instead of focusing specifically on how much you weigh, work instead to lose fat.
Why You Need It
Without any fat at all, you couldn’t survive. It does play an important role in your body to provide energy and to protect your organs. There is a certain level called “essential fat”. This refers to the amount of body fat you absolutely must have to survive. If you drop below that level, your organs will fail, and this is what happens for those with severe eating disorders like anorexia nervosa.
You may point to body builders, who carry almost no fat at all when they flex those muscles at shows. However, those people actually only go down to the essential fat level for short periods of time, and they don’t live in that range. It’s for the shows only. During the rest of their life, they know how to keep a healthy level of body fat, still usually below 8%.
Men and Women Are Different
Some women may call it unfair, but it’s a fact of life. Women will carry more body fat on them no matter what. Men who are in the absolute best shape and have well-built muscles can achieve a fat percentage of 3%. However, women in the same shape and muscle condition will usually only be able to drop down to about 8% body fat. Keep in mind that these percentages are too low for good health. Most men will have a goal of getting below the 15-10% range. The images below give you an idea for men and women body fat percentages.
If you are a woman, you may feel this is unfair. However, keep in mind that if you are at a healthy weight and body fat percentage, those few differences in number really won’t make that much of a difference. With that said, if you are overweight, body fat percentage will look different, and that means you have to work toward different goals than men.
Calculating Body Fat Percentage
There are actually different ways you can calculate body fat percentage and they aren’t all as accurate as you may need them to be. Depending on just how precise you would like to be with your calculations, for today I wanted to look into the 3 most common. I included my results with each form of measurements so you can see the differences.
#1 Skin Fold Caliper
Perhaps one of the more accurate of the 3 ways we go over today is the “Skin fold caliper”. This measures your body fat by pinching your fat and measuring the thickness with the caliper. The measurement is given in millimeters, which you then compare to a chart with your age and gender to get the most accurate body fat percentage number. And there are a bunch of different caliper tests that can range from one place to 7 on your body. You can also use an online calculator where you would just plug-in your numbers. The one I like to use is here.
Something to consider: If you are over 15 % body fat I’d recommend using the Parrillo Caliper Method (9 places). And if you are under that 15% I’d recommend the Jackson/Pollock 3 Caliper Method. Being over 15% body fat is hard to just use the 3 locations in my opinion. Once you reach 15% the 3 place measurement will work much better for you.
My Results: Jackson/Pollock 3 Caliper Results: 21% – Parrillo Caliper Method Results: 20%
# 2 Scale
I’m sure you noticed that most scales now include a body fat calculator. It measures the flow of an electric current through your body. Muscles have a high water content and fat is for obvious reasons low. The scale will shoot an electrical current through the body and measure how fast it goes through the body giving you a body fat calculation.
Something to consider: Although this is the easiest option to use, it’s not very accurate as it doesn’t will depend on your hydration levels at the time of use. If you are 30+ pounds over weight you might a hard time using the body fat calipers mentioned above (can’t get the calipers around a pinch of fat) then the scale is a great place to start.
My Results: 20.8%
# 3 US Navy Way
Just about every Team Beachbody workout comes with a measuring tape. And it’s advised to always take you measurements before beginning a new program. If you followed this guideline then you might already have these numbers written down. This method uses the body circumference measurements to estimate your body fat percentage. Again if you’re not really into doing the math you can just enter the info on this site and it will calculate for you. You’ll need to measure your neck and waist and enter your height.
Something to consider: This is probably the least accurate form of measuring body fat because it doesn’t technically measure body fat, but if you don’t have one of the other two options it’s a start.
My Results: 19%
In my own personal measurement they all seemed to be fairly close to each other. This isn’t always the case, but personally I prefer to use the calipers as I feel it’s the most accurate.
What Should My Body Fat Percentage Be?
Now that you know more about fat and how to calculate your percentage, now you need to know what percentages you should be aiming for. In my opinion this is all relative to each individual. For myself getting below 15% is my goal (for now).
Here are some basics to keep in mind:
- The average person who wants to “look” healthy should aim for 18 percent if you are a man or 23 percent if you are a woman.
- Athletes or those who wish to get involved in sports should aim for 15 percent if you are a man or 20 percent if you are a woman.
- If you want to look “ripped” with six-pack abs, then you need to aim for 9 percent if you are a man and 16 percent if you are a woman.
- Women should always avoid dropping below 15 percent body fat since anything lower than this can actually affect fertility.
- You do need a certain amount of fat, but you also need to have a healthy body fat percentage to be in good shape.
How Fast Can I Drop Body Fat
This comes down to two main factors, your nutrition and your workouts. I’m sure you can guess which is more important of the two Tony Horton, the P90X3 creator said that a good average is 1% body fat per month (2% if you are super strict). For my 90 days of P90X3 I dropped about 4%. And remember that’s only with working out 30 minutes per day (6 days/week). I’m extremely proud of that but at the same time I have a ways to go. I think that one aspect people tend to over look is the amount of time it take to drop body fat. There seems to be a misconception that you can get absolutely shredded in only 3 months. Where yes it’s possible, just not realistic for everyone.
I don’t have six-pack abs or a shredded physique (yet), but I still want to be healthy. I’m currently around 20 % body fat (down from +25%), which is probably average for someone my size, and it’s not where I want to be. And having said that I have a goal of getting below 15% body fat. That’s my personal goal for now. I dropped about 4-5% in body fat with P90X3 in 3 months so it’s a great start. I continue to work towards my goals everyday and I know one day I’ll be right where I want to be! So my tip to you is to forget the scale and measure your body fat. It’s a much better measure of progress than the scale will ever be.
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