As promised, today I'm going to talk about the ways to track your progress, and, as you will see, there are quite a few!
The very first and likely the easiest way of gauging how you're doing is simply looking at yourself in a mirror. I know that many of you will think that you can't actually accurately measure your body fat, but by doing so you can answer one crucial question, probably the most important one, - do you like what you see or not? If you do, likely you don't need any further guidance, but if you don't (and I assume that it's the case), then we have work to do.
We are actually not done with the visual examination part, believe it or not, but there is a way to reliably estimate your body fat percentage based on your pictures alone. All you have to do is just checking out one of the body fat percentage charts on the internet and simply compare what you see on your pictures to different body shapes presented on the chart.
Though it might seem to be a crude approximation of your real BFP, I believe that this method is one of the easiest to use and its error is not too high compared to other methods we are going to talk about. The method has two main advantages in my opinion. First, you can use it retrospectively to check your old pictures, and to try to estimate your BFP at different stages of your life. Second, our body transformation journey usually starts with a mirror or a picture - we are unhappy with the way we look, and that becomes our incentive to start working on ourselves.
So, it's time to move to more accurate methods. Let's start with a reminder of what we might need to estimate - it is body weight, amount of body fat, amount of muscle or lean body mass and their percentages.
A regular scale is usually a must to assess your body weight regularly, but there are quite a few scales these days that can do way more, specifically, based on your tissues' impedance they can calculate your body fat percentage, your hydration level, your bone density and your muscularity. I believe that an investment of $50-100 can provide you with good estimates of all these parameters for years. I use them myself and find them extremely convenient. There is a small shortcoming of these devices - the weight estimation is not always accurate - I have two sets of scales, and they consistently show different weight with a margin of error of over 1 pound. Estimation of your body fat percentage is even less accurate - it depends on several factors such as your hydration level, the moisture of your skin, sometimes the positioning of an actual device also plays a role. Nevertheless, I will say again, that I believe that such a scale is one of my top suggested items to have if you are planning a serious body transformation - they are inexpensive and reliable enough to use them on a regular basis.
There are way more accurate, but also way more expensive devices that you can use, but before getting to them, I'd like to talk about two other methods for measuring your physique parameters - measuring tape and calipers.
A measuring tape is an amazing tool for checking your body parameters - you can, and I dare to say, you should check the circumference of your arms, your legs, and your torso regularly to see if you are progressing in terms of gaining muscle. In addition to that, you can also check your body fat percentage just using a $1 measuring tape. There are several methods of calculating your BFP, such as the US Navy method. There are a quite a few websites that would allow you to enter your anthropometric parameters and then would calculate your BFP. To make your life easier you can just check out my website - we have this tool available for you here.
Calipers is another tool, which arguably provides you with the best estimate of your subcutaneous fat. They are not good for testing your visceral fat (the fat depositions surrounding your internal organs), so the overall BFP estimate might be a subject for a substantial systematic error. There are different methods of using them, but I believe that this tool requires too much skill to use it reliably, so unless you're a fitness trainer and do it regularly and professionally, I would not recommend using them. In any case, they are quite cheap, and likely are worth a small investment. Instructions usually come with the calipers.
Just one more thing I'd like to mention before going to the next level - Body Mass Index (BMI). BMI is calculated as your weight in kilograms divided by the square of your height in meters. The reason why I bring this formula here is simply to show you that, essentially, BMI is your weight divided by a constant (I assume that your height will not change pretty much ever). So mathematically, BMI is no better than just using your weight as an indicator of your progress. It is a very useful tool though, but mainly for physicians, as BMI is strongly associated with cardiovascular health and that is exactly what it was designed for. I don't think that there is not much utility in using it for tracking your body transformation, you can as well use your weight.
Finally, we must talk about the ultimate tools for your body composition analysis. Most of them cost at least several thousand dollars, so you will not be able to purchase them, but I would highly recommend having an appointment with a specialist that has them to test your body composition once every few months. First, there are very accurate devices that use your body impedance - they just run way more complicated algorithms than your bathroom scale, but the principle is pretty much the same. The next method, hydrostatic body fat testing, is quite old, and I frankly don't know of any place where they use it these days, but it's still possible to find it. The idea is quite simple - when submerged in water, the water level rises indicating your body volume and, knowing your weight, it's easy to calculate your body's density and to estimate your body fat percentage. There is a modern version of this method based on calculating on how much air you displace in a special chamber. Same principle - different device (BOD pod). These are available in some labs and in some gyms, so why not to test yourself there from time to time.
And finally, the most precise tool that we have today is something called DEXA (Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry) scan. The main idea is similar to that used in CT scans - there is a scanner that analyses your body composition layer by layer, and then a computer sums it all up and gives you a precise percentage of fat, muscle, bones, etc. This method is the most accurate and the most expensive, it does require a lab, and since X-ray is involved, you will receive a minute dose of radiation. I would recommend using it every several months to have the perfect understanding of the changes in your body during your body transformation.
Now it's time to summarize and to map out the best plan for your body transformation progress tracking:
- Mirror and pictures are easy to use, and you can use your pictures in retrospective. Also, you could and should take some before and after pictures. I would also add that the margin of error of this technique is not that big to completely discount this method as a measuring tool.
- A body weight scale with a body composition analysis function is an inexpensive tool that I would highly recommend for day-to-day use.
- The measuring tape is a good addition to your toolbox for checking your gains, but you can also use it to track the amount of body fat loss.
- Once in several months, you could get a very accurate picture of your body composition by using either a DEXA scan or a BOD pod if you have a lab nearby that uses such technology.
I think we've covered a lot today, and you will find it useful and comprehensive enough to start using one or several of these techniques to achieve your personal goals. Please, leave feedback and ask questions.