At the dawn of the health club, the scale was introduced as the primary means of tracking progress.
Then, fitness enthusiasts began using a measuring tape to assess inches lost after realizing the scale didn’t tell the whole truth.
Later, healthcare professionals started using the body mass index (BMI) as a measurement to assess the risk of chronic illnesses a person may develop depending upon their height and weight.
Finally, after realizing that lean muscle mass can negatively influence the outcomes of all of these tools, skinfold calipers were introduced as a way to measure success.
This expert guide will give you an in-depth outlook on why you should use skinfold calipers, where and how to take measurements, and what your percentage means for your overall health.
Why Should You Use Skinfold Calipers?
Everyone has different goals, so the reasons for using a skinfold caliper will vary from person to person with the exception of one universal health component.
Excessive body fat can put you at risk for chronic diseases.1 As mentioned in the introductory portion of this guide, health experts once used BMI to assess an individual’s susceptibility to developing diseases. However, the BMI scale isn’t always reliable as it is greatly influenced by the weight of an individual.
As I’m sure you’re well aware of at this point, muscle weighs more than fat. An individual who falls into the overweight (or even obese) classification under the BMI scale may have more lean muscle mass and less body fat than a person falling into the normal classification.
On the flip side of that statement, an individual falling into the normal classification of the BMI scale may have an excessively high body fat percentage putting them at greater risk for chronic disease.2
So, how do you find out what your body fat percentage is? While several different tools that can be used to determine body fat, the most readily available one that you can use at home is the skinfold caliper.
How to Measure Your Body Fat with Skinfold Calipers
Now that you’re familiar with why you should use a skinfold caliper, let’s move on to how you can measure your body fat using one.
Here’s what you’ll need to begin:
- Skinfold Caliper
- A friend to help perform the measurements (preferred)
- A marker/pen to mark measuring sites
- Something to write down and track results (paper, smartphone, etc.)
- A basic calculator to determine the medians of each measurement.
After you’ve gathered all the necessary items listed, you’ll be ready to pinch and pull. We’ll delve into the specific measuring locations momentarily, but first, let’s discuss a few pointers to get a clear and accurate body fat reading.
This will be a 7-fold caliper test and there’ll be 7 locations that you’ll want to measure. At each location, you’ll want to take 3 measurements to average out and ultimately plug into the body fat percentage calculation. Prior to taking the 3 measurements, you should mark the location with a “t”, pinching the cross with the caliper to obtain a consistent reading each time.
It’s important not to pinch too hard as this could disrupt the accuracy of the test. The caliper is used to determine the skinfold in millimeters. The thickness of the skinfold represents the amount of fat (in millimeters) at that particular location on your body. Thus, the harder you pinch, the more biased the outcome will be.
Finally, for the best results, you’ll want to take the measurements on the same side of your body and under the same circumstances for each subsequent test. The easiest way to manipulate these variables is to take your measurements on the right side of your body and in a fasted state (at the same time) upon waking in the morning.
Where exactly should you pinch? I’m glad you asked.
Where to Take Skinfold Measurements
In the sections below, we’ll cover each of the 7 measuring site locations on the body and how you should fold them when measuring.
Again, for the most accurate reading, you’ll want to measure each of the following locations 3 separate times.
To measure the chest, diagonally pinch a fold that is halfway between the armpit and the nipple. For women, you’ll want to pinch 1/3rd of the way between the armpit and nipple. This will allow you to pinch far enough away from the breast tissue to get an accurate reading.
The abdominal measurement should be taken utilizing a vertical fold 2cm to the right of your belly button.
The suprailiac measurement should be taken utilizing a diagonal fold at the crest of the hipbone directly below the front of the armpit. It is located right above the hip bone.
The midaxillary measurement should be taken with a vertical fold directly below the middle of the armpit on the same level as the breast bone. To easily measure this location, raise your arm over your head while a partner measures the area below the armpit.
The tricep measurement is located at the midway point on the back of the upper arm, halfway between the shoulder and elbow. It should be taken with a vertical fold.
The subscapular measurement should be taken with a diagonal fold. It is located in the scapula region on the backside of your body. For the most accurate reading, the fold should be taken just below the shoulder blade to the side of the spine.
The 7th and final measurement is at the thigh. To measure this location, take a vertical fold halfway between your hipbone and your kneecap.
Some additional variables to consider:
As mentioned before, to get the most accurate readings from this test, you’ll want to measure the same side of your body under the same circumstances for each test. As suggested, this is best done in a fasted state upon waking in the morning.
However, if this scenario is not feasible for you, here are a few additional things to consider:
- Always test before any kind of resistance training.
- Refrain from drinking alcohol for the 3 days prior to testing.
- Keep your carbohydrate and supplementation consistent.
- Don’t try to manipulate water intake via dehydration/rehydration.
- Take tests at the same time of day.
- Keep caloric/meal intake similar throughout testing days.
- Do not use creams, lotion, or oils on skin on the day of the test.
- Mark each measurement location.
- Take all measurements on the same side of the body.
- Take 3 measurements for each location while measuring.
Calculating Your Body Fat Percentage
After you’ve measured all 7 locations 3 times and have an average of each individual measurement, you’re ready to plug your results into the formulas below to determine your body fat percentage. We'll be using the Jackson and Pollock 7 site formula for this.
Body Fat Calculation for Males
Body Density = 1.112 – (0.00043499 * sum of skinfolds) + (0.00000055 * square of the sum of skinfold sites) – (0.00028826 * age)
Body Fat Percentage = (495 / Body Density) – 450
Body Fat Calculation for Females
Body Density = 1.097 – (0.00046971 * sum of skinfolds) + (0.00000056 * square of the sum of skinfold sites) – (0.00012828 * age)
Body Fat Percentage = (495 / Body Density) – 450
What These Body Fat Percentage Numbers Mean
Now that you know what your body fat percentage is, we can discuss what it means in accordance with your health. The table below demonstrates various body fat percentages and what each means in terms of health and performance.
|Category||Males (% BF)||Females (% BF)|
To break down the chart a little bit, let’s discuss what each of the categories means. Essential Fat is extremely low fat and anyone falling into this category is extremely lean (more than likely for a bodybuilding competition).
The athlete category is a notch above it. Those who fall into this category will be mid-season fitness competitors along with a lot of collegiate and professional sports athletes.
The fitness category best serves the everyday fitness enthusiast and off-season competitor who tracks his or her macros and hits the gym hard after work. This is the percentage that most pride themselves in falling under when springtime comes and they’re hanging out at the beach and/or pool.
The acceptable range is primarily composed of those who do not workout but may do some sort of weight maintenance on occasion. Those who do fall under this range, but still hope to lead a healthier lifestyle should aim to reach the lower percentage of this range (i.e. 25% for women and 18% for men).
The final range represents the obese population. This range is associated with a greater risk for chronic illness. However, if you fall in this range and wish to lead a healthier lifestyle, it’s not too late! Fat loss is very much an achievable goal.
Finding Your Lean Body Mass
As explained earlier, the measurement of muscle loss or gain is one of the most important uses of body fat measurements. It is very easy to determine and simply involves finding the weight of the "lean mass" by measuring % body fat and weight. Since muscle tissue is the component of the lean mass that can change the most, changes in the lean body weight are going to be caused mostly by changes in the weight of the muscles.
To determine the weight of the lean mass, the person must be weighed on an accurate scale. This will give the weight of the lean mass. After a period of time on a diet and/or exercise program, the measurements are repeated. Any change, up or down, of weight obtained for the lean body mass will represent the amount of muscle lost or gained.
For example, a male weighing 210 lbs. He measures his % body fat and finds it is 30%. Multiplying 210 lbs x 30% gives 63 lbs as the weight of this man's body fat. Subtracting 63 lbs from 210 lbs shows that his lean mass weights 147 lbs.
After a month of regular exercise and a proper diet, his weight has dropped to 195 lbs. and his body fat to 25%. Multiplying 195 lbs. x 25% gives 49 lbs. as his body fat weight. Subtracting this from his 195 lb. body weight shows that his lean mass is 146 lbs.
This shows that he has lost 1 lb. of muscle while losing 14 lbs of fat, a very good result, and means that his diet and exercise program is working very well for him.
Reviewing the basic calculations above:
Body Weight * Body Fat % = Body Fat Weight
Body Weight - Body Fat Weight = Lean Mass Weight
Body fat = 30%, Body weight = 210 lbs
210 lbs. * .30 = 63 lbs.
210 lbs. – 63 lbs. = 147 lbs. lean mass weight
Body fat = 25%, Body weight = 195 lbs
195 lbs. * .25 = 49 lbs.
195 lbs. – 49 lbs. = 146 lbs. lean mass weight
147 lbs. – 146 lbs. = 1 lb. loss of lean body weight.
63 lbs. – 49 lbs. = 14 lb. loss of body fat.
Another example could be a female who weighs 150 lbs. and has 30% body fat. Multiplying her weight by her % body fat will show that she has 45 lbs. of body fat. Subtracting this from her 150 lbs. body weight shows that her lean mass is 105 lbs.
After a month of a low-calorie diet, she has lost 20 lbs. and is down to 130 lbs. measuring her % body fat gives 27%. Again multiplying this times her body weight of 130 lbs. and subtracting the result of 35 lbs. from her body weight shows that her lean body mass dropped to 95 lbs, a 10 lb. loss from her previous lean mass weight of 105 lbs. Body fat and weight measurements used to compute lean mass weight show that she lost as much muscle tissue as fat and that her weight loss program is not a good one.
Reviewing the basic calculations above:
Body Weight * Body Fat % = Body Fat Weight
Body Weight - Body Fat Weight = Lean Mass Weight
Body fat = 30%, Body weight = 150 lbs.
150 lbs. * .30 = 45 lbs.
150 lbs. – 45 lbs. = 105 lbs. lean mass weight.
Body fat = 27%, Body weight = 130 lbs.
130 lbs. * .27 = 35 lbs.
130 lbs. – 35 lbs. = 95 lbs. lean mass weight.
105 lbs. – 95 lbs. = 10 lbs loss of lean body weight.
45 lbs. – 35 lbs. = 10 lbs loss of body fat.
Finding Your Goal Weight Based on Desired Body Fat %
If you know your present weight and % body fat it is possible to determine what your weight should be for any % body fat. This can be done by simple calculations. Firstly subtract your present % body fat from 100 and divide this by 100 minus the desired % body fat. Multiply this by the present weight and this will give you the weight for the desired % body fat. For example, a female 145 lb. who is now 32% body fat. She desires to be 21% and wants to know what she would weigh if she was 21% body fat. Subtracting 32 from 100 she gets 68. 21 from 100 equals 79. Then, 68 divided by 79 equals 0.86. Multiply 145 lbs. x 0.86 and this will give her the desired weight of 125 lbs.
She has learned that to reduce her % body fat to 21%, she must lose 20 lbs. However, the above formula only works if the person reduces in such a way as not to lose muscle tissue. This can be done through adequate exercise and proper nutrition. If the weight is lost primarily through a low calories diet in a short period of time then muscle tissue will be lost, as well, and the weight for the desired % body fat will be correspondingly less.
Reviewing the basic calculations above:
Present % Body fat = 32%, Desired % Body fat = 21%, Present Weight = 145 lbs.
100 – 32 = 68
100 – 21 = 79
68 / 79 = 0.86
Desired Weight = 145 lbs. * 0.86 = 125 lbs.
Another example of the above is a weight trainer who is currently 200 lbs. and is 21% body fat and wants to get to 5% body fat, how much weight would he have to lose to achieve this goal?
Present Body fat = 21%, Desired Body fat = 5%, Present Weight 200 lbs.
100 – 21 = 79
100 – 5 = 95
79 / 95 = 0.83
200 lbs. * 0.83 = 166 lbs.
200lbs. – 166 lbs. = 34 lbs.
So to achieve a 5% body fat he would have to lose 34 lb of body fat and should have a lean body mass of 166 lbs. By having his body fat done on a regular basis will enable him to see if his dieting to achieve his goal involves the loss of his hard-earned lean body mass (muscle tissue).
Where to go from here?
So there you go, there's all the information you need to measure and monitor your body fat and lean muscle mass. What’s there left to do?
If you weren’t pleased with where you fell in the body fat categories, then it’s time to saddle up and get to work my friend. You’re in the right place because we’ve got several resources on burning fat right here on Muscle & Strength.
Just remember, it’s important to set realistic goals. If you’re trying to burn fat while preserving muscle mass, you need to find a good caloric deficit that works for you while balancing your macros to repair, recover, and build muscle after working out.
If you’re trying to add lean muscle mass so you have a fuller physique, remember that you’re guaranteed to add body fat while in a caloric surplus. That shouldn’t stray you away from your goals, but it should encourage you to utilize a skinfold caliper and the reference above to maintain a healthy body fat percentage.
Finally, if you’re happy with where you fell in the categorization, then it’s maintenance time! Keep doing what you’re doing, but be sure to revisit periodically to reassess your body fat and see if you’re still falling into your target range.
The skinfold caliper is a great tool to add to your health measuring toolbox. It’s perfect for a convenient way to assess body fat at home. It can be used to perform the 7 fold test to give you a decent assessment of your current body fat.
Knowing your body fat can help you achieve both your cutting and bulking goals while allowing you to avoid the risk of chronic disease and live a healthy overall lifestyle.
Are the measurements in mm or inch or what?
Most calipers are in millimeters, Chris.
Hi, I’m a healthy weight but I have a lot of body fat unfortunately. What is the best workout (from home, I got ez curl bar and some dumbbells) to reduce body fat and tone up?
Hey Joe - fat loss heavily relies on your diet. So I would start there. For fat loss diet advice, check out this link:
As for a minimal equipment workout for fat loss, I would check out these plans here:
This dumbbell workouts above are some of our most popular workouts as they can be adapted to fit your fat loss or muscle building goals. There's currently no cardio plan written for either program, but you can definitely work in extra cardio after your weight training sessions. For additional cardio plans, check out the link here: https://www.muscleandstrength.com/workouts/cardio
Just remember, fat loss goals heavily rely on diet! So I would start there.
Why make different charts for men and women when the mm of fat that is 'healthy' is the same?
So, a woman with the same mm of fat as the male counterpart has more fat than him? That doesn't male sense to me.
Ok, more of her fat would be in he breat area, etc... but 'acceptable' mm of fat are the same, regardless of guessing fat %
Newsflash...men and women are different! I know that's a radical idea these days but they are...their design is different.
Women cannot gain the muscle that men can nor can they lose the fat that men can (generally speaking) they are designed to look and be a certain way physically.
Women carry more body fat naturally in breast tissue and fat around the hips.
Agreed.. so why don't the women's measurements consider measuring fat on thighs or hips?
Seems very straight forward. The key is taking the measurements in the exact same locations.
Good clear instructions on taking skinfold measurements. I plugged my measurements into some on-line body fat calculators like fatcalc.com and got some interesting results.
thanks for the article...it helped me
This article is pretty much plagiarized from the How to Measure Your % Bodyfat instruction manual by Wallace C. Donoghue. Just bought ski fold calipers and was reading the manual and thought how very similar this article was to it. Practically word for word. :/
It literally says that is where the article came from right below the article. So they didn't steal it.
Why are you this way Tara?
This way is more accurate than any other fat test or body composition test. you can not trust the electronic scales that are used nowadays more than this one.
Personal Trainer Certified IFPA
In my opinion, the instruction does not correspond to the device shown in the photo.
Need chart for <20mm. Also remember there being less arm measurements and at least one thigh measurement (especially for women).
Excellent & very clear article. Thank you.
Good article with good explanations on getting the body fat. I was messing it up with applying to much force to the calipers. I will get better ones that actually provide a better feel of when to stop pressing. On the subject I read early on in the comments, I feel bad for all those who had to put up with knuckleheads that can't understand that the scientific and logical way to compare masses is by volume. 1 lbf or lbm doesn't mean anything if its not defined by NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) as a unit of force or weight and obviously it makes no sense to say muscle and fat weigh the same because they are compared by volume. If you don't mind changing from a 32" waist to a 36" (size: i.e. volume) because you still weigh the same then why the heck are you even looking at using these calipers...
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Steve, is there a formula for decreasing body fat while building muscle? Currently I'm 175lbs with 14.5% body fat. I really want to get down to 10% body fat. I lift 3x's per week with a lot of cardio in between including horseback riding as a team roper. I'm 40 yrs old. I'm takimg 175g of protein per day and csrbs from veggies only. I've tried some of everything and have yet to get that % to move.
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How about an extinction female that wants to compete in bikini comp and only needs to put on muscle?
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can anyone measure my body fat accurately I could not do it on my own - I see an exercise physiologist B.Ex.Sc.ESSAM - would he be qualified to measure it?
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Quite informative lesson and article.... Almost makes me want to go get some calipers....
Thanks for document. I've been trying to search the forums for info on using a digital caliper. I purchased the Accufitness Fattrack Gold one based on a recommendation from a friend. I feel that I'm using it correctly but it's still hard to do.
I got my BF from Doug at 34% two weeks ago and a week later my digital caliper came in. I took my own measurements twice and got 30.4% and 30.2%. I did it again a little while ago and got 30.2%.
I've lost 8 lbs while doing the "how to build muscle and cut fat workout" from the beginners section. I just finished week 3 while maintaining a much better eating plan. Do you know of any how to for digital?
Hello, I just ordered the Accu Fitness Fat Track Gold digital caliper. Their tool comes with instructions for the 3 measurements needed but should I have gone with this tool instead? I went back and forth between the non-digital and the digital. Ultimately, I chose this one based on a friends recommendation.
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my weight is 200 and my fat is 16%
sir i have one doubt, which part i will measure the skin fold , dominant part or non dominant part & which one the correct measurement & why, i go through some articles, some articles measure dominant part and some one measure none dominant part, but they did not given any justification, but i need justification.
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what are some other ways too measure fat if you dont have calipers
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Eating low carbs now? Your glycogen stores will be low decreasing water retention
OK, So . . . Basically i've been reading alot of comments about people loosing more muscle and gaining fat.
The reason being this In My Opinion, is that well. Just to throw out, im 17 year old boy who does do weight lifting, and most people who lift don't know theyre somatype. I'm an ECTOMORPH. This means that Cardio is bad!! Most people when they check out their Body fat % are infact endo's / ecto's. Because the Mesomorphs don't really need to check this stuff out since they can see their muscles well defined.
Anyways, So the reason why people are gaining More Fat than Muscle (loosing muscle sometimes too) are because they do good dieting (yes this is good) but do cardio ( this is for the ectomorphs because i'm an Ecto and this happens to me so this is MY OPINION). Since i did cardio i gained IDK how much body fat % but it was certainly alot. Since i can no longer see my abs anymore. . . and when i tried to do some cardio ( like people do on videos on yt / blogs etc ) i begin to realise i am still loosing weight but also loosing muscle!! The Body Fat only goes up if and only if you do not have a healthy nutrician.
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I've just used the Jackson/Pollock 3-site fat caliper method and found I've 4.5% body fat. I train at the gym from monday to friday for muscle building but I think this might be a bit low. Would it be better to use another method to confirm this?
So my question is, what about women who carry more fat in their butt and legs? If I went with only those four measurements, it says I would be at 12% bf. But I know I have more than that because I measure 12mm when doing the pinch on the middle of my thigh. And it doesn't account for a woman's breast tissue, all being different sizes. Plus, I fluctuate 5 pounds from 129 to 134 at 5' 7 1/2". It's easy to put on 5 with just one bad day of eating....damn. I can easily see and feel a difference with just 5 pounds. It's a delicate balance when I lose weight. I can start looking skinny instead of a "full," curvy look. I'd like to be smaller but keep the curves.