Body Composition: Easy and Accurate Ways to Measure it

body composition

What is Body Composition

When talking about body composition in workout and fitness circles, it means the percentage of bone, water, muscle, and fat in your body. The measurement is the ratio or fat mass compared to fat-free mass.

Body composition is often hailed as the best indicator of overall health, which means there is a lot on the line when measuring it. When you know your body composition, you can take steps to effectively lower your body fat and set muscle and fitness goals [1]. Notice how I didn’t mention you are losing weight or gaining weight. Get that out of your mind.

Remember, your goal is to lower your body fat and gain muscle mass, not to lose weight or gain weight.

skinny fatFat Mass (FM)

When you measure your body composition, you are looking at both fat mass and non-fat mass.

There are two types of fat mass with which everyone should be concerned, regardless of physical and aesthetic goals: visceral fat and subcutaneous fat. Even skinny people can have visceral or subcutaneous fat.

Visceral fat (active fat) is fat that surrounds the organs. Visceral fat is deep in the body and servers as energy reserves for the body. It is also a cushion around the organs. Visceral fat is also referred to as intra-abdominal fat. Visceral fat is stored within the abdominal cavity and around your vital organs, such as your heart, liver, intestines, and your pancreas. Visceral fat is dangerous fat. People with high levels of visceral fat are at an increased risk for weight-related conditions and diseases, such as heart disease, colon cancer, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes and stroke. Visceral fat also affects hormone production and regulation [2].

The second type of unhealthy fat is subcutaneous fat, or fat underneath the skin. Subcutaneous fat is the fat that your body stores for energy reserves. It also keeps you warm in the winter because it provides your body with insulation to protect you against the cold. Subcutaneous fat is more difficult to burn than visceral fat is. Think of visceral as belly fat. It is the the flat tire, muffin top, or beer belly fat. Most of the fat in the stomach area is stored underneath the skin. It is not necessarily as harmful as visceral fat because it doesn’t suffocate your organs.

Learn more about what it means to be “skinny fat.”

Non-Fat Mass or Fat-Free Mass (FFM)

Non-fat mass is what you know as lean mass. Fat-free mass consists of lean parts in the body: protein, mineral, water, and ash. What that means to you is the atfat-free mass is your organs, bones, muscle, connective tissues, and water in the body. This is mass that you can’t do anything about. You cannot lose FFM without taking out a bone or organ. This is everything EXCEPT fat.

Body Composition vs. BMI vs. BMR

Body composition is often confused with other acronyms in fitness. Common ones includes BMI and BMR. There is a big difference, but each one can be useful when analyzing the other. At the end of the day, measuring body composition instead of BMI is better for people who have more muscle than others, or who want to gain more muscle.

Here’s why.

What is BMI

BMI stands for body mass index. BMI is the measurement of your body fat. The measurement is based on your height and weight. Your gender, and your age may also play a role when comparing to others like you. Your doctor uses this measurement everytime you step on the scale at the office. BMI is best for individuals over the age of 20, but it is a better indicator for overall health of a group or population of people. BMI is not individualized.

BMI does not directly measure body fat, so it is not recommended as a diagnostic tool. There are BMI calculators online, as well as BMI charts to assess health in general. In general, BMI is used to determine if someone or a population is at an increased risk for weight-related health issues. People who are considered underweight, overweight, or obese are ones most likely, according to the medical community, to experience such issues.

Women and men are considered underweight if their BMI is less than 18.5. Overweight is between 25 and 29.9, and obesity is more than 30. A “normal” BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9.

According to these guidelines, weight is weight, regardless of fat or muscle. Someone can be “skinny fat” and fall within the “healthy” guidelines, while bodybuilders and lifters can be considered “overweight” to “obese” because their muscle mass skews the numbers [3].

What is BMR

BMR or basal metabolic rate actually has nothing to do with measuring your fat. Your BMR is an estimate of how many calories your body can burn when at rest. It is the basic amount of energy required to keep your body going. Your BMR is what keeps you breathing, your heart beating, and your organs functioning. Your BMR is what most refer to as your metabolism. To boost weight loss and burn fat, you need to know what your BMR is so you can increase it [4].

Measuring fat on the thigh caliper

Worst Ways to Measure Body Composition

The worst way to think about your body composition is to think of it in terms of weight, either losing weight or gaining weight. With that mindset, individuals often steer toward the wrong diet or fitness plan. Before getting into the best way to measure body fat, let’s focus on the worst ways to track your fat:

  • At-home BIA scales

At-home scale are a great way to get an estimate of your body composition, but several of body fat percentage scales sold for personal use are not as accurate as professional ones found in fitness establishments and health assessment labs.

BIA is the process of passing electrical currents through the body and then measuring the resistance to the low level current. The methodology relies on the understanding that muscle conducts water well because it is more than 70% water. Fat cannot conduct electricity as easily because it can’t hold nearly as much water as muscle does.

While it sounds good in theory, there are flaws in the system that people overlook. If a body has significant stores of subcutaneous fat, the electricity current will bypass it anyway and take the path of least resistance to other areas.

  • BMI

Your BMI is the worst way to measure body fat because, as stated previously, it may be your BMI, but the range to which you are comparing has nothing to do with you. BMI is a better indicator of population health. BMI charts are not accurate when your weight is more muscle than fat.

  • Calipers

Calipers are useful when used properly and when measuring the correct areas. Using the caliper to measure body composition is the most common way to get an accurate reading, but when the same method is used for men and women, the readings are not at accurate as you think.

The best and most accurate measurement of your body fat is hydrostatic weighing, which is an underwater measurement. So, if you can jump in a water tank everyday to get an accurate body composition reading, you can get the best measurement. Remember, though, that we are looking for an easy solution.

As you can see, there are several factors to consider for effectively and accurately measuring body composition. It’s not as difficult as it sounds. Read my tips for measure body composition easily and accurately.

How to Measure Body Composition

To measure body composition accurately, you need a few items that you have around the house:

  • Caliper (I’ll explain)
  • Measuring tape
  • Scale
  • Smartphone
  • Calendar
  • Mirror

I told you it would be easy. Here’s how you do it.

body composition measurement

 4 Steps to Measure Body Composition

Okay, I told you that the caliper is not an effective way to measure body composition, but it can be when you use the caliper correctly. When you measure body composition, make sure to remember to measure the correct areas. In men,  measurements should be taken at the chest, the thighs, and the abdomen. In women, body composition measurements should be taken at the thigh, the top of the hips, and the triceps.

Here are the 4 steps for measuring body composition.

1. Schedule your scale

Do not become neurotic. You can and will stress yourself out trying to weigh yourself every day, morning and night.  Your water consumption, bowel movements, and your outfit can throw off your daily weight. Women can also experience weight fluctuations when ovulating and menstruating.

It is best to maintain a schedule that keeps you off the scale every day and instead requires you weigh yourself every few days or weekly. Consider weighing yourself weekly, and always weigh yourself at the same time when you do. As soon as you awake in the morning and roll out of bed, strip off your pajamas, if you wear them, and go to the bathroom. Step on the scale. Calculate your daily average that way. This method allows you to avoid the confusion of daily fluctuations.

2. Take pictures

Before you move on to taking pictures with your phone, put your underwear on. Snap a picture of your body to track your physical appearance. When you take weekly pictures, do so in natural light. You must have good lighting to get an accurate view of your body. When you take pictures, snap shots of your front, back, and side. The reason why I recommend you take pictures and look in the mirror is so you can see results, or the lack of results, even if your scale tells you otherwise.

3. Measure yourself weekly

Get the tape measure out and taking weekly measurements. Remember the method I explained earlier. Chest, thighs and abdomen for men, and top of the hips, triceps, and thighs for women. Record your measurements on your calendar, along with your weight. If you really want to see your results in front of your face, pin the photos on the calendar as well so you have a visual timeline of your progress or problem areas.

4. Get an average caliper reading

Now for the caliper. I said it can be ineffective because the readings can be as much as 10% to 15% off. When you use the caliper, make sure you do so on the same morning you weigh yourself and take your progress pictures. Keep track of the measurements, add them together, and then divide your skinfold measurements by the number of days to get a realistic average.

Try a Different Caliper Method: One-site Testing

One-site testing allows you to avoid the body fat percentage calculation altogether. Earlier, I suggested the 3-point measurement. Some people report inconsistencies and inaccuracies with the 3-point or multiple-point methods. Instead, they turn to the one-point test. It seems like a lot of places would get missed, but allow me to explain.

I suggest one-site testing because, it is consistent, and you don’t have to go to the gym or a lab and may a lot of money for your body composition measurements.

Here is how you do one-site testing with a caliper:

  • Move the slide on the caliper all the way to the top.
  • Pinch the skin fold directly above the hips. This area is called the suprailiac. It is the same area I recommend you measure on women when doing a multiple-site test.
  • Grab 2-3 inches of skin, about 1 inch above your hip bone. Grab with one hand and hold the caliper in the other.
  • Pull the skin and fat out, and hold it between your thumb and first two fingers. With the other hand, close the caliper on the skin fold and press down until you hear or feel the click.
  • Write down your reading. The measurement is done in millimeters.

How to Convert to Body Fat Percentage

Now that you know the mm measurement, you can convert the measurement into your body fat percentage. The nice part about buying a good caliper to measure body fat is that the company does all the work for you. You don’t need a calculator. I told you this was going to be easy. The caliper comes with a chart.

To read to chart, locate your age on the left side and your measurement in mm at the top. Where the two meet in the chart is your body fat percentage. Now, wasn’t that easier than doing math?

If you prefer to write out the equation instead, it is not nearly as effective. The most accurate reading is one done by a professional. But, this handy tip with help you learn how to convert your mm measurement to your body fat percentage:

For men: (1.20 x your BMI) + (0.23 x your age) – 10.8 – 5.4 = your body fat

For women: (1.20 x BMI) + (0.23 x age) – 5.4 = woman’s body fat

Your BMI is not totally useless when calculating your body composition. It actually helps you.

What is the Ideal Body Fat for Men and Women?

The ideal body fat percentage is different for men and women [5]. The best body fat for men and women changes with as, whereas BMI does not. Ideal body fat depends on a number of factors, age, gender, and fitness level. Plus, there is not a consistent guideline. For this post, I will use the American Council on Exercise recommendations:

  • Men

Essential fat 2.-5%; Athletes 6.-13%; Fitness 14-17%; Average 18-24%; and Obese 25% or higher.

  • Women

Essential fat 10-13%; Athletes 14-20%; Fitness 21-24%; Average 25-31%; and Obese 32% or higher.

Lean Mass StackTips for Improving Body Composition

To improve your body composition, stop thinking about it in terms of gaining weight and losing weight. Always focus on the muscle.

  • Decrease caloric intake.
  • Increase lean protein intake.
  • Tailor or stacks and cuts to reach your body fat percentage goals.
  • Increase strength training.
  • Focus on bulk instead of always resorting to cardio.
  • Add more high-intensity intervals training exercises to your routine.
  • Boost your BMR to boost your body’s own fat burning ability.
  • Try a fat-burning supplement such as Cinerate from Vaxxen Labs.

Never lose sight of your muscle and fitness goals, and to do that look in the mirror, measure, and pinch. Some results are not always visible on paper or in a calculator, but they can be seen when looking in the mirror. To help you reach your goals quicker and safer, try the Vaxxen stacks and lean mass agents.


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    Dana L. Duren, Ph.D.,1,2 Richard J. Sherwood, Ph.D.,1,3 Stefan A. Czerwinski, Ph.D.,1 Miryoung Lee, Ph.D.,1,4 Audrey C. Choh, Ph.D.,1 Roger M. Siervogel, Ph.D.,1,4 and Wm. Cameron Chumlea, Ph.D.1,4 J Diabetes Sci Technol. 2008 Nov; 2(6): 1139–1146.
    Published online 2008 Nov. doi: [10.1177/193229680800200623]
  2. The clinical importance of visceral adiposity: a critical review of methods for visceral adipose tissue analysis
    A Shuster, MD,1 M Patlas, MD,1 J H Pinthus, MD, PhD,2 and M Mourtzakis, PhD3 Br J Radiol. 2012 Jan; 85(1009): 1–10. doi: [10.1259/bjr/38447238]
  3. Body Mass Index Obesity, BMI, and Health: A Critical Review
    Frank Q. Nuttall, MD, PhD Nutr Today. 2015 May; 50(3): 117–128. Published online 2015 Apr 7. doi: [10.1097/NT.0000000000000092]
  4. Best Fitting Prediction Equations for Basal Metabolic Rate: Informing Obesity Interventions in Diverse Populations
    Nasim S. Sabounchi, Ph.D.,1 Hazhir Rahmandad, Ph.D.,2 and Alice Ammerman, DrPH3 Int J Obes (Lond). Author manuscript; available in PMC 2014 Dec 29. Published in final edited form as: Int J Obes (Lond). 2013 Oct; 37(10): 1364–1370. Published online 2013 Jan 15. doi: [10.1038/ijo.2012.218]
  5. Body composition analysis to determine gender specific physical fitness equations in a cohort of Saudi population
    Muhammad Iqbal,1 Khalid A Al-Regaiey,2 Shafiq Ahmad,3 Laila Al Dokhi,4 Mohammad Al Naami,5 and Syed Shahid Habib6 Pak J Med Sci. 2014 Jul-Aug; 30(4): 798–903.
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