Tracking Progress – 9 Best (And Worst) Ways To Measure Body Fat


Tracking your progress against your goals is vital for progression and ultimately success. If you’re not using methods to measure body fat or composition you should be! Selecting your preferred methods to collect the data is a complicated, confusing topic. Is it accurate? Is it reliable? Is it affordable? But don’t worry, I’ve done the leg work for you.

Below you can find a selection of the most common ways to measure body fat with their pros and cons. You can take the information presented and make your own mind up. I’ve personally used all of them with clients in the past. My preferences however are a combination of fat callipers, selfies and BIA scales.The best ways to measure body fat

Bathroom Scales
Using bathroom scales as a way of composition analysis simply involves stepping on a set of scales and using the reading as a means of progression.

Pros: Probably the most convenient way to check progress. You can do it at any time from the comfort of your own home. A decent set of accurate scales can be purchased for a reasonable fee.

Cons: Whilst perfect for an individual only concerned with losing weight, it doesn’t give you an idea of what’s going on in the bigger picture. For example are you losing fat or building muscle or both? You’ll never know. Weight can also fluctuate during the day, so it’s also important to remember what day and time you weighed in on.

Tape Measure
Involves taking a tape measure and taking circumference readings of areas such as the thighs, hips, stomach and arms.

Pros: It’s cheap and can be performed anywhere any time. It can be used to measure target areas, for example the hips thighs or arms etc.

Cons: Despite being suitable for everyone, overweight people will notice a change faster than a leaner individual. In other words an overweight person might be working in inches, a leaner individual might be working in millimetres. Therefore the leaner individuals will find it hard to actually notice progress. It’s also fairly tricky to ensure you’re taking measurements from the same area each time too. This could result in a few inconsistencies.

Using a camera and taking a photo (either yourself or having someone else take it for you) of your partially clothed body. Often taken from the front, side and back.

Pros: It’s very easy to do. Chances are you already have a selection of selfies on your phone as it is. Most people have a smart phone with camera these days. I would also argue that numbers from scales or a tape measure don’t mean much. It’s all about how to look and feel.

Cons: Location and lighting can make a huge difference in appearance. So make sure you take an after photo as closely as you can to the original. It can also be a fairly a fairly subjective opinion as to whether any progress has been made.

The Thigh Gap Test
Involves standing with feet hip width apart and measuring the distance between your thighs with a ruler.

Pros: It’s simple, cheap and easy to perform. You can do it anywhere and at any time.

Cons: It would only show progress from thigh circumference. Meaning if you changed composition from your stomach or arms and not from your thighs it would apear like no progress was made.

Fat Callipers
Using a set of fat callipers you would pinch and take readings of subcutaneous body fat from various sites around the body. These figures would then be applied into a formula for the final reading.

Pros: A fat calliper test can deliver fairly consistent readings provided the same individual performs the test each time. It’s also fairly cheap. A decent set of callipers can cost as little as £20. Plus there’s hundreds of mobile apps you can download for a small fee that allow you to input the skin fold readings into a formula which will give you the overall result.

Cons: You can’t do it yourself accurately (don’t believe anyone that says they can). I’d also argue you need a trained professional to administer the reading. Which may or may not be feasible. There’s also many different formulas one could use, each would give a different reading. This means a large variable in body fat readings questioning some of their accuracy’s.

Biometrical Impedance Analysis (BIA)
A set of BIA scales use a combination of weight and a weak flow of electric current through the body. This can be used to estimate total water content, fat mass and lean body mass.

Pros: It can offer a wide range of data including body fat, lean mass, hydration, impedance, visceral fat and BMR. You can buy a set for home for a fairly reasonable £100. Plus more and more gyms are outfitting their facility with a medical grade set. A good example could be the Boditrax.

Cons: Since it works by electricity and water being a great conductor of electricity, your hydration status will effect the results dramatically. This means you’ll experience very different readings in muscle/fat composition unless your hydration is exactly the same as your previous reading. A very hard figure to control.

Air Displacement Plethysmograph (ADP technology)
The Bod Pod is a common method of composition analysis that uses ADP technology. It uses whole body densitometry to determine fat mass versus lean mass.

Pros: It claims to be a highly accurate method of composition analysis that can detect small changes in composition. They often offer a package/subscription in which allows you to come back every quarter for a re-test. This allows you to see progress over time.

Cons: It can be expensive and you need specialist equipment which may or may not easily accessible.

DEXA (Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry)
A DEXA scan uses low energy X-rays from two different sources through the bone and body mass being tested. The more dense the bone and tissue is, the less X-rays get through to the detector. This gives a very strong idea of the body’s make up.

Pros: Quick and hassle free to perform and offers a wide range of data including body fat, lean mass and bone density. Readings claim to be very accurate and consistent. They often offer a package/subscription in which allows you to come back every quarter for a re-test. This allows you to see progress over time.

Cons: It can be expensive and you need specialist equipment which may or may not easily accessible.

Hydrostatic Weighing
Involves underwater weighing in a tank. It uses a direct application of Archimedes’ principle that an object displaces its own volume of water.

Pros: Often seen by many as the most accurate method to measure body fat. It’s often used as the bench mark against all other methods of composition analysis.

Cons: It’s expensive and do you know the nearest place in your area that offers it? I didn’t, so I looked it up. The nearest one I could find offering appointments was 1 hour and 57 minutes away. So not exactly “around the corner”.