How to Measure and Improve Body Composition

How to Measure and Improve Body Composition

Hardcore fitness enthusiasts aspire to a lean, healthy body. Six-pack abs, muscle separation, striations, and veins are the result of sustained hard training coupled with attention to nutrition. Accurately measuring percent body fat is not always a simple matter, but it is absolutely necessary because it provides useful information that can be used to adjust training and diet.

What is percent body fat and how can I measure it?

It’s simply the number of pounds of fat, divided by scale weight, times 100%. So if you weighed 175 pounds and had 35 pounds of fat (and thus 140 pounds of lean tissue), your percent body fat would be 35/175 x 100%, or 20%.

However, accurately measuring the amount of fat is not a simple matter. DEXA and “bod pod” readings are very accurate, but expensive, so not practical. Bioelectrical impedance analysis can give artificially elevated readings if you are dehydrated.

Slide-and-click calipers are reasonably accurate and very inexpensive, but getting accurate measurements of skinfolds requires training and practice. You must also take skinfolds at precisely the same location from one time to the next to make meaningful comparisons. However, calipers allow fitness enthusiasts to track trends in skinfold thickness, and that too is useful information.

Can I estimate percent body fat visually?

Yes, to a certain extent, but your estimates, especially when applied to your own body, are very closely tied to your body image. Consequently, you may not make accurate estimates, but instead underestimate your body fat! In addition, guidelines are different for men and women, and may vary from one individual to another. Still, there are useful visual markers that will help you zero in on your body composition.


  • If you have little muscle separation and no striations, you are at least 20%.
  • If you have shape with few striations, you are 12-15%
  • If your abs are visible but not vascular, you are at about 10%.
  • If you are also vascular, you are probably at or below 8%.
  • The serratus anterior becomes defined at 5-6%.


  • “Full” hip, thighs, and buttocks bring you in at about 30%.
  • “Curvaceous” but not “soft” often means about 25%.
  • Athletic build with some muscle separation means about 20%.
  • A fitness model physique with some vascularity is about 15% body fat.
  • Female bodybuilders compete at 12% or slightly less.

Now that I know what it looks like, how do I get there?

Looking is easy, doing is tough stuff! You will want to gain muscle and lose fat, and it’s very difficult to do both at the same time. To gain muscle, you will need an excess of calories; to lose fat, you will need to consume fewer calories than your body uses. There are thankfully things you can do to accomplish both goals:

  1. Set realistic goals. 10% is achievable for most men and can be maintained long term, but 6% is probably out of reach unless your commitment and genetics are exceptional.
  2. Have a three-month bulking phase and a three-month cutting phase. Do not make drastic changes in your calories. You might increase 300-400 per day during a bulking phase and decrease 200-300 during the cutting phase. Increase cardio when you cut, especially HIIT sessions.
  3. Research and implement zigzag dieting, or try intermittent fasting for six months, especially if you want to get very lean, then switch to a zigzag bulking routine.

Be patient! Lose about 1% per month, and persist. Hard work, portion control, sleep. Repeat! Soon, you’ll like the picture you see…