Friday 28 September 2012

A Simple, Cheap Way to Monitor Your Body Composition

Whether you are training for health, performance, fat loss or muscle gain, every training and nutrition decision you make should be evidence-based. If things are going the way you want them to - great. If not, you wnat to know so you can make the necessary changes. One helpful thing you can monitor regularly is your body composition. I believe that almost everyone should be trying to build or at least maintain lean muscle and most people should be trying to lose or at least maintain their current body fat levels. But how do you do that if you train on your own and don't have access to trainer or lab? Most people just use their bathroom scale and the mirror. But, as most of you know, this alone does not tell you much.

Important note: for some people, regular weighing and measuring can lead to body image problems, self-esteem issues and eating disorders. If you are at all concerned about doing this, I would leave it. Look at other measures of health and fitness (e.g. gym performance as recorded in your training log, health measures from tests such as blood work, blood pressure, etc).

Now there are a lot of sophisticated ways of doing this. For example if I need to get a more precise measurement and an actual body fat percentage for a client or athlete, I'll use skinfold calipers. Also, I plan to use DEXA (often considered the gold standard measurement for body composition) as soon as I find someone willing sell their house and buy me one.

However, the system that I recommend for most people and the one that I use a lot when dealing with a high volume of athletes is scale weight with a waist measurement (notes: if doing female athletes, I add in hip as well. You can do more spots and that can be helpful). While I could use charts and formulas to estimate a percentage of body fat from these numbers, I usually don't need to because you can easily interpret the data and gather relevant information. Here are some examples:
  • Increase weight, no change in waist = gained muscle
  • Increased weight, increased waist = gained fat and possibly some muscle (other measurements would be helpful here)
  • Increased weight, decreased waist = lost fat and gained a lot of muscle - the holy grail of training 
  • Maintained weighted, no change in waist = maintenance mode (not necessarily a bad thing)
  • Maintained weight, increased waist = gained fat and lost muscle - bad senario
  • Maintained weight, decreased waist = gained  muscle and lost fat
  • Decreased weight, no change in waist = lost muscle
  • Decreased weight, increased waist = gained fat and lost a lot of muscle - no good
  • Decreased weight, decreased waist = lost fat, hopefully while maintaining muscle
Note for females with hips:
If  you are doing hard training and you see a hip increase without a waist increase, you likely have just gained muscle. Fat loss or gain typically shows up both places, but can vary depending on body type. More measurements and other assessments are obviously helpful in knowing for sure. If you are gaining muscle and you don't want to, adjust your training accordingly. See my previous post on Non-Bulk Strength Training.

As I mentioned at the beginning, people also use the mirror. The problem with this is that you see yourself every day so you cannot detect the subtle changes and you can easily change your viewing angle, flex muscles and suck in guts to create a more desirable reflection. In contrast to this, photos don't lie. Many people (who see themselves every day in the mirror) are shocked when they see a photo of themselves. Photos can be a nice addition to what I've already mentioned for longer-term progress.

Keep records of your assessment data along with a food and training journal. When things are going well (i.e. desired body composition changes, improvement in eating habits, staying healthy and feeling good and improvement in training performance), keep doing what you are doing. If things are not, go back to your food and training journals and look for clues. All the best with your training!

1 comment:

  1. This post has real inspired me in regards to my body composition, sounds real informative and very much realistic. Well I've been working maintaining a perfect body and regularly working with speed cable jump rope.