Tracking Changes in Body Composition

Knowing your body fat percentage can take a lot of guesswork out of planning your nutrition and setting realistic goals.  This subject comes up on a regular basis in the Science Lab which you receive as a bonus when you buy Met Flex for Fat Loss; part of that is because it can become downright confusing to interpret the results and where to go from there.  Paul has seen literally thousands of individual body fat tests, and he can help you get the most from your own experimentation and testing.  

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As people that workout with intensity, we are constantly testing our limits and collecting information on where we are now, where we want to go, and how that relates to where we began.  Want to know someone’s Fran time?  Cool, they tested it in January and hope to test it again soon.  Our total?  Check.  We do that pretty regularly as well.  On and on, we track of our PR’s (personal records), Hero WOD times, and perform various performance assessments.  We are pretty serious about data…Except for when it comes to tracking our body composition changes.

People are often given the advice to “ignore the scale”, and while some boxes embrace body fat testing, it’s far from the norm.  Part of the reason this is the case is because our standard concepts of diet and nutrition have not always equaled results, and people are disappointed.  It’s easy to point the blame at a diet for not allowing people to “eat to perform”, but in reality it’s not the food that’s the problem; it’s the interpretation of the diet that becomes the issue.  When most people think of losing fat, they tend to think they will have to diet to do so.  For most people, that means eating less.  Clearly, we’re pointing towards the idea that a building/gradually awesome approach is better for long term goals.  Building muscle decreases body fat percentage, but it can be difficult to tell what’s going on without some way to measure things.  So let’s talk about what we can test and how we can use those data points to dial in our nutrition and perform better in the gym.

Body Fat Tests

As far as body fat tests go, people tend to point out the flaws in a method when they don’t get the results they expect.  Many people walk into a testing facility “knowing” their body fat percentage already, and it comes as a shock when they’re off.  Sorry folks, but data don’t lie.  Even if the test has a margin of error, this shouldn’t be a one-time thing:  your initial reading is just a point of reference.  Over time, you should re-test and start to collect data.  This will give you an objective measurement (just like performance gains do) of how successful your nutrition and training have been.

I find 3 months to be a good window to allow for tweaks you might be making to take hold.  Monthly visits to a testing facility are not extremely helpful; your body just doesn’t change all that much from week-to-week.  I am interested in portable ultrasound techniques as they become more readily available and less expensive, but for now, the three technologies I recommend are as follows:

BOD POD:  If you are relatively new to body fat testing, this is probably your best point of entry.  The technology uses gas displacement to measure your fat mass.  While not as good as DXA, I have found the results to be very similar, but you have to be careful because operators and equipment tend to matter.  Just make sure they calibrate the machine before you do the test; I ask every single time and sometimes the operator gets annoyed but that’s their job so in the end I don’t care.  I have mine done at the University of Minnesota Athletic Department.  What I like about getting tested at universities is that they do a lot of them, so they typically have the best/newest equipment.

DXA Scan:  You can find this available at a lot of clinics.  It’s basically an X-ray to determine bone density, which is then used to extrapolate a body fat percentage.  DXA not only gives you an accurate account of your fat, but it shows you where the fat is on your body.  The downside is that, in many cases, it can be expensive.  You might not be able to do it as often as you’d like because of the price, but if you can afford it this is the best method by far.

Hydrostatic weighing:  This technology is based on water displacement, which means you will need to get wet.  I don’t personally think it’s in the same league as DXA in terms of accuracy and comfort, but it tends to be more commonly available.  It was long considered to be the gold standard, and it’s still quite good but it’s not nearly as convenient as BOD POD or DXA.

At-home tests (calipers, body fat scales, etc.) are a considerable drop-off compared to those three methods.  Not only are they less accurate, but they’re more prone to human error.  For this reason, they’re difficult to use as a method of tracking progress.  That doesn’t mean you can’t use them, but I would suggest that you use them in addition to regular testing with one of the previously described methods.

The Scale

While body fat testing can give you a real measurement of your body composition, the scale is useful in the interim period between tests.  You don’t want to fall into the trap of using the scale as the sole determinant of the effectiveness of your planning, but it can give you some insight into the success of your experiments.  The caveat is simple:  you want the number to go up/down, but you don’t want to fluctuate in an extreme manner, no matter what your goal is.  (“Extreme” weight gain/loss is 15-20 lbs.)  As a general rule, when you lose weight (especially when you lose weight in an extreme manner) you lose lean mass.  How much of that is actual muscle tissue is a bit of a debate, but it’s probably not a lot; it’s mostly water, especially in the beginning.  As you gain weight, it’s not all fat or muscle either.  It’s usually a combination of the two.  For this reason, packing on or indiscriminately shedding weight as quickly as possible won’t get you what you want.  There are, however, two notable exceptions to this rule: new trainees, and people that have chronically depleted their muscle through a low carbohydrate way of eating.

In the case of the new trainee, stimulating their musculature through resistance training is like a miracle.  The problem is that this anabolic miracle has a window of opportunity; new lifters can add 15-20 lbs. of solid muscle to their frame in their first year of training, but these gains are compromised when the person under eats.  In the beginning, I always recommend that people new to working out eat copious amounts of food (probably pretty close to TDEE) to allow their body to adapt to the new stimuli in a positive fashion.

The other scenario is a bit more complicated.  Even when you’re looking at veteran athletes, it’s extremely common for these “depleted” folks to gain muscle weight really quickly.  That’s part of the value of carbohydrates combined with resistance training.  You’ll see the scale jump up several lbs. almost overnight, and if you’re lucky it will stay that way.  In both instances of rapid weight gain, the opportunity exists only for a short while and then it’s time to brace yourself for a more gradual rate of improvement.

A Goal without A Plan is A Wish

Testing theories is a predominate theme in the Science Lab, and I will write some more on the concept at a later date.  Just remember that to reach your goals, you need a good plan and that good plan should involve mostly building muscle and eating appropriate amounts of food.  Changing your body and getting stronger takes time and by keeping track of your progress through quantitative measurements like body fat testing, you can develop a plan based on how your body responds to different stimuli.

The Science Lab is what Mike (and Paul) calls the Private Forum which has over 2,500 hundred “Lab Rats” who are all working to gradually become the best version of themselves losing fat while performing at an extraordinary high level.  One of the great benefits is that you get to talk to Mike (and the rest of the Eat To Perform team) directly.

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Other articles you may find interesting:

Seven Quick Fat Loss Tips 

Lisa Cartwright Before and After nine weeks of Eat To Perform

The Majority of people that look like us