As you get leaner, one of the biggest challenges is measuring body fat percentage and measuring muscle mass percentage. If you’re trying to lose a lot of weight, the scale is just as good a tool as any. However, when you’re trying to lose the last 5-10lbs of fat while preventing muscle loss, the scale alone won’t necessarily help. How can you effectively measure your weight loss results if you don’t know your body fat percentage or muscle mass percentage? Based my recent experience, your best bet is to combine a variety of different methods. Even then, it’s tough to definitively determine anything in the short term.
Measuring Body Fat & Muscle Mass
I recently finished doing Joel Marion’s Xtreme Fat Loss Diet. While I’ll be reviewing that program separately, I thought I’d highlight how I tracked my results. First thing to note, this was an experiment and I would not advise taking your weight, measuring body fat percentage, and measuring muscle mass percentage every day. As you can tell from the graph above, the fluctuations are mind boggling and can cause even the sanest person to go crazy. Regardless, I’m pleased with the overall results and achieved my goal of losing a lot of fat with little to no muscle loss. The same methods that I list below can be used to determine if you’re gaining muscle with little to no fat gain as well.
Measuring Body Fat Percentage
I’m always concerned about how much fat I’ve gained or lost from a diet or exercise program. I’ve written about Best Ways to Measure Body Fat Percentage before, but I’d like to revisit some of those methods and show how they can be combined with other methods to give you a clearer picture of how successful your routine is.
Scale (Weight Loss): starting from a relatively lean weight, I lost almost 9lbs in 24 days using the Xtreme Fat Loss Diet. That on its own may sound impressive, but what if it was just water weight? Worse, what if it was muscle loss? The scale is a great starting point in determining how effective a routine is but isn’t an end point. In general, if you use weight loss in conjunction with some of the methods that measure muscle mass percentage below, you’d have a reasonably good idea if you’re on track.
Body Fat Percentage (Fat Loss): I lost nearly 8lbs of fat over the last 3+ weeks. This is very important to me. However, how accurate is this measurement? Body fat testers are notoriously inaccurate. Skinfold calipers can be useful but if you’re not experienced, you won’t achieve consistent results. Plus, as you get leaner, a difference of a few millimeters can mean the difference between 8% and 10% body fat.
Body fat testers that send a weak electrical signal through your body are nice in theory but some shortfalls include fluctuations due to hydration levels, when you last ate or exercised, and even the angle you hold the equipment at. Unless you’re getting professionally tested, the best you can do is use a bioelectrical impedance body fat tester first thing in the morning. This should lead to more consistent results. Be cognizant that your body fat could vary significant based on whether you cheated or fasted the day before.
Measuring Muscle Mass Percentage
When it comes to weight loss, ensuring that you don’t lose muscle is just as important as maximizing fat loss. Once again, there are a few different alternatives, none perfect.
Strength: if you’re lifting the same or more weight from workout to workout, you are almost certainly not losing any muscle mass. If your lifts start to decline, then there could be a concern that you’re losing muscle. One caveat, if you do bodyweight training, doing the same number of reps for an exercise may not indicate that you are preserving muscle mass. If fat loss is your goal, your body will be declining in weight making it easier to do bodyweight exercises. Therefore you end up doing the same number of reps at a lower weight meaning you might be losing strength and thus losing muscle mass.
Skeletal Muscle: the problem with just taking your weight and measuring body fat percentage is that you might think you’re losing muscle when you’re not. Extreme example, if you go from 200lbs at 10% body fat to 180lbs at 10% body fat, it looks like you only lost 2lbs of fat and 18lbs of muscle. The problem is that you are also losing water weight.
Lean muscle is made up of organs, bone, and skeletal muscle. Skeletal muscle is really the only thing you can control. When you perform resistance training, skeletal muscle increases. How do you measure skeletal muscle? Using the same electrical current that you use to measure body fat percentage. That’s the number I show in the graph at the top of the page. You can see that my skeletal muscle fluctuated by 2lbs, well within the margin of error for this method.
Ultimately, when measuring muscle mass percentage, skeletal muscle is what I deem most important. Based on my body fat tester, I lost little to no skeletal muscle. This is consistent with my resistance training results since I didn’t decline in any of my lifts.
Measuring Overall Appearance
If you’re measuring body fat percentage and measuring muscle mass percentage, what would you really like to see? If you’re like me, the answer is a better looking body when you look in the mirror. I’ve never been a huge fan of this method because every mirror is different. Plus, I can always identify flaws in my body that I’d like to improve. I also have a short term memory so it’s tough to remember what I looked like a few days or weeks ago.
For that reason, a lot of people take before and after pictures. This is an excellent approach provided that you take the picture in the same place and same pose. Otherwise you can easily manipulate what you look like in a photo. Just make sure you’re honest with yourself.
Finally, I like the simple tape measure method. When I’m on a fat loss diet, I’m happy as long as my shoulders stay the same width and my waist is declining. This approach isn’t without its flaws since it’s hard to take accurate measurements, especially day to day. Over the long term, I think this is highly effective though. This can be done in conjunction with assessing how well your clothes fit.
Ultimately it’s hard to effectively measure body fat percentage and muscle mass percentage. This makes evaluating short term results incredibly difficult. However, if you combine a few methods above, you can get a reasonably good idea of how your body is changing. Consistency is key; otherwise, the results will vary significantly. For beginners, measure your weight loss with a standard scale. Combined with making sure that your lifts are not declining should ensure that you’re losing fat and not muscle. For a more advanced approach, start measuring body fat percentage and measuring muscle mass percentage (skeletal muscle). Evaluate your final results based on how your overall appearance changes. Nothing is perfect, but the more methods you combine, the more confident you can be that you are achieving your goals.