One of the biggest mistakes that people make when trying to lose weight is to focus on the scales. If you get a good set then they will give you an accurate reading of your total body mass, but it doesn’t quite paint a complete picture.

That’s because total body mass also factors in the lean mass of your muscles. When you’re trying to lose weight you will also be building muscle, whether because the basic bodyweight and aerobic exercises you’re doing are stimulating growth, or because you’ve been advised (as you should) to lift weights. If you lose fat and gain muscle then you’ve taken a huge leap towards your goals, but because your mass likely won’t change much, this won’t reflect on the scales.

It can work the other way as well. How many times have you started a diet, watched as those scales have plummeted in the first week or two and then lost your motivation when you have failed to maintain that weight loss? That’s because a lot of that early weight loss was water, not fat. When you overeat and consume unhealthy foods your body is flooded with sodium, which retains excess water in your body, bloating you. When you start to eat healthily and cut that sodium down, that excess water floods out, meaning you will weigh less and be less bloated, but won’t necessarily have any less fat.

Forget about the scales and stop concerning yourself with how much you weigh. Focus on your body fat percentage—this is what will give you an accurate representation of how well you are doing and how fit you are becoming.

How to Measure Body Fat at Home

There are a few ways that you can measure your body fat without opting for the full water displacement services used by the professionals. However, not all of these methods are effective and some will give you a reading that is nowhere near as accurate as you need it to be.

  • BMI Indexes: These indexes are great if you fall into the “average” spectrum and don’t lift weights (they can’t differentiate muscle from fat). But you’d be better off using a pair of scales, which tells you just how useless these indexes are.
  • BIA Scales: Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis is effective when used on a large scale, but not when implemented in scales designed for home use. They send electrical signals through your body and these can effectively measure fat content, but if the scales are for standing on then it will only give an accurate reading based on your legs and if they are handheld the reading will only be accurate for your arms. Your body retains fat differently throughout, so this is not an accurate measurement tool.
  • Calipers: The cheapest and best method for measuring body fat at home. There is no one-click solution and you will need to learn a technique, which is why this method is not as preferred as the “quick-fix” options above. But it is the best way to understand your body fat.

How to Use Calipers

There are two kinds of calipers: basic and electronic. The former often come bundled with a tape measure and will cost you less than $5. The latter will set you back several hundred dollars. The electronic option is better as the reading is more accurate, can be stored and is instant. But the cheap plastic calipers will suffice.

To use the calipers you just need to pinch your skin to the muscle using the finger and thumb of one hand, pull it up so that you can be sure you have only fat and not muscle, and then pinch the calipers into the fat fold to get a measurement.

You need to take three measurements:

  1. Halfway between the crease of your right arm and your right nipple.
  2. One inch to the side of your navel on the right side.
  3. Halfway between your knee and hip on your right leg.

You can use this free body fat calculator to get an accurate reading based on these measurements. Just select the “Skinfold” option and punch in your measurements.

What is the Ideal Body Fat Percentage for Men?

A man’s body has and needs less fat than a woman’s body. On average, young men will have a body fat percentage of between 20% and 25%, and this average gradually climbs as you go through the age groups, arriving at just over 30% in those over the age of 60.

The “overweight” level is 23%, while “obese” is classified as anything over 30%. The ideal body fat range for men is:

  • Athletic: 7% to 13%
  • Lean: 14% to 17%
  • Normal: 18% to 22%

What is the ideal Body Fat Percentage for Women?

The average body fat percentage for young women is over 30% and gradually climbs to more than 40% in those twilight years.

However, according to official body fat guidelines, women with a 40% or more body fat percentage are “obese”, while anywhere from 32% to 39% is classified as “overweight”. If you are in the following percentile then you are in an ideal range:

  • Athletic: 14% to 20%
  • Lean: 21% to 25%
  • Normal 26% to 31%

Body Fat Percentage for a Six-Pack (https://pixabay.com/en/abs-arms-biceps-body-body-builder-1846250/)

A six-pack has become a status of athleticism and optimum health, even if that isn’t the whole truth. If you have strong abs, a low body fat percentage and good genetics then your six-pack should show, but it takes a lot of work to get to that point.

Men and women in the “normal” category will not see any signs of a six-pack and even the majority of those in the “lean” category won’t see much. Women need to drop their body-fat to around 20% on average, while men need to reduce it to around 9%. You will start to see the beginnings of a visible six-pack before this, of course, but for those washboard abs, you need to reduce that body fat further.

The problem with reducing your body fat like this is that it is possible to go too low. Your body needs that fat, which is why it fights hard to keep it. It helps to regulate body temperature and plays an essential role in vitamin absorption. If you are a man, your body will need at least 3% (maybe more) to perform these basic roles. If you are a woman then this number climbs to 13%. If you go below this amount then you’ve hopped, skipped and jumped over the “healthy” line and are in very dangerous, potentially fatal, territory.

It’s not worth sacrificing your health or your life for visible abs, so don’t push yourself beyond—or even anywhere near to—those limits.

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