body fat measurement

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Body fat has always been considered to be “bad” or something to be disposed of. Reducing body fat has become a prime requirement to stay fit and healthy nowadays. It is also important because too much fat in the body can cause type 2 diabetes and even cancer. But what many of us don’t realise is that too little fat can also be harmful. Thus it is imperative to maintain the correct amount of fat in the body.

But how do you measure body fat, when it is something that’s stored inside the cells? Fear not, for there are many different methods of measuring body fat. You can do that by taking the body fat percentage. Body fat percentage has been defined by Wikipedia as the total mass of fat over total body mass, multiplied by 100. It will include both essential and storage body fat.

Let’s take a closer look at one of the most common and quite famous methods of measuring body fat – using callipers for skinfold measurements.

What are skinfold measurements and callipers? 

The skinfold measurement or estimation is where you pinch a small area of the skin to take the fat measurement. This type of estimation will provide the measure of subcutaneous fat. The device used for this technique is called as the skinfold calliper or Plicometer.

The Skinfold calliper will basically give the thickness of a skinfold with its underlying layer of fat. By repeating the process at different locations can provide with an approximately accurate value of the total amount of fat that is on your body. Likewise, it is also possible to estimate the total percentage of body fat on your body.

Reference: 1

How do you use callipers to take measurements?

If you\’re right-handed, use the callipers with the right hand. Else you should use the left hand to hold them. Now, pull out a fold of skin with the underlying layer of fat with your other hand and hold it. Then place the jaws of the callipers onto the skin. Release the trigger of the callipers so the entire force of the jaws is on the skinfold.

Do not release the fingers holding the skin while you take the readings. This is to ensure that the callipers are measuring just the thickness of the fold of skin.

Take note that when you place the callipers on the skinfold at first, the callipers will \”creep\” a little. This is due to the subcutaneous water content. It should ideally slow down after a few seconds. This is when the measurement should be taken. Make sure that you note the reading on the scale before releasing any pressure off the callipers.

What are the areas to take measurements from?

To calculate body fat percentage, you need to take readings from certain specific areas. Measurements are taken at 3-7 different sites on the body. The specific sites may vary for men and women. Reference: 2

Some of these areas are as mentioned below:

  1. Triceps

The correct position to measure is located halfway between the shoulder and elbow joints. The fold is taken in a vertical direction directly on the centre of the back of the arm.

  1. Biceps

Similar to tricep measurement, this reading is taken on the centre of the front of the upper arm.

  1. Subscapular

Take the reading from a position located just below the shoulder blade about one inch from the spine.

  1. Pectoral

For this reading, measure from one inch below the collar bone and two to three inches out from the inside edge of the pectoral muscle. Take care to avoid the breast tissue while measuring a female.


  1. Mid-axillary

Take measurement of the fold in a horizontal line at a level with the bottom of the sternum.

How to calculate the body fat percentage?

Here are two charts depicting the calculations for men and women:

Here are some tips to keep in mind while measuring:

  • Take the reading directly from the skin, not through the clothes for better accuracy.
  • Do not sit while taking the readings. Stand staright, and take the reading preferably on one side of the body.
  • Always take multiple readings and take the average as the result.

What is the correct or ideal percentage of body fat? 

Please note that the ideal body fat percentage varies with age, sex, and other factors. One person could have a higher or lower body fat than another person of the same age. The body fat percentage for men and women at the same age also varies.  For athletes or other professional sportspersons, the body fat requirements can vary depending on the sport. For example, swimmers seem to perform better at a higher % body fat than an athlete.

But generally, men should not have more than 19% body fat in their lifetime. For women, the limit is 25%. To be on the safe side, stay on the lower end of the spectrum.

The advantage of using skinfold callipers is that it is very affordable, and measurements can be taken quickly. They are portable. They can also be used at home. Meanwhile, the cons are that the method requires practice and basic anatomy knowledge. Also, people may not appreciate getting their fat pinched. The accuracy will depend upon the skill of the person performing the skinfolds.  You also get better with practice. Measurement errors can range from 3.5–5% body fat. An advice would be to not do it yourself but have an expert or a friend to do it for you. Keep fit, stay healthy! Reference: 3

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