How to Use Body Fat Calipers
And Make Them More Reliable

Body fat calipers are probably the most popular tool used to assess body fat. For anyone on a weight management program measuring body fat is crucial. For Health and Fitness Professionals...

They are an essential tool that can offer you and your clients an effective measure of progress. But just how reliable are body fat calipers? More importantly...

Can you do anything to make them more reliable?

What other options do you have for measuring body fat percentage?

Body fat scales are one. Underwater or hydrostatic weighing is another. This will give you the most accuracy but unfortunately...

It is expensive, inconvenient, often time consuming and hard to find. And that's not all...

Someone else has to perform the test. Body fat calipers are a fantastic, low cost, portable tool that you can use at your own convenience. There are even body fat calipers on the market that allow you to test yourself. One thing's for sure...

For most people there are only two options -- a good set of body fat calipers or body fat scales. Both have their advantages and disadvantages...

For a detailed look at body fat scales see the body fat scales article


How Body Fat Calipers Work
And Why It's Important

Body fat calipers measure skinfolds to calculate how much subcutaneous fat (fat under the skin) a person has. The examiner then puts the numbers into an equation to predict body density and body fat percentage. The point to remember is...

Body fat calipers do not measure your body fat percentage directly. The result?

There is a great deal of room for errors to creep in. And as you'll soon see small errors can make a big difference to your outcome. Don't worry though, there's a lot you can do to make body fat calipers considerably more reliable and accurate. Have you ever heard someone say...

"I've just had my body fat measured. It's 15.7%."

Point 7 of a percent! How did they manage that? Even hydrostatic weighing is only accurate to within 2-3%. All things considered...

Body fat calipers won't measure your body fat to point 7 of a percent. But they don't have to. As long as you can use them to monitor your own progress or a clients progress accurately, over time, that's all that matters. How can you do that?

First step...


Use The Right Equation

Imagine you have just taken 4 skinfold measurements with your body fat calipers. You now have a representation of that person's subcutaneous (under skin) fat. The next stage is...

Putting those measurements into a formula to calculate body fat percentage.

There are over 100 equations you could use! What's more...

Use the wrong equation and body fat calipers become next to useless for predicting body fat percentage. Why are there over one hundred equations?

Well, each equation relates to different populations of people with different characteristics. Young people for example, store about one half of their body fat under the skin. As we age a greater proportion of our body fat is stored internally. So...

If the skinfold measurements for a young and old person were exactly the same, their body fat percentage would still be considerably different. Obviously there are more differences than just age...

Gender, fitness level, race and the amount of total body fat a person has, all make a difference. Hence 100 equations! Here's the key...

No equation has ever been written precisely for you... or for your clien - so you will never get truely accurate results.

Using body fat calipers as a way to determine body fat percentage gives you accuracy to within 4% at best. A calculation of 20% could actually mean a body fat percentage of 16 to 24%!

Still not convinced that using the right equation is that important? Have a look at this real life example...

John is one of those people everyone loves to hate... he's naturally very lean. John had his body fat tested in laboratory conditions using professional body fat calipers. Skinfolds were taken at 16 locations on John's body and each skinfold was measured 3 times by an experienced examiner. The results?

Take a look at the table below. The skinfold measurements were put into 4 different equations to calculate body fat percentage (The names above each equation are just the people who developed them)...

Body Fat Percentage Using Different Equations
EquationEquation 1 Parizkova (1978)Equation 2 Jackson et al.(1978)Equation 3 Jackson et al.(1978)Equation 4 Durnin and Wolmersley (1974)
No. of skinfolds10374
Body Fat Percent10.1%3.6%3.7%9.6%

Different equations make a big difference. Agreed? One of those equations is the most suitable for John because he is an athlete. Using an equation designed for the general population won't give John the most accurate results.

What is the best way to make certain you don't use the wrong equation?

Don't use any equation at all! Don't try and convert skinfolds into a body fat percentage. Instead just note down the skinfold measurements and monitor their change over time.

If you really must have a number for body fat percentage then just use it as a benchmark for progress. Don't start comparing it with your friend who was tested by a different person.

There is another key ingredient for using body fat calipers successfully...


The Examiner's Experience

Who qualifies as an experienced body composition analyst...

A gym instructor?
A personal trainer?
A friend after she's read the instruction manual?

Research recommends that 50-100 tests are needed before an examiner can be classed as "competent" with body fat calipers. And not only that...

Those 50-100 test should be carried out in research settings (highly controlled and meticulous). The skill is in precisely locating skinfold sites on the body...

No matter how fancy the diagrams are in the instruction manual a few centimetres, even millimetres out, compounds to make a significant difference. How can you overcome this problem?

If you are being tested...
Ask how much experience your examiner has had. If you don't like asking, notice how much time she takes finding skinfold locations. Even the most experienced scientific researchers take their time to measure (with a ruler) then mark with a felt pen each and every location. At the very least...

Always have the same examiner test you. Even under the strictest of conditions results vary considerably from tester to tester. What if you want to test yourself?

Think seriously about body fat scales instead. There is one exception though...

Accu-measure body fat calipers.

At the moment these are the only body fat calipers that reliably let you test yourself. They are extremely simple to use and a recent study has shown very positive results for accuracy. Recommended in Body-for-LIFE and endorsed by the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation, Accumeasure are the only calipers you should buy for self-testing

If you carry out body fat tests...
Find out the precise locations of each skinfold site. For example, the abdomen skinfold site is 1 inch to the right of the belly button so...

Measure it with a ruler, don't guess! If the triceps site is midway between the tip of the shoulder and elbow, use a ruler to measure exactly halfway.

Your client won't thank you for it but mark each location with a felt pen. Once you've marked the locations measure each skinfold. Then measure them again and then a third time. Using the average of 3 readings will significantly increase your accuracy.

Is there anything else you can do to make sure your body fat tests are as accurate and reliable as possible?


Use Good Quality Calipers

Body fat calipers are body fat calipers right?

Not if price is anything to go by. They range from $10 to $500. Why such a big difference? Well...

To be accurate body fat calipers need to exert a certain amount of constant pressure (10 gm./sq. mm). The cheap, $10 body fat calipers lack tension control and won't stay accurate for very long. Remember...

Small inconsistencies compound into significant errors. This may seem like an insignificant point but they all add up. Having said that...

There is absolutely no need to buy THE most expensive set... unless you want to! If you are a Health and Fitness Professional body calipers are one of the best investments you can make. If your budget stretches to a professional set of calipers they will repay you many times over.

Summing up... are body fat calipers worth the investment?

Definitely!

One of the biggest mistakes people on a weight management program make is gauging their progress by weight alone.

If you are a Health and Fitness Professional... well, you probably already know the reasons why you must make body fat testing part of your fitness armoury.

The Top 5 Body Fat Calipers

Harpenden Skinfold Caliper
The Harpenden is the most accurate skinfold caliper made. It has been the standard research caliper for many years. Virtually all the data and equations relating skinfold thickness to bodyfat are based on studies done with the Harpenden.

Lafayette Skinfold Caliper
The Lafayette Skinfold Caliper is one of the most accurate and durable calipers available today. It was designed with the assistance of Dr. Andrew Jackson, co-author of the widely used Jackson-Pollock skinfold formulas.

Lange Caliper
This is the best selling of the higher priced body fat calipers. It has been manufactured since 1962 and is widely used in schools, colleges and fitness centers. The Lange is one of the lower cost professional calipers.

Accu-Measure Body Fat Calipers
At the moment these are the only body fat calipers that reliably let you test yourself. They are extremely simple to use and a recent study has shown very positive results for accuracy. Recommended in Body-for-LIFE and endorsed by the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation.

Slim Guide Skinfold Caliper
Much lower priced than any of the above body fat calipers yet will produce results that are almost as accurate. This is the only low cost caliper accurate enough to be used for professional measurements and is the most widely used professional caliper in the world.

This is quite a lengthy article, I know. And there's alot to take in so let's sum up with a few quick tips for using calipers...




The Top 10 Tips When Using Body Fat Calipers

1. Use body fat calipers to measure progress only. Don't compare body fat percentage to tables or norms. Even experts using the best body fat calipers can't be totally accurate.

2. For greater accuracy, monitor changes with skinfold measurements rather than converting them into a body fat percentage and using that to judge progress.

3. Have an experienced examiner test you if possible. At the very least have the same person test you each time. If you are a Health and Fitness professional be meticulous about how you find skinfold sites.

4. If you want to test yourself the only viable option at the moment are Accu-measure body fat calipers. Do not, I repeat do not splash out on quality calipers if you only intend to test yourself.

5. If you test other people buy the most expensive body fat calipers you can afford.

6. Take the reading within 4 seconds of applying the body fat calipers to the skinfold. A prolonged delay has been shown to significantly underestimate the actual skinfold value.

7. Take measurements at the same time of day for each test.

8. Don't have a test immediately after exercising.

9. If the chance arises, compare the results you get to a hydrostatic weighing test. A similar method will probably be available in a lot of gyms in the near future. It's called the Bod Pod.

10. If you haven't already... read the page on body fat scales. You may find they better fit your needs.




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