Body Composition Goals: How To Monitor Your Progress


Tracking body composition is a useful strategy to evaluate the progress of your current nutrition strategy, which can then inform whether any additional intervention is required. At a minimum you should be assessing your body composition at the beginning and end of your strategy (you will be surprised how many people do not even do this!), which will then provide feedback upon your progress.

Numerous assessment methodologies are available, some more appropriate than others. When choosing a tracking methodology it is important to consider both the validity and reliability of the approach:

So basically, does your method accurately report your body composition, and can you consistently implement this test to provide feedback upon progress. Now that you are aware of what you are looking for, let’s take a look at the typical methodologies utilised to measure body composition progress.

Please note: Some individuals may opt for the utilisation of photographs and the fit of clothing to monitor their progress. Although these approaches may be appropriate for some individuals this article shall focus upon approaches that provide quantitative feedback. Personally, I prefer to inform my decisions based upon data.

(1) Scale weight

This is one of the most common methods of tracking progress and certainly does have its place. However, it is important to appreciate that this method can only report body mass, and does not provide data upon fat mass or fat-free mass (e.g. muscle). Therefore, it is only telling you part of the picture.

If incorporating this methodology it is important to standardise your approach. Best practice would be to weigh yourself upon waking following first morning urine void wearing similar clothing each time e.g. underwear only. Log your AM weight each morning for the week and then take an average. If you are weighing yourself during the day your data can be influenced by dietary/fluid intake and activity/exercise induced fluid loss. If weighing in and out of your training sessions to track your body mass progress, the feedback you are receiving is not a true reflection of progress, as the data will merely be based upon fluid changes, and not muscle/fat gain or loss.

To help you monitor body mass/composition I have created a monitoring spreadsheet that tracks daily body mass, weekly average, weekly change (%) and monthly change (%) CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD

It is worth nothing that in tandem with scale weight, some individuals may opt to incorporate circumference measurements (circumference monitoring shall be covered further later in this article). Although this too cannot differentiate between fat and lean mass, it can be interpreted along with body mass to provide further feedback upon progress.

(2) Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA)

This a quick test that is typically available in most commercial gyms or via integrated bathroom scales. You simply step on scale sensors or/and hold handles with additional sensors. This would then predict body fat based upon an electrical current passed through the body. This is based upon the theory that fat mass contains low amounts of water and fat-free mass (e.g. muscle) contains greater amounts of water. Therefore:

1) The greater the amount of fat, the greater the resistance to the electrical current.

2) The greater the amount of fat-free mass, the lower the resistance to the electrical current.

However, there are numerous limitations with regards to this method that should be considered before incorporating within your strategy.

Although this test can be quick, non-invasive and inexpensive (if you don’t have to buy a set of scales), it can be hard to standardise your approach due to dietary/fluid/activity influence upon results – especially if you do not have access to a nutrition professional or laboratory/researcher assistance.

(3) Skinfolds

The words “skinfold testing” or “skinnies” (to those lucky enough to be on such familiar terms) can initiate beads of sweat at their mere mention. However, there is some method behind the madness!

Skinfold testing estimates fat mass and fat-free mass via subcutaneous fat thickness (think: pinching of fat fold) measured via callipers at different locations over the body following ISAK protocol (a standardised protocol utilised within scientific research and applied practice). This testing approach is to be conducted by a qualified professional – don’t go self testing!

This testing approach is considered an indirect method, as it provides an ESTIMATE of body fat via prediction equations based upon the data collected. Caution is urged when interpreting the body fat % generated via the equation chosen, as equations used to estimate body fat % are population specific (age, ethnicity, gender or training status). Additionally, this approach only measures sub-cutaneous fat and does therefore not directly measure other fat storage sites (e.g. visceral fat – the fat around your organs).

I would encourage the individual to focus upon the total sum of 8 skinfolds (millimetres) tested and to use this to track progress, as opposed to body fat % prediction equations, which as I discussed are population specific and have their limitations.

ISAK protocol sites (landmarks) of measurement include:


The point on the anterior surface of the arm at the level of the marked mid-acromiale-radiale landmark, in the middle of the muscle belly.


The point on the posterior surface of the arm, in the mid-line, at the level of the marked mid acromiale-radiale landmark.


The undermost top of the inferior angle of the scapula. From here mark the site 2 cm along a line running laterally and obliquely downward from the subscapulare landmark at a 45 degree angle.

Illiac Crest

The most superior point on the iliac crest at the mid-line of the body. From here mark the site at the centre of the skinfold raised immediately above the marked illiacristale.


The most inferior or undermost part of the tip on superior iliac spine. From her mark the site at the intersection of 2 lines:

  • Line from the marked illospinale to anterior axillary border.
  • Horizontal line at the level of marked illocristale.

The point 5 cm horizontally to the right hand side (your left hand side when facing the client head on) from the belly button. Take the skinfold vertically.


The mid-point of a line between the top of the knee to the hip flexor.


The point on the most medial aspect of the calf at the level of the maximal girth.

To help you monitor body composition via skinfold testing I have created a monitoring spreadsheet

Skinfolds and hormonal profiling, which is popular within the fitness industry. This is not a method that I would recommend, based upon that it has no scientific evidence to support it’s use. To measure an individuals hormonal profile would require clinical testing and the expertise of an endocrinologist. There are further limitations to skinfolds and hormonal profiling, which are beyond the purpose of this article. I would therefore advise to utilise an ISAK accredited individual if you wish to integrate skinfolds as a body composition monitoring strategy.

The use of skinfolds & hormonal profiling is a popular approach in the fitness industry, particularly amongst personal trainers. Unfortunately there is no evidence to support this technique & is not something I would recommend. Yeah it sounds fancy & seems like you are leaving no stone unturned, but there is no scientific evidence to back it up and it’s expensive too! Here’s why I say this:

The strategy proposes that certain skinfold sites (measuring body fat) is related to specific hormones. Therefore from skinfold testing certain supplements are recommended with the belief that they will reduce body fat/skinfolds at a specific site.


  • Although hormones do influence fat patterning (e.g. difference between males & females), you do not have control over such hormones – they are only influenced via medical intervention (e.g. therapy).
  • You can’t spot reduce body fat from specific sites.
  • Issues with the tester locates the measurement site and inclusion of obscure measurement  sites e.g. cheek & chin – seriously?!
  • If you want advice regarding hormones speak to a medical professional (e.g. doctor). Typically a blood test will be required.
  • You do not need a load of random supplements to address your body composition goals. Simply being in a calorie deficit through changes to your daily dietary intake in combination with regular training will provide progress. 

It is important to differentiate this hormonal profiling strategy from that of skinfold measures used by health/sport practitioners. If you are tracking skinfolds look for an ISAK accredited professional who will take skinfold measurements.

(4) Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA)

This is a criterion measurement technique originally developed for bone analysis. Subjects lie flat while two x-ray beams (one high and one low intensity) pass through the body and measure tissue x-ray absorption with scans typically lasting up to 15-20mins. As this is a three compartment method, data is provided regarding: fat mass, lean mass and bone mineral content.

This approach is considered one of the most valid and reliable methods of body composition testing and is often utilised within professional rugby to track changes of elite athletes (testing typically taking place pre and post season – some clubs may add mid-season testing). However, it is important to limit technical error and biological (day to day) error. Therefore, if implementing DEXA it is important to standardise your approach to allow the detection of small, but worthwhile changes in lean body mass and fat mass.

To limit technical error consider subject preparation, positioning, machine and analysis software. With regards to biological variation standardise by conducting testing in fasted state and a standardised state of hydration/bladder voided. Consideration should also be given to the timing of exercise, due to exercise induced fluid shifts . Therefore testing should take place prior to any training. Finally, intramuscular solutes such as glycogen and creatine, which also have bound water, can influence the lean mass data.

Methods such as Air Displacement Plethysmography (BOD POD) and Hydrodensitometry (Underwater Weighing) are also other body composition tests. However, due to the practicalities of requiring laboratory assistance, and with alternative methods available, I shall not cover these further.

5) Circumferences

Tracking circumference measurements is an easy and cost effective way to monitor progress that can be conducted by individuals without needing a fancy qualification – you just need to measure the site with a tape.

The obvious limitation of this approach is that it does not provide any feedback upon muscle or fat mass. However, this does not mean that it cannot play a role in your monitoring strategy. In simple terms, if your goal is fat loss then you are looking to for a decrease in measurements, in combination with a decrease in scale weight. Additionally, if looking to increase muscle mass you are looking at an increase arm, hips (depending upon the individual), legs and calf, in combination with an increase in scale weight. To add further depth to feedback, it might be worth considering the use of skinfolds testing (if appropriate) to provide insight upon fat and muscle mass.

Note: I have personally had great success with clients when just monitoring body mass and circumferences – often simplicity is the key.

So what sites are worthing measuring and how?

Chest (cm)

With arms relaxed down by your side measure around the chest with tape over the nipples.

Arm – Relaxed (cm) *right side only*

Arms relaxed down by side. Measure the mid-point between the top of the shoulder and elbow. Draw X at the mid-point and use this reference point to measure the circumference.

Arm – Flexed (cm) *right side only*

Raise right arm out the side until it is parallel with the floor. From here fully flex the bicep. Find the peak of the bicep and measure the maximum circumference.

Waist (cm)

Measure around the visually narrowest part of the waist.

Hips (cm)

Measure around the visually greatest circumference of the gluteals.

Thigh (cm) *right side only*

Seated with your leg bent at 90 degrees measure from the hip flexor to the top of the knee. Find the mid point and draw X and use this reference point to measure circumference.

Calf (cm)

Measure around the visually thickest part of the calf.

For all measurements ensure the tape is level and not loose.


Practical Application:

So we have covered the monitoring approaches potentially worth considering, but how would you integrate these into your strategy? I have put together two approaches: a basic approach (low technical skill required) and an advanced approach (greater tester technical skill required/more suitable for advanced trainees or professional athletes).

Option One: Basic Approach

  1. Scale Weight (daily): Weigh yourself in the morning following first morning urine void in minimal clothing. Take an average for the week.
  2. Circumferences (every 2-4 weeks): Arm (flexed and relaxed), chest (optional), waist, hips, thigh and calf. Ideally conduct this testing in a fasted and rested state (no exercise prior).

You don’t have to get fancy. Keeping it simple can be as equally effective. If you don’t have access to an ISAK accredited skinfold practitioner or DEXA facilities then simply keep a track of the above.

Option Two: Advanced Approach

  1. Scale Weight (daily): Weigh yourself in the morning following first morning urine void in minimal clothing. Take an average for the week.
  2. Circumferences (every 2-4 weeks): Arm (flexed and relaxed), chest (optional), waist, hips, thigh and calf. Ideally conduct this testing in a fasted and rested state (no exercise prior).
  3. Skinfolds* (every 4-6 weeks): ISAK protocol – Track the sum of 8 skinfolds (mm) to inform progress. Ideally conduct this testing in a fasted and rested state (no exercise prior). Some individuals may wish to conduct skinfold testing more frequently, however I personally believe in allowing some time to see change. Also, by using the two other monitoring systems above this can provide additional feedback to support the process and inform decision making . For example, weekly skinfold testing may show small or no change, which can be demotivating for the individual. 

*Option to substitute out skinfolds for DEXA scan. However, due to the cost of a DEXA scan and the requirement for a laboratory or clinical setting, I would suggest to opt for skinfolds. If incorporating DEXA I would utilise this at the beginning and end of pre-season.

To help you monitor body mass/composition I have created a monitoring spreadsheet



Looking to optimise your nutritional approach this pre-season? Our professional advice can help individualise your approach.

No comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *