Published: February 8, 2021
Measuring your body fat percentage is an important part of monitoring progress with a fitness program. If you know your body fat percentage, you can determine the amount of muscle mass on your body, including changes in muscle mass over time to monitor your progress (if muscle gain is your goal).
For example, if you have say 15% body fat, then 85% of your total weight is made up of muscle mass, bone, and organs. And if muscle mass is the only one of those that changes much over time, so can use that basic fact to work out how much muscle you are gaining (or not gaining/losing). Back let's get back to measuring body fat.
If you want the most accurate reading of your body fat percentage, you're going to have to go into some form of health clinic and pay to get a special procedure such as a DXA, ADP, or hydrostatic weighing. These offer the most accurate readings, however they can cost quite a bit and so aren't practical for many. But the good news is, there are inexpensive ways to measure body fat from home using simple tools that don't cost much and that are quick to do, and you can still get a relatively accurate reading.
They may not be as accurate as aforementioned methods, but if you measure yourself the same way each time under the same conditions (such as time of day, time relative to eating/drinking, etc), you can use it to effectively monitor your progress with a muscle gain program to ensure you aren't gaining too much excess fat along the way (or to gauge progress if on a fat loss program to lose weight instead).
In the case of a muscle building program, if you notice that you're gaining too much excess body fat, you can then tweak your diet such as lowering total caloric intake a little bit (but not too much as you still need to be in a caloric surplus to be able to build muscle). Anyway, let's get into the 3 easy ways to measure your body fat percentage from home without spending much money.
A very common and generally accurate way to measure body fat percentage that you can do yourself at home is with skinfolds. Also called a 'pinch test', this method has been used for decades and involves using what an instrument called a body fat caliper (very inexpensive to buy), and using it to pinch/clip certain areas of your body to measure the outer layer of fat on your body (technically called subcutaneous fat).
It works by taking measurements at either 3 or 7 areas of the body (depending on the exact method), and use a certain mathematical formula to determine your overall body fat percentage. The most common areas used to measure with a caliper are the subscapluar (bottom of the shoulder blade), triceps, biceps, and suprailiac (approximately one inch above the right hip bone).
It is possible to measure yourself with this method using a 3 point test (chest, abdomen, thigh), but for the best results you ideally want someone else to help you with it in order to pinch at 7 points around the body. Whichever way you choose, make sure to follow the instructions that come with a caliper carefully or read/watch a tutorial online on how to do it. The accuracy of skinfolds is typically within a 3% margin (above or below your actual true body fat percentage), so it is far from perfect and there are more accurate methods as mentioned earlier.
But if you do it correctly and make sure to test under the same conditions each time, it's accurate enough to provide a good overall sense of where your body fat percentage lies, and can be great to monitor your fitness progress. Here's an example of a popular, affordable caliper that many use:
An increasingly popular method to measure your own body fat percentage from home is using scales that come with a built-in body fat measuring device that uses BIA (Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis). It's an instant and very convenient way, as you simply step on with bare feet and wait a few seconds for the reading to show up. I've used them in the past (Tanita model) and I found it very helpful and useful to monitor my progress at the time. I sold it when moving states but hope to get another one in future as it's way more convenient and quick compared to skinfolds.
BIA works by passing a weak electrical current through the body to measure its resistance to the current, which the device uses to estimate various statistic about the body including body fat percentage. The accuracy of these devices varies depending on how advanced the model is, as well as the methods in which you use it, and are generally not as accurate overall compared to carefully taking skinfold measurements (especially from someone who is well practiced with using skinfolds).
However, if you choose a good product from a reputable brand and follow the instructions carefully (ie make 100% sure you're standing in the correct way), they can give you a good general sense of your overall body fat percentage that you can use to monitor progress over time. As with any method of measuring body fat percentage, it's imperative to weigh yourself under the same conditions each time (such as time of day, before/after eating/drinking, etc).
The third easy way to check your body fat % from the comfort of your own home and without needing to spend much money at all is by using a simple tape measure. Like the other methods mentioned, results can vary quite a bit using a tape measure since people differ in their body shape and fat distribution around the body.
If you understand that you're only getting a general overview of your body fat levels using this method, and that using skinfold measurements (and even some body fat scales) are generally going to provide a more accurate reading, whipping out that tape measure is better than nothing and if you already have one sitting around at home it means you don't have to spend any money whatsoever.
If you want to use this method, you can easily find tutorials online on how to do it exactly, but it's basically taking a girth (also called circumference) measurement of your waist line and neck (as well as the hips for women) and then punching a few numbers into a calculator.