The Ultimate Lie of the Fitness World
The ultimate lie of the fitness world. The one subject that the most people lie about. It seems to be a generational thing.
In the 80s and 90s, it seems like the big thing was lying about the size of your arms or how heavy you were. In the early 2000s, how much you could bench seemed to be the lie of choice. Nowadays, it has shifted towards what your body fat percentage is.
If you believe social media or the common gym talk, nobody that lifts is any higher than 12-15% body fat, regardless of how lean they actually look; and never have I heard of so many people being “6-8%”. In fact, if you “are” 10%, well you are actually kind of fat (according to the highly scientific and precise “IBFS” (Internet Body Fat Scale) method.
If you haven’t read it already, I suggest that you go take a look at an article I wrote on the subject (https://thibarmy.com/thib-rant/). The message is clear: unless someone has had a DEXA scan (or used the Skulpt tool which seems to be fairly accurate), the body fat level you claim to be at is likely 3-5% lower than what it really is. And that’s a minimum, it is very likely even higher than that.
Listen, if you are a TRUE 10% you are extremely lean. On the picture below I was 9.1% !
Full 8-pack, veins on obliques and rectus abdominis, delt separation, could barely pinch any skin except on the lower back. So, unless you are at the same level of leanness as in the picture, you are NOT 10%.
What is the problem, you may ask? Who cares if everybody lies (or is just misinformed) about their body fat levels? Well, there are several issues at play. I asked my friend Luke Leaman to help me address the potential problems that might come with faulty body fat evaluations.
SOURCES OF BAD BODY FAT EVALUATION
In my opinion, there are three main reasons why people provide erroneous (if not downright stupid) body fat numbers.
The first one is that few people really know what each body fat level looks like. Social media has made this a lot worse. When you see tons of guys claiming to be 6-8% just because they have a six pack and maybe a biceps vein, it makes it easy to believe that you are 10% because “you can’t be that far off”. But just because under the most flattering lighting possible and using three picture filters you have some abdominal definition, doesn’t mean that you are 10% body fat!
There are also those who try to market themselves via social media and use completely false body fat claims just to attract potential clients. More often than not, these guys never actually had their body fat assessed.
If you evaluate your body fat level by comparing yourself to others rather than by having it measured, the mistakes these people make will obviously carry over to you.
An even bigger problem is coaches who “measure thin” to make themselves look more competent than they are or to make their clients feel good about themselves (a lot of coaches are people pleasers).
I knew a “coach” who put the body fat assessment formula in an Excel spreadsheet BUT added an automatic correction factor: the spreadsheet was designed to automatically apply a 0.5% decrease in body fat compared to the previous measure (a fine way to make sure he didn’t get confused with his own lies).
A friend of mine was trained by a coach and had his body fat measured every two weeks. At every assessment he would tell me “my body fat dropped by 1.6% and my lean mass increased by 2.8lbs” (or similar numbers). This happened for something like 16 weeks. Let alone the fact that gaining a significant amount of muscle while losing a good amount of fat is extremely hard to do (much less week after week), the guy didn’t visually change much over those 16 weeks, despite supposedly losing around 12% in body fat and gaining 15lbs of lean mass. Odd, isn’t it?
I like to tell the following story to illustrate this specific problem:
“ A new female client walks in your office.
“According to my last coach’s measurements I’m 12% body fat and 125lbs”…
You: “So I’m guessing you want to focus more on gaining muscle since you must be happy with how lean you are?”…
Client: “Nah, I need to get leaner” …
You: “Hmmm, ok, how much fat do you think you need to lose to get the look you want?” …
Client: “Probably 12-15lbs”…
You: “If you are 12% at 125lbs, it means that you have a grand total of 15lbs of fat on your body, including in your brain, between your organs, bone marrow, etc… so you are telling me that if you reach your goal of losing 15lbs you will literally have no body fat at all on your body. You will not only see all your veins, muscle fibers and have a skeletal face and no boobs, but you will actually be dead” …
Finally, another reason why people provide erroneous body fat values is that some people simply have self-esteem issues and actually make up numbers to impress others. People with lower self-esteem and confidence levels rely on how others perceive them to feel good about themselves. These are the guys and gals who lie about how much they are lifting, how much they are training, how strict their diet is, how hard they are training and yes, their body fat. The sad thing is that they actually start to believe their own lies. It’s not because they are bad people, it’s actually a protective mechanism: they need to believe it to feel good about themselves and raise their self-esteem. Of course, this actually indicates a much more profound psychological issue. You might be surprised (or not) when I tell you that this is extremely frequent in physique competitors.
Christian, I could not agree with you more on this subject. As someone who has taught over a 1000 people, if not more, how to use calipers, I can with all honesty say that there are maybe five people in the world I would trust to put calipers on my body. Using calipers is a very technical skill and you have to spend years developing the “touch” to do it properly.
If you’ve ever gotten a massage by someone who was still in massage school, or one that was fresh off the boat, you’ll know what I mean. Everyone’s skin feels different. You have different textures, amounts, thickness, stickiness, smoothness to skin. When I was teaching Biosignature Modulation, there were a ton of opportunities for the coaches to measure in class, and they never took it seriously enough. They would measure for five minutes, and then talk for 40 min, every single practice. If you want to be good at skinfold measurements, you have to put in the time to practice. Most coaches don’t get into the industry to be really good caliper technicians, so they have no incentive to get better.
Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. So, there needs to be an element of measure/comparison to know your pinching is accurate, and progressively getting more accurate. The only way to do this, in my opinion, is to have fairly constant access to a DXA to compare your calculations. In the literature, skinfold measures have up to a 5% margin of error for a properly taught skinfold technician. So, if someone that has been taught properly, and has practiced properly, still has a 5% margin of error both above and below (more often than not it’s much further below), then you can imagine the margin of error for someone that hasn’t been taught correctly and doesn’t take it seriously.
Secondly, most trainers have a delusional concept of what true low bodyfat looks like. What they think is 8-10% is typically more like a true 13-15%. A true 10% is lean AF. But in a quest to boost their ego and confidence, they preach to the world that they’re much leaner than they are, and that’s a huge disservice to their clients who then become ill-educated on what bodyfat levels really look like. A lot of women come to Muscle Nerds, typically with a calipered bodyfat assessment in hand, thinking they’re 13%, when they’re actually usually twice that number. We send them to a DXA and find out they’re over 25%. From our position this is great, because they become new clients. No one wants to pay for professional training when the trainer doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
And yes, there are also the coaches who do an initial overly fat measurement, and then very thin measurements after that, just to keep the client happy and to give the illusion of progress. That, to me, is blatant fraud. If you’re willing to do that, you’re willing to lie and cheat in other areas of your career. This type of deception always comes out eventually, and this can ruin reputations.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN ISSUES WITH CALIPER TESTING
Besides the coaches voluntarily (or subconsciously) “measuring thin”, the main problem is the reliance that even if you are a very competent coach, it’s hard to pinch at exactly the same place using the exact same “pinch”. If you are seeing a client every 3-4 weeks, how do you remember exactly where you pinched? You could be a little off which will affect measurements. When I used caliper testing (I don’t anymore), I would mark every site with an X and take pictures of all the sites to know exactly where I placed them. That was more precise but took a lot more time. Plus, most clients hated it. Everybody hates to get pinched, add the pictures to that and it’s even worse.
There is the issue with the most commonly used formulas. If you compare results from the various formulas out there (Jackson-Pollock 3, 4 or 7 sites, Parillo’s, Biosignature, etc.) you can have as much as a 3-4% difference with the same individual. What does that tell you about the reliability of caliper testing?
I stopped using calipers for two reasons:
1) in a period of 10 days, I got my body fat measured 20+ times (first by my friend then by 20 coaches at a Biosignature course) and I tested out at anywhere between non-measurable (less than 0%) and 16% depending on who measured me!
2) I was getting measured every week and from week to week my body fat migrated (at least based on the measurements). Meaning that my body fat would stay similar but one week the triceps, pec and mix-axillary would go down while the sub-scap and supra-iliac would go up. The next week, the sub-scap would go down but the triceps would go up. The next week supra-iliac would go down but the knee would go up. While I do believe that where you store body fat can vary based on your hormonal profile, nutrition and stress levels, I simply couldn’t accept that fat would migrate from place to place every week…. while I still looked the same.
I also believe that water retention issues (or dehydration) can have a significant impact on the “body fat” measure when using calipers.
You’re only as good as your instruction. So, if you get poor instruction on where the sites are and how to pinch them, it throws all measurements in the trash. I’ve seen people being instructed to take a midaxillary measurement on the side of the lat, which increases the reading from 6mm to 21mm. I’ve seen people being taught to take an abdominal reading on the FUPA (for lack of a better word). That can increase the reading significantly.
I’ve also seen people being taught a made-up skinfold calculation that can be found nowhere in the literature. How relevant is your skinfolds measurement if it’s only relevant in fantasy-land?
One really awful practice I’ve seen is to have a client dehydrate, take measures, then re-feed and re-measure. As a coach, you look like a genius to the client, because you’ve put a few kilos of “lean muscle” on your client overnight. To me, you’re a lying, deceitful douchebag.
WHY DO COACHES AND INDIVIDUALS LIE ABOUT THEIR BODY FAT
As I mentioned earlier lots of people “lie” about their body fat simply because they never get a reliable assessment done and ignore what 10, 13, 25, 20% looks like. Rather, they base their “evaluation” on the available comparisons (people on social media or gym claiming to be X%) or on what people (who are just as misinformed) tell them; “yeah you look around 10%”.
As for coaches, a lot of them lie or pinch thin either to look more competent than they are (if you lose more fat and build lean mass, their program/diet looks more effective), for marketing purposes on social media (Bryan lost 7% body fat and gained 12.4lbs of lean body mass in 6 weeks; you can too if you hire me as a coach), or, because they are people pleasers (lots of coaches are) who want their clients to be happy.
There are also the insecure folks with huge self-esteem issues who use their appearance to raise their confidence level. They are those who feel the need to lie about their body fat level (or strength, or size). Why? Because their self-esteem, which is low, if highly dependent on how people perceive them. If they feel respected, admired or liked then their self-esteem goes up and they need that. So, they have the tendency to lie in hope of getting other people’s approval or respect. The sad thing is that they eventually believe the lie themselves. They really do think that they are 10% even though they don’t have abs or much muscle definition. They don’t mean to be liars or do anything bad: it’s a subconscious strategy that they use to preserve their self-esteem. Of course, that is an indication of a more deeply rooted problem that needs to be addressed. By the way, a lot of physique competitors fall in that category.
Again, in complete agreement. What makes good coaches do bad things? Who knows, but I’ll echo your sentiment that for a lot of trainers, it’s simply an ego and confidence issue that should be addressed. No one wants to look incompetent in their career, but we have to understand that everyone is incompetent at not only some things, but many things. The key is to own up to this and use that understanding to become better.
The phrase, “I don’t know,” is extremely underused. That phrase, for a lot of people who should be using it, signifies incompetence, but really it doesn’t. It signifies ignorance, or a lack of understanding. It’s better to be ignorant but learning than to simply ignore the ignorance.
WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL PROBLEMS THAT COME WITH A FAULTY EVALUATION
Why should we care if someone lies about his body fat or if a coach lies to us about ours?
The biggest issue I see comes when you are trying to get lean. If you under evaluate your body fat percentage, it can lead to loss of motivation. For example, if you think that you are 13% and you are shooting to be a very lean 8%, you can calculate that you need to lose 5% body fat to get there. If you are 200lbs, that can come up to around 10lbs of fat to lose. Considering that with every pound of fat you lose, you will also lose around 0.5lbs of water, it could lead you to believe that if you lose 10-15lbs you will be ripped.
What happens when you lose 15lbs and still aren’t lean yet? It can easily kill your motivation or on the other side of the spectrum, it could make you do crazy things like crash dieting, abusing fat burners or jumping on the drugs bandwagon.
My main issue is that coaches are lying to their clients. Whether they are downright lying, or stretching the truth a little bit, it’s wrong. People pay us for expertise and knowledge. They don’t pay us to experiment on them while we figure shit out. Whether you’re making $25 or $125 a session, people should expect, and they deserve, for their health professional to be honest, truthful, and competent. If you’re not competent with a tool, then don’t use it until you are.
It’s crushing to me when I have to tell a young woman that her trainer is a little bit confused regarding her bodyfat level. When you think you’re 13% and find out you’re actually sitting more around 26%, it is very damaging to your psychological wellbeing, and this situation creates trust issues between that client and our industry. It’s also deflating to the client when they feel their hard work hasn’t paid off nearly as much as they believed it had. We already have enough issues without people amplifying things with something so simple.
FINAL WORDS OF WISDOM
All in all, caliper readings, when done correctly, can be a great tool to track progress but they do require technical instruction and a LOT of practice, especially if you’re going to use a bodyfat calculation. As they say in the computer programming industry, “garbage in, garbage out.” If you aren’t taking the measurements correctly, you’re not going to get the right number out.
What I generally recommend in my seminars is to take the sum of all of your measures and work on making that number smaller over time, instead of calculating it to a percentage. For instance, if you were using a 12-site reading, add up the 12 sites. For shits and grins, let’s assume your client had a total of 250mm’s over 12 sites. The goal would be 5-10mm’s of loss per week. I learned that from Charles Poliquin a decade ago, and it’s served me well ever since.
As well, most clients do not even care about bodyfat percentage, unless their coach makes it a big deal. Most clients do not even understand what that percentage means, and a lot of coaches in the industry don’t either. For example, let’s say I’m training a 53kg woman who is 24% bodyfat and skinny. Many people in the industry would say she’s overly fat, but is she really? If she’s “skinny fat”, is that a factor of having too much bodyfat, or is it because she’s very under-muscled? Or, is it a factor of both?
Muscle Nerds is a health and performance education and training company. We prioritize health over performance, and bodyfat percentage is at the bottom of the list of what we focus on. I’m not saying it’s not important, because it is, but, I AM saying that its priority is overstated. There are many other things that are much more important, like cardiovascular health, strength, muscle mass, and mental and psychological health.
Even though we train a lot of physique athletes, we don’t treat all clients like physique athletes. Our general population clients don’t care about looking like physique athletes. They don’t want to be “dick skin lean.” They want to be un-fat. And the difference between those two mindsets is mind-bogglingly, exponentially on opposite ends of the mental spectrum.
So, in an industry so obsessed with physical appearance, maybe we should start prioritizing the things that really matter, like health, fitness, and wellness, and less on a number that most people don’t really care about, except fitness professionals and competitors.
THERE YOU HAVE IT…
Hyperbolic body fat assessment is the one thing that has always pissed me off and I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one with that pet peeve! And YES, it does matter, for all the reasons that Luke and I mentioned.
I’d like to thank Luke Leaman for his input. He is by far one of the smartest people I know and someone I’m honored to have contribute to an article. I strongly recommend that you go take a look at his website http://www.musclenerds.net/ , and ideally attend one of his seminars in the near future, the guy is a goldmine and an awesome presentor.
-Christian Thibaudeau and Luke Leaman