Everybody wants to look better. You may dismiss this “need” of humans as something superficial. But, you cannot deny that it is ingrained in us and cannot be deleted. There may actually be more to it… As we shall see in detail in a future chapter, the pursuit of looking better may actually have implications far beyond just the external appearance.
Among the factors which contribute to how you look — ignore grooming/clothing; also ignore the face you’re born with. The former is pretty easy to improve whereas, nothing can be done about the latter (other than surgery). What you’re left with is something very fascinating — the body. One look at your body is enough to get a broad idea of the kind of athletic experiences you’ve had in life. This is because your body adapts to the kind of activity it has repeatedly been exposed to and accumulates characteristic features along the way. Having a well shaped body athletic looking body is a sign of consistent and intelligent hard work.
I strongly believe that, given the right direction, ANYONE — irrespective of gender, age, race, height, bone structure, lifestyle — has the potential to have a very aesthetically pleasing body.
The total mass of your body can be divided into two different components:
- Fat mass (adipose tissue)
- Lean mass — Everything except fat (bone, muscle, blood, organs, etc)
In this chapter, we’ll define metrics to quantify each of the above. These metrics could be used to evaluate one’s Body Composition. This could help you see where you currently stand and also help you set goals — both, for the short term and for the long term.
BODY FAT PERCENTAGE
The percentage of the total mass that is made up of fat, defined as Body Fat percentage (bf%), is what we are interested in. Typically, we find bf% ranging from 20% to 40% in women and 12% to 35% in men.
We can easily measure our body-weight using weighing machines. But how can we measure bf%? Several sophisticated techniques are used by professionals (like bodybuilders) to accurately measure body-fat like DEXA scan (based on a type of X-ray), BOD-POD (based on body density), Hydrostatic Weighing, etc. But, for a casual fitness enthusiast, these are relatively expensive and not so easily accessible.
Your waist size* is a pretty reliable source of information with regards to your leanness. In fact, a very simple way to keep a rough track of your bf% would be to use the Waist to Height Ratio (WHtR).
A good target WHtR for men would be between 0.44 and 0.48. You will look well shaped, be relatively athletic, stay healthy** and sustaining this range of leanness (~10–18% body-fat) is very practical.
Similar WHtR recommendation for women would be 0.42–0.46 (which corresponds to 20–28% body-fat).
*Waist size is the circumference at the navel — not your pant size.
**WHO recommends that men should have WHtR lower than 0.536 and women less than 0.492 to minimize risk of cardiovascular diseases. Anyone with WHtR greater than 0.6 is considered clinically obese (> 40% body fat).
Other methods of measuring Body-Fat%:
For those who are interested, a slightly more accurate estimate of your Body Fat Percentage (based on body measurements) can be done using this formula:
This is available below as a calculator in Excel file format so that you can find your fat percentage:
This estimate of body-fat percentage is pretty accurate (±4%) for people who are in categories 1, 2 and 3 of the the table (shown in the beginning) i.e. for people who are relatively lean. The general guideline for people in category 4 would be to keep losing fat until your category changes to 3 and then use the calculator to track progress more accurately.
Waist measurement and the calculator attached above are probably the most practical options for estimating your body fat percentage.
The other commonly used techniques have their own set of flaws:
- Fat calipers are pretty accurate but only in an expert’s hands.
- Electrical Impedance Fat Monitors are very precise — i.e. can be useful for detecting changes — but, not very accurate in terms of absolute value of your bf% (can be up to 10% off!).
FAT FREE MASS INDEX
Just like we have defined fat percentage, we could consider “Lean-Mass percentage” to quantify the relative amount of Lean Mass in the body. But this, being 100 minus bf%, would be a redundant metric. We need to define a metric which adds more value to the idea of Body Composition than just that.
At the same fat percentage, two people could look drastically different.
Having a low bf% alone doesn’t guarantee that a person would be in good shape. Being too light and in turn, having low lean mass would make a person look skinny (not fat, but not well shaped either). Setting aside how he/she looks, this person would most likely be weak, non-athletic and really vulnerable to fat accumulation (more about this in a later chapter).
You have probably heard a lot about BMI i.e. Body Mass Index
This popular metric gives us almost no information about how fat the person is since, it depends only on the value of total mass and not the partitioning of that mass into fat and lean tissue. We can have two people with the same BMI but considerably different values of fat mass. Muscular athletes qualify as obese if we look at BMI charts (this is far from the truth). Hence, I personally, and most people who value Body Composition, view BMI as a horrible metric for anything related to fitness in general.
HOWEVER, the Allometric scaling used to compute BMI is a brilliant idea and is something we will employ to define another metric — Fat Free Mass Index.
Fat Free Mass Index (or FFMI) gives us an idea of how heavy the musculo-skeletal system of a person is when normalized with respect to height — i.e. how muscular the person is. Let’s have a look at the FFMI distribution in drug-free human population:
How do you find your FFMI?
- Use the Body-Fat calculator attached above and find your fat%.
- 100 minus fat% is your Lean-Mass%.
For example, if you are 20% body-fat, you are 80% lean mass.
- Find your Lean-Mass in kilograms.
For example, if you are 70 kg with 80% lean mass, your lean mass in kg would be 80% of 70 kg which is 56 kg.
- Divide your lean mass by the square of your height in metres to get your FFMI. Continuing with the same example as above:
If you are 5' 7" tall, your height in metres = 1.70
Therefore, your FFMI = 56/(1.7 *1.7) = 19.4
According to the the FFMI table above, your lean mass is higher than about 60% of the male population.
Body Composition = (FFMI, bf%)
This simple pair of values for a person quantifies a lot of information —
How muscular is he/she? How lean?
Your Body Composition primarily depends on genetics and lifestyle. How to play around with your Body Composition is something we’ll learn in detail in future.
MUSCLE AND BULK
I hear people, especially women, saying all the time — “Man, I don’t want to look like those muscle monsters… all that bulk”. If the internet and media show you images of gym freaks who really look super huge and bulky, you can almost certainly say they are on steroids (FFMI as high as 35!).
Even if you wish to, you CAN’T look like them naturally. The truth is most of us have really average genetics; which means, men wouldn’t cross an FFMI of 23 (20 for women) in their whole lives even with the best training!
People with such misinformation (Muscle causes Bulk) have no idea what they are missing out on.
What, instead, happens when you gain muscle is that you start looking more and more athletic. The kind of look that is naturally possible is shown below through some examples.
I think these are some fine looking people!
SOME ENDING NOTES
Even if two people of the same height have the exact same lean mass and fat mass, their physiques could look pretty different. “Where” you store body-fat and how your muscle insertions occur varies from person to person. So, even after you achieve the Body Composition of your favorite movie star, you may not look as good.
However, I would still encourage that everyone should go for as high an FFMI as possible. This, when combined with low fat%, you will look YOUR natural best this way. Getting lean and then staying lean is known to reduce cardiovascular health risks. Additionally, the health benefits from muscle building (high intensity) activities are unparalleled (more about this in a later chapter).