Scrawny to Brawny: Hydrostatic Testing

11 November 2013 · 15 comments

At the start of 2013, I vowed to re-dedicate myself to a focus on fitness. After two-and-a-half years of exercising and eating well, I’d let my attention to health and well-being slide a little, and I didn’t like it.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. I said fitness was a priority but my actions showed otherwise. I didn’t make it to the gym as often as I wanted and I rarely went for runs. After a one-month detox at the start of the year — no caffeine, no alcohol, low sugar, and so on — my diet became mediocre. It was never bad, really, meaning I didn’t fall into eating junk food on a regular basis, but it was never great either.

I’m not willing to keep coasting along, so I recently signed up for the one-year Scrawny to Brawny program. Though its name is funny, my research indicates that this coaching program (which is based on a book by the same name) is based on common sense and sound methodology. Because I do well with structure and feedback, this seems like a good choice for me. I’m going to give it a shot. My new fitness regimen starts today.

As part of that, I need to have accurate measurements of my body composition.

For the past few years, I’ve been using a scale with a body-composition monitor. This device, which provides accurate and consistent weight measurements (always a good thing in a scale!), uses electrical impedance to estimate body fat.

At the moment, I’m forty-four years old. I’m five feet, eight inches tall (173 centimeters). When I started using the scale in April 2010, my weight was 213 pounds (96.6 kilograms) and my body fat was 35.0%. My body-mass index (BMI) was 32.3. At my leanest in June 2012, my weight was 163 pounds (73.9 kilograms) and my body fat was 17.5%. My BMI was 24.7.

According to my scale, I lost fifty pounds and half my body fat in just over two years.

Today I weigh 176 pounds (79.8 kilograms) and my fancy scale says I’m 23.3% body fat. My BMI is 26.7. Over the past year, I’ve softened. I’ve exercised less and discovered a love for beer. This isn’t a great combination for a fitness-minded fellow!

For a while, I’ve understood that the body composition numbers from my scale probably aren’t accurate. Electrical impedance isn’t the most accurate method of measurement for this sort of thing. I’m okay with that, though, since the scale is cheap (as in, I already own it) and if I use sound methodology, I can at least get a good idea of how my body composition changes over time. That is, if I measure myself under the same conditions and at the same time every day, the variation in results will give me a good idea of what’s happening to my body.

Still, I’ve always wanted to get an accurate test from a trained professional. When I heard that Portland’s Adventist Medical Center offers body-composition testing, including the very accurate hydrostatic method, I scheduled an appointment.

I dropped by at noon last Friday to be tested. It was quick and easy.

First, the nurse measured my body composition using calipers. She pinched my skin and measured the thickness of the folds at seven different locations, including chest, belly, thigh, and so on. Next, she had me fully immerse myself in a tank of water four times. I brought a camera to film the process:


Sorry about the funky audio…

While I changed back into my street clothes, the nurse punched numbers into a computer. The results startled me. Kim teases me that I have some sort of body dysmorphia (and Kris would be inclined to agree with her, I’m sure), but I’ve always just laughed it off. Maybe she’s right. I feel f-a-t right now. I don’t like the way I look. And if anything, I believed my scale’s 23.3% body fat numbers were low. Well…

“Your results are remarkably consistent,” the nurse told me when she sat down to review the results with me.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, usually there’s a large variance between the results of these tests. Three to five percent is normal. Your results only vary by one-and-a-half percent. And if we leave out the least accurate method, there’s no statistical difference between the other two.”

Based on her measurements, here’s my current body composition:

  • I’m 5′ 8″ and weigh 176 pounds (which is what my home scale says).
  • Using the three-point skinfold method (which is a subset of the seven-fold method), I have 17.0% body fat. This method isn’t as accurate as its big brother, though.
  • Using the seven-point skinfold method, I have 18.5% body fat.
  • Using the hydrostatic method, which is most accurate, I have 18.3% body fat.

The nurse and I chatted about the results.

“Your results are fine,” she told me. “You’re within the healthy range. You have some extra fat in your belly, but I’d guess that’s because you drink too much.” I laughed because she’s right. “If you cut back on your drinking, that should go away.”

She asked why I wanted to get my body composition measured, and I told her that I was starting the Scrawny to Brawny program. She nodded. “That sounds like a fine idea,” she said. “But be careful. Most of my clients are athletes, and I see all kinds. Some use steroids; some don’t. When you go to the gym, give up the idea of ever looking like the guys with lots of muscles. For one thing, that’s not how you are built. For another, the guys who are ripped get that way artificially. When I measure powerlifters, the guys who get strong and build muscle naturally still look a little ‘soft’. That’s just how our bodies work.”

All of this is fascinating. I have no desire whatsoever to use steroids, so that’s not a concern. But I think the nurse sensed some of my body dysmorphia and was trying to set me up to have reasonable expectations. That’s a good thing.

Ultimately, my goal is to be happy and healthy. That means eating right and exercising regularly. I’ve seen that I’m good at this when I make it a priority and it becomes a habit. I’ve just let that lapse. Starting today, however, it’s back to the gym!

1 Don November 11, 2013 at 07:32

I am not one to respond often to blog posts, but I wanted to thank you for two things – Your discussion of seeking mental help just to give it a chance and not feel so self-conscious of it helped me recently and now this article on body fat. I have a similar type scale and the body fat number is around 25%. I am a shade under 5’10” and when that number popped up, I was around 190. It motivated me to lose weight (which was tough because I had wanted to be more muscular in the past) and even after getting down to 172 (or just around there), I am still in the 23% body fat. I also have felt in the past that I may suffer from body dysmorphia so this article helps me to look at my fitness goals honestly and my scale with some skepticism. Again, thanks to some of your posts, it has helped make a positive change in my life.

2 Mark November 11, 2013 at 07:41

Very interesting!

We have similar body types. I’m 42. I’d been meandering through different weightlifting and workout approaches for a few years now, but it wasn’t until about 4 months ago that I started a full-body lifting routine that I was able to stick with and has shown great results (it’s just a 3x per week standard routine). I definitely concur with her advice regarding not expecting to be ‘ripped’ without some artificial help. That said, if you stick with it and follow a decent program then you will get in great shape. The biggest thing you will find is that lifting weights makes you hungrier! Be prepared for that and plan on how you’ll deal with it. For me, soon after doing my workouts I come home and drink a whey protein shake that I mix up using coconut milk (avoid regular milk or any of the sugar-laden whey powders, unless you’re looking to ‘bulk up’, which I doubt you are).
Good luck, and keep us updated!

mark

3 Tyler Karaszewski November 11, 2013 at 13:21

How do they know these measurements are accurate? Do they test them on cadavers or something? I’m just curious, as I don’t see how anyone can come up with *any* objective qualification of how good these sorts of things are unless there’s a concrete baseline to compare to. Cutting up a corpse and separating out the fat from the rest of it and weighing it seems pretty concrete, but I can’t think of anything else that is.

4 Simon Cummings November 12, 2013 at 05:18

Tyler- you’re absolutely spot on. If you want to do some further research look up Durnin and Wormsley who were one set of researchers that did the work into skinfold testing.

In my view DEXA/DXA which utilises very low dose x-rays is the most practical and accurate method of body composition testing and will provide for more information than hydor-static or underwater weighing.

5 Alasdair July 4, 2014 at 06:19

The hydrostatic method is pretty damn accurate, and it works on the same principle that made Archimedes run around yelling Eureka in the nuddy: measurements of density by displacement of water. They get your volume by how much the volume of the water increases when it includes you, and very accurately weigh you, and from this they get your density ( d = m/v ).
The density of everything in your body is very well known, as it’s all readily measurable in, as you guessed, cadavers. So it’s a matter of looking at how your particular density compares to those of each of the substances you’re composed of, and determining from that how much of you is made of each of those. Straightforward maths if you have all the relevant figures, and VERY accurate. And a computer can do the calculation in milliseconds. (The actual calculation, if you’re interested, was worked out in this paper.)
The two caliper techniques were actually calibrated against the hydrostatic one by, as Simon mentioned, Durnin and Womersley. All told, they’re quite accurate against the population as a whole (the 7-point one virtually as accurate as hydrostatic weighing), though YMMV.

6 Aaron November 12, 2013 at 08:37

Hey J.D., I love your website and I’ve never commented before, but I thought I should say hello since I just started the Scrawny to Brawny program as well. I’m younger than you, but suffer from the same love of beer and lack of motivation for working out. But I’m really excited to get started with the program and see what happens, as I’m sure you are as well. Good luck with everything!

7 Becca Borawski November 12, 2013 at 11:48

That is a shockingly ignorant and irresponsible set of statements and behaviors from your nurse. For one, as Simon noted, DEXA is the closest thing to accurate when it comes to body fat testing. Calipers and the tanks are no more reliable than your home scale and are best used to show trends rather than absolutes. The calipers are highly dependent on the experience of the person giving the test and even for accurate comparison, you’d need to have all future caliper tests done by the same person. And the tanks are highly subject to your ability to be consistent and decent at dunking yourself, which most people are not.

And as far as the steroid thing? Wow, just wow. “For another, the guys who are ripped get that way artificially. When I measure powerlifters, the guys who get strong and build muscle naturally still look a little ‘soft’. That’s just how our bodies work.” – There are as many things wrong in this statement as there are words. I would suggest not listening to one bit of the “expertise” from this medical “professional” who is speaking entirely outside of her realm of knowledge and education.

8 Karen November 12, 2013 at 13:16

Hi J.D.,
I’m slightly blushing from your video but I’m always impressed by whatever you do on your blog. Leftover Halloween candy has taken a liken to me. I’ve been phoning in my workouts (not trying my best). I get bored easily. I recently added walking, basic yoga, and I’m attempting meditation per doctor’s recommendation.

Have you ever heard of Jon Kabat-Zinn? Good stuff. I just have to do it.

Glad I got to catch up with you at FinCon. : )

9 Karen November 12, 2013 at 14:54

meant “liking”. : )

10 Marcello November 12, 2013 at 18:01

Hello JD, I admire that you have done so much to lose weight and pursue your passions in life. My wife reads your blogs religiously and sometimes forwards them to me. I don’t read or comment on blogs much, but I’m about the same age as you and have lifted weights most of my adult life so I thought I’d say something about this topic. I’m about 5’10” and weigh 180, I’ve weighed the same amount for about 20 years now with little fluctuation. Weight lifting has given me a good toned body and muscle definition, however after years of lifting my joints are worn and I’ve lost a lot of flexibility and agility. Additionally I find going to the gym boring because there is little social interaction and the routines are always the same. Even if you change things up it just isn’t that fun to lift weights. Earlier this year I switched over to taking martial arts, specifically mixed martial arts, I highly recommend it.

Martial arts has inspired me to learn a new skill, meet new people, get flexible, do more cardio, and work out using natural body movements which will increase flexibility and speed while still maintaining muscle strength. Most importantly in this sport you will focus more on the skills aspect than the fitness, but believe me the fitness part will be a natural byproduct along with self confidence. Karate was a big jump for me to get out of my comfort zone and try something completely different. I had been considering it for years but finally had to just go and force myself to try it, and now I am totally renewed with my fitness and have a new hobby/skill too. Most people in my class are in their 40’s so it isn’t too late to start. If you aren’t into martial arts then something like cross fit, tai chi, or even yoga would be a good alternative. I’m not knocking lifting weights, its great especially for beginners trying to bulk up or get toned, but there are more natural ways to stay in shape and learn new skills at the same time. If you have the time and energy you could certainly do both.

One more thing about dieting, it is true that you will not look like the muscle heads in the gym unless you use roids, have amazing genetics, or do some outrageous Olympian workout and diet complemented with questionable supplements. At your age I would not recommend taking supplements to bulk up. If you do just take protein (without the carbs), and of course vitamins. Most of the weight gainers are full of carbs and will go straight to your stomach if you don’t burn it off. I stopped taking supplements in my 20’s and only take a natural multivitamin now along with a good diet. As you already know staying fit is about eating the right foods, at the right times, and getting frequent exercise; but don’t obsess so much that you stop doing the things you enjoy like drinking an occasional beer or eating a small dessert. The key is to do everything in moderation.

11 Marcello's Wife November 13, 2013 at 09:33

I agree. I myself have switched to leisure biking and walking that I have easily integrated into my daily life. I might try crossfit later on as I have heard good things about it. I am still maintaining my gym membership so I can be active indoors in the winter.

I also try to eat healthy but with generally no restrictions. Just everything in moderation.

Sustainable health is obtained by lifestyle changes, not programs.

12 Alan November 12, 2013 at 19:25

Hi JD,

Longtime reader of GRS here, and I’ve wandered over to this blog a few times too. I’ve always liked your writing but haven’t had any comments to share until now.

In reading this post, I was wondering if you had ever heard of the book Wheat Belly by William Davis? He also has a blog: http://www.wheatbellyblog.com.

I bring it up for two reasons: one because it mentions the role of wheat in causing weight gain (via appetite stimulation and other means) – but also because I remember you writing about your experiences with ADD. Apparently, for some reason, wheat can contribute to “brain fog” and worsening of ADD symptoms as well.

I tried cutting out all wheat products as an experiment a few months ago and within two days I noticed a new mental clarity from my own ADD symptoms. In addition, in these few months I’ve lost about 10 lbs of fat, mainly from my stomach, without any other special dieting efforts.

Just thought it might be worth mentioning in case you hadn’t heard of any of this before and/or found it helpful. Best of luck on your journey to be more healthy, it’s been inspiring to read about all the positive changes you’ve managed to make in your life.

13 Geek November 13, 2013 at 09:00

Before and after photos use a lot of lighting tricks. I bet you could look like “after” pretty easily.
Eg:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-dixon/weight-loss-secrets_b_3643898.html

14 Karl Nilsson November 21, 2013 at 04:43

I took a gander at the training program and it seems solid. While I’m 10 years younger than you, I have been lifting weights and educating myself on diet for more than 10 years and believe me when I say that your diet is the key to losing body fat. Lifting weights is important, but your diet ultimately determines your success.

You shouldn’t care about absolute numbers when measuring BF, what matters is how you feel. If you feel too heavy, you should do something about it (unless you have body dysmorphia). The nurse was right that you shouldn’t compare yourself to others (I just wrote a post on that), but you shouldn’t settle for a body that you’re not comfortable with either.

I’m convinced that you MUST choose a diet that you enjoy and can incorporate into your lifestyle if you want to both lose body fat AND keep it off. If you enjoy beer, then incorporate beer into the diet. Everything can be incorporated into a diet if it’s properly planned. Don’t fall for these super-strict diets eliminating all carbs or grains or sugar: they work but chances are you’ll get cravings like crazy and fail in the end to maintain your super-strict diet for the rest of your life. I don’t want to push any particular diet on someone I don’t know, but for me Leangains-style intermittent fasting made all the difference in maintaining a healthy and enjoyable lifestyle.

15 David Hooper December 7, 2013 at 18:13

I think you’re right on with your ultimate goal to be healthy and happy. I see a lot of guys in the gym who get obsessed with certain parts of their bodies or being able to do something, like handstand pushups for example.

Six-pack abs are great and a handstand is certainly impressive, but if you’re not living pain-free and able to do what you need to do to have a great life, what’s the point?

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