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What is a Skinfold Caliper?

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  • Written By: Mike Howells
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 29 October 2016
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A skinfold caliper is a pincered device used to measure the amount of non-lean tissue on the body. By extension, it can be used to generate a rough estimate of body fat percentage. This device literally measures loose skin and tissue by gently pinching parts of the body and gauging how far apart the two pincers are separated.

Skinfold measurements are one of several ways body fat can be calculated, as part of a weight management regime, though it is among the least accurate compared to other options. Body fat percentage is a valuable statistic in weight loss since it distinguishes undesirable weight, such as fat, from necessary weight, like muscle. Unlike body weight, which can be easily calculated with scales, body fat percentage is a more subtle measurement, derived through a mathematical formula, for which skinfold caliper measurements can provide one component.

Rather than offering value through one-off measurements, a skinfold caliper is generally used to track changes in body composition over time. In this way it is common practice to use skinfold measurements as raw comparative data, absent any conversion to body fat percentage. Decreasing caliper readings can be inferred to reflect decreasing levels of body fat.

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Fitness professionals recommend daily measurements over the course of weeks or months, taken at the same time every day. Various factors can thwart the accuracy of skinfold caliper measurements, so taking multiple sets of measurements at various locations on the body is crucial in obtaining a reliable average. The calipers must also be properly calibrated and maintained for readings to be valid.

Traditional locations on the body that lend themselves to skinfold caliper measurement include the chest, abdomen, thighs, the area underneath the shoulder blades, and the backs of the arms. To take a proper measurement, a fold of skin should be raised away from any underlying muscle, and the calipers applied to the fold. Readings should always be taken on the same side of the body, usually the right side. Most calipers, regardless of manufacturing country, give readings in millimeters.

A comprehensive monitoring strategy requires at least three measurements in several of these areas each day, and tracking of the average. More measurements in more areas reduces the likelihood of errors and improves the reliability of the statistics. Once the measurements are taken and averaged, they can be directly recorded or inserted into the body fat equation to determine a percentage.

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