The skin fold test

In 2010 I weighed 10-15lbs less than I do now. As I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree in physical education I was required to take a physical conditioning class. In the class we went through physical conditioning for the entire semester. We learned terminology, how to use equipment, how to train others and how to assess them. While learning about assessment, we got to the part where students would have their body fat percentage calculated, otherwise known as the body composition test. This time… it was time for the skin fold test.

Replica of pinchers of death used on me in my college years (actual name: Skinfold Caliper):

Let me start off by ensuring to mention that skin fold tests are not recommended for damn near anybody. It has been said countless times that if a fitness trainer does this, they will most likely lose that client. Why? Because the person (in this case my professor) has to take bits of fat and separate it from the muscle (because yes we ALL have muscle under it) from sometimes three but usually seven parts of your body in order to pinch said fat in-between the pinchers of that tool up there. Said parts of the body include: Triceps, Pectoral, Subscapula, Midaxilla, Abdomen, Suprailiac, and Quadriceps.

All this was done in a private room and she struggled to pull the fat on my thighs, I cringed. It hurt, but she got it right where she needed and took the measurement. I can’t remember how long it took but we got our result in envelopes, and mine said I was overweight. I was 5’3” and about 120lbs at the time. I was also livid. And hey, I wasn’t particularly mad at HER, she’s one bad woman and I respect her as a health professional, but boy do I hate the skin fold test.

image source: (1. Midaxilla 2. Chest/Pectoral 3. Abdomen 4. Subscapula 5. Suprailiac 6. Tricep 7. Thigh/Quadriceps)

Here’s why.
A simple “pros and cons” google search of skin-fold tests can tell you, but let me summarize here.

The good:

It’s fast, portable, cheap, and takes very little know how to do it.

Reasons why people (including me) hate this:

  • It can be embarrassing — Imagine a client or student coming to me who is already feeling overweight and insecure… now I’m going to take what they want help with and pinch it between my fingers then a tool? Pretty sure that would make anyone hate the idea of going for help.

The way I am built made it difficult for the person performing the measurements on me to get a good hold on my fat and not the muscle — I didn’t mentioned this… but she actually said that aloud… that she was trying – to –get – it – so – she – could… ahhh there we go.

  • Skin can be pinched differently at different parts of the body.
  • Some calipers work better than others.

There are more cons than this but there is one that I want to wait because it applies to what many people are waiting for…

What about BMI?

Another way many believe they can measure their body’s composition is by way of their number on the Body Mass Index. It is (also) an easy to use (plug in numbers and read a chart), widely practiced and accepted measure of body fat based on a person’s height and weight. You get your score on a chart (as the banner shows) and it tells you which category you are in:

BMI Categories:
Underweight = <18.5
Normal weight = 18.5–24.9
Overweight = 25–29.9
Obese = BMI of 30 or greater

Skin folds didn’t work for me, what about BMI?

As I mentioned, I am now heavier than I was in that skin fold experience. With a lot more strength training than I have ever done before I have gained weight not only in fat but also in muscle. As my stats stand today: I am 5’3” (and a half, but friends and nurses alike laugh so I round down as to not bring attention to it) and I usually fall somewhere between 125-135lbs.

This depends on how often I stick to my diet and what kind of workouts I am doing at the time. Lots of power lifting is what gets me to 135lbs, lots of pole dancing is usually closer to 125lbs. So let’s just round my weight to 130lbs. That puts me at 23 – normal weight on the BMI scale. Just about two more points and I would be considered overweight on this scale. In fact when I am lifting weights, I am exactly a point a way from BMI overweight-dom. BMI can be a great tool to use along with other information, but standing alone… it cannot tell you what is going on with your body. You know what you’re doing and not doing; I know that I put on 5lbs of mostly muscle when I am lifting frequently; I am not worried about my health (in this way).


Me, at about 130 lbs.


Me, at about 125 lbs. (maybe a bit less)


Me, in college… I’d guess about 119 lbs., not too long before the time of the skin-fold story (OMG look at my iPod!)

The heavy stuff:

You know what else? I’m of African descent. On both sides of my family, African-American father, Jamaican and Panamanian mother. Now it does not mean this for everyone, but in my case this means… my hips are meaty in comparison to other parts of my body for a little lady, even a fit little lady. It’s the way I am built; it’s the way that my mom is built… as well as her mom. I’m not kidding, everyone sees it, and it’s weird, multiple people have told me I have my mothers and/or grandmother legs, but it’s true. I do! It makes me oddly proud. So, what does this have to do with anything?

Academic journals have studies with titles such as:
“Body size, body composition and fat distribution: comparative analysis of European, Maori, Pacific Island and Asian Indian adults”
“Ethnic Differences in Insulin Resistance and Body Composition in United Kingdom Adolescents”
“Body composition of English Premier League soccer players: Influence of playing position, international status, and ethnicity”

That first title is from the British Journal of Nutrition and it states:

“In conclusion, ethnic differences in fat distribution, muscularity, bone mass and leg length may contribute to ethnic-specific relationships between body fatness and BMI. The use of universal BMI cut-off points may not be appropriate for the comparison of obesity pre valence between ethnic groups.”

image source: Gaming Bolt

Think of it like this… different people are made up of different groupings of DNA, those groupings of similar genetic characteristics are like a class that you belong to. The warrior, cleric, rogue and mage would all set you up for a different game play experience. Our bodies have particular wants, needs and talents, just like your favorite class. There’s room for everyone who wants to play.

“Health at Every Size,” this is where the discussions and practices are heading. This is supporting the belief that health can and does have different character classes. There are numerous websites and resources in existence that support the idea that it is possible for people to be healthy and different sizes. When a health coach focuses on this ideal as they work with a client, the focus is on health, not weight. There is a focus on self-esteem, self-efficacy, body satisfaction, and the interventions are holistic, taking the whole person into consideration. With health coaching, or any life-style change the goal is to change unhealthy lifestyles into healthier ones and to note that “Weight is not a behavior” (ACE Health Coach Manual, 2013).

A prime example

You may have recently heard about ESPN debuting their “Body 2015” issue.
If you haven’t seen it already, here’s one of the covers getting a lot of attention:


At 5’5’ and 210lbs Ms. Bingson scores a 34.9 on the BMI scale, obese. Do you see her body?

Image source for both photos of Bingson:

Look at her. Now, I could make this entire article about how this issue has different female athletes of different body types (they do) and how wonderful that is (it is), but my point is that the numbers are not always indicative of health. Ms. Bingson is a world class athlete, an Olympian, she gets paid to be ready for what her body is most capable of in her particular sport, on the world’s stage.


This article was not written to say you should write off your health, no matter what these tests say. It was written to say: take it all with a grain of salt. Pull together a great wellness team, you be the master! Maybe that’s a primary care provider, gynecologist, mental health therapist, nutritionist, dentist, and health coach. Think of it as building a great well-rounded deck. Whoever they are, take the information they help you obtain, put it ALL together, and only then come to a conclusion on what you and your body needs.

And incase you were wondering, I’m usually a rogue.

Featured image source: