Episode 30 - Skin Folds Test: What are they? Why you should be doing them
Skin Folds - What are they? Why you should be doing them?
If you’re serious about tracking your body composition change, you need to consider getting regular skin folds test done with an accredited anthropometrist.
But what are skin folds?
What do you need to look for when getting your skin folds done to ensure they’re legit?
And how do you find an accredited anthropometrist?
Tune in to learn all about skin folds!
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Episode 30 - Skin Folds: What are they? Why you should be doing them
Welcome to the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast, the show designed to serve you up evidence-based sports nutrition advice from the experts. Hi, I'm your host Taryn, Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Advanced Sports Dietitian, and founder of Dietitian Approved. Listen as I break down the latest evidence to give you practical, easy to digest strategies to train hard, recover faster and perform at your best. You have so much potential, and I want to help you unlock that with the power of nutrition. Let's get into it.
Taryn Richardson 00:44
Last week on the podcast I had Gary join me just to explain why the scales are such a poor measure of body composition and we talked a lot about skin folds. So what I wanted to do today with this episode is just explain to you what the heck skin folds actually are, what we're measuring, why we do it, and how to find somebody that can actually do them accurately for you.
Taryn Richardson 01:09
So you might have seen the calipers that were used to measure skin folds. They're generally metal calipers, they look pretty gnarly, but they're not too bad. They don't hurt like they look like they're going to hurt. But what we're trying to do with calipers is we're measuring the subcutaneous fat - the fat that sits on top of your muscles just under the skin.
Taryn Richardson 01:30
And there's a few sites across the body that we do that. Each of those sites we can check change, but we also get a total number, and we get a number in millimetres. The calipers measure in millimetres. So we know at your bicep, how many millimetres of subcutaneous fat sit there. We know at the top of your thigh, or your quad how many millimetres of fat sit there.
Taryn Richardson 01:52
And we get all these numbers and we add them up, we get a total number of your total sum of seven skin folds. Now that number doesn't mean a lot to you until you've walked through with an Accredited Anthropometrist about what that means and what that looks like for you as a male or a female, a normal punter or an athlete. But they're really good for tracking change in subcutaneous fat, so body fat, that's way more sensitive than the scales.
Taryn Richardson 01:55
Because what I find with athletes is that they jump on the scales all the time and they get a number and whatever that number says, they're so disheartened if they've been doing a really good job of their nutrition and their training and it hasn't changed, or it's gone up. And often that's not because your body fat's gone up. It could be because you've put on muscle or you're over hydrated, or really well hydrated, you could have a lot of content in your gut, you might have more fibre through your whole digestive tract that you didn't have yesterday.
Taryn Richardson 02:58
There's loads of factors that affect the numbers on the scales. But we can't cheat skin folds. You can't drink a whole lot of water and then do skin folds and get a different result, it doesn't work that way. Whereas you can drink a litre of water and jump on the scales and you'll be a kilo heavier. So they're really easy to cheat the scales. But you can't cheat skin folds, particularly if you're using a skilled technician that knows how to do them accurately.
Taryn Richardson 03:24
So we get this number, we get our sum of seven skinfolds and then what the hell do you do with it? So if you want to make a change, use skin folds in combination with the scales. And what we want to see is that number, that total number, that we get when you do skin folds, go down. If that number goes down, it means you're losing body fat. And you can break it down for each of those seven sites that we do across the body as to where that body fat loss is coming from. Is it coming a little bit from everywhere? Or is it coming just from your tummy?
Taryn Richardson 03:59
So I really like to use it as a tool for athletes to track the change in body composition over time. Because you can be so disheartened from the scales - they may not change or they may go up. And you think you're not doing the right thing with your nutrition. But really what's happening is you do skin folds and body fat comes down and often muscle comes up. So the number on the scales is different, but the whole makeup of your body has changed. You've gained muscle, lost fat, so the numbers are the same, but that's not reflected in your skin folds.
Taryn Richardson 04:31
So that's really cool to do. Now, you might have heard people converting skin folds to body fat percent. And you should actually never do that. There are regression equations to be able to calculate body fat percent from skin folds. But there's a lot of inaccuracies as soon as you plug that number into a different equation. Are you using the right equation? Are you using an equation that's for cross country male skiers and you're a female triathlete? So you should never convert away from the raw number. Always keep it in that because we can tell a lot going on from that raw number anyway without having to convert to a body fat percentage.
Taryn Richardson 05:13
If you really want to know what percentage of body fat you are, go and get a DEXA scan. That will tell you exactly how much muscle you are, how much fat you are and how much bone tissue you are. So you'll be able to get an actual number for your body fat percentage if that's what you want to know. But there's some limitations to DEXA as well. You need to make sure you're going to the right place that does a body composition scan. And it is a radiation dose when you go and get a DEXA - it’s just like an MRI machine, so you need to take that into consideration as well. Do you want to get a radiation dose to get a body composition scan? or not?
Taryn Richardson 05:52
So what do you need to look for when you're looking at getting your skin folds done? So the number one thing you need to look for is somebody that's ISAK Accredited. Now ISAK (I.S.A.K.) stands for the International Society for the Advancement of Kinanthropometry. Thank God they called it ISAK, because that is a mouthful.
Taryn Richardson 06:11
But Kinanthropometry, that's an area of science where we're looking at measuring the human body and its composition. So it's used in an elite athlete population to do things like skin folds. But there's also girths and bone breadths that they can use for talent ID and other things. So that's a pretty cool area of science.
Taryn Richardson 06:32
But in terms of measuring skin folds, then you want to look for somebody that's ISAK Accredited because they developed international standards for assessing body composition. And it's not just a course and then that's it, see you later. You have to re-accredit every three or four years and make sure that you're still within this level of error and you haven't gone AWOL, and you still know how to do it properly. So it makes sure that the technicians that are qualified to do it can give you really accurate results.
Taryn Richardson 07:07
Because I've seen a lot of personal trainers, and other fitness professionals do 'skin folds' in inverted commas. But there are a lot of things you need to look for to make sure you're getting a really quality assessment of your body composition. Because like any science, there's going to be a level of error, and we want to minimise that error in our measurement as much as possible. Because we want to create accurate and reliable data every time we do it.
Taryn Richardson 07:35
So there's a few things we want to control to make sure that happens. So number one is marked up. Someone needs to mark you up to find the spots to do your skin folds. Otherwise, if they're not doing that, you need to walk away. We use bones to find where to actually take that skinfold measure because our bones don't move. So it means that we find those bones next time, we can find the exact same spot for our skin folds and then that data is much more repeatable and accurate. And then we can decide if it's a true change or not.
Taryn Richardson 08:10
If we're just randomly grabbing skin and going yep, that looks about right, it's going to be wildly different depending on where you do, say, the bicep, for example. Right in the belly is totally different if you grab up higher or down lower. So we're not producing an accurate measure. And then repeating that next time, it'd be so hard to say yep, I've got that in this exact same spot and I can detect a true change. So that would be the number one thing to look for. Somebody needs to mark you up. And if somebody is ISAK accredited, they're going to mark you up. It's the other cowboys that think they know where the spot is just on visual, they're the ones you want to look out for.
Taryn Richardson 08:55
The other tip is to use the same Anthropometrist or the same person doing your skin folds over and over. We're all trained the same way, but you're not flipping between people who might have tiny little nuances of what they do. You've got different calipers as well that different people are using and the spring tension might be different. Or that person might have just had theirs recalibrated and the other person hasn't had them calibrated for years. So stick with the same person if you can, because there will be an inter-tester error that you can't necessarily control for if you're bouncing around between people.
Taryn Richardson 09:30
The other thing that you could control for is doing your testing at the same time of day, the same day of the week. And for females trying to test it in the same phase of your menstrual cycle could also be useful. But the two most important factors there are: mark up, making sure somebody marks on your skin with a pen to figure out where the skin fold needs to be taken by finding your bones first because your bones aren't going to move anywhere. And sticking with the same person to do it.
Taryn Richardson 10:00
For a skilled technician, somebody that's an ISAK Accredited Anthropometrist that has been doing thousands of skin folds like I have, we're generally pretty accurate these days. The chance of there being noise, there's always going to be a bit of noise in the measurement because you know, it's science, yo. But that noise is reduced if you control for all those things.
Taryn Richardson 10:21
The other thing to think about is the type of calipers that you're using. So ideally, you want somebody that has the metal Harpenden calipers, because they are more accurate than the plastic ones. They're way more expensive though, and you've got to keep them like tuned every year, you've got to get them calibrated. But when you're looking at millimetre data, then we want it to be as accurate as possible.
Taryn Richardson 10:46
If tracking body composition change is something that you're interested in, I definitely suggest you look at skin folds as your way of doing that. You might want to do a DEXA maybe once a year just to see what you're made up of, if your muscle mass is increasing, your body fat’s decreasing. That's more of a global assessment of your overall body composition. It's not good at detecting little fine changes every sort of four weeks.
Taryn Richardson 11:10
But just see what you're made up of - we can do things like calculating carbohydrate loading and fueling based on how much lean tissue you are. And if you also want to gain muscle and get some strength, then a DEXA can be a good way of kind of assessing that change. But it's hard to say anything is a true change on a DEXA unless we're looking at a shift of around 500 grams or more. So if you've maybe gained 100 grams of muscle, it's hard to say that that's definite or not.
Taryn Richardson 11:41
So if you're looking at getting them done, there's a couple of ways you can do it. So if you're in Brisbane, come into our monthly Skin Fold Clinic, and I can do them for you. But obviously, if you're listening and you're not in Brisbane, that's not going to be that useful. But you can look on the ISAK website for somebody that's in your area, and they've got a global member finder search function on their website. So you can head to ISAK, ISAK.global. I'll link it in the show notes if you want to actually find somebody in your area.
Taryn Richardson 12:10
There are thousands of ISAK Accredited Anthropometrists all over the world. So wherever you're listening from, you can probably find somebody that's ISAK Accredited on that website. So I'll link it in the show notes if you want to find someone close to you. Or come into our monthly skinfold clinic if you're here in Brisbane, and you just come and do skin folds you don't have to do anything else if you don't want to.
Taryn Richardson 12:31
As far as body composition assessment goes, it's pretty quick, like an appointment is 15 minutes. It's really affordable, it's not an expensive scan, you don't have to take any pills or potions or get a radiation dose like a DEXA. It's pretty low risk, the biggest risk is you've got to get it down into your shorts and for females just a sports bra. You don't have to do it nude, you don't have to get into your undies. But I do need access to your skin to be able to do the assessment. And hey, I will mark you up with a Nikko, so that's probably the worst outcome of getting skinfolds done.
Taryn Richardson 13:05
And then track that over time. So I like to do them every four weeks, generally. There's no point doing it sooner than that because it's hard to say if the change is really real or not. You know, if you're doing them every week or two weeks, there may be a slight difference. But it might just be sort of in that era of noise that we can't really say if it's a change or not. So every four weeks is fine or a bit longer is totally fine as well, but no kind of sooner than four weeks. So that we can say for sure if there's been a change or not.
Taryn Richardson 13:36
But use it as a tool, don't use it as a punishment. A lot of people use it as accountability like I've got to turn up and see Taryn and get my skin folds down, so I'm not going to eat this brownie right now. And hey, I'm okay with that. If you use skin folds as a way of checking yourself, then that's totally fine, but don't use it as a punishment.
Taryn Richardson 13:56
And I just don't want to create like a negativity around doing that either. Because you don't need to get so obsessive with the numbers and getting them leaner and leaner and leaner to the point where you're starting to affect the way you eat and the way you think about food and your whole body image type stuff going on. So just, yeah, a little bit of a warning, if you've got body image issues, or that is a risk or a bit of a red flag for you, then don't do skin folds, don't put yourself in that situation in the first place.
Taryn Richardson 14:27
But they're definitely a great tool and I love using them, particularly for females. Because females don't shift on the scales very much but you can make huge changes to body composition by losing fat, gaining muscle with the right nutrition. And skin folds will show you that. So you're not getting disheartened by jumping on the scales and nothing happening. So that's what skin folds are and how to find somebody to do them accurately for you and why you should be doing them if you want to track your body composition change and not weighing yourself all the time.
Taryn Richardson 15:02
Thanks for joining me for this episode of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. I would love to hear from you. If you have any questions or want to share with me what you've learned. Email me at [email protected]. You could also spread the word by leaving me a review and taking a screenshot of you listening to the show. Don't forget to tag me on social media at @dietitian.approved so I can give you a shout out too. If you want to learn more about what we do, head to dietitianapproved.com. And if you want to learn more about the Triathlon Nutrition Academy program, head to dietitianapproved.com/academy. Thanks for joining me and I look forward to helping you smash it in the fourth leg - nutrition!