Written by Master Coach Kim Leggett
When your client comes to you with a new goal, it is often one of either two camps – fat loss or muscle gain… but where does improving body composition sit amongst this?
The main pitfall of anyone looking to lose fat happens when they step on the scale, is that they measure their weight and use this as an indicator of their health status. Yes, the weight on the scales is a useful metric and one that coaches use to measure progress with clients, however this does not distinguish between body fat, lean body mass, cellular water or muscle tissues. This is where body composition comes in, as having a basic understanding can mean a big difference in improving your client’s health, changing their lifestyle habits and helping them manage their weight in the long term.
What is body composition?
Body composition is a person’s overall percentage of body fat, bone mass, total water and muscle mass that takes into account the body relative amount of total body fat versus fat-free mass that includes bone, water and muscle tissues.
What is body fat?
Body fat is located within and around the body and is made up of both essential and non-essential fat. Essential fat (lipids) is necessary for overall health as it helps us protect our internal organs, provides us with energy, regulates our hormones and ensures our body functions efficiently. Approximately 5% of total body weight for men and 12% for women should be made up of this type of fat.
Nonessential fat is that found within adipose tissue below the skin and surrounding organs – most obvious when around the waistline. When a client is overweight or obese, they will most likely have excess nonessential body fat of this type which is attributed to the overconsumption of food and sedentary lifestyles.
Healthy Body Composition
Optimal body composition is often linked with greater fitness and overall health. Factors such as age, gender, activity level, genes, weight maintenance and caloric intake affect our body composition. For example, as we age our total lean muscle mass drops thus making it harder to maintain optimal muscle mass.
We can classify our clients body composition from knowing their body fat percentage as seen in the table below from the American Council of Exercise (ACE):
This is important information because it influences the way in which we approach our clients fitness goal.
Why Is Body Composition Important?
Excess body fat versus lean muscle mass is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and related conditions. Achieving optimal body composition should be the first goal for any client as this will help them increase their lean muscle mass, reduce nonessential body fat and improve their overall health markers.
The Hierarchy of Importance – Body Composition
When it comes to approaching a program to improve a clients body composition, there is a hierarchy of importance that we need to consider:
We need to look at their energy balance as a first point of call to ensure that we are eating in accordance with the clients goal and one that is going to be appropriate for their current body composition. This is important because if the client is eating in a calorie surplus and does not exercise, they will be storing this excess energy as body fat and only exacerbating any current health issues.
Furthermore, if the clients goal is to lose body fat, we will need to ensure that they are eating in a calorie deficit in lieu with their daily activity to ensure that we are using up energy and moving fatty acids out of the body. Again, this all links back to energy balance!
Next we look at their macronutrient intake to ascertain which type of nutritional strategy is going elicit the best results for the client. This is important because we need to ensure we are eating the right ratio of protein, fats and carbohydrates in accordance with their goal. For instance, they need to be consuming enough protein to maintain lean muscle tissue (which is going to maintain our basal metabolic rate) and enough fat to maintain regular hormone production. Moreover, carbohydrate tolerance is different from client to client and this needs to be assessed on an individual basis.
For example, if the client is sitting at 35% body fat we may look at starting them off on a low carbohydrate plan whilst in a caloric deficit in order to drop body fat until they become more insulin sensitive.
We then look at what deficiencies they might have which is impacting their current health status. This is important because the vitamins and minerals we consume through food directly vital bodily functions such as our energy production, immune function, blood clotting, growth, bone health, fluid balance and other metabolic processes. For instance, are they low in magnesium and not recovering? If so, we will then look at optimising different food sources through their diet plan to then address these issues.
Meal timing & Supplementation
The last two factors that impact body composition are meal timing and supplementation. We only look at these two components after first addressing the first three elements of the pyramid which are deemed more important. It is always best to master the fundamentals of basic nutrition to elicit results before manipulating other variables.
Body composition is an undervalued goal which as coaches we need to consider when putting together a clients program as this not only will improve their health status but will put them in a better position to reap long-term results no matter if it is to lose body fat or put on size!
Want to learn more about Body Composition? Our Performance Nutrition Coach Certification Level 1 online course covers this topic. Enrol below!
Clean Health Fitness Institute. (2020). Performance Nutrition Coach Certification Level 1. Wells, J.C.K. and Fewtrell, M.S. (2006). Measuring body composition. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2082845/