The Importance of Circumference Measurements For Your Fitness Journey

Does signing up for a gym membership or starting a new diet in pursuit of ‘becoming healthier’ sound familiar? Would becoming healthier make you look better? What is looking better?

Most people start a fitness journey without a clear idea of what success on that journey would look like. If you have ever been disheartened by your appearance, even after making ‘progress’ on the weighing scale, or you have seen visual improvements with no changes on the scale then this information is for you.

In this article, I will explain the importance of body circumference measurements and I will help educate you on what changes in these measurements might mean.

The Basics of Body Circumference Measurements

To kick things off let’s define exactly what body circumference measurements are. Simply explained, they are the measurement of any body part’s circumference and are usually identified through the use of a tape measure.

Despite being simple, these measurements are actually a very effective tool in tracking all sorts of body composition progress and even your health levels! (More detail on this later).

Body circumference measurements can be useful for almost every body part. Countless ratios have been designed using ‘ideal’ measurements to help guide you to a healthier, more aesthetic body.

The most common and useful measurements are usually taken from the waist, shoulder, chest, biceps, thighs, calves, neck, wrist and ankles. Unless you are a fitness fanatic striving for the chiseled greek god appearance, not all of these body parts need to be measured religiously, especially as the classic process can be long and tedious.

Without a doubt the most useful measurements for the average, every day male trying to get in better shape would be their waist and shoulder circumference. For the average female this changes to their waist and chest circumference.

Most useful measurements for men are waist and shoulder circumference

Most useful measurements for women are waist and chest circumference

These two measurements can be compared together or compared to height to help give you an idea as to how healthy your body is.

Why You Should Track Body Circumference Measurements

Even if you are not a member of a gym, or you have little to no interest in building muscle or consistently torturing your body with cardio, you should still track some of your circumference measurements. And here is why!

#1: It Helps Keep You Healthy

Measuring your body circumferences can help you to become and remain healthy.

Healthy ranges have been identified for each higher risk body-part. Staying within these ranges will significantly reduce your risk of obesity related medical conditions and it is a proven way to maximise longevity.

More on these key measurements soon!

#2: More Accurate Feedback Than A Scale

A second reason to track your body circumference measurements would be because it adds a whole new dimension of feedback to your fitness progress. The vast majority of people track their progress through a loose, uncoordinated collection of mirror photos and numbers from a scale. Regardless of these methods offering very inconsistent feedback, (depending on factors such as differing lighting or the sensitivity of your scale) they also completely lack numerical feedback on specific body parts.

This article shows exactly how misleading progress pictures can be!

Tim Ferris pointed out in his book ‘The 4-Hour Body’, “Pounds can lie, but measurements don’t“. He explained that an increase in carbohydrate intake can result in an up to 20-pound water weight gain (depending on the size of the person) within 24 hours. In the same period of time, the measurements of the person will remain more consistent to their progress without the confusing fluctuations that weighing themselves would bring.

Factors such as the medication you are on, the amount of sodium in your diet and even where you are on your menstrual cycle will also impact your body’s water retention levels making your scale less reliable than tracking your measurements.

Still not convinced that your scale can trick you? Check out this article that shows the redundancy of your weight in relation to your progress!

Key Measurement for Longevity & Assessing Health Risks

Many of your circumference measurements can be used to indicate your health levels. The best of which is your waist circumference. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), you should measure your waist circumference in a horizontal plane at the midpoint between the top of your hip bone and the bottom of your ribs.

This measurement can help you identify if you are at risk of any obesity related medical conditions, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes or even stroke. According to the National Heart and Lung institute, this risk increases with a waist that is larger than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for non-pregnant women.

You can also combine your waist circumference with your Body Mass Index (BMI) to assess your cardio vascular disease risk. Periodically measuring your mid section is an easy way to identify any fat gain. You can then regulate your food intake or exercise level in accordance with your desired medical bills.

Circumference measurements can also give you a good indication of your health levels without looking at body fat. This is because waist circumference is strongly correlated with abdominal and especially visceral fat. Combining your waist circumference and your BMI is a better cardiovascular disease risk indicator than body fat alone.

Your waist circumference is also just as effective as DXA scanners at recognising cardiovascular disease risks. Reducing your waistline by only 1.97in (5cm) can lead to an 11% reduction in these risks for men and a 15% reduction in these risks for women!

Key Ratio for Longevity & Assessing Health Risks

The Waist-to-Hip Ratio (WHR) compares your waist circumference to your hip circumference and identifies how much fat is stored around your midsection.

As mentioned before, fat stored in this area gives a great indication of your risk to obesity related diseases. It can therefore be used to determine whether or not you are on the right path of lowering this risk.

For women a high WHR can be a sign of menstrual irregularity, Hirsutism (abnormal growth and distribution of hair), diabetes/ insulin tolerance, hypertension, stroke, gall bladder disease and reproductive problems… so worth being mindful of. Studies have even shown that this ratio can be more accurate for predicting cardiovascular disease than the universally known BMI measurement and even your waist circumference!

The WHR is also great for indicating your current body type e.g. rectangle, pear, apple and inverted triangle. This is important to identify as you can use this knowledge to be more aware of the health related problems that you are at risk of.

To find out what body type you are and what this means check out this blog post!

The World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies the healthy ratios as 0.9 or less in men and 0.85 or less in woman.

Key Measurement to Be Mindful of As You Age

It has also been proven that body circumference measurements are good at indicating your physical abilities as you age. The frailty index score is a score that indicates the health status and frailty levels of older individuals. One study has found that these scores are significantly better among seniors with larger calf circumferences as opposed to those with smaller calf circumferences.

This is important as high frailty is strongly correlated with mortality risk among those aged 50 and over. It has been shown that those who are frail are predisposed to various negative health outcomes, such as falls, fractures, hospitalisation, nursing home placement, disability, poor quality of life and dementia.

A second study has even found that the calf circumference of the elderly is a significantly better indicator of their current functional ability than their BMI score is. Despite what people might assume, the same study also uncovered that this measurement is better correlated to your frailty levels as you age than your other measurements, such as the mid arm circumference (bicep).

According to the book, ‘Nutritional and Functional Foods for Healthy Ageing’, a healthy calf circumference is one that is more than 12.2in (31cm).

Why You Should Track Body Circumference Measurements If You’re Trying To Lose Fat

Now we already know that tracking your waist circumference can be a great way to identify and prevent possible health risks that come with obesity. However, keeping track of your measurements can do a lot more for fat loss than just this.

Periodically measuring the circumference of each body part makes it quick and easy for you to identify if, and where exactly it is that you have been dropping the fat that you have been working so hard to lose. Unfortunately, when it comes to fat loss you cannot specifically target a certain area. When you are in a caloric deficit your genes, gender and hormone levels will largely determine where it is that you will loose fat first. However… there are ways to guesstimate where it is that you will loose your fat first!

Where Have You Been Losing Fat & Is It Fat Or Muscle?

Typically, you will be more likely to experience fat loss first in the areas that you have last experienced fat gain. When you are losing fat, imagine that your body is playing your recent fat gain in reverse. Measuring these susceptible areas will be a great way in identifying whether or not your fat loss journey is working for you.

Men and women also tend to loose fat first in slightly different areas. Men see a loss in body fat around their waist (lower body) first whilst women usually will see it in their bust (upper body). Unfortunately, fat around a women’s waist and hips will tend to be more stubborn and slower to go as evolution expects you to be constantly ‘baby’ ready.

If you don’t have any resistance training in your regime, the reduction in the size of typically leaner areas (e.g. arms, calves, shoulders) will most likely be from a loss in muscle (not fat) and counterproductive to your goals.

Slight strength loss can also be expected when losing fat even with resistance training as it is very hard for your body to maintain its muscle levels in a caloric deficit. However, if your strength loss is significant than your diet may be a little too extreme and you could lose more muscle than you wanted to.

Key Measurements For Fat Loss

Measuring your body parts’ circumferences can also provide you with the motivating boost that you have been looking for. Too many people begin a healthier journey with fat loss in mind but don’t set themselves a target as they don’t know what to aim for.

When it comes to fat loss, the best measurement to indicate your success remains your waist circumference. It has generally been considered that a weight loss of 2.2 lbs (1kg) is associated with a reduction in your waist circumference of approximately 0.39 in (1cm).

Adding to this, based on our own data you can expect to lose anywhere between 0.433 to 0.591 in (1.1 to 1.5cm) in your waist circumference for every 2.2 lbs (1kg) of body fat that you lose!

However, it is important to be mindful that this range will vary depending on how much muscle you maintain and also how much body fat / muscle that you have to lose. Generally you need to lose about 6-8 lbs (2.7-3.6 kg) to drop one inch (2.5 cm) in waist circumference and 10-20 lbs (4.5-9 kg) to go down an entire dress size!

Key measurement to indicate fat loss is your waist line

Height also plays a fundamental role when determining your ideal measurements as it is used to find the perfect waist circumference. Your waist circumference is then used as a starting block for multiple other body part measurements (more on that soon).

Once educated about your height’s ideal measurements you can set yourself a target depending on how close you want to be to these ‘ideal’ goals. This allows you to make sure that you are on the right track with your fat loss goals and in turn can be quite motivating!

Why You Should Track Body Circumference Measurements If You’re Trying To Build Muscle

You could probably have guessed that measuring the circumference of your body parts can be useful in seeing where you have gained muscle. However, these measurements can do a lot more than only saying that you have put an inch of mass on to your chest. Depending on your goals, taking your measurements allows you to make sure that you are putting on your desired lean mass without taking your ‘dirty bulk’ too far.

In bodybuilding or even the broader fitness industry, the goal is to have symmetrical muscles along with some size. Taking your measurements can therefore expose some of your aesthetic weak points without the burden of paying for a coach. For example if your thighs are well defined and at the ‘perfect’ size for your height but your arms have a 2 inch size difference between them, you will have a good idea of what to work on.

Circumference measurements have been a tool used by bodybuilders and athletes for centuries. This is because in bodybuilding, the goal is to achieve the largest, most defined muscles whilst remaining symmetrical.

Athletes training for increased power also see increases in muscle mass in the areas that they have trained. So therefore, the success of the resistance training that you have been performing specific to your chosen sport can be measured by…. your circumference measurements!

Natural Size and Strength Limits

Now before you set out in pursuit of the worlds largest and strongest biceps, it is important to understand your natural size and strength limits.

This article estimates your genetic muscular potential!

Measuring For Muscle Building

So, what are the essential measurements that you should take to determine your muscle mass growth?

Everyone has different goals when it comes to building muscle so the given would be to measure the body parts that you are focusing on in training. That being said, if your goal is to build muscle it is definitely worth comparing yourself to your chosen ‘ideal’ body ratio (which can be found in the section below) or even your estimated natural size limits (which can be found in the section above) to determine how close you are to your goals.

If you want to build muscle, track the body parts that you’re focusing on in your training.

Key Measurements For Strength and Athletic Performance

If bodybuilding isn’t necessarily your thing but you still want to gain muscle and strength to improve your athletic performance then circumference measurements can still help you. One study found a significant positive correlation between participants shoulder and chest circumference and the performance of their compound lifts.

If you want to improve the performance of your compound lifts, you should track your shoulder & chest measurements.

A wider shoulder and chest circumference meant that you would perform better when snatching, clean and jerking, front squatting and back squatting.

Typically for these lifts you would focus on training your legs to become more powerful. However, from this study we can see that training your upper body and improving your shoulder and chest measurements will also help lead to significant improvements in the performance of multiple exercises. Even if the upper body is not really needed for some of them.

It is also important to be mindful of your waist circumference when bulking and trying to improve your shoulder and chest measurements. The relative muscle gains in these measurments should outweigh that of the waist to prevent you from gaining too much fat!

The same study also revealed a slight negative correlation between the participants Waist-to-Hip Ratio and their clean and jerk performance. But unless you are an aspiring Olympic weightlifter this shouldn’t matter too much. If you actively avoid building too much muscle because you are a long distance athlete, circumference measurements can still help you. Another study revealed that there is a significant association between the upper arm circumference and the performance of a group of long distance runners.

If you’re a long distance endurance athlete, you should track your upper arm circumference.

The smaller the circumference of their arms, the better they performed! Interestingly, this circumference was a better indicator of their performance than their height, weight, length of limbs, circumference of other limbs or BMI. That being said if you have small arms and you don’t exercise you will not be more athletic than an NFL quarterback.

The reduction in the size of these endurance athletes arms can actually be put down to the shrinking of their fast-twitch muscle fibres. This is because their bodies have adapted to become as efficient at running as they can after years of training.

Whilst their slow-twitch fibres do grow, they do not grow at the same speed as the loss of their fast-twitching counterparts. So ultimately if you are a land based endurance athlete then measuring changes in your upper arm circumference can be a great indicator of your progress.

However, it is important to keep in mind that this measurement is only an indication that your training is paying off. Actively trying to lose muscle seeking the worlds smallest arms will not necessarily make you more athletic.

Key Ratios for Healthy Aesthetics

Now for the healthy physique ratios! Despite there being various takes on the ideal physique, the majority of them agree on the Golden Ratio being the perfect shoulder-to-waist achievement. This ratio can not only be found in the ancient greek sculptures, but also everywhere in nature and our everyday lives.

However, the power of this ratio has been greatly exaggerated over the years and multiple studies have debunked the claim that we have an innate preference for this ratio…. so be careful not to fall into that trap!

To achieve the Golden Ration your shoulders circumference must be 1.618 times larger than your waist’s

Popular ‘ideal’ physique formulas such as the Grecian Ideal and the Adonis index use this ratio, however, the Adonis index expresses that for this look to work the waist must be ‘small’…. sorry modern Mr Olympia mass monsters.

So what is classified as a small waist then? According to the Grecian ideal, used by golden era bodybuilders,(and our own, more modern data) the perfect waist size is one that is 41-47% of your height. Achieving this waist line usually requires less than 20% body fat.

Both the Grecian ideal and the Adonis index are inspired by ancient greek sculptures. The Adonis index mostly takes inspiration from the famous Discobolus (discuss throwing) statue, whilst Eugen Sandow, creator of the Grecian ideal and regarded as the father of bodybuilding, studied multiple ancient greek physiques at various museums before publishing his ‘perfect proportions’.

Now whilst the golden ratio may be useful for men, woman will most likely not consider this male standard as appealing for them. Fortunately, if you are a female, you will have a much easier time working out your ideal measurements.

An hourglass body shape is considered to be best for you. The better you are at achieving symmetry with your hourglass figure, the more aesthetically healthy you will be considered. The goal would be to have a matching Waist-to-Hip ratio and Waist-to-Chest ratio. Just a reminder that the ideal Waist-to-Hip ratio is covered above. Most famous is the 90-60-90 cm proportions, made popular since the since the 60s.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the ‘perfect’ size of other body parts for men, people’s opinions begin to differ. Here are some of the other most popular ratios that can help you achieve your dream Hollywood physique (as well as some that have already been covered incase you missed them):

Adonis Index:

  • Arm-to-Waist 0.5:1
  • Chest-to-Waist 1.4:1
  • Shoulders: 1.618x waist

Grecian Ideal:

  • Flexed-Calves-to-Flexed-Arms 1:1
  • Flexed Arm/Calf-to-Wrist 2.5:1
  • Chest-to-Wrist 6.5:1
  • Thigh-to-Knee 1.75:1
  • Shoulders: 1.618x waist

Reeves Ratio:

  • Calf-to-Ankle 1.92:1
  • Neck-to-Head 0.78:1
  • Thigh-to-Knee 1.75:1
  • Waist-to-Pelvis 0.86:1
  • Chest-to-Pelvis 1.48:1
  • Arm-to-Wrist 2.52:1

Ratios Recommended by Us:

  • Waist: 41-47% height
  • Shoulders: 1.618x waist
  • Biceps/Neck : 1.0x
  • Biceps/Calf: 1.0x
  • Thigh/Waist: 0.75x
  • Biceps/Waist: 0.5x
  • Hips/Waist: 1.25x

It is important to keep in mind that these ratios can be useful for both bulking and cutting. To achieve proportionality, you may need to decrease or even increase some areas more than others. These ratios can help you identify your ‘proportionate’ strengths relative to your figure and can therefore educate you on where you need to focus your efforts on.

Whilst these ratios differ slightly, they are all based around the science of the Golden Ratio. Both the Grecian Ideal and the Adonis Index follow this ratio more religiously than Steve Reeves (Reeves Ratio) did when they where created.

To find out your estimated potential and how far off you are from achieving these ratios check out these calculators!

Grecian Ideal Calculator:

Adonis Index Shoulder-to-Waist Calculator:

The Reeves Ratio, formulated by the classic bodybuilding legend Steve Reeves, takes a different approach to the other formulas and instead focuses on the muscle to bone ratio instead of the popular Golden Ratio.

Reeves Ratio Calculator:

Women, use this calculator to learn about your body type!

How To Track Your Body Circumference Measurements

Despite circumference measurement tracking being around for decades, the tracking methods have remained surprisingly basic with minimal innovation…. until now. Measurements should be taken in the morning in order to give true and consistent readings. The classic approach includes measuring your desired body part with a tape measure whilst keeping it relaxed.

It is also very important to not work out your muscles before measuring them regardless of how badly you want to convince your friends that your ‘pump’ is actually an extra 2 inches of lean bicep muscle that you grew overnight.

Although manually measuring your body has been the accepted standard for a while now. It is not a flawless practice. Human error such as pulling the tape a little tighter than normal, having different people help take your measurements and even changes in your mood will have big impacts on the consistency of your measuring and in turn your results.

Tracking With ShapeScale

If you hadn’t guessed already, one of ShapeScale’s many features is circumference measurement taking. When performing a scan, ShapeScale uses a depth sensor that will accurately create a 3D model of you. Once this model is created it will slice specific areas of your body, measuring the circumference of that body part.

Currently ShapeScale will measure your neck, shoulder, biceps, waist, hips, thighs and calves giving you consistent, reliable feedback on your fitness journey.

Unlike the more tedious old-school method of circumference measuring, ShapeScale’s measurements are fast and consistent. ShapeScale has taken hundreds of scans that have been compared to manual measurements. These scans have shown that human measurement error is consistently far greater than that of ShapeScale’s algorithms.

If you currently manually record your measurements, you will know that it can be a time consuming process that requires you to interpret your results for yourself. Often times, you will find yourself staring blankly at 100s of numbers on a page with no comparison as to how the changes have translated to your appearance.

With ShapeScale, these measurements are almost instantaneous. By picking any two scans from any two dates you will immediately be able to see both factually and visually how much your body’s circumferences have changed by and how much closer you are to your ‘ideal’ body.

ShapeScale Circumference Lens for Body Fat Loss and Muscle Gain

One similarity found between ShapeScale users that have lost over 5% body fat is that their largest circumference decrease is found in their waist. Whilst most have seen smaller decreases in most (if not all) of their other measurements, some users have seen increases in other areas such as their arms or shoulders. Indicating that they managed to gain muscle whilst losing body weight.

This ShapesScale user managed to lose 7.2% of his body fat! As you can see the change in his waist circumference is more than 1.5x greater than any of his other measurements and 2.5x greater than all of his measurements excluding his hips and shoulders.

These measurement differences follow a similar pattern and are even more extreme with this user who lost 14.3% of his body fat!

Thanks to ShapeScale we can then assume that the best indicator for body fat loss is a decrease in the waist circumference.

I recently went on a one month ‘cut’ with the aim to loose body fat whilst maintaining muscle. ShapeScale provided me with helpful feedback as I saw the biggest reduction in circumference in my waist whilst my legs and shoulder circumferences where largely maintained. Showing me that i was on the right path to the Golden Ratio.

September 1st
September 30th

In the first image I was 187.1 lbs and 22.1% body fat. In the second image my weight had only dropped to 185.8 lbs, however, i was now 19.3% body fat with a very noticeable difference in my body composition (4.3 lbs more of lean mass and 5.6 lbs less of fat)!

After the first few weeks, ShapeScale also identified that my arms were losing too much size relative to my calves (Reeves Ratio), indicating that i was losing muscle as well as fat. I was able to use this feedback to adjust my work out plan, increasing my arm training volume and preventing further muscle loss.

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Lilla Laczo

Lilla is a content writer and community manager at Shape.
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