The Insider’s Guide to VO2 Max and Ultrasound Body Fat Testing

Shot f a group of young fit people stretching before a workout session inside of  a studio

Exercise science has come a long way from the “no pain, no gain; keep running until you throw up” mentality you might have experienced with your middle school soccer coach. Today’s athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and brand-new exercisers can train according to their unique needs and goals because they have access to the testing and data that will give them precise numbers to allow for specific, specialized training and nutritional programs.

Getting those numbers is as easy as running two simple tests: VO2 max and ultrasound body fat percentage. Though they are different tests used to measure different things, there is a correlation between them. Studies like this one have indicated that a high body fat percentage is associated with a low VO2 max; as your VO2 max improves, you may notice your body fat decreasing, and it is interesting to compare the relationship between these two things over time.

Humans are all very different, not only in terms of our fitness goals, but also in terms of how our bodies respond to food and exercise. So why should we approach fitness with a one-size-fits-all plan?


What is VO2 Max Testing?

First, you have to understand VO2 max:

“VO2 max is the maximal consumption of oxygen. It is the maximum capacity of the body to take in, transport, and use oxygen during exercise and reflects a person’s cardiorespiratory fitness.”

The more conditioned you become, the higher your VO2 max will be. The benefit of testing it is that you can get an accurate maximum heart rate for each individual.

There are several formulas (more than 30, actually) that try to determine a person’s maximum heart rate. Of course, the problem with this is that there are far too many variables to calculate in one formula. The simplest formula (220 minus the person’s age) is common because of its simplicity, but it is among the most inaccurate. However, even more specific formulas, like 208 – (0.7 x age), leave a lot to chance. These are just a few of the variables that will impact someone’s max heart rate—variables that can’t be accounted for in a formula:

  • Genetics: Some people naturally have higher- or lower-than-average heart rates. Genetic differences alone can put a lot of people outside the range of the formula even before other factors are considered.

  • Age: The assumption is that max heart rate decreases as we age, but it will decrease at a different rate for different people; an especially fit person may be able to maintain his or her max for years.

  • Conditioning: As you train your body, your body adapts and your max heart rate may change.

  • Dehydration: You may have a higher heart rate response if you’re dehydrated.

  • Caffeine: Stimulants can impact your heart rate.

  • Stress, Sleep (or Lack Thereof), Exercise Recovery: The list goes on.

Testing VO2 max gives you your actual max heart rate based on your current condition, giving you accurate targets to aim for during your training sessions. By testing repeatedly over time, it’s also interesting to see how your cardiovascular fitness improves.

What to Expect From VO2 Max Testing

We offer the VO2 max test in our Elite Body Data Lab using the CardioCoach PLUS. It’s simple and accurate, and requires very little in terms of preparation:

  • Complete a questionnaire regarding your fitness.

  • Avoid exercise for 24 hours before the test.

  • Do not consume any food, tobacco, alcohol, or caffeine for at least three hours before the test. You can continue taking any medications as per usual.

  • Wear comfortable clothing: be ready to exercise!

  • Complete an exercise warm-up routine so you’re ready to go.

The test itself is like a little workout! It goes like this:

  • You will wear a mask and a heart rate monitor.

  • You will exercise on a treadmill or another piece of cardio equipment, gradually increasing your intensity for up to 20 minutes until you reach your anaerobic threshold as detected by the machine.

  • At that point, we will stop the test. You can cool down, stretch, and recover.

  • You will receive a fitness profile with your precise exercise zones and max heart rate.

What is Ultrasound Body Fat Testing?

It can be difficult to tell a person’s body fat percentage just by looking at them. In certain obese individuals, it’s clear the percentage is too high; however, even in smaller, seemingly lean individuals, body fat can be higher than necessary or healthy.

Body mass index, or BMI, is the old—and inaccurate—way of determining whether someone was overweight. However, it only takes two things into consideration: height and weight. It can’t measure what you’re actually made of: lean muscle, bone, fat, water, and more. Using this formula, an extremely muscular or athletic person might measure as overweight when a simple ultrasound body fat test might reveal as little as 10 percent body fat and a whole lot of lean muscle.

According to the American Council on Exercise, women require about 10-13 percent body fat, while essential body fat on men is as low as 2-5 percent. (“Remember that ideal body fat percentage is different for men compared to women, as women require a higher body fat percentage in order to maintain menstruation and the ability to have children.”)

Female athletes generally range from 14-20 percent while male athletes typically have 6-13 percent body fat. This, of course, depends on the person and type of athlete he or she is. For fit individuals, 21-24 percent may be typical for women, while fit men may have about 14-17 percent. An acceptable range for women is 25-31 percent; for men, it’s 18-24 percent. Anything over that is considered obese.

People often focus on weight loss goals, but they’re missing the real objective: body fat loss. The number on the scale doesn’t necessarily reflect the specific changes in someone’s body. Every now and then, you’ll see before and after pictures of someone who looks incredibly different—but weighs the same. (There’s a little collection of such photos as shared on Instagram here.) It’s interesting to see how different the same weight can look on an individual. In some cases, those people even weigh more after their transformation, but they look fitter and healthier.

It’s important to understand that when you say you want to lose weight, what you really want to lose is body fat. Getting specific about that is important, and so is measuring it. When you know that’s your mission, you have to keep track of how much body fat you’re losing and how much lean muscle you’re gaining.

Ultrasound body fat testing is the way to do that. The scale isn’t going to tell you everything you need to know.

What to Expect From Ultrasound Body Fat Testing

The test is quick and easy—and it can be done in your own home or at your gym. We use ultrasound technology to measure your body composition. There’s no pain or pinching; we simply run the device over various parts of your body.

There’s no special preparation required, since your results won’t be impacted by recent exercise, hydration, or caffeine or food consumption. Come as you are!

When we’re done, you’ll get a report that outlines your body fat percentage, including essential and non-essential fat, along with your muscle mass, total weight, and the weight of the fat, among other things. It will give a recommendation for how much body fat you should work to eliminate.

And just like that, you have a clear, accurate view of what you need to do. By testing your body fat percentage regularly during your fitness journey, you’ll see the progress you’re making—even if your total weight doesn’t change much. You’ll be able to focus on your real goal of losing the fat rather than getting caught up in the numbers on the scale.

That goes for muscle gains, as well. With this test, we can actually track the growth of your lean muscle mass. You can adapt your training program and your diet to ensure you continue to see the progress you want to see.

Why You Need to Be Testing VO2 Max and Body Fat on a Regular Basis

You want results. It’s that simple. If you guess about your max heart rate, for example, you might never be working at the capacity you want to work to meet your goals. Just as bad, you might be grossly overestimating or underestimating the calories you’re burning during your workouts, which can impact how much you eat and how you design your nutritional plan.

If you’re not testing body fat, you’re missing out on an important way to measure progress, particularly if you’re focused on “losing weight” and getting healthy.

By continuing to test on a regular basis, you’ll ensure you always have the most up-to-date numbers for you or your clients. If you’re following your workout plan, both your VO2 max and your body fat will likely change as the weeks and months go on.

You can’t improve what you’re not tracking. Whether you’re a trainer with dozens of clients or an individual looking for a better understanding of your exercise and nutritional needs, contact Elite Body Data. We’re happy to answer any questions you might have about either one of these tests and invite you to our lab for your VO2 max test. For body fat and other testing we offer, we can go directly to your home or training facility.



Read more articles by John Smith

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