I ran across an intriguing advertisement for a new product called the “Skulpt AIM” a few months ago. I reached out to them for a device so that I could test it out and review it on my blog. They were great to oblige by sending me a unit which I have been using over the past couple of months. They didn’t pay me for a positive review and I didn’t promise them one, but I have to admit that I am very excited about the concept. If you're wanting to track your body fat percentage and muscle quality in a fast and accurate way, this is the right tool for you.
What is the Skulpt AIM?
It’s a small (think of slightly larger than iPhone-sized) handheld electronic device for spot-measuring body fat percentage and muscle quality (MQ). It does this by sending electrical currents through your skin and underlying fat layers. Now you’re thinking – “body fat percentage I understand, but what the heck is muscle quality?” According to the company, “it means the force a muscle produces relative to its size. For example, if you had two muscles that were exactly the same size, the one that produced the greater force would have the higher MQ…AIM measures the composition and structure of the muscle over a specific region. Since those two things affect how strong the muscle is, we can give you your MQ without having to do a strength measurement or taking out a tape measure!”
Why knowing your body fat percentage is important
Throughout my weight loss process I worked with a personal trainer who took several measurements on a regular basis – my weight, body circumferences, and my body fat percentage. Having that body fat percentage measurement was really helpful during the process because some weeks I lost less weight than others. By knowing my body fat percentage, we were able to determine if I was gaining muscle or losing fat. My trainer had access to a fancy Bio Impedance Analysis (BIA) machine (manufactured by InBody) that was pretty accurate, but once I reached my goal weight I stopped going to the trainer and I was on my own.
I still continue to weigh myself, take body measurements and body fat percentage to gauge my progress towards my current fitness goals. I have a scale and a tape measure, but body fat measurement is more problematic at home. I’ve been using fat calipers for a long time, which can give a good rough estimate of body fat percentage. But when I heard of the Skulpt AIM, I had visions of having something similar to the InBody machine that I could actually afford. It currently retails for about $150. Not cheap, but somewhat affordable for a fitness enthusiast.
Does it work?
I have been using the AIM now for about three months and I can say that I’m really enjoying it. It has some idiosyncrasies that require some getting used to. But, yes it works. When you turn it on, you have the ability to measure any single muscle, do a "quick test" (the right bicep, the right tricep, the right abs, and the right quads), or a complete body test of 24 muscles on both sides of your body.
To take a muscle measurement, you have to first moisten the metallic sensors on the back of the device, then you hold the device over the muscle you want to measure. The device flashes red while it takes the reading, and if it works, it glows a steady blue and shows the results (the fat percentage and muscle quality). It also gives a little spot judgement on whether the reading for that muscle is considered "Athletic", "Fit", "Average" or "Needs Work".
I have to admit that at first it was a little awkward to take readings. For one thing, the buttons are rubberized, a little stiff, and the navigation through the menus isn't that easy. And many times I wasn't able to always take readings, but after a while I got the hang of it.
I think the bright people at Skulpt realized that the AIM was a little awkward to use, because they created iOS and Android apps that allow you to control the AIM from your smart phone through a Bluetooth connection. Plus the apps give you video tutorials on exactly how to moisten and place the device over each muscle. Having said that, I have become used to the AIM's buttons and navigation and feel more comfortable just doing the process from the device itself, rather than using my phone to control it. While I don't use the app's remote control feature, it does have some other features that I like. After taking measurements, you can sync the data from the AIM back to your phone, and your phone actually keeps a history of the measurements so you can track them over time. You can delete inaccurate measurements.
It shows a whole-body view of all of the latest measurements for body body fat percentage and muscle quality. Having your data on your phone is convenient if you want to access it to better plan your workouts. I actually went one step further however and recorded the information in a spreadsheet so I could see all of the data in one place and how it changed over time.
Body fat percentage
At first I was a bit baffled by all of the information that the AIM was giving me and how I should use it. Let's start with body fat percentage. I initially thought "cool, whereas with the calipers I only took three readings now I can be completely accurate and take readings over 24 muscles to get my body fat percentage." I was wrong. Turns out that the best body fat percentage reading is done through the "quick test", where you just take readings for the right bicep, tricep, abs, and quad. That makes sense if you think about it. There are some areas of the body, like the glutes, that are naturally more fatty. I suppose the AIM could come up with some algorithm to give proper weight to each muscle in its calculations, but I found a message on the Skulpt support site that states:
To get metrics for your total body, you’ll need to measure only four muscle groups: biceps, triceps, abs, and thigh. This will give you an accurate body fat percentage, and total MQ score.
It would have been nice to know this up-front, but this wasn't mentioned in any documentation.
So if you only need to measure four specific muscles to get your total body fat percentage, why have the ability to measure 24 muscles? The concept is that if you want to look at the percentage of fat for a specific muscle, you can do it. So if for example I measure a muscle and it says "average" in terms of body fat percentage, my inclination would be to exercise that muscle to spot-reduce it. That would be the wrong approach. Anyone who knows about body composition and fat distribution knows that you can't spot-reduce fat. If that were possible, I would do hundreds of crunches and all of a sudden the layer of fat over my abs would disappear. No such luck. So what is the information good for? Well, to me it seems like it's useful to know how your fat is distributed. For example, looking at my full body results at once I could see areas where I was lean and areas where I was not as lean. Through exercise, eating well and taking regular measurements with the AIM, you can tell if your regimen is giving the results you desire. Theoretically you'll see those areas with a higher fat percentage go down over time.
Another thing to beware of is thinking that there is a single good value for body fat percentage for every muscle. Yes, your overall goal might be something like 10% body fat, but that doesn't mean every muscle should be at 10%. Some will naturally be higher and some lower. The 10% is actually a calculation based on the measurements of the four specific body parts I mentioned. While the AIM does give its quick feedback on the body fat for a muscle ("needs work" through "athletic"), there wasn't any documentation on what the desirable ranges of fat percentages should be for every muscle group, so you end up having to guess. You might ask "why not just Google the acceptable ranges?" Well, turns out that there are very few sources of this information - the AIM is one of the first devices to actually allow you to do this kind of spot-checking accurately. Most of the time you'll just want to measure and work with your overall body fat percentage.
What to do with muscle quality
The concept of "muscle quality" is a new one for me. Along with fat percentages, the AIM gives a number for the muscle quality for each muscle measured. The higher the number, the better. The scale goes up to 180, which means you are in the "Skulpted" range. All of my readings were within the "fit" to "athletic" range, which was comforting since I want to know that my hour each morning in the gym is yielding some results. As I said, you can't spot-reduce fat, but you can spot-increase muscle quality. I found that in general if the AIM was telling me that some muscles were lower in quality, if I focused on them for a couple of weeks I could bring the numbers up. Having said that, I don't think I would necessarily focus on this information to plan my workouts. I think a good, solid, balanced resistance training program where you exercise all major muscle groups will give you results. But the AIM's feedback could be used to determine if an area is being neglected. I would never alter my routine based on a single set of measurements, however. I would record and monitor the readings over several weeks and then determine if I needed to change anything to address areas of neglect.
Technology and accuracy
This section borrows heavily from the Skulpt web site - for more information on the technical details, go there.
Dr. Seward Rutkove, Skulpt co-founder, is a neurologist at Harvard Medical School. As a physician and researcher, he was frustrated that there were no good ways to measure muscle health. He embarked on a mission to find or develop a better way to measure muscles 13 years ago. In collaboration with physicists at Northeastern University and engineers at MIT, he developed and tested the earliest prototypes that measured Electrical Impedance Myography (EIM).
The AIM is classified as an EIM device. It measures electrical current flow in different directions and it can measure the flow at different depths (the further apart the electrodes, the deeper the electrical current will penetrate). By combining these multiple electrode configurations with multi-frequency electrical measurements, and by using a variety of algorithms, the Skulpt Aim can separate out the condition of the muscle from the amount of fat in a region in just a matter of seconds.
How does this compare to something like the electronic weight scales that also measure fat percentage? That technology is called Bioimpedance Analysis (BIA). This technology is much less accurate, since the current can follow the path of least resistance through the body. Since the current is flowing from foot to foot, or between hands and feet, it goes through other tissue that has no bearing on body composition (muscle or fat), which skews the results. The EIM approach is better because it is over a smaller area with an optimized sensor and current configuration.
Skulpt claims that even EIM is subject to some innacuracy due to changes in skin condition, temperature, and subcutaneous blood. But those are much smaller than the innacuracies inherent in the BIA approach. I have a fat-measuring scale and it is at least 7-8% off of what the AIM and calipers are telling me. When I get a "bad" reading on the Skulpt (i.e. a reading that is a lot different from past readings, or a lot different from the same muscle on the other side) I just take another reading or two.
I don't really have access to good high-end body fat measurement devices to really gauge the accuracy of the AIM. But I did continue to use calipers to measure my body fat, and for the most part the AIM tracked within about one percentage of the calipers.
Another big discovery I made was that the AIM is sensitive to the direction you position the AIM over your muscles as well as the position. I can understand the position, since even with calipers you need to make sure you are measuring in the same spot. But the direction also made a big difference, like up to one or two percentage points. My takeaway there is just to come up with a common convention for the orientation of the AIM over each muscle. As long as you're consistent, you won't see your numbers vary wildly. As to whether to trust the smaller or greater number, for me I'll stick with the smaller!
Who it's for
At a current price of around $200, this isn't for a casual fitness enthusiast. I would say that the people who can benefit the most from this device and technology are those who have definite fitness goals and are putting together training plans to accomplish them. My experience is that it is better than using calipers, and gives more information to work with. And compared to other higher-end measurement devices, it is much more affordable.
The Skulpt company is serious about marketing, selling and supporting this device. I noticed that recently they engaged the famous Tony Horton as a spokesperson. All that means to me is that buyers aren't throwing away their money on a product that won't improve with firmware and software updates over time, and that when I ask I'll get my questions answered. And I have.
Rating (4 out of 5 stars)
Bottom line, the total body fat percentage measurement process with the AIM takes about a minute and provides great results. Also, its coolness factor can't be overlooked. I look forward to taking my readings every week, tracking the information it provides and using it to better my overall strength and fitness. If you're wanting to track your body fat percentage and muscle quality in a fast and accurate way, this is the right tool for you.
Where to buy
When I asked for an evaluation unit, they enrolled me in their ambassador program. Which basically means that if you purchase it using this link, you'll get a discount and I get $20, so it's a win-win if you're thinking of purchasing. Feel free to ask me any questions in the comments below, or directly through my contact page.
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