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What is body fat percentage?

What’s a good amount of body fat to aim for?

How the heck do I figure it out how much I have?

Body fat is an incredibly tricky subject – it’s tough to calculate, tough to track, and most people are way off in their estimates of what they think their body fat percentage is.

Body fat is an incredibly tricky subject – it’s tough to calculate, tough to track, and most people are way off in their estimates of what they think their body fat percentage is.

What is body fat percentage?

In its simplest form: body fat is the amount of fat in your body, compared to everything else. Everything else includes your organs, muscles, bones, tendons, water, and so on.

Both men and women carry different amounts of body fat percentage due to …you know… being different.

A super ripped male body builder who is minimizing body fat percentage could have a percentage down as low as 3-4%, while a super ripped female body builder who is minimizing body fat percentage would only get as low as 8-9%. A male athlete could be in fantastic shape and have 10% body fat, while a women at comparable level of athleticism and appearance might be at 18-20% body fat. To take the comparison to the other end of the spectrum, an overweight male at 30% will look vastly different than an overweight woman at 30%.

What’s a good amount of body fat to have?

Here is the generally accepted chart for women and men when it comes to body fat percentage:

 

Women

Men

Essential fat

10-12%

2-4%

Athletes

14-20%

6-13%

Fitness

21-24%

14-17%

Acceptable

25-31%

18-25%

Obese

32% plus

26% plus

In what I’m sure is news to nobody, body fat is essential to survival – fat protects your internal organs, provides you with necessary energy stores in times of peril, and more.

“Essential fat” means the minimal amount of fat required for survival – Anything less than this amount would mostly likely result in organ failure, but even approaching this amount of body fat is dangerous. It’s for this reason that bodybuilders, who can minimize their body fat to the “essential fat” level only do so when prepping for a show – during the rest of the year they maintain a higher body fat percentage so that they can stay healthy and function properly.

If you are looking to have that “ripped” look (dudes) and “toned” look (we hate that word), you’ll want your body fat percentage to hover in the “athletes” section.

If you’re looking to look healthy, I’d argue that you’ll want to be in the fitness range. Once you get into the upper ends of  “acceptable” and “obese”, a decrease in body fat percentage would benefit your health.

So, determining what’s an optimal goal for you:

  • If you are trying to look like Ryan Reynolds or Jessica Beil in Blade III, good luck! Aim for a body fat percentage of 6-8% (men) or 13-15% (women). Note: your athletic/strength gaining performance will most likely suffer at this percentage as well as it being hard to maintain.
  • If you are interested in getting that coveted six pack, drop your body fat down to the 8-11% range for Men and 15-17% range for women.
  • If you are an athlete and interested in optimal athletic performance, aim for a body fat percentage around 15% (men) or 20% (women).
  • If you are just interested in looking pretty good and feeling pretty good, anything less than 18% for men and anywhere in the 20-23% range for women.

What do these amounts look like?

Below, you’ll see images of what people look like with different amounts of body fat.

Men:

Women:

A quick note: your body fat percentage is just the amount of body fat you have; it has nothing to do with the amount of muscle mass you have, which means you can have two people with the same amount of body fat percentage that look WAY different from each other.

How do you calculate your body fat percentage?

The question I get asked above ALL others. 

There are seven main methods that you can use, each with varying levels of accuracy and cost:

  1. Take a Look – This might be my favorite method, although it requires a trained eye and isn’t exact. By having an accurate list of pictures and comparing a picture of yourself, you can determine somewhat closely what your body fat percentage is. This is a great article I’ve found for accurate portrayal of body fat percentage. Make sure to note the difference in the two men, both at 10% body fat further down the page.
  2. Body Fat Calipers – Pick up a set of calipers Pull the fat away from your muscles, pinch them with the caliper, take the measurements, and look at a chart to figure out your body fat percentage. Some recommend using one test site, some multiple.

IMPORTANT: If you are going to start testing your body fat percentage, do whatever you can to test yourself under the same conditions each and every time. For example: every Monday morning, on an empty stomach, while drinking a single glass of water. This way, even if you’re not getting the correct body fat percentage (due to user error), you’ll at least get a consistent incorrect body fat percentage and can calculate how much you lost or if you are progressing in the right way.

Here’s the thing with body fat percentage: although it’s fun to know and fun to see it getting lower as you get leaner, methods to track it can often be inaccurate. Take multiple tests with your preferred methods and understand that even then it might be off by 1-3% in either direction.

What’s the best way to lower body fat percentage?

Results may vary –  If you only want to drop a few percentage points, you can start with the advice at the top, and work your way down towards the bottom as you get lower and lower – the closer you get to single digits (dudes) or low double digits (ladies), the more strict you need to be with your diet and training.

Eat a caloric deficit – Although I believe there is more to it than just this, in order to lose weight, you need to be eating a caloric deficit – burning more calories than you consume. If you are not strength training and still consuming lots of carbohydrates, you will most likely be losing muscle along with fat, which is not optimal but will help you lose body fat.

Lift heavy things – When you strength train with heavy objects (or with intense body weight training), you get stronger and keep the muscle mass that you already have. On top of that, you also push your metabolism into an “afterburner” effect which burns extra calories even after you are done working out.

Sprints – When you run sprints, you create a similar afterburner effect with strength training, meaning extra calories burned after the completion of your workout.

Eat less than 100 grams of carbohydrates per day – When you deprive your body of carbohydrates, it no longer has steady access to its preferred source of energy, sugar (which all carbs become once they’re consumed and processed by your body). It now has to pull from fat storage to fuel itself.

Work out in a fasted state – Although advanced techniques to get to super low body fat percentages are beyond the scope of this article, here’s another tactic if you want to drop the last few percentage points: strength train in a fasted state, and don’t consume your first meal of the day until AFTER your workout. This is a technique used by many athletes and fineness professional. I’ve been training in a fasted state with zero issues on energy.

How is Body Fat Percent different from Body Mass Index?

When you go to a doctor, they will most likely calculate your Body Mass Index (BMI).

Body Mass Index looks at your height and your weigh; based off this ratio, it tells you whether you are underweight, normal, overweight, or obese.

Seems pretty straight forward right? Obviously, as your weight increases disproportionately compared to your height, you are more likely to be overweight. Notice I just said “more likely.”

Here’s why: Your BMI isn’t directly correlated to your body fat percentage – it only factors in your height and weight. It will give you the same reading if you’re made of 180 pounds of pure muscle, or 180 pounds of pure Cheetos.

For example, a six feet tall man who weighs 185 pounds with a body fat percentage of 10%, I would be put in the same “overweight” category as a guy who was six feet tall, 185 pounds, and a body fat percentage of 25%. If two women have the same amount of body fat, and one tends to carry more water weight or have bigger bones than the other, one woman could be considered “overweight” while the other might be “average.”