Everything You Need to Know About Body Fat Percentage

What the #$%@ is body fat percentage?

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

How the heck do I figure it out how muchI 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.

As Kanye West once famously declared, “that right there could drive a sane man berserk.”

Luckily, you’re reading Nerd Fitness, which means you’re smart, funny, good looking AND modest. You also understand that this is one of those things that you should probably know something about.

And since we’re talking about kind of a dry, scientific subject here, you’ll be rewarded with cute animal videos at the end of each section so you don’t fall asleep on me.  

Fair warning: lots of half-naked people of all different levels of body fat in this article!

What is body fat percentage?

body fat tape measure

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%.

Feel free to take a break with this video of a lion cub hanging out with a puppy and a rabbit.

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 (ugh 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, and might not be worth it. Your call.
  • If you are interested in getting that coveted six pack, drop your body fat down to the 8-11% range for dudes 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).  NF team member Staci trains much better at 20% body fat than at 15% body fat.
  • 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 should get you the “hey, lookin pretty good!” response from your friends :)
  • For the ladies!  If you are concerned about menstruation or fertility, it has been said not to drop below 15% body fat.  Although I can’t find any studies that definitively refutes or proves this, it’s just something I wanted to point out so you can be aware.  Your results may vary!
Hey, you’re still awake! You’ve unlocked the “cute baby pigmy goat jumping around” video.

What do these amounts look like?

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

Men:

Male Body Fat Pictures and Percentages 3-10%

Male Body Fat Pictures and Percentages 15-30%

 

Women:

Female Body Fat Percentages 11-18%

Female Body Fat Percentages 20-35%

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.  Scroll down around halfway on this article for two great examples.

Are you surprised about what you thought and what the actual percentages look like? For a chuckle, look at THESE people who have ‘self-estimated’ their own body fat percentage!  Click through the different images and compare the percentages of the people above to the people in the link.  It’s clear they didn’t actually get measured, as most of them aren’t even CLOSE.

How do you calculate your body fat percentage?

tape measure and body fat caliper

The question I get asked above ALLLLLL 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 for $5. 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.  In my experience, I have found that these calipers tend to underestimate body fat percentage (mine tell me that i’m 9 or 10% when I’m really 12%, and Staci’s say she’s 17% when she’s more like 20%), but are surprisingly accurate considering how cheap they are. Check out more information on caliper use.

3) The measurement method - By taking measurements (like the US Navy measurement or the YMCA measurement), you can calculate your body fat percentage.  I have found, as have others, that this method isn’t incredibly accurate as it can very easily overestimate your body fat.  Considering it only takes a few points of data, this is not surprising.

4) Body fat scales and monitors  - An electrical current is sent through your body and uses “biometrical impedance analysis.”  I don’t really like this method, as I find the number that it spits out to be horribly inaccurate; because they send an electrical current through your body, the amount of water you are carrying can drastically adjust this number.

5) The Bod Pod - The method calculates your body fat percentage by using air displacement to measure your body mass, volume, and density.  This is also pretty darn accurate, but also pretty darn expensive at usually around $75 per session.  Find a bod pod location by putting in your location in the right hand column.

6) Water displacement - Although very accurate (within 1-3% percent), it’s expensive, tedious, and a huge pain in the butt.  If anybody has any experience with a water displacement test, please share your story in the comments.

7) DEXA Scanning- This is considered the most accurate method, as it actually takes a full dual X-ray of your body composition and gives you numbers.   You can get this done at a health facility, and involves you lying on an X-Ray table for about 10 minutes.  It’s typically expensive, anywhere from $50-150 per session depending on where you are located.

VERY 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.

“Steve, just tell me the best method!”

If you have the money, and you have a Bod Pod center close to you, then I’d say this would be the best combination of practicality and accuracy.  If you don’t have the money, then I would go with a simple body fat caliper, along with the “take a look” method.  Take a photo of yourself each week and compare the photos to the photos in the article above.

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.

It comes down to this: Look in the mirror: do you like how you look? Awesome.   Do you NOT like what you see?  Follow the advice in the next section.

Another section, another reward.  You’ve unlocked the “baby otter attacks a stuffed animal walrus” video.

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

Alrighty! Let’s say you’re interested in dropping your body fat percentage, like my boy Saint here (whose FULL story you can read).

Here’s the best methods that I’ve found to get down to very low body fat percentages.  Note: these are JUST suggestions, your 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.

SprintsWhen 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.

Follow the Paleo Diet – I am biased here, but this is the diet that I follow whenever I need to drop weight.  I recently dropped from 13-14% down to 10-11% in back in March for a vacation.  I had only followed this plan for three weeks (heavy strength training, Paleo Diet, and working out in a fasted state).  As you get very low, I would recommend cutting on almost all fruit and nuts and focusing on just consuming protein and vegetables.

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 LeanGains and guys like Vic Magary and Anthony Mychal.  I’ve been training in a fasted state with zero issues on energy.

How is Body Fat Percent different from Body Mass Index?

weight scale
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, if I was six feet tall and 185 pounds witha 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.”

For example: Lebron James is considered borderline obese when measured on the BMI scale, at a height of 6’8″ and 250 pounds.

That being said, I do believe BMI can be helpful - if you are above 30% body fat, then both your BMI and your body fat percentage would tell you that weight loss should be your primary goal.  HOWEVER, as soon as you start to get serious about your body weight and training, then BMI quickly loses its appeal.

Feel free to take note take note of your BMI, and then move onto the important stuff.

You’ve unlocked the final reward: “jack russell terrier and her adopted children, a piglet and a baby leopard” video. 

What other questions do you have?

bunny rabbit on scale
And that concludes today’s lesson on body fat percentage, friend!

I do most of my work in coffee shops these days, so I hope you understand the amount of work and ridiculous number of embarrassing Google searches that had to happen in order to bring this post together.  I just hope I don’t need to search for “chubby man in underwear” again any time soon!

Now, I know this is one of those super complicated topics, so I’d love to help answer any OTHER questions you have!  Just leave a comment and I’ll do my best to help out!

-Steve

###

photo sources: tape measure and caliper, tape measure, weight scale, bunny in scale

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  • Ahmed

    Hi guys I’m not trying to advertise my recipe article or anything I’m just trying to help you guys have a good breakfast by eating pancakes!!! Yes PANCAKES! It’s really healthy recipe and full of protein and low on calories check it out you won’t regret it!

    http://gomestic.com/cooking/easy-low-caloriehigh-protien-pancake-recipe/

    Make sure you comment by telling me how it went and if you want me to post more recipes or not??

    Note: the website I posted my recipe in is crap really sorry it’s full of ads! I don’t own any of them I’m really sorry I’m trying to make my own website but for now enjoy this recipe!

  • taher

    actually, my body fats tends to be 0%. pls help.

  • Tyler

    Its been proven that eating 5-6 meals a day actually will make you lose more weight than fasting for 12 hours. It’s healthier and the discomfort level is lower. Once you eat, 3 hours later your metabolism shuts down and all the carbohydrates you’ve eaten are converted into body fat which is stored. However, if you start to eat again, it is not converted to fat and burned off to digest your next meal. Therefore eating more often actually decreases your body fat rather than starving yourself.

  • A Guy Who Understands Lyrics

    The Kanye West line at the beginning of your article is referring to the fact that he can’t eat solids because of the surgery he just had on his mouth, hence the title of the song “Through the Wire”, it’s not related to weight loss at all lol not to mention the line right before that is “somebody ordered pancakes I just sip the sizzurp” (if you’re trying to lose weight why would you be drinking syrup?)

    It’s a good song but I just wanted to inform you that it is completely unrelated to the topic of your article haha

  • http://caloriesinaday.com/ AshleyKaplan

    Very Interesting blog about the body fat percentage which is very useful and informative. Actually the health controlling is always depend on you that how you mange it for your life so think for a while and do best for you body and life.

  • cece

    Hey everyone.

    Im new to strength training and right now I’m counting calories to achieve that caloric surplus and sufficient protein intake (geeeeeez I never knew I ate that little calories!). Ive been toning down on any cardio I would have done in the past because I dont want the calories that I want for mass gain to be “wasted” on cardio. On the other hand I hope I’m doing the right thing since I dont want an increase of body fat either (right now, using the “take a look” method I’d say I have about 20-22%). Maybe this question sounds stupid to the fitness pros but I want to get this right. :/

    Oh and I’m a girl (164 cm, 51kg)

    Thank you x

  • http://sassydove.com/ Sassy Dove

    Rather than simply shooting the other commenter down with no explanation, could you perhaps share with us *why* fasting is not healthy for you or your organs over time? I’d like to hear the science please.

  • JP

    Hi Steve
    How can i lose body fat and build muscle, without my body using my muscle for energy or breaking down muscle fibers. most effective way to build lean muscle and lose body fat, week after week.
    please and hanks

  • H

    u are a muppet

  • HH

    complete muppet of doom

  • pimp name slickback

    hmmmmm

  • Majid Ur Rehman

    Hi, How would you interpret this? Am I fat?

    Age: 33
    Height: 5’7″
    Fat % = 28
    Muscle % = 37.7
    Hydration % = 49.5
    Bone Mass % = 13.4

  • HHH

    Its not starving yourself. Its just taking a natural break from eating. The fasted workouts are recommended if you want to drop into the low body fat ranges. Else keep on doing what you doing.

    and go team Paleo!

  • AlexDA

    Hi, a short question. In the 1st paragraph (What is body fat percentage?) you mention:

    “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.”
    So, literally everything else, or the total. Eg if I weigh 80kg and the amount of fat in my body is 20kg, then my body fat percentage is 20/60=33% or instead 20/80=25%? (I have got a scale but it reports the fat amount, not percentage)

  • Natalie Sanderson

    recently stumbled on your site and have struggled with weight my whole life. I recently decided enough is enough. Im tired of leaving my mirrors covered or buying clothes 3 sizes to big to hide. I am five foot 3 and 237 pounds, roughly 49 percent body fat I need help. Please can anyone recomend a at home workout to blast fat and build stamina?

  • Rebecca

    Hey steve I’m pretty good at taking body fat measurements on other people, (bicep, tricep, sub scapular and abdomen) but I can’t find info on where to take measurements to do it on yourself? Any info please?

  • Johney66

    I’m glad I found this post but what I was actually trying to find out is when it comes to using calipers which/who’s method/equation is most accurate. Is it one of the Jackson/Pollock methods or Durnin/Womersley or the Parrillo equation? Each has a different number of places to measure. It would seem that the more measurements the more accurate however that also means the more room for error as well. But If done correctly which one is the more accurate one to use? I can’t seem to find the answer to this question anywhere… Thanks in advance!

  • Paul

    Thank you so much for all your wise words, so much help :-)

  • gold lion

    im no expert, but it might help to start a strict (paleo) diet and count your calories before getting into a fitness routine – would be easier on your body. try going for long walks and eating super healthy – i’m talking NO GRAINS – no breads, nada. just lean meats/vegetables/and fruits (with no added sugars) – nothing processed. if you wan’t to lose the wait you 100% can, just don’t cheat yourself.

    any input from other users for natalie?

  • gold lion

    then once you’ve gotten under 200 it would be more appropriate to run and do stuff like http://www.nerdfitness.com/blog/2009/12/09/beginner-body-weight-workout-burn-fat-build-muscle/ (and easier too)

  • gold lion

    i’m no expert but i think the chart above says 25% and under is ‘acceptable’, upwards being obese. cutting it down to under 20% would definitely not be fat, 15% being ideal

  • Roze

    Putting this down in my favourites. .& I don’t do that often. But you made me laugh the whole way through while informing me about body fat! Thank you for the visual of you googling half naked men in a coffee shop. Awesome stuff. Keep up the good work!

  • andy

    Hi. Personally, I had 2 episodes of near fainting during workouts from having not enough sugar level. My body went into confused state, cold sweating and unable to continue with my workout. I train in the gym just downstairs of my apartment. By the time I reached my doorstep, my head was spinning. My bp was also lower than normal. So, I don’t advise to starve before exercise. Now, I take more Carbo few hours prior to my workout and I find I am able to last through my intensive workouts better.

  • Jonathas Peschiera

    proteins + vegetables is not paleo diet. a paleo diet is based on eating enough fat, a good amount of proteínas and almost nothing carbo. its what we have eaten during all our evolution, before people begin to farm.

    eating fat dont makes you fat.

  • Majid Ur Rehman

    Thanks!

  • http://Maisiaosiao.com Melissa

    What do you think about fasting for breakfast in the morning? I’ve read a couple of articles that suggest skipping breakfast as part of an intermittent fasting approach to fat loss. Apparently it’ll make you feel more energetic and it’s way easier to get into a sustained calorie deficit that way. I’ve tried it over a few weeks but not sure if this is the right way to go!

  • Michael Manley

    I find the Body By Vi challenge is the best way to Go when thinking about losing fat just go to http://www.BBVMike.BodyByVi.com if you want to find out more. I am always happy to help in anyway.

  • RunningGuy

    As a distance runner/cyclist/swimmer my legs are fairly ripped compared to the rest of my body. In order to escape the “overweight” segment of the chart I’d need to drop down to 160 pounds. I run half marathons in under 2 hours at 180 and my lean weight is somewhere between 170 and 165.
    BMI falls apart any time someone has more muscle mass than average.

  • Nom

    Yeah, the most recent studies completely debunk what you’re saying. That used to be the case, in a study where they fed malnourished boxers varying levels of quick-digesting proteins at insufficient levels, but it’s been re-examined.

    There is no metabolic advantage to very high meal frequencies according to research done on the topic in the last 10 years. 3 meals a day, or two meals a day is just fine.

  • SO

    The link to find one’s bod pod location goes to a 404 page error. You may want to fix that. Thank you for a great article

  • Larry

    Water displacement is pretty easy if you have a bathtub big enough to fit one person, under water.
    Just get someone to mark where the level is after getting in, then after getting out (making sure to get all the water clinging to your body back into the tub) you measure how much water it takes to fill the tub to the same level. ;-) A tiny bit tedious, but very accurate, and cheap!

  • Alan

    I can’t believe you did not mention HIIT in ways to lose body fat percentage, HIIT stands for high intensity interval training and this method has gotten me to go from 20% body fat to 11% body fat in a mere 2 months. Also fasting yourself is a HUGE no no, your muscles need calories to function, if you fast yourself then yeah you will lose alot of weight and fat, but you will also lose a lot of muscle which takes sooooo much time and work to even develop and fasting is the easiest way to fck it up.

  • rob68ca

    I remember doing the water displacement! If you are lucky you might get it on the 4 or 5th try! Not before swallowing alot of water! I never looked forward to this method although very accurate!

  • swimjim

    BMI is the biggest line of bull! It’s up there with measuring breast size based on hair length and penis length based on foot size.

    The medical and nutrition community needs to get off their ass and change how BMI is calculated or give us a more realistic measurement.

    I have been measured to have a lean body mass of 155 lbs, how can BMI tell me a healthy weight is 160 lbs?

  • The Dark Queen

    I’m about 25% body fat, using that fat stripper as a reference. However, I want to start strength workouts and train like Staci (after she learned how to do it right). I’m not into that fasting or counting calories, and prefer my nutrients in food form, not in a little pill.

  • Elaine Shi

    If people are in the Los Angeles area – BodySpec is offering DEXA scans for complete body composition analysis for very affordable prices. $40 for a first scan, which is comparable to hydrostatic and bod pod prices. To see what kind of info you get, go to http://www.body-spec.com. BodySpec operates out of a mobile truck that travels to different gyms around Southern California. If they’re not coming to you yet, see if you can request them to come to your gym.

  • DerekNoaks

    I can still drink while fasting can’t i? just water? or can i have a cuppa before bed?

  • Robert Siegrist

    The last 10 years is where they came up with the 3 meals 2 snacks things. As well as cheat meal or day.

  • Robert Siegrist

    Actually, there are studies that saying eating stuff that is bad for you sparingly (a small cheat meal a day OR a whole cheat day) will keep you body targetting the bad stuff. Also, it helps people that have a hard time eating 100% healthy on the right track. Even with eating almost a whole pizza, I’m still below my avg. weight. It’s a mental and physiological thing and it helps a lot of people maintain a diet.

  • Lived in denial for too long

    Definitely some inaccuracies out there. I tried the Navy calculator and it has me at 38% body fat. I am most definitely not. I am pretty sure I am around 23% body fat.

  • spiegelogen

    I don’t know what to think about the no carbs diet..

    I’m losing fat pretty quick now and I eat A LOT of whole grain carbs. All I do is push-ups. and that’s it. I don’t go to the gym, I just do different types of push ups.

    Other than that I just don’t enjoy sugary stuff at all, nothing sweet, so you could consider that some sort of diet even though I simply dont like it.

    I guess im around 15% bodyfat now, was at 20-25% 6 months ago.

  • John

    Do you really need Science to know this? If you’re starving and your body is telling you it needs to eat, then it needs to eat! This is a cheap way out of losing weight and you will just burn up more muscle than fat.

  • http://sassydove.com/ Sassy Dove

    Uhm, yes, I do need science to know that – and everything else I know. By your logic, everything is as it appears to our senses: the earth is flat because your eyes say so, horror movies and rollercoasters present real danger because they cause our bodies to react with fear, etc. So please, back up your “load of bologna” claim with some facts as many of the proponents of fasting have done hereon.

  • dequan

    i just came in health class what do i do

  • dd

    I love the results i have obtained through intermitent fasting. And contrary of wat u wud think i have extreme energy when i train in the morning at a fasted state. Being able to do intense circuits and weights. I love the results im getting. Obviously following an almost palro diet basen on my conviction that sugar in all its forms is bad for you. I used the bmi method to calculate my body fat % and that result was just completely off track.