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 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.

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 a dry, relatively scientific subject here, you’ll be rewarded with cute animal videos at the end of each section so you don’t fall asleep or get bored. Because I’m nice like that 🙂  

A quick note: I bet you’re reading this because you’re interested in LOSING body fat – crazy guess, I know!

So, I went ahead and created a free resource that can help: it’s our 10-level Nerd Fitness Diet cheat sheet: each level tells you what to eat and when to level up so you can slowly adjust your diet and watch your body transform (like Optimus Prime).

Grab The Nerd Fitness Diet Cheat Sheet along with four other free guides (Paleo, Strength Training, Intermittent Fasting, Bodyweight Workout) when you sign up in the box below.

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 bodybuilder 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 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.

Are you surprised about what you thought and what the actual percentages look like? If so, don’t worry about it – most people have no idea what their body fat percentage is, and will often over or underestimate it pretty dramatically.

We’ll get into what’s a good number to AIM for, and how to measure it next.

After you watch this video of a baby sea otter trying to sleep on mom:

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 just looking to get healthy and look in the mirror with pride, you can aim for the fitness range.  Once you get into the upper ends of “acceptable” and “obese,” a decrease in body fat percentage would benefit your health.

Now, I’m going to GUESS you’re reading this article because you’re interested in reducing your bodyfat percentage.

If that sounds like you, and you want to skip the confusion, remove the guesswork, and just be told exactly what to eat and how to train your goals, check out The Nerd Fitness Academy, which has helped 35,000+ students reduce their body fat percentage, get strong, healthy, and happy.

Let’s get back to goal setting. For starters, you need to determine what’s an optimal goal for you:

  • If you are trying to look like Ryan Reynolds or Jessica Beil in Blade III, good luck! You’ll need to 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 can be really really challenging to maintain. 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.
  • 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:

How do you calculate your body fat percentage?

tape measure and body fat caliper

This 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. 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 slightly 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. However, as long as you’re tracking the same area and under the same conditions, you can track overall trends in how the measurement changes to make sure you’re on the right path.

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 can be horribly inaccurate. Because they send an electrical current through your body, the amount of water you are carrying can drastically adjust this number too.

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 week to week to see if you can notice more definition in your muscles (which happens when you start to reduce your bodyfat percentage!).

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. So, track overall TRENDS and go off how you look, and that will get you 95% of the way there.

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 childhood friend Saint above.

Staci here also followed the principles of Nerd Fitness to get her results and significantly reduce her bodyfat percentage:

I’m sliiiiiightly biased, but both Saint and Staci, along with 35,000+ other students, reduced their bodyfat percentage by following the methods in the Nerd Fitness Academy.

As you’ll read below, the biggest piece of the puzzle to getting to a low body fat percentage is having the right nutritional strategy, the right mental attitude, a supportive network of people to help you, and a plan to follow.

We know how tough it can be to change your diet. If you’re not sure what to eat, or you’re sick of trying a diet only to give up a few weeks later, I got you covered.

It’s something I’m really proud of, and I know it’s helped a lot of people: our 10-level Nerd Fitness Diet Cheat Sheet. Pick the level you’re comfortable with, stick with it for at least 2 weeks, and then level up when ready and follow the next level! Simple.

Grab your cheat sheet free, along with 4 other free guides, when you sign up in the box below – I’m confident it can help you reduce your body fat percentage permanently.

I can’t teach you everything in a quick article, though I can absolutely give you some overall tips and tricks below to get you started.

Here are the Nerd Fitness methods we recommend to get down to a lower bodyfat percentage.  

Note: these are JUST suggestions, your results may vary!  

If you only want to drop a few percentage points (to a healthier weight), 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.

1. 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 consistently. 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.

2. 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.

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

4. 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.

5. Follow the Paleo Diet – I am biased here, but this is the diet that I follow whenever I need to drop weight. It’s also the top level in the NF Academy with regards to effectiveness, but also difficulty to maintain.  I recently dropped from 13-14% down to 10-11% 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 start to decrease your bodyfat percentage, you need to be more and more diligent and disciplined. By the time you are aiming for ‘shredded’ look, you’re going to be eating almost exclusively protein and vegetables

6. Work out in a fasted state, consider intermittent fasting 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. I’ve been training in a fasted state for three years with zero issues on energy.

If you are looking for a more specific blueprint that helps with all of the above, and gives you a chance to look like Staci or Saint, check out the NF Academy and see if it can help you reach your goals.

Along with the above, keep reading Nerd Fitness articles, join our community, and start to implement the philosophies here and you’ll be on the right track.

The important thing to remember: this is NOT an overnight process. The best thing you can do is start treating yourself like a science experiment. Implement the suggestions above, track your bodyfat and see how it changes, and then course-correct and adjust based on results!

Also, here’s a video of a wombat. Because, wombats:

How is Body Fat Percent different from Body Mass Index?

weight scale
When you go to a doctor, they will most likely ONLY 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 straightforward 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.

You’ve unlocked the final reward: “the hedgehog boat”:

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.

Now, I know this is one of those super complicated topics, so I’d love to help any other way than I can. 

If you are fired up and want to start reducing your body fat percentage in a healthy, sustainable way, consider trying our 10 Level Nerd Fitness Diet – we’ll send you a cheat sheet telling you exactly how to change your diet each week so you don’t get overwhelmed!

Grab your NF Diet sheet along with four guides to help you reduce your bodyfat percentage when you sign up in the box below:

We’ve helped tens of thousands of people transform into real life superheroes.

Either way, continue to poke around Nerd FItness – all of our content is focused on helping you get results in a fun, non-condescending, supportive, and (most importantly) effective way.

Also, if you’re willing to put in the time, you WILL get the results you’re after.

Okay, time to watch more cute animal videos 🙂

-Steve

PS: If you enjoyed this article style that mixes learning and humor, and you are looking for more guidance, I hope you decide to check out The Nerd Fitness Academy.

My team and I created a fun system with specific instructions, boss battles, workout plans, and blueprints to follow to help you reduce your belly fat percentage and reach the goals based on your situation.

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

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  • Stealth Paladin

    removing processed food from your diet is good, but a) the paleo diet is not even close to what we ate at during the paleolithic era and b) any diet is bad for you if continued repetitively

    i know quite a bit about the subject. lots of times diet changes will help SOME people, and from your description there’s a high chance the reason it helped you is because you got a new culture of bacteria but there are many other diets which can do the same without causing you nutrient deficiency

    national health boards from a variety of developed countries warn that the paleo diet is a risk to your health and more-or-less a scam