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 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:



Essential fat













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.


Male Body Fat Pictures and Percentages 3-10%

Male Body Fat Pictures and Percentages 15-30%



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!



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

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  • http://www.bellefem.com/existen-pastillas-adelgazar-rapido/ Christian

    Fat percentage is a much more important measure than total weight. Fat percentage is what really matters and tell us how healthy we are and how we look in the mirror. Using only total weight for measuring our fitness or weight loss achievements is a big mistake!! http://www.bellefem.com/diferencia-entre-perder-peso-y-perder-grasa/

  • Dan Otarola

    What a load of bologna many nutritionist degrees are. I have a friend who is a nutritionist who tells her client to eat 6 meals a day, and make sure not to skip meals so that you don’t go into “starvation mode.”

  • Shaderp

    This was actually pretty helpful. I have actually dropped from 34% to about 25%
    But I see myself everyday and don’t feel different. It’s nice to have a frame of reference for the numbers. Sometimes you just feel the same even after losing 20 lbs.

  • Serena Tsang

    I usually train in a fasted state in the morning, and while it’s not ideal for intervals on the track (I die fast) or if I really want to lift heavy, it’s fine for my usual 5-6 mile runs and bootcamp classes. Sure, it might feel slightly harder in the morning, but I’ve never keeled over. I generally take care to eat a lot of protein after these fasted workouts, and eat some carbs in the evening so I have a little glycogen in the morning.

  • Ankit Kumar

    I don’t do gym, but I do run, it’s burning my fat and helping me get ripped in a slow and steady way. I also use some of natural ways to burn body fat which I blog about here: http://remainhealthy.net

  • Jasmine Lewis

    Hi! Just a note on the water displacement technique and BMI! I am a human kinetics grad and am obsessed with exercise physiology and endurance training. While I was in school I used to spend 75% of my time in the physiology lab so I got to play with all of these fun methods!! Not a huge fan of the water displacement test. I’d say about 90 % of people struggle with this one, you have to fully immerse yourself in water and let ALL of the air out of your lungs. Movement of any sort is discouraged too so this one is tough! As for BMI…all I can say is I am 5’1 , 130 lbs. I am currently on the paleo diet. I run marathons for fun…..and I am borderline obese! ….hope this helps!

  • Madhuri Verma

    Thankyou so much…
    Its really helpfull for me…

  • Susana Elisa

    I am not quite sure to follow a paleo diet is healthy, we can definitely lose weight eating all the necessary nutrients that our body needs with a caloric deficit combine with exercise.

  • Shoba Nair

    I m 42yr lady, i hv big round tummy with thin hands & legs(nt matching with tummy), the tummy is big round and tight, like a real Matka. Is it fat??? coz people says fats seems bulgy, bt in my case it is tight tummy with very few stretch marks. How can i detect wht exctly it is??
    i hv done endoscopy test too bt the doctor told it is fat and nthg else. I m abit confussed. Cn u help.
    My height 4.5″ and weight 80kg(Constantly from last 5yrs)

  • http://fatburningmethods.com Gabriel Paternoster

    Top 55 Lean-Body Foods to Boost Your Energy, Balance Hormones, and Lose Body Fat!

  • katiermack

    so right now im in the 24%! so not tragic but not great. i love running and running and maybe a little more running. i love sugar. i wish candy could be involved with every meal but its not. how much sugar intake should i be taking at max to lose weight? or tips and tricks to get my sugar in with other foods that might be better then the candy i love so much. im 5’8 and im tired of the 24% where i have been for years and really want the 18% area.

  • http://www.downtoearththinking.com/ Down to Earth Thinking

    No doubt BMI is more or less bogus, but many Americans are 30% or more BF. I have you linked to my site. http://www.downtoearththinking.com/fitness-over-60-a-mindset-of-health.html

  • Shyam Shukla

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  • Charles, Steven Adonis

    Thought this was a great discovery…helped several Reset their Metabolism, Turbocharge, Weight Loss and help Shrink ones Waist.

    Try it out and please let me know your thoughts. All the best


  • Mike Desmond

    thanks for the article it was so helpful. the next time you need a fat guy in underwear photo, just email me and i can send my pre diet photo

  • Camila Uribe

    Hi Steve, I´ve been reading all your articles. Paleo diet was interesting, but I have a question that regards on topic you did not mentioned at all. what about alcohol? how does your body process the intake of a beer or another spirit, as a carbohydrate I suppose. would it be “healthy” to “change” carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes for a glass of beer?

  • Andy

    Maybe you should get a new doctor. Adrenal fatigue is not currently an accepted medical diagnosis because it hasn’t been proven to be a real condition.

  • Ann Carr

    Does the body fat reductionapproach above work as well for a woman as a man?

  • Tanya Egeland

    Starvation and fasting are two totally different things so maybe YOU should do a little more research. Anon and Pascal know what they are talking about. The theory of the ‘starvation mode’ is a myth. Maybe you should listen to this video and it will clear up your misconceptions on fasting: https://www.dietdoctor.com/member/courses/fung-fasting#5

  • Dan Otarola

    I agree with you, you stupid bitch. If you re-read my comment, you will see that I was making fun of my nutritionist friend who thinks “starvation mode” is real and suggests eating 6 times a day, which is all bs.

  • J001

    I know it’s not a new article, but just wanted to say well done and thank you.

  • bizzybutfit

    super amount of information in one article.
    Thanks for the answers to all the questions regarding body fat.

  • mickel clark

    Great post! My hamstrings get tight after squatting. I’ll use some of your stretches to see if it eases them. Thanks very much,

  • Bill Stevens

    fuck Kanye west

  • Ashley

    The only thing Ive found annoying about looking at visual body fat percentage charts like that, as a women, is the fact that it all depends on how your fat is distributed. I believe I’m in the 25-26 range however I’m pear shaped so all of it sits on my hips, butt and thighs and my waist looks significantly smaller. So I’m always sitting there like wait, I don’t look like that, am I still ok or should I be worried still about my body fat percentage? I just need to get it measured instead of using these charts it looks like…

  • Ferran Llamas

    A section on how to increase the body fat index would be much appreciated!! 🙂

    Congratz for the very clarifying article!

  • Terry

    I’m 64 years old very active but want to get rid of large waist I measure 39 bust waist 34 hips 39 I weigh 11 stone1 height 5 2 any ideas

  • https://onebagger.com Kate

    Nice article! I really like the attitude of improvising 😉

    But for those (including myself) who tend to get grumpy when hungry – why not bring some good food to a train/bus to enjoy the ride? I went to sardegnia in april and went to the local market before getting on the train – got some local grown veggies or some cheese (the best I’ve ever eaten!) from a local shepperd. Seriously, if you ever get there, try that cheese! *drooling* 😀