Body fat percentage is notoriously difficult to accurately measure yet is often considered the holy grail of body transformation.
Some relatively random number is held aloft as your ultimate goal and marker for success.
People cling to the idea of hitting 10% body fat as if it’s the gospel, with single-digit levels being ‘the dream’.
To this end, you often hear people throwing around their body fat percentage like a badge of honour, as if somehow it makes them superior.
Then you have the dudes who ceremoniously tear their shirts off and train topless only to spend most of their time checking the mirror to make sure they still have abs.
Often, you’re left wondering how accurate body fat is and whether it even matters in your pursuit for a better body.
Personally, I’ve never been particularly bothered by knowing what body fat percentage I am.
I’ve tried to figure it out a few times when I was training to become a Personal Trainer, but the problem is, getting an accurate reading is super difficult.
Instead, I would set a goal weight that I wanted to achieve so I had something to aim for and then use a few key stats as markers of my progress.
However, if you still want to know roughly what body fat percentage you are and then there are some guidelines for doing this.
This is what we will cover in this article.
Let’s start at the logical beginning. Body fat percentage is the percentage of your bodyweight that is fat. So, if you weigh 150 pounds and have 15 pounds of fat, your body fat percentage is 10%.
Body fat can be split into 2 types;
Essential body fat is necessary to maintain life and reproductive functions and accounts for about 3 – 5% of body fat in men. For women this number is higher, at around 10 – 13% and is due to the demands of childbearing and other hormonal functions.
Stored body fat on the other hand is the remaining accumulation of fat in the body once essential fat has been accounted for and there are 2 primary types;
Visceral fat is exclusively found in the abdominal cavity between your organs and can be the cause of a protruding belly.
Subcutaneous fat sits beneath the skin and above your muscle, which is why storing excess body fat can hide your muscle mass giving you a softer, rounder appearance and is why when you get down to lower levels of body fat you look much more defined.
A Note on Fat Storage Differences Between Men & Women: Men are more likely to store fat in the abdomen due to hormone differences, whereas, women are more likely to store fat around the buttocks, thighs and hips.
When it comes to measuring your body fat percentage there is no shortage of methods available. They vary in levels of accuracy, cost and availability which serves to add another layer of complexity to the body fat percentage question.
Listed here are the most popular methods.
This is one of the more common, inexpensive and most unreliable methods of measuring body fat percentage.
Bioelectrical impedance analysis works by attaching 2 or more conductors to your body and sending a small electrical current through your body.
The resistances between the 2 conductors provides a measure of total body fat as the resistance to electricity is different between fat, muscle and skeletal tissue.
They come in 2 forms;
The results can vary a lot depending on what you’ve had to eat, drink, whether you’ve exercised and your levels of hydration.
Another common issue is that bioelectrical impedance analysis devices often only connect to the body at 2 points, feet or hands. As such it only gives a measurement of body fat in either the lower or upper body and not the body as a whole.
This is one of the most commonly used methods to determine body fat but probably the most unreliable.
Also known as underwater weighing, this method works by submerging you fully in water and then calculating the volume of displaced water from the weight of the displaced water.
If no errors are made when measuring body density, it is said that the measurement may still show a skewed result of up to +3.8% due to variability amongst individuals.
This is not a common method of measuring body fat amongst the average gym goer.
You may be aware of this method as it’s often used by some of the famous guys in the fitness industry to either prove or simply discover their body fat percentage.
The DEXA scan works by scanning the body using 2 different x-rays, one of which is absorbed more strongly by fat than the other.
This data is then used by a computer to separate the 2 images and show the differences in fat relative to other tissue through the body.
The results are then used to determine the total amount of body fat.
This method is considered accurate, particularly when compared to hydrostatic weighing, however, it too may provide skewed results due to the way it processes the data.
This test is done by using callipers (sometimes referred to as a Plicometer) to take readings of the thickness of the subcutaneous fat layer by pinching the skin at a number of standardised points on the body.
This methods’ results can vary greatly depending on the calliper used and the person administering the test.
Additionally, this method only records subcutaneous fat and not visceral fat which can give a skewed and inaccurate result.
All methods of measuring your body fat percentage are largely inaccurate and can give wildly different readings based on the person. Not to mention that a lot of these methods are inaccessible for the average gym goer due to the cost and logistics involved in using them.
For these reasons trying to measure your body fat with any level of accuracy is more or less pointless. However, measuring or tracking your level of body fat without paying attention to the percentage is possible.
I know we’ve already looked at how inaccurate trying to measure your body fat percentage can be, but if you’re going to do it, this is what you should do. Pick one method of measuring your body fat percentage.
I recommend using body fat callipers as they are relatively inexpensive and don’t require a high level of skill to use. Using the callipers (or your chosen method) take your 1st reading, this will be your baseline.
To try and maintain as much accuracy as possible aim to take your reading first thing in the morning before you’ve eaten or drunk anything. Then every week take another reading, ensuring the conditions are the same each time.
You can use the change in readings over time as an indication of how your body fat percentage is changing. Keep in mind that this method won’t tell you your exactly body fat percentage but can help you understand how your body is changing.
If you’re still set on figuring out your body fat percentage then what follows are guidelines and examples you can use.
This section includes a breakdown of body fat percentage for both men and women, with how you can expect to look at each stage. Combined with image charts you should be able to get a good idea of what body fat percentage you are and where you want to get to.
At this percentage or higher you’re overweight and possibly on your way to being obese.
You have lots of excess fat and no muscle definition (you might have muscle but it’s not visible), this body fat percentage is often characterised by a protruding stomach that hangs over your trousers.
This weight can cause health problems and is most common in those who lead a sedentary lifestyle and give little thought to their diet.
This is your average person, at this body fat percentage you’re a mix of fat and lean without really being one or the other.
You might have some muscle, but you cannot see it and you definitely don’t have any muscle separation i.e. it’s not clear where your bicep and triceps are, your arm is just one block.
You probably lead a decent lifestyle with a varied diet and some exercise, but fitness is not a priority for you.
When you reach the bottom range of this body fat percentage (18%) you reach the point of diminishing returns between weight and strength gained i.e. after 18% body fat you’ll fat but with a reduced rate of corresponding strength gains.
This range characterises your average younger-youngish person. You’re pretty active and probably do some regular strength training with some though put towards your diet.
In this body fat range although you still look quite soft you also have more shape and definition, with some muscle separation. This is a good healthy natural range of body fat but you’re still holding a layer of subcutaneous fat which hides your muscle mass.
This is the ideal top range you want to reach when lean bulking.
At this point, you’re beginning to look pretty lean and should be able to see your top 2 or 4 abs in good conditions (good lighting, not just eaten). You have some vascularity, but this varies from person to person depending on genetics, carb intake, hydration and other factors.
When at this body fat percentage, you’ve got decent muscle separation and can start to clearly see the different muscle groups, but you still can’t see muscle striation i.e. the different fibres of a muscle.
At this body fat percentage, your abs should be visible all the time and your vascularity will increase particularly in your upper arms and forearms. Due to the weight loss to get to this point you may also notice changes in the slimness of your face.
Your muscles are now defined, and the separation is clear, you can also see the muscle fibres in some muscles. This is your typical ‘beach body’ or ‘fitness model’ range and is completely possible for the average guy with hard work and patience.
It’s also your ideal starting point for lean bulking.
When you reach this body fat percentage your vascularity increases (varies per person) and you can see it almost everywhere, abs, legs and chest.
You now have deep muscle separation and can clearly see all individual muscles. This is what most would consider the men’s/women’s physique stage or competitive levels of body fat. You face loses a lot of weight and may make some people look gaunt.
Additionally, your energy levels will plummet, and your testosterone will drop. In most people this level of body fat percentage is not maintained for a prolonged period of time, often only long enough for a photo shoot or bodybuilding show.
At these body fat percentages, you’re crazy ‘shredded’ or ‘ripped’ and have complete muscle separation and striation. This level of body fat is typically only common in the top-level bodybuilders and is an extreme state of leanness that not everyone will be able to achieve.
When you get to this point genetics play a big role and in some cases drugs also play a role.
At this point you’re down to your essential body fat and are putting yourself at serious, serious risk. With body fat percentages this low you risk health complications and even death.
It’s likely unattainable without drugs and is most definitely unrealistic and simply not worth it.
As we’ve seen in this article so far measuring your body fat can be extremely inaccurate and quite frankly, difficult.
Instead, it’s best to use the guidelines above to get an estimate (if you care) and then track how it changes as opposed to using the percentage as an indicator of whether or not you’re on track to reach your goal.
All this being said you’re still going to want a way to track your progress, in the absence of body fat percentage and this is it. Set a goal weight and track that. This not only gives you something to aim for, but it can be accurately measured and recorded, unlike your body fat percentage.
The best way to do this is to weigh yourself daily in the same conditions and take a weekly average to get a clear idea of how your weight is changing over time. In addition to tracking your weight, you can take monthly body measurements to see how these changes in weight translate to your physique changing.
Finally, you should also take note of how your performance in the gym changes as your weight does as this can also be a strong indicator of change.
There are various other stats you can also track but if you’re looking to keep it simple to start with then your weight and measurements are the best places to start.
I was going to do a section now on what men and women most prefer in the opposite sex when it comes to physique, but then I thought, who gives a shit. What matters is what you think, not your workmate, neighbour, parents or best friend. As long as what you’re doing is healthy and sustainable then go for it.
Decide what you want to achieve, set your mind to it and smash it.
Measuring your body fat percentage can be a tricky task at the best of times with most, if not all methods being at the best inaccurate and at worst inaccurate, expensive and inaccessible for the average gym goer.
Inside of sweating what percentage you are it’s better to use the guidelines in this post to get an estimate and then track your progress using your weight and body measurements for a more reliable and accurate result.