Losing weight is about more than just seeing your numbers go down on the scale. While this absolutely indicates that you are losing weight, it does not give you any information about what exactly you’re losing as far as body composition. Have you ever found that after months and months of working out and eating well, that number hasn’t budged, even though you’re looking more muscular and your pants fit a bit looser? Or when you stop working out, everything gets a bit softer, but your weight has dropped? In case #1, you’ve lost body fat and gained lean muscle. In case #2, you’ve likely gained some body fat, but lost muscle! So, while the number on the scale in case #2 may seem more desirable, case #1 is where the improvement has been. The scale can be deceiving because muscle weighs more than fat. So – how can you track your body composition to more accurately measure your progress? By measuring your body fat percentage.
Measuring your body fat percentage splits your weight into two categories – weight that is made up of body fat, and weight that is made up of lean mass (everything that isn’t body fat, including bones, muscles and organs). By measuring your body fat percentage, you can create more targeted weight loss or gain goals that can help you track your progress in a more meaningful way. Here, we’ll discuss healthy body fat percentages for both men and women, how you can measure your body fat, as well as provide a handy chart for visually assessing your body fat percentage.
Healthy Body Fat Percentage
As stated by one PhD, aim for a range rather than a specific number when working toward a healthy body fat percentage.1 Everyone is different, and formulas are calculated on an average, so shoot for a range, and when you land in it, assess how you look and feel before recalibrating your goals.
Before you decide that your goal is to be at 0% body fat, it’s important to realize – you can’t. While we’ve come to see body fat as the enemy, it plays an important role in the physiological function of the body. Fat in the body can be split into two groups: essential body fat, and storage body fat. Essential body fat is found around nerve tissues, bone marrow and organs, and makes up about 3% of body mass in men, and 12% in women.2 Dropping below this percentage can be detrimental to how your body functions. Storage body fat makes up the rest of the rest of your body fat percentage, and this is fat that is stored as an energy reserve when excess calories are consumed. Storage fat decreases when more energy is used than consumed, or by creating a calorie deficit.2 Storage body fat is what you want to target, but it’s also important to realize that the healthy and athletic body fat percentages will vary between men and women.
Body Fat Percentage: Women
The essential body fat percentage in women is 12% – a whopping 9% higher than men. An average, healthy range for women’s body fat percentage is 25 – 31%, which is also considerably higher than the average for men.1 Average body fat percentage is higher in women as it’s thought that they naturally carry more weight due to hormones and child bearing capabilities.
Body Fat Percentage: Men
The essential body fat percentage in men is 3%, with an average, healthy range landing between 18 – 25%.1 Just as women tend to carry more body fat on their frames, men tend to carry more muscle, which in turn contributes to a higher rate of metabolism.3 This, as well as testosterone, can make it easier for men to build muscle and burn fat. However, exercise and proper diet are still important, as excess fat can have a negative effect on testosterone production.4 To keep testosterone production as well as your health at its peak, stick to a regular strength training routine that includes heavy, compound exercises. You can also try using testosterone support supplements like Delta Prime that use Vitamin D and Zinc, both of which have been correlated with raising low testosterone levels.5, 6
Body Fat Percentage Calculator
There are many ways to calculate body fat percentage, with varying complexity and accuracy. The most accurate methods include X-ray (DXA), and hydrostatic weighing, but are most commonly found in medical and research facilities. Methods you can use at home include skinfold caliper measurements, and bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA).7
Skinfold caliper measurements are one of the most common ways to calculate body fat percentage, as it is fast, and the tools are easily accessible. Using the calipers, measurements are taken form 3, 4 or 7 different places, and fed into a formula. Spots for measurement differ between men and women, and the formula changes slightly as well. For a 3-site measurement for women, measurements are taken from the tricep, above the hip bone, and either thigh or abdomen. For men, the 3 measurements used are from the chest, abdomen, and thigh.7 Once you have these measurements, there are many calculators online you can plug them into to give you your results. However, results from caliper measurements rely heavily on the skill of the person who took them, and accuracy can vary.
BIA machines use small nodes to measure resistance as small currents run through the body, using the idea that currents move more easily in muscle than in fat due to water content. Results are automatically calculated in the attached console to deliver quick and readable results. However, the accuracy of these machines varies, and can be affected by food and fluid consumption, and the devices available to the consumer market are less accurate than the much more expensive machines used for research.7
Whichever home method you choose, the most important thing is consistency. The accuracy of the measurement itself doesn’t matter as much as using the same method each time. By doing this, while your body fat percentage number may be off, you can still measure improvements by changes in your measurements.7
Body Fat Percentage Chart
Use this chart to help get a better idea of what each range of body fat percentage looks like4, 8, 9:
|Essential Fat||2 – 4 %||10 – 12 %||Extremely lean|
|Elite Athlete||6 – 13 %||14 – 20%||Very defined muscles, vascularity, little visible fat. This is the range for competition bodybuilders|
|Fit||14 – 17%||21 – 24 %||Muscle definition, little fat that can be pinched, clear that person exercises regularly|
|Average||18 – 25%||25 – 31%||Some muscle definition, but looks softer.|
|Overweight||26% +||32% +||Any muscle mass is covered by thick layer of fat, no definition.|
- 1 Casey, J. (n.d.). Body Fat Measurement: Percentage Vs. Body Mass. Web MD. Retrieved May 7, 2018 from https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/body-fat-measurement#1. View link.
- 2 Gleeson, M., and Jeukendrup A. (2010). Normal Ranges of Body Weight and Body Fat. Human Kinetics. Retrieved May 7, 2018 from http://www.humankinetics.com/excerpts/excerpts/normal-ranges-of-body-weight-and-body-fat. View link.
- 3 Corleone, Jill (2017, July 18). How to Use Your BMR to Lose Weight. LiveStrong.com. Retrieved May 7, 2018 from https://www.livestrong.com/article/266994-how-to-lose-weight-with-bmr/. View link.
- 4 Metcalf, Eric. (2016, May 6). Can You Boost Low Testosterone Naturally?. Web MD. Retrieved May 7, 2018 from https://www.webmd.com/men/features/can-you-boost-testosterone-naturally#1. View link.
- 5 Prasad, A. S., Mantzoros, C. S., Beck, F. W., Hess, J. W., & Brewer, G. J. (1996). Zinc status and serum testosterone levels of healthy adults. Nutrition, 12(5), 344-348. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0899-9007(96)80058-X
- 6 Pilz, S., Frisch, S., Koertke, H., Kuhn, J., Dreier, J., Obermayer-Pietsch, B., … & Zittermann, A. (2011). Effect of vitamin D supplementation on testosterone levels in men. Hormone and Metabolic Research, 43(3), 223. DOI http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1055/s-0030-1269854
- 7 Tinsley, G. (2018, April 29). The 10 Best Ways to Measure Y our Body Fat Percentage. Healthline. Retrieved May 7, 2018 from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/ways-to-measure-body-fat. View link.
- 8 Clark, S. (2018, April 18). What Does Your Body Fat Percentage Look Like? Bodybuilding.com. Retrieved May 7, 2018 from https://www.bodybuilding.com/content/what-does-your-body-fat-percentage-look-like.html. View link.
- 9 Shultz, R. (n.d.). What 4 Specific Body Fat Percentage Ranges Look Like on Men. Men’s’ Journal. Retrieved on May 7, 2018 from https://www.mensjournal.com/health-fitness/what-4-specific-body-fat-percentage-ranges-look-men/. View link.