I’ll be honest, accurately calculating your body fat percentage is no easy task and it’s also made even more complicated by the fact that there’s a variety of calculation methods you can use to figure it out (which I’ll go into more detail about later).
It’s also a pretty boring subject and if you’re anything like me, you’d probably much prefer to just head down the gym, pump some iron and watch in awe as you quickly build a physique that wouldn’t look out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster, without worrying about your body fat percentage or any other boring crap (if you wanted to be a maths teacher you’d be one, right!?).
I mean, what does the term body fat percentage even mean? How do you figure out how much you have and also, how do you know if that’s a good amount or not?
The good news is that I’m going to answer all of these questions (and more) in this post. The bad news is it’s going to be a pretty lengthy one so to make sure you don’t fall asleep, I’ll be rewarding you with a photo of a seriously hot girl after each section to keep you focussed (and hot guys for the girls of course).
What Does Body Fat Percentage Mean?
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Essentially, the human body is made-up of bone, muscle, water and fat (amongst other things). All of these contribute in varying amounts to your overall weight and basically, your body fat percentage is the percentage of your total weight that comes from fat (are you with me?).
For example, let’s assume that you weighed 180lbs and had a body fat percentage of 20%, this would mean that 36lbs of your total weight (20% of 180lbs) was derived from fat.
Obviously, everyone’s body fat percentage is different. A lean bodybuilder with a visible six pack might only have a body fat percentage of 4 – 5% whereas someone classed as morbidly obese could easily have a body fat percentage of 40 – 50% (the perfect reason to cut out the junk food now!).
Note: Body fat percentages also vary depending on gender and typically, women naturally have a higher body fat percentage than men (for various reasons). For example, if you’re a woman, you might start to show a visible six pack and appear lean/ripped at 9 – 10% body fat whereas if you’re a guy, you likely won’t start to appear ripped until you lower your body fat percentage to 4 – 5% (sorry guys!).
Similarly, women might have a great figure at 25% body fat whereas for most men, this would be bordering on obese (remember what I said about junk food!?).
What’s An Ideal Body Fat Percentage To Have?
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Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say as generally, it depends entirely on how you want to look. Do you want a ripped, lean physique (like Daniel Craig) or do you just want to stay relatively slim and healthy?
Note: You need to remember that fat plays an important role in the body and therefore, you don’t want your body fat percentage to drop too low even if you’re looking to obtain a ripped physique.
Fat is essential for survival and too little body fat can, in extreme circumstances, result in organ failure and possibly even death. Even in less extreme circumstances, there are still plenty of dangers and being underweight is known to be just as dangerous as being overweight (this is why diseases such as bulimia can be so life threatening).
Here’s a body fat percentage chart showing how various body fat percentages are likely to look on both men and women:
|SERIOUSLY SHREDDED!||3 – 5%||9 – 12%|
|Athletic!||6 – 12%||13 – 20%|
|Pretty fit!||13 – 18%||21 – 25%|
|Not so bad!||19 – 24%||26 – 31%|
|STOP EATING!||25% +||32% +|
As you can see, there’s quite a wide spectrum of healthy body fat percentages although you want to make sure that you don’t fall into that last category as technically, you’ll be classed as obese.
Important! Guys, you need to make sure you don’t go above 24% body fat (ideally no higher than 18 – 19%) and girls, you need to keep things below 31% (ideally no higher than 25 – 26% if possible.
Ok, time for hot girl number #2! (aka. the super hot Christina Hendricks from Mad Men!)
If guys are more your thing, here’s Ryan Gosling looking particularly handsome and cool (as always).
What Do These Body Fat Percentages Actually Look Like?
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Figures are all well and good but what do these body fat percentages actually look like in the real world? Here’s a bit of a rough guide:
Ryan Reynolds in Blade Trinity (3% Body Fat)
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According to Examiner.com, Ryan Reynolds cut down from 11% to 3% body fat for his role in Blade Trinity, and it shows too. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that Ryan was looking particularly ripped throughout – but it certainly didn’t come easy.
Not only did he have a strict diet (eating every 2 – 3 hours), but it’s also thought that his workouts took between 2 – 3 hours and that he’d regularly do 500 – 1000 sit-ups at a time (yes, I said 500 – 1000!).
Ryan Reynolds’ story really is an amazing example of what the human body is capable but guys, if you want to look this ripped, you’re going to have to be seriously committed! Plus, you’re not going to have much of a life outside the gym either! It could also seriously affect your strength and performance when training as your body will start to struggle with such a low amount of body fat.
Brad Pitt in Fight Club (6% Body Fat)
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Certainly not a far cry from Ryan Reynolds physique (above), Brad Pitt was at around 6% body fat in Fight Club.
A quick Google search will return a tonne of workout routines claiming to offer the exact routine that helped Brad get in such fine shape for the movie, although there’s no proof that these are anywhere near accurate.
Either way, he still looks incredible and although it might take some serious work, it’s an achievable goal for most guys.
David Beckham in H&M Shoot (10 – 12% Body Fat)
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Truthfully, I’ve got no official statistic for this one but if I was to guess, I’d say that David Beckham is at around 10 – 12% body fat in this image from his recent H&M photo shoot.
Sure, it’s probably been airbrushed a bit (what magazine photo’s haven’t?) but he’s still looking pretty slim and toned. Obviously, he’s not the hunkiest guy in the world (more athletic) but if he built up his abs a bit more, they’d be clearly visible.
For most guys, 10 – 12% body fat is the point at which you’ll start seeing defined abs appear (it helps if you’ve got decent abs of course) and overall, you’ll appear pretty athletic and toned.
Orlando Bloom in Beach Shot (18 – 20% Body Fat)
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Again, no official statistic here but this is probably what 18 – 20% body fat is going to look like on most guys. As you can see, he’s still looking pretty slim and relatively toned, but there’s also clearly a bit of fat on him (especially round the waist).
He doesn’t really have a visible six pack (mainly because his abs aren’t built up) but you can see a vague outline of his abdominal muscles, there’s just not much definition.
I’d say that around 18 – 20% body fat is probably what most typical, healthy guys will have. If you’re aiming for this, you’ll need a decent diet and some level of physical activity, but you’ll still be able to enjoy the odd pint of beer and a fry-up.
Gerard Butler in Beach Shot (20 – 25% Body Fat)
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Gerard Butler is probably best known for his incredible physique in the movie 300, but as you can see from the photo above, it’s pretty easy to lose that level of fitness if you don’t keep a consistent diet and workout routine.
I’d estimate that Gerard was sporting around 20 – 25% body fat here (probably closer to the 25% mark) and although he definitely doesn’t look fat, he doesn’t look particular slim or toned either.
There’s very little muscle definition and his abs aren’t visible at all.
Jack Black In Boat Shot (30 – 40% Body Fat)
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It’s difficult to obtain actual figures but from the look of things, I’d estimate that in this shot, Jack Black would have been at somewhere between 30 and 40 percent body fat (probably closer to the 30% mark).
Obviously, he’s not looking particularly slim and could do with losing a few pounds. Once you start getting in to the 30 – 40 percent range, you’re going to be classed as obese and you’re likely going to experience some health complications too.
Note: Girls, take a look here so see how varying body fat percentages look on females.
How Do You Measure Your Body Fat Percentage?
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Ok, let’s talk about what you actually came here to find out; how to measure your body fat percentage (and calculate it).
Here’s the thing, there’s literally a tonne of ways you can measure this and each method varies in both accuracy and cost. So, I’m going list all of the possible options below and then I’ll make recommendations on which I would personally use. Simples.
#1 – Body Fat Calipers
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Body fat calipers measure skin folds on various parts of your body to calculate what your body fat percentage is likely to be. This is probably the most widely used measurement method because they not only give a pretty accurate reading, but they’re also really cheap to buy (we’re talking about $10 here).
If you’re a gym member, chances are that your gym will have a pair of these that you’ll be able to use, just ask. Some calipers use multiple skin fold readings to make the calculation (e.g. stomach, back, arm etc) and some use just one skin fold calculation (usually stomach). Usually they’re more accurate if they use multiple readings.
Most body fat calipers will come with a chart that allows you to make the calculation easily too (if you don’t have a chart, here’s a good one to use).
While they’re not always absolutely spot-on with their readings (in fact, they often underestimate actual body fat percentages slightly), they give you an exceptionally accurate reading for the price.
#2 – Take A Look In The Mirror
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Perhaps one of the most obvious methods you can use to make a judgement is simply to take a look in the mirror and guess. Honestly, this is the least accurate way of measuring but most often, you can get a rough guide as to what your body fat percentage is likely to be.
Do you have a big gut? Can you see your abs or any muscle definition at all?
Sure, it takes a trained eye but it’s free and can be quite accurate if you know what you’re doing.
#3 – Body Fat Scales
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If you want an accurate reading and you’ve got $100 – $200 to spend on achieving this, then body fat scales might be the way to go. Essentially, they work much like normal scales (meaning you stand on them for a bit) but they also send an electronic current through your body to analyse your bodies composition.
The problem is, some of the body fat scales on the market are extremely accurate and some give absolutely crazy readings which vary on an almost daily basis. As you’d expect, the more you have to spend on a pair of scales, the better they are (generally at least) and personally, I wouldn’t bother with this method unless you’ve got a couple of hundred dollars to spend (check the reviews online though as this isn’t a rule set in stone!).
I have seen a lot of cool ones out there though, I even saw one that connected via Wi-Fi and automatically kept track of your readings on your iPad/iPhone.
Note: Body fat scales have been known to be somewhat inaccurate as they can often get swayed by the amount of water you’re carrying at that particular time. To get a more accurate reading, try and keep things consistent between measurements.
#4 – YMCA Calculation
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By taking a few body measurements/factss such as your gender, weight and waist measurement, the YMCA calculation gives you a rough (and I must stress the word “rough”) calculation of what your body fat percentage is likely to be.
Honestly, this is a pretty inaccurate calculation method as it only uses a minimal amount of data and obviously, everyone’s body composition is different. For example, you might weigh 300lbs and have a body fat percentage of 5% or even 30%; it all depends on whether you’re mostly fat or muscular.
Having said that, it’s better than nothing and will nonetheless give you a rough idea, but if you’re serious about monitoring your body fat percentage properly, invest in a pair of calipers at least!
#5 – The Bod Pod
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Like the look of the crazy looking contraption above? Good, then the Bod Pod is for you.
I won’t bore you with the details of how it works (here’s more information if you want to know) but basically, it calculates your body fat percentage by measuring your body mass, density and volume. It’s pretty accurate to say the least.
The only setback is that it’s quite an expensive process and also, you have to travel to find one (a lot of Universities have them here in the UK, and probably in the US too). It’s likely to set you back around $75 – $100 per session so it’s really only necessary for those looking to gain a particularly accurate reading.
#6 – DEXA Scanning
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DEXA scanning is the most accurate way to calculate your body fat percentage, but it’s certainly not the simplest (or cheapest).
It works by x-raying your entire body and analysing your body composition and bone structure. It’s typically a process used to diagnose those at risk of developing Osteoporosis but it’s an extremely accurate way of calculating body fat percentages too.
Much like the bod pod, you’re going to need to seek out a health facility if you want this done and it typically costs anywhere between $100 – $200 per session (you could buy some decent body fat scales for that!). It involves laying on a table for a few minutes to be X-rayed.
It’s painless and extremely accurate.
#7 – The Water Displacement Test
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Because fat isn’t as dense as muscle or bone, it distinguishes itself whenever you immersed in water and therefore, the water displacement test can give you a very accurate body fat percentage reading.
Yes, it’s a massive hassle and yes, it also involves being dunked in a pool of water, but it’s generally accurate within 1 – 2% and is a great option for anyone serious about calculating their body fat percentage to a great deal of accuracy.
The cost varies quite a lot but typically, it’ll set you back anywhere from $40 – $100.
Ok, So Which Is The Best Method?
In my opinion, the absolute best method is DEXA scanning; it’ll likely be the most accurate and give you a really good overview of what your body fat percentage genuinely is.
The problem is, it clearly isn’t a very practical option for most people as it’s expensive and time-consuming. So, if you’re a ‘regular Joe’ looking for a decent, yet not necessarily 100% accurate body fat measurement, I’d personally recommend using body fat calipers as they’re accurate, cheap and once you have them, you can calculate your body fat percentage as often as you like.
Note: Remember, it’s not so much about getting an accurate body fat percentage calculation as it is to consistently (and regularly) measure it.
How Do You Lower Your Body Fat Percentage?
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Don’t worry, we’re all carrying a bit more timber than we’d care for so if you’re looking to drop a few pounds, here’s a few suggestions on how to go about it (without losing muscle mass).
#1 – Eat More Protein
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Compared with both fat and carbohydrates, protein has a high thermic effect. To put it simply, this means that your body uses more energy (calories) to process and digest protein than it does to process and digest either carbs or fat.
This is why a lot of bodybuilders typically have a high protein diet because the more calories they obtain from protein, the more calories they’re going to burn automatically.
A high protein diet will essentially increase your resting metabolic rate and help you burn more calories throughout the day. Obviously, the more calories you burn, the less your body is going to have to store as fat.
#2 – Eat Less Carbs + Fat
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Similarly, eating less carbs and fat will reduce the likeliness of your body storing energy as body fat. Basically, your body uses carbohydrates as its primary source of energy so as long as you’re supplying your body with a constant intake of carbs, it will have no reason to ever utilise any of your body fat for fuel.
When you reduce your carb intake, your body will start to utilise fat as a source of energy. First, it will try and obtain fat from your diet to use as energy but if there isn’t a sufficient amount in your diet, it will then turn to stored body fat in order to obtain energy.
Note: Don’t cut your carb and fat intake too much as this will lead to serious health problems. It will also increase the likeliness of your body breaking down muscle tissue to use as energy (this is never good).
#3 – Eat More Frequently
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By eating more regularly, you can minimise your bodies need to store fat for energy. If you’re constantly supplying your body with energy (food), you’ll increase your metabolic rate and burn more calories throughout the day, thus leading to a reduction in your body fat percentage.
Your body only stores energy as fat as a survival method, so that it has an energy source to turn to if you, for whatever reason, don’t supply your body with enough energy.
If you train your body to realise that it gets a constant stream of energy on a regular basis, it’ll learn that it doesn’t have to store fat and therefore, you’ll lose body fat.
#4 – Increase Your Muscle Mass
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The leaner and more muscular you are, the more energy your body will burn on a daily basis (increasing your basal metabolic rate). By increasing your muscle mass, you’ll ensure that your body is more likely to utilise your reserved body fat as a form of energy.
When it does this, you will obviously lose weight and drop a few body fat percentage points. This is why a lot of guys lose weight purely from weight lifting without any cardiovascular activity at all.
#5 – Do HIIT Training
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High-intensity interval training (HIIT) has been proven to have a hugely positive effect on burning body fat. Essentially, it shocks your body into utilising fat as an energy source and therefore, can often be more productive than long, boring cardio workouts.
HIIT generally involves short, high-intensity bursts of exercise. You can view a sample HIIT workout here.
Note: Ultimately, you will only lose body fat if you create a calorie deficit (i.e. burn more calories than you’re consuming). If you don’t do this, your weight cannot possibly decrease, although you can burn fat at the same time as building muscle if you’re clever about it (and if your diet is right!).
The Importance Of Monitoring Your Body Fat Percentage
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In my opinion, calculating your body fat percentage is only half of the equation and honestly, the whole process is absolutely pointless if you’re not going to be regularly measuring and monitoring it.
After all, why are you looking to measure your body fat percentage in the first place? Are you looking to lose a few pounds or were you just curious?
The only way you can tell if your diet and workout routine is having a positive impact on your physique is by monitoring your body fat percentage. This figure (along with your overall weight) will pretty much be all you need to decide whether or not your diet and/or workout routine needs tweaking (and how).
How Often Should You Measure Your Body Fat Percentage?
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I’d say that ideally, you should measure your body fat percentage around once every 1 – 2 weeks.
Depending on the calculation method that you opt for, this may not be possible (e.g. you don’t want to be spending $100 – $200 every couple of weeks on DEXA scanning!) which is why for most people, I’d recommend using either body fat calipers or body fat scales to make the calculation as then, you can measure and track your body fat percentage as regularly as you like at no extra cost.
Note: Although important, it’s important that you don’t obsess over it. What you don’t want to be doing is checking your body fat percentage every day and worrying over slight variations; this won’t get you anywhere, it’ll just waste time!
By measuring it once every week or two, you’ll be able to accurately judge what needs to change. If your body fat percentage is increasing, then you might want to lower your daily calorie intake or lower the amount of carbs/fat you’re consuming. If your body fat is decreasing (and you don’t want it to), you might want to slightly increase your daily calorie intake and/or cut out some of the cardio (if you’re doing cardio regularly that is).
Note: When measuring your body fat percentage, make sure to measure it under roughly the same conditions each and every time. For example, you might opt for measuring it at approximately 7pm on a Sunday evening after dinner. Doing this will ensure that your readings are accurate and aren’t swayed by certain variables.
If you’re using body fat scales to calculate your body fat percentage, try and make sure that you keep your hydration levels consistent as this can sway the readings. For example, don’t calculate your body fat percentage after a few pints of beer one week and in the morning after no liquid another week. Keep things consistent.
Why Should Your Care More About Body Fat Percentage Than BMI?
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I imagine you’ve all heard of the term Body Mass Index (or BMI) and likely, a lot of you guys have used the calculation to judge whether or not you’re overweight, right?
Well, in my opinion, the BMI calculation isn’t very accurate, especially not for bodybuilders and the reason for this is simple; it doesn’t take into account your body composition at all.
What do I mean? The only two things the BMI calculation takes into account is your height and weight and therefore, your BMI calculation won’t be able to tell if your weight is primarily derived from muscle or fat.
For example, let’s say that you’re 5’10” and weigh 190lbs. If you plug these numbers into an online BMI calculator, you’ll see that it comes out with a BMI of around 27, thus lumping you into the “overweight” category.
But what if you weighed 190lbs simply due to the fact that you’d been pumping iron at the gym for the last 6 months straight? All of that weight would be derived from muscle, right?
Exactly and therefore, although the BMI calculator will be telling you that you’re overweight, this weight isn’t derived from fat and thus, won’t be having a negative impact on your health. So technically, while you may be classed as overweight, it’s nothing to worry about unless you have a high body fat percentage.
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Only joking! If you’ve read this post all the way through to the end, I truly salute you! I know it was a long one but hey, these things take time!
If you only take one thing away from this (extremely lengthy) post, it’s should be that the body fat calculation method isn’t the most important thing you need to consider – it’s tracking it in a regular and consistent manner and being able to decipher the ways in which your diet/workout routine may need to be tweaked that’s important.
If you have any questions at all about this subject or anything remotely related, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll do my absolute best to get back to you in a timely manner.
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