Your ability to accurately estimate body fat percentage is an essential tool to helping you optimize your physique, improve performance, and know how much progress you’re truly making in the gym. Heck, knowing where you stand can help you optimize your caloric intake, determine overall health, and give you the most accurate answer to, “how far to do I have to go” to build your ultimate body.
In this post, I’m going to share what I wish I knew about body fat percentage when I got started in the gym as a 103-pound skinny runt chasing the “perfect workout” routine. By the end, you’ll have a better grasp of how to measure body fat, why it’s important, and more importantly, how to look great naked.
What is body fat percentage?
Body fat percentage is the total percentage of body fat your total body weight is comprised of. Quite simply, the higher your body fat percentage, the more body fat you have. The lower your body fat percentage, the less body fat.
For example, a 200 lb male with 15% body fat would have 30 pounds of fat on his body. The remaining 170 pounds would comprise of bone, muscle, organ tissue, water, blood, and..well…fecal matter among other things.
All in all, knowing your body fat percentage is a better indicator of the state of your physique than BMI or the dreaded scale.
Body fat percentage or BMI?
BMI is short for Body Mass Index, and it’s found by taking your weight in kilograms divided by meters squared. BMI is the most widely used scale for determining whether someone is normal, overweight, or obese. While this is a great tool for measuring large populations and gauging overall obesity, it’s a poor indicator for athletic bodies and those who are dedicated in the gym. As an example, I’m not a huge guy; but at 5’10” 180-185 pounds I’m on the edge of obese despite having visible abdominals. The BMI fails to take into account lean muscle mass.
Let’s take our example guy above, and say he was 6 feet tall. To find his BMI we would convert his weight to kilograms, and his height to meters:
200 pounds x 0.45 = 90 kilograms
72 inches x 0.025 = 1.8 meters
Then we would square his height:
1.8 x 1.8 = 3.24
Then divide the weight by the height to get his BMI:
90/3.24 = 27.7 BMI
So how does that compare the standard BMI chart? Let’s look:
Underweight = BMI of less than 18.5
Normal weight = BMI of 18.5 to 24.9
Overweight = BMI of 25 to 29.9
Obese = BMI of 30 or greater
So according to the BMI chart, our guy is overweight.
But the problem with BMI is it’s just a general measurement. It doesn’t take into account the individual physique of a person, including the biggest factor influencing metabolic health: muscle mass. And this is where learning how to accurately estimate body fat percentage comes in handy.
How to Accurately Estimate Body Fat Percentage.
There are many ways which health and fitness professionals use to measure body fat percentages. There are circumference measurements, bioelectrical impedance (BIA), skinfold measurements, ultrasound, bodpod, hydrostatic weighing, dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA), X-Ray, and MRI.
As with any test, there is variation and error in body fat percentages, with even the best tests still having a percent error ranging from 1-3%. Most of these tests require skilled technicians, consistent testers, algorithms, and environmental variables, and some pocket change in order to perform the tests. As you see lots of variables must be accounted for in order to get an accurate reading of your body composition.
If you want something quick and easy, pick up skinfold calipers and practice often. They’re not the most reliable, but they’ll give you a baseline.
DEXA scans are among the best option and will cost between $50-$100, while also showing you imbalances and giving you an accurate reading (within 1-2% of your body-fat) and a breakdown of your body composition. In all cases, the most accurate bet is to head to a facility with experienced technicians. Since that isn’t always a pragmatic option, I’ll provide you with pictures and descriptions of each body fat percentage.
Calculating Body Fat Percentage Based On Progress Photos
As a disclaimer, these are not perfect examples. Two individuals can have the same body fat percentage yet look dramatically different.
The more lean muscle you have, the deeper the cuts, the harder the striations, and the more visibly “ripped” you will be at a lower body fat. To put it bluntly, it’s much more impressive to have base of muscle if you want to look strong, lean, and athletic when you’re stripping down.
What 25-30% Body Fat Looks Like
25%+ percent body fat is generally categorized as overweight or obese. At this body fat percentage, you’ll notice minimal muscular definition and likely large deposits of fat around the stomach in men and around the hips and waist in women.
In this image, Bach Performance Physique Coaching Client James “Swifty” Swift transformed from roughly 30% body fat to 10% or so.
What 20% Body Fat Looks Like
At 20% body fat, you’ll have minimal muscular definition and poor separation from muscle groups, unless you have an extremely muscular individual. In this picture, Bach Performance Physique Coaching Client and business owner Matt is likely closer to 18%, but you can see the dramatic improvement he made when dropping to a lean 10-12% body fat.
What 15% Body Fat Looks Like
At 15% you’ll notice some muscular definition. In extremely muscular individuals like client Bob Thompson, he holds a fair amount of definition even at higher body fat, namely because he’s built like a rhino. Typically, you’ll see moderate muscular separation, specifically in the shoulders as they tend to hold less fat. In most cases, your abs are not yet visible. Online coaching client, gym and supplement company owner Bob Thompson from 15% or so down to 10-12% body fat. As you can see, the more muscle you have the more pronounced the difference.
What 10-12% Body Fat Looks Like
At 12% body fat you will see visible abs. Depending on how much muscle you have, you may see anywhere from 2-6 abs and a definite biceps vein. In this image, Bach Performance Physique Coaching Client and busy attorney Rob went from 12% body fat to a lean 8-10% body fat. The Leaner you get, the more dramatic the visual improvement.
7-9% Body Fat:
Hey, I know this weirdo glaring awkwardly into the camera. In the case of this photoshoot, I measured in just below 7% body fat. I had visible abs at all times, deep separation between quadriceps and defined back musculature. The serratus anterior (those wicked cool lines on the side of your ribs) should be visible.
5-7% Body Fat: Competitive male bodybuilders often are in this range. Lower abdominals and legs are both vascular and well-defined. Striations appear in large flexed muscle groups, especially the chest. As you can see, Bach Performance Physique Coaching Client Nazir Mohammed, a trainer in London, is shredded to the bone. This is stage ready and final stage leanness.
Body Fat Percentages For Women
Women naturally carry higher levels of body fat, particularly in their glutes, thighs, hips, and breasts. Even in cases where women have visible abs, their body fat percentages will be a few ticks higher due to these natural sex differences. Much like in males, the more lean muscle a woman has, the deeper the cuts and separation will appear at lower body fat percentages.
Here is a chart via Ben Honour Smith at @Bodyscuptorben on Instagram.
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🌟 What’s your body fat percentage? @bodysculptorben . 🎯 Remember, if your trying to get leaner then the goal should be to lose body fat, not weight. Weight can be a good indicator that things are heading in the right direction (scale fluctuations will happen along the way though!). However the goal and focus should be dropping body fat not striving to reach an arbitrary number on the scales. . 📸 Monitoring your body fat levels with regular progress pictures is a good way to go. Ladies you can use this chart to guesstimate roughly where you are currently at if you like. . 👙 If your goal long term is to look leaner with more muscle definition then here is a good way to go about it: . 💁🏼♀️ Get to a lean enough state where you are comfortable with yourself and how you look. However accept that when you get to this stage that you are going to have to acquire some extra body fat on top of this if you want to build more muscle. The starting body fat percentage before you ‘bulk’ will vary from woman to woman, somewhere between 10-22% is likely to be a good place to get to. . 😋 Once you are at this stage you are going to have to gradually increase your calories so that you are in a calorie surplus. Aim for roughly about 0.2-0.5kgs of weight gain a week. The slower you gain weight the less body fat you will acquire. . 📈 Focus on increasing training volume over time with some big compound movements (training volume = weight x total reps. . 💅🏼 Remember it’s a hard process and sometimes painfully slow process to gain muscle, even more so for you women, due to lower levels of testosterone. Be patient and remain consistent. . 🥗 When you feel like you are acquiring too much body fat, start to lower your calories again so that you are into a calorie deficit for a while. Keep repeating these stages. This will result in a gain in muscle mass whilst staying relatively lean. . 👠 Try to stick to one process at a time. Either cutting (calorie deficit) or bulking (calorie surplus). Don’t get caught in the middle. Otherwise limited progress is likely to happen. . 😃 Get a plan of action in place and see it through 👍🏼. . #sculptedsquad
What Else Do You Need To Know?
Body fat percentage is arguably the best tool to gauge changes in your physique because it accounts for both lean body mass and fat mass. Still, you shouldn’t judge yourself purely on body fat.
As the great Vince Gironda once said, “who cares what the scale says if you don’t like what you see in the mirror?”
The rings true both when examining your reflection and more importantly, your mindset.
At Bach Performance, we’re here to help you look great naked without living in the gym. And yes, that often means losing body fat. But at the end of the day, fitness needs to improve your life, not consume it. And when it comes to body fat percentage, it’s essential to realize getting shredded is not a practical look to maintain year round. It’s often a peak state held for hours or days for a photo shoot and competition, then back to reality.
But should you want to step up to the plate, get in the best shape of your life, and find a sustainable way to continue looking, feeling, and performing your best?
Then head below and see if you’re a fit to join the exclusive Bach Performance Physique Coaching Program.