Healthy Body Fat Percentage: What's Ideal and How Do You Measure It?
From your waist circumference to body mass index (BMI), there are many different metrics you can use to calculate your level of health and fitness. Body fat percentage remains one of the most popular and most trusted of these metrics. While it's not perfect and doesn't tell the whole story, your body fat percentage can give you a benchmark to work towards and a general idea of whether your training and nutrition are heading in the right direction.
Let's break down what body fat is, why it matters, and how to calculate it.
3 Types of Body Fat: From the Essential to the Harmful
Not all body fat is alike, and body fat isn't inherently bad.
In fact, your body fat is essential for a healthy life. Fat cells provide fuel during your workouts, help to produce important hormones — especially growth hormone, insulin, and estrogen, which is why female bodybuilders with very low body fat levels often experience irregularities with their monthly cycle — and protect your organs from injury.
There are different kinds of body fat, each with different impacts on your health. Generally, body fat gets grouped into three categories:
- Essential fat: You'll find this fat protectively wrapped around your organs, as well as in areas like your bone marrow. Your body needs this fat for hormone production and regulation.
- Subcutaneous fat: This is the fat that lies under your skin. It's not bad for you, but it does affect aesthetics. If you're trying to look lean or show off a six-pack set of abs, this is the fat that's hiding your hard-earned muscle gains.
- Visceral fat: It's found deep in your abdomen. While some visceral fat is important, high levels are linked with an increased risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and more.
"Healthy" Body Fat Percentages: Breaking Down the Numbers
The amount of body fat you need and what's deemed healthy varies according to your gender.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Council on Exercise (ACE), general body fat percentages for men can fall into the following categories:
- Essential: 3% to 5%
- Athletes: 6% to 13%
- General Fitness: 14% to 17%
- Average or Acceptable: 18% to 24%
- Obese: 25% and higher
For women, there's more leeway:
- Essential: 9% to 11%
- Athletes: 12% to 19%
- General Fitness: 20% to 24%
- Average or Acceptable: 25% to 29%
- Obese: 30% and higher
For the typical gym-goer, aiming for the general fitness category will sculpt that healthy, fit appearance (and the underlying health benefits) that many weekend warriors desire.
But if you're hoping to have a Hollywood-worthy torso, or you're seeking to look cut and jacked, there are a few things to keep in mind.
The Lean Look: Attaining a Chiseled Torso Is All About Body Fat
When workout enthusiasts start crunching the numbers and monitoring their body fat, they're likely seeking to attain the ideal body displayed on magazine covers, movies, and across social media. Yet those social media images of lean, hard bodies are hardly a reflection of real life.
To get that lean, shredded look that you might see on Instagram or in a magazine, bodybuilder Dan Trink recently shared in an interview that it takes intense dieting, extreme elimination of certain food groups, and a lot of spray tan.
Maintaining that look — and that routine — isn't just unsustainable for extended periods of time. Keeping your body fat levels so low can also lead to worrying (and sometimes permanent) symptoms, including:
- Poor workout recovery and weaker muscles
- Imbalanced hormone levels
- Changes in mood and cognition, including difficulty sleeping
- Weaker immune system
- Brittle bones
This is why bodybuilders change their diet dramatically during the so-called "off-season" and why your goal should be finding a balance between a healthy, sustainable lifestyle and the lean, ripped look you want.
The Best Way to Measure (And Change) Your Body Fat
There are several ways to calculate your body fat percentage, each ranging in accuracy and difficulty:
- The skinfold method: This is the most accessible and most commonly used method. Special calipers pinch your skin at several pre-determined areas around your body to calculate your subcutaneous fat levels. The margin of error is relatively low, ranging between 3.5% to 5%.
- Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DXA): Often erroneously referred to as DEXA, your body fat is measured using X-rays for a highly accurate, body part-specific analysis.
- Underwater weighing: Also known as hydrostatic weighing or hydrodensitometry, you step into a special pod filled with water to get your body fat measurement. Like the DXA approach, it's highly accurate but also costly.
- Body fat calculators on bathroom scales: Some bathroom scales purport to read your body fat. This is typically done by sending an electric current through both of your feet when you're on the scale. It's highly inaccurate but very accessible for most people.
The best way to measure body fat is the one that you use consistently. Even if your specific approach is inaccurate, using the same approach can help you track your progress effectively.
If you determine that you want to bring your body fat down, consider these body fat-targeting tips and tricks:
- You cannot spot-reduce fat. In fact, where you store fat is all about genetics. "The only way to reduce body fat in any part of the body is to lose weight everywhere on the body," explains the American College of Sports Medicine.
- Strength training, not cardio, is the best way to burn visceral fat (i.e., the "bad" type of fat).
- Eat a diet high in lean protein with an emphasis on whole plant foods and quality meats.
- Get more sleep. Lack of sleep (and the resulting high levels of cortisol) is associated with excess belly fat.
- Consider fat-burning supplements, such as caffeine. While they are not a miracle fix to high body fat percentages, fat burners can and do support a healthy metabolism when used appropriately.
Body fat is not the best way to gauge overall fitness and health, just as BMI or waist circumference are sometimes misleading or inaccurate.
However, when combined with other measurements and your general self-awareness — Do you feel energetic? Do you have lots of stamina and mental clarity? Or do you feel heavy, sluggish, and bloated? — your body fat percentage can be a useful clue that points the way to your healthiest, happiest self.
Tiger Fitness Has Everything You Need for Maintaining a Healthy Body Fat Percentage
Burning off excess body fat, or maintaining a healthy and lean body, is as much about nutrition as it is about your next workout. Tiger Fitness has everything you need for optimal body fat levels. Fuel up with protein shakes. Get energized for the gym with a potent pre-workout. And enhance your overall fat-burning journey with fat burners and weight loss supplements.