If figuring out your optimal weight is difficult, then trying to understand body fat percentages can be downright impossible!
It’s tough to calculate, tougher to track, and often misunderstood.
So I am going to do my best to answer some pretty common questions:
- What the %@$# is body fat percentage?
- How much body fat should I have?
- When is it important to calculate it?
This is a bit of a dry topic, so I am going to do my best to
not ramble on and on like normal be concise as possible, and if you make it through to the end I have a prize for you. So let’s get going!
What Is Body Mass Index (BMI)?
Even though I feel that the Body Mass Index (BMI) is outdated (and basically a waste of time), I wanted to start with this as it is still a common measurement taken in the healthcare industry here in the United States.
If you go to a doctor for a check-up, they will probably calculate your BMI.
Body Mass Index uses something called the Quetelet Index to determine whether you are underweight, normal, overweight, or obese by calculating the ratio of your height to weight.
On the surface this makes sense right? If your weight increases disproportionately compared to your height, then it’s reasonable to assume that you are more likely to be overweight.
The problem though is that this form of measurement, defined in the 19th century and codified into an index in 1972, was designed as a simple numeric measure of a person’s “thickness” or “thinness” and relied heavily on population studies without assessing individual diagnosis.
Okay Jerd, enough fancy talk… what does that mean?
To put it simply, BMI wasn’t designed to individually assess health. It was designed to assess cross-sections of populations and draw high level conclusions based on broad data points.
More importantly, your BMI isn’t directly correlated to your body fat percentage!
It only factors your height and weight. It doesn’t matter if you are 6 feet tall with a 200 lbs super-serum fueled, Captain America physique or a 200 lb sack of candy bars and sodas… It would say the same thing!
Take this example – Mike Tyson in his prime was 5’10” and 218 lbs. of angry, face-punching muscle. Those numbers calculates to a BMI of 30.3, which is considered obese. Seriously?!?
It is ridiculous at best to be honest, and I wish physicians would stop utilizing this outdated and limited method altogether BUT…
If you’re curious what your BMI is though, go ahead and figure it out here. Just don’t pay a lot of attention to it.
What Is Body Fat Percentage?
Unlike your BMI, your body fat percentage is pretty important.
In a nutshell, body fat percentage is the amount of fat in your body, compared to everything else.
When you set aside muscle, bone, cartilage, organs, fluids, etc… all that is left is the fat stores you are carrying around, and your body fat percentage is just the ratio of fat to the rest. It’s pretty simple really.
One important thing to remember when looking at the numbers though, is that men and women carry vastly different amounts of fat on their frame.
A female athlete, operating at peak performance, might be rocking 17-19% body fat while her male counterpart could be in fantastic shape and be sporting only 10%; the catch being that they both would have a very similar appearance of fitness and muscle tone. On the other-side of the coin, if you take an overweight man and woman with the same body fat percentage (let’s say 32% for the sake of argument) and stand them side by side the male half of the equation is going to look significantly more out-of-shape than the female.
How Much Body Fat Is Healthy?
According to Ace Fitness this is the generally accepted breakdown of body fat percentages:
So let’s start at the top and work our way down, shall we?
- Essential Fat – It means just that, the minimal amount of fat required for survival. It should come as no surprise to any loyal reader of The Jerd, but fat is necessary to survive. It protects your organs, provides you with energy stores and much, much more (no, don’t ask me what the more is… because I don’t know. It’s really super-cereal important though okay? Sheesh!) Unless you are a professional bodybuilder, preparing for a competition, this is a dangerous place to be.
- Athletes – This is where fitness models and top-level athletes tend to live and where people who want that “ripped” look strive to be. (I say “strive” because maintaining this takes a lot of willpower, hard-work and dedication.)
- Fitness – If you want to look good in form-fitting clothes, or at the beach, this is the range you probably want to shoot for. In this range you should feel and look healthy!
- Average – Average for who is the real question here. I would argue that this shouldn’t be the norm, but then again I am focused on helping you go from geek to real-life superhero! Would Batman or Wonder Woman find those percentages acceptable? I think we all know the answer…
- Obese – While the “average” classification might be up for debate, this one most certainly isn’t. The health issues that arise from carrying this much body fat around are well documented and we don’t need to go into it right now… this is the danger zone and we don’t want to be anywhere near it!
So you just need to determine what a realistic goal is for yourself and get to work.
So What Do Those Percentages Actually Look Like?
***Caution – Half-naked people ahead!!!***
Before we move on I want to point one thing out; don’t confuse body fat percentage with physique!
Just because you aren’t carrying around a lot of body fat doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to look super hero ripped; for that you need muscle mass too! Without strength training you more than likely will just end up being “skinny fat“.
How To Properly Calculate Body Fat Percentage
So here’s the fun part… and a very common question.
Don’t try to self-estimate your body-fat percentage… you’re almost always going to be wrong!
Here are five methods, in order of accuracy level (and cost), that you can try:
1) Body Fat Scales – There hundreds of fancy scales on the market today that claim to measure your body fat percentage; they do so by sending an electrical impulse through you and calculating the impedance. The problem is that very often the number is pretty inaccurate, but it’s a place to start.
2) Body Fat Calipers – You can pick up a set of skin-fold calipers for next to nothing and measure for yourself! Pull the skin and fat away from the muscle in the designated areas and measure with the caliper, then just use a skin fold chart or online calculator like this one from ACE Fitness to do the calculation. If you don’t feel comfortable doing it yourself, take a session with a personal trainer and they more than likely will do it as part of your evaluation. While not 100% accurate, this is the general standard for measurement unless you want to get into the more expensive options below.
3) DEXA Scanning – This method uses dual X-rays to determine your body composition and provide you with the most accurate numbers you can get. The catch? You have to go to a facility that actually has a DEXA scanner and drop down at least $100 to have it done.
4) Water displacement – Now we are getting to the ultra accurate methods, and the methods I really think are overkill to be honest. Water displacement is expensive, and pretty inconvenient but if you want to give it a shot, go for it!
5) The Bod Pod – This sci-fi looking contraption accurately calculates your body fat percentage by using air displacement (and probably some dark sorcery too) to measure your body mass, volume, and density. It’s pretty cool, but also a little expensive. You can find a bod pod location here.
Here’s my view on tracking body fat percentage: First off, don’t obsess over it! Secondly, if you are going to do it realize it isn’t going to be exact… pick a preferred method and measure consistently. As long as it is slowly moving down, that’s all that matters. Who cares if your calipers say you are 15% when you are really at 18%?
How To Lower Your Body Fat Percentage
Honestly, this could be a full-length article of its own…
The reality is dropping a handful of percentage points is not that hard if you follow some simple rules.
- Eat a caloric deficit – You can start by burning more calories than you consume. Make you properly calculate how many calories you should be eating first, don’t just pick a number all willy-nilly!
- Eat clean – Fresh fruit and veggies, lean proteins, whole grains and minimal dairy should be a given. Also, no processed foods!
- Limit your carbs – When you deprive your body of carbohydrates it accesses fat storage to fuel itself. Shoot for under 100 grams per day if you’re trying to shed fat fast.
- Lift stuff – When you challenge your muscles with heavy objects, you build muscle mass which in turn requires more calories to support. Weight training also has a dramatic effect on your metabolism, forcing it into a super heroic overdrive that burns extra calories even after you are done working out. Score!
The lower and lower you try to get, the harder and harder it is going to be. You truly want to get into that “athlete” range? I hope you are prepared to be ultra strict with your diet and training!
Here’s the secret to all of this – Do you like the way you look? Then good for you, don’t fixate on body fat percentages or measurements and just keep on being awesome! Not happy with what stares back at you in the mirror? Then re-evaluate your diet and exercise program and get to work on building the super hero version of you!
You’ve Made It To The End!
I’m impressed you made it to the end without clawing your eyes out, so you deserve a prize…
I give you Batman Riding a Robot Unicorn by Rosewine!!!
Bask in its glory, and the fact that you are now a lot smarter about a subject that confuses a lot of people!
Have any other questions? Let me know and I will do my absolute best to answer them!
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