Estimating Your Body Fat Percentage

In this post, I’ll tell you the truth about body composition numbers as well as give you a visual estimate of your percentage body fat based on your appearance.

Part of misunderstanding our body fat percentage comes from the common measuring devices used. For example, I use calipers on my clients to measure skin fold thickness, but I pay little attention to the actual body fat percentages given. I’m more concerned with the changes over time (i.e. once every 4 weeks).

The reason for this is simple: caliper measuring devices only measure the skin thickness of certain parts of your body. 99% of us have an uneven distribution of fat across our body. So even though I measure 7 sites, to be more accurate I’d also have to pinch your butt cheeks, hamstrings, calves, lower back, etc. which are not typically included in my calculations. Also, calipers don’t take into account essential body fat – that which is necessary to maintain life and reproductive functions. Essential body fat makes up about 5% of total body weight for men and about 10% for women. Subcutaneous fat, or storage fat is the fat stored underneath the skin that we’re all too familiar with. Part of its job is to protect the internal organs (now you know why we store fat around the waist). However, its main purpose is to store excess fuel (food). Calipers at best only measure storage fat, so it is possible to get a reading of 0% body fat using skin-fold measurements; but we all know that no living human being has zero body fat.

What Various Body Fat Percentages Look Like

Because we’re trained to rely on body size it doesn’t give us a very good eye for degree of leanness. Someone can be very small yet have a high percentage of body fat (aka “skinny fat”). On the other hand, a bodybuilder can be very big but also very lean. So it’s best to go by relative body fat.

Visual Guidelines:

5-7% – Stage-ready competitive bodybuilder. Striations everywhere, extreme vascularity, muscles on top of muscles.

7-9% – “Ripped”–clean pectoral line, thin-skinned appearance, striations in certain muscle groups, very vascular, abs are always visible. Typical of a fitness model.

~10% – Good definition everywhere. Very clean lines, prominent cheekbones, vascularity on the lower abdomen and thighs, and you have a nice “six-pack”.

11-14% – “Cut”–abs and shoulder definition are visible, waist is tight, and the structure of the face is more evident.

15-17% – Decent bodily contour with only a hint of definition. Very good shape in clothes, but comparatively smooth (lacking definition) out of them. Face is typically full.

18% or more – “Big” in clothes but soft without them. Belly protrudes slightly, face is round, and there is no visible definition in the arms. If you get any fatter than this, you start to develop a “beer belly” and a second chin. (Not recommended)

To lose fat, a general guideline is to give yourself at least 2 weeks for each percentage you need to lose. For example, if you’re starting at 14% body fat, with consistent weight loss you can expect to arrive at roughly 10% body fat in 8 weeks. Expecting more dramatic results sooner will only set you up for frustration.

In a future post, I’ll outline the exact method I use to get lean.


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