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Body Composition – Body Fat Percentages

In previous articles I’ve looked at what body composition is along with showing a variety of body composition calculations that can be done.  I also examined different methods of measuring body composition.   Continuing on that topic I want to address a fairly common question that comes up: what is a good body fat percentage (BF%)?

What Is a Good Body Fat Percentage?

As with most topics in the world, and especially in fitness and health, the answer to this question is hugely context dependent.  Are we talking about general health and wellness, athletic performance, competing in one of the physique sports such as bodybuilding, fitness or physique?  The specific goal will determine what body fat percentage might be good, bad or ideal.

General Health and Wellness

When looking at the topic of general health and wellness, it’s generally accepted that both too much and too little body fat can be unhealthy.  As body fat percentage goes up there is an increased risk of insulin resistance or the Metabolic Syndrome with overall risk of many diseases increasing.

I’d note that some of that risk depends on how that body fat is distributed.  In general, women’s lower body (gynoid) body fat patterning is less metabolically unhealthy than men’s central (android) body fat patterning.  This is a large part of why men are at a greater risk for many diseases (i.e. heart attacks) than women.

A very low body fat percentage can be equally unhealthy, even in highly trained athletes.  At least some of this is due to the low calorie intakes required to reach a low BF% but the point stands.   Body fat plays a role in hormonal production, immune system along with having other important functions.   Very low BF% is often associated with disease states, as well.  I’ll come back to this again later in the article.

Although the numbers have likely gone up in recent years, average body fat percentages are usually listed around 12-18% for men and 21-28% for women.  Healthy body fat levels are in the realm of 10-15% or men and 18-25% for women.

Let me mention, semi-tangentially that even if those specific numbers are not attainable by someone, a large amount of research shows that weight/fat losses of even 10% of current body weight improve all health parameters and decrease the risk of disease.  Even if someone can’t reach “healthy” BF% values, they can still improve their health by losing fat.

Finally I’d note that some research suggests that active individuals who carry more fat are healthier than they are inactive.  Some, but not all research, finds that they may be healthier than skinnier/leaner individuals who are inactive although this is highly debated.

BMI and Health

I’d note that some don’t even use body fat percentage itself, preferring to use the Body Mass Index (BMI) as a proxy for health.  For the general public, this is generally an adequate method.  It’s not perfect, of course.  Some people with a high BMI may be perfectly metabolically healthy and some with a normal BMI may be unhealthy.  A low BMI, usually seen in individuals with wasting diseases or some types of eating disorders is usually unhealthy.

BMI can even be used, in the untrained, to roughly estimate body fat percentage.  I’ve used this method in my books for years, having first introduced them in my Rapid Fat Loss Handbook and Guide to Flexible Dieting.

Where BMI becomes useless is when looking at trained individuals.  The problem is that BMI is based on weight and height and doesn’t actually take into account body composition.   A highly trained athlete at 200 lbs and 10% bodyfat and a sedentary individual at 200 lbs and 25% bodyfat have an identical BMI if they are the same height.  But their health risk is clearly very different.

The Physique Sports?

The physique sports such as bodybuilding, fitness, figure, bikini and others are unique among sports in that they are judged solely on appearance.  And at least one criteria of appearance is leanness.

Now, in this sense, judges don’t care what specific body fat percentage the athlete is at.  Rather, there tend to be certain average body fat percentages that correlate with the required appearance.

For this reason, physique athletes don’t really have much if any say in what BF% they have to reach to be competitive.  The ideal/required value will be that required by their sport and nothing more.

In general, for example, male bodybuilders will need to be 3-5% body fat (the lower limit) on competition day.  A female bodybuilder would need to be in the 10-12% range or so.  These represent the lower limits of human BF%.

Very tangentially let me note that natural bodybuilders never maintain that level of BF% year round.   Certainly not if they want to feel healthy, energetic or make gains in muscle mass in the off-season.  Certainly there are those genetic exceptions who stay super lean all the time but they are only exceptions.

The major reason for this is hormonal as maintaining that level of body fat or, more accurately, keeping energy intake that low, causes enormous problems hormonally and physiologically.   Men may become hypogonadal (testosterone below the normal range) and women will lose their menstrual cycle and suffer bone density loss.  I discuss the hormonal effects of this in A Guide to Calorie Partitioning.

It’s not uncommon to see professional bodybuilders maintain that level of leanness year round but they invariably have a variety of drugs to offset the hormonal decrements that occur in naturals. Anabolic steroids, thyroid drugs, Growth Hormone, clenbuterol and others can give them a relatively “normal” hormonal profile despite maintaining single digit BF% year round.

On average, an off-season male bodybuilder might stay in the 12% range in their off-season with a female in the 22-24% or so.  This allows them to eat enough to make gains while being lean enough to diet down when their next contest rolls around.

The body fat requirements for the other physique sports vary somewhat from bodybuilding.  Classic bodybuilding tends to require similar levels of leanness with physique being a tiny bit higher.  Fitness is higher still and women’s bikini competitors may need be no leaner than 16% body fat or so to be competitive.  The requirements for overall muscularity tends to go down as well.

Performance Sports

In contrast to physique sports which are judged on appearance, physique sports are judged on, well, performance.  How fast someone runs, how far they can throw, how much weight they can lift.  Other sports have other criteria but tend to be rather objective.  Did a figure skater do the required jumps and movements in their sport, etc?

Certainly some sports such as figure skating and gymnastics may have an aesthetic component to them, where the overall score, has an appearance component.  But this is not true of most sports that are done.  In this case, any optimal BF% is determined simply by what allows for the best performance.  Outside of the possible vanity of the athlete, appearance is not relevant.

That said, optimal BF% for performance athletes can vary enormously from the most extreme lows to very high indeed.  In general, athletes who need to move their bodies against gravity tends to have the lowest BF%.

This includes runners, jumpers, cyclists who have to climb a lot of hills, etc.   This is due to body fat being nothing more than dead weight which has to be carried.  This isn’t universal.  Combat sports such as rugby or American football involve a lot of running but also involve hard impacts from other players.  Here BF% tends to be higher.

In sports with less of a gravity component, body fat percentage is usually higher. Swimmers tend to carry proportionally more fat than runners or cyclists and even track cyclists who don’t have to climb hills are not as lean as their road cycling counterparts.  I’ll look at more specifics below.

Let me note again that a lower body fat percentage is not always superior for the reasons I mentioned above.    Hormones crater, reproductive function is impaired, bone mineral density may drop increasing the risk of certain types of injuries, etc.  As well, the calorie restriction required to achieve and maintain extremely low levels of body fat impairs the ability to train effectively.  Somewhere between too fat and too lean optimizes performance.

Some Representative Body Fat Percentages

With that said, let’s look at some representative numbers for various athletes, mainly of the endurance type.   Typically, elite male runners clock in around 5- 6% body fat, cyclists around 8-10% and swimmers at 10-12%.  Due to differences in essential fat, women’s BF% are generally higher by anywhere from 5-12%.  So an elite female runner may be 10-12%, a cyclist 15-18% and swimmers 18-20%.

I’d note that the differences in BF% are a big reason for the performance differences between women and men which are, on average, about 10% (it varies by sport from a low of 7% to a high of nearly 25% depending on the sport).

Speaking of swimming, now you know why it’s often said that “Swimmers are fat”.  It’s because they carry slightly more fat than other elite athletes (a whopping 10-12% compared to 6-8%). Obviously they are still leaner than the majority of folks out there.  It’s typically been thought that this was due to the higher BF% helping swimmers float.  I don’t know how true this is in the modern era with the new suits being worn but I’m getting off topic.

When you get into other sports it can become much more variable.  In track and field, discus and shotputters tend to be fairly large and are rarely lean due to the physics involved.  Javelin throwers are very lean due to the running component of their event.  Jumpers are always lean since they have to move up against gravity.

In team sports, things vary by sport and by position.  Soccer players tend to be fairly lean while American football player can range from lean (receiver, running back) to morbidly obese (offensive or defensive lineman).  Basketball players tend to be at a fairly average body fat percentage.

Perhaps the most excessively high BF% is seen in sumo wrestlers, one of the few sports that had made morbid obesity a requirement for success.  There, a body fat percentage of 50% or more is likely to be seen.  Only linemen in American football might come close.

I should mention the strength/power sports.  In Powerlifting and Olympic lifting, it’s common for people to think of the athletes as being fat but this is a myth.  In all but the superheavy weight class (which has no weight limit), the athletes are usually extremely lean.  Since they have to meet a weight class, the leaner they are (up to a point), the more muscle they can carry at any given weight.  In strongman, athletes have certainly become leaner over the years, often sporting full six-packs for the men in the modern era.

But when you’re looking at performance sports, you see an incredible range of optimal body fat percentages depending on the sport.  I’ll only reiterate that every sport tends to have it’s own optimum BF% with levels both above AND below that usually harming performance.

General Appearance

The final category I want to address is that of general appearance.  That is, what is a good body fat percentage to achieve the oft-stated goals of women and men (ie. lean thighs for women or visible abs for men).

Please note that I am not saying that these goals are good or bad in and of themselves (in many cases they can be a negative as they push people down a bad path to try to achieve them).   They tend to be societally driven, engrained in us by various media images of what constitutes physical attractiveness.  I am simply addressing what level of body fat is necessary to achieve them.

While there is some variance depending on how someone carries their body fat, an average male may have to be below 10% body fat to have visible abdominals (i.e. the much coveted 6-pack) and get rid of visible love handles (the fat above the hip bone).  Unless a woman is genetically blessed or carries her body fat in a very even pattern, she might need to achieve a body fat percentage of 15-16% before her thighs lean out significantly.  I’d note that women will usually have visible abs by this point.

This is one of those amusing ironies.  In the middle teen percent body fat, men will have cut legs but a fairly squishy midsection. Even at 12%, most men will have very lean legs but barely visible abs.  In contrast, at 16% a woman will usually have a full six-pack but her legs may still be smooth.  And both will want what the other has.  The man would happily accept some fat on his legs to have visible abs and vice versa.  The grass is always greener folks.

In any case, these are fairly low levels of body fat compared to the average or what is recommended to be generally healthy and getting there can be quite challenging for various reasons.   One is simply that it will take a great deal of dedicated focus on training and diet to achieve them in the first place. Maintaining those levels will tend to require the same amount of focus.

As well, the last bit of fat to lose, abs and low back for men and hips and thighs for women, can be stubborn for various physiological reasons.  All of these are discussed, along with solutions to them, in my book The Stubborn Fat Solution.

I’d also note that some women and men have essentially reversed body fat patterning.  Men may have a more traditionally “female” fat patterning where they carry more fat on their legs and less on their abdominals.  Women suffering from many types of PCOS can also have a more “male” fat patterning with abdominal and vicseral fat.  Women who go through menopause without hormone replacement often see a shift from a lower body to central fat pattern.  As I discuss in The Women’s Book, this is associated with an increased health risk.

Regardless, on average I’d say that achieving the current standard of physical perfection shown in most forms of media will require a male to reach 8-10% body fat and a woman perhaps 15-16% body fat.

A Lower Body Fat Percentage is NOT Better

Before wrapping up, I really want to drive the point home that a lower body fat percentage is not always better.  It’s not better from a health standpoint and it’s rarely better from a performance standpoint.  As usual the physique sports are unique in that an extremely low body fat may be required but this is just a weird exception.

While it’s related less to body fat percentage per se and more to something called energy availability, at some point in the extreme dieting needed to reach very low BF% levels, the system tanks.  Hormones are disrupted and both women and men will see huge drops in reproductive hormones.

Men can become hypogonadal and testosterone can approach near-castrate levels as they reach the lower limits of body fat. Complaints of zero sex drive (and not being able to function sexually even if the drive were there) are common among natural bodybuilders who get extremely lean.

Women may suffer menstrual cycle dysfunction finally culminating in a total loss of the cycle.  This is called amenorrhea and it, along with other, less severe menstrual cycle disorders are discussed in The Women’s Book Vol 1.   While this is not inherently damaging, bone mineral density is eventually lost, increasing the risk of injury.  Depending on the severity of loss, it may never be completely recovered.

This is the tip of the iceberg.  Thyroid, growth hormones, IGF-1, metabolic rate and immune system are all depressed under these conditions.  Cortisol goes up to extremely high levels, especially if a lot of training is being done.  It’s all part of a coordinated set of adaptations that occurs with insufficient long-term calorie intake.

For those truly obsessed with body image, body fat percentages of ~8 for men and  15-16% for women should be safely sustainable year round although it will require nearly fanatical devotion to daily diet and training (or having picked the right parents to start with). As long as the person is at least eating at maintenance while they maintain that body fat percentage.

Good Body Fat Percentages

I want to finish by summarizing the above information, with one added issue. When I talked about the percentage estimates above, I was using numbers obtained from older methods such as calipers, underwater weighing, etc.  I bring this up since may people in the modern era are using DEXA (Dual-Energy X-ray Absorbitometry) to both measure BF% and get a bone density scan.

And I bring that up since DEXA seems to give anywhere from 3-6% higher values than other methods.   Many contest male bodybuilders who would have been measured at 4-5% by older methods have had DEXA show them at up to 9% bodyfat.  In the chart below I’ve listed approximate BF% goals along with the DEXA equivalent in parentheses.

Good Body Fat Percentage for Different Goals

The Guide to Body Composition continues in Body Composition – Measurement Methods

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19 thoughts on “Body Composition – Body Fat Percentages

  1. Lyle,

    You said that

    “In men not using drugs to maintain their hormone levels, testosterone can approach near-castrate levels as they reach the lower limits of body fat. Complaints of zero sex drive (and not being able to get it up even if the drive were there) are common among natural bodybuilders who get extremely lean.”

    Can having a lower-than-normal sex drive while still being “able to get it up,” albeit with less frequency than before engaging in heavier calorie restriction be a sign of issues as well?

    In this case (specifically for a male trying to get or stay lean but without the specific goal of competition prep), would increasing food intake alone help, or would you likely need supplemental and other interventions to restore the mechanisms responsible for libido?

  2. Bert

    Recognizing that libido and sex drive are under a lot of other controls as well, it is possible that this is a consequence of hardcore caloric restriction.

    As well, people show variance in where this stuff hits them. For example, there are women who have gotten contest lean and never lost their menstrual cycle. And others who will have problems when their body fat is still very high.

    It’s just how their system is wired interacting with their diet, training program, etc.

    Depending on your specifics (e.g. how much restriction, how long) the proper incorporations of refeeds and/or a full diet break is probably worth considering to see if it corrects any problems with sex drive or performance.

  3. Here is my question. It is generally accepted that when you are leaner, hormonal levels are more advantageous for muscle gain (there is less estrogen).

    Now you say that at a low body fat level, there is also less testosterone. Is there a threshold level in your opinion? A point where the estrogen levels are lowered but the testosterone levels are not yet crashing?

  4. What is ‘generally accepted’ is often wrong and estrogen plays a role in muscle growth (at least one study, in rats mind you, implicated estrogen as a key in satellite cell proliferation).

    And I gave a specific answer to your question in the above article along with the one titled “General Muscle Growth Philosophies” on this site.

  5. “For those truly obsessed with body image, body fat percentages of ~8 for men and 14-15% for women should be safely sustainable year round although it will require nearly fanatical devotion to daily diet and training (or having picked the right parents to start with).”

    Lyle you ought to consider devoting a future article to describing the details of diet and training that a man would need to employ in order to keep 8% body fat.

  6. I agree with Barry above. An article detailing the diet and training required to keep 8% bodyfat would be greatly appreciated by those of us fanatically obsessed with the image of our bodies!

  7. I third barry.
    … I am curious what would be required and if I’m capable of living that way all year round.

  8. So when you say ~8% body fat year-round is attainable, my body fat is usually between 6-7% but I am an ecto-mesomorph and it is natural for me. I eat plenty of complex carbs and have great energy. I know you said 5% is unhealthy, but 6-8% is alright if it’s natural right?

  9. Matt: there tends to be an enormous difference between folks who are naturally lean (for whom physiology tends to look ‘normal’) and folks who diet themselves down and hold it there. IF you’re naturally that lean odds are everything looks completely ‘normal’ for you. I talk about this a little bit in Initial Body Fat and Body Composition Changes.

  10. Great article. Something I wondered about as I dieted was “what is more important, calorie deficit or bf%”. Let me explain.

    Have heard a lot about “you can’t build muscle in deficit”. But have also heard “you can’t build muscle if too lean”.

    Well I ran about 1500 calorie deficit for long periods while lifting. And went from 30+% bf to 10% bf.

    I always felt that I could (and did) gain muscle even while under healthy deficit. But now that I’m maintaining, should I expect muscle gain to increase…or was that whole deficit thing a bunch of booshwa? And which is more the danger, being at high daily deficit (while fat) or at maintenance while lean?

    Sorry if imprecise question, but address please?

  11. I spent 10 minutes searching for this article.
    I think it should be named better, like “optimal body fat” or so.
    I have 2 questions:
    1) Does the leangains guy have good genetics? He can stay at 5% or so all year round, and didnt seem to be the lean guy type (as shown by his younger photos)

    2) About mens gymnastics. Quoting from an interview during world championship to Jonathan Horton:

    Thanks to his nutritionist, Horton’s body fat has dropped from 8.3 to 4.8 percent. His diet consists of egg whites, protein, steak, chicken and rice. “I’ll eat nothing but stuff that is clean food for my body,” he said. “I feel like a feather.”

    It seems it was good for him to be so trimmed, even if it’s a sport about power.
    Hiroyuki Tomita is said to have lower than detectable bf (there is a video on the tube).
    So, apart from the obvious advantage of having superior bw/strength ratio, are they special individual or is that attainable by every person who trains 30 hours week? and is that healthy?

  12. And I think your post should be called “I”m an opinionated fucktard who’s NEVER getting an answer from Lyle”. Because if you can title articles better, FEEL FREE to show me how good you are at it.

    But don’t think you’re getting your dumbshit questions answered here.

  13. I’m sorry if you was upset, I didnt want to backbite your article. I already wrote that IMHO “optimal body fat” is more specific and easier to find on search engine and indexes than “Body Composition Numbers”.
    Now for my dumbshit questions:
    -In your article you are quite specific about ranges, and you say in the end that “Attainable year round with meticulous food control ~8%”. Now, if Martin Berkhan is around 5,5% even if he’s not in contest ready phase, he’s good at dieting or genetics? If it’s the first it means you should lower that BF%, or you should told me that you wrote that advice because lower is bad for health. I wanted just an opinion!
    The second question is just the same, you provide some indication about what’s good and what is not, and the gymnasts I posted seems to be lower than that, but performed well on the scene. So are they exception to the norm or did they do good? Did they get on drugs?

  14. Lyle,

    I measured on two BIA devices and on both my BFP is around 10.5% but I’m not even close to see my abs. I have prity much fat left. I have one in my home and i measure regularly and I’m not on low carbohydrate diet. In my opinion I’m on 2-3 kilo to seeing my abs. Do you know what’s the reason for this ?

  15. AMEN !

  16. I know fatcells doesn´t “go away”, they just are empty or full, you can not burn away the “cell-body”. Like an empty plastic.bag, it always there, things in it or not. Is this corretc? (Muscelcell you can destroy, or make more of)
    But my question is, if you for a long time, say 10 years, has been loosing about 10 kg and are living a much more healthy life with everyday exercise (different intesity), what happens to the fatcells? Over a longer period. My experience are I finding it easier to keep my new weight.
    Do I still have the same numbers of fatcells, even after 10 years? During these years I have kept my much more healthier waight, it doeasn´t go up and down. I lost 8 kg during 2 yeras, and efter that i have been keeping it that way.
    Do I still have to be careful about filling up my fatcells? Are they still there, if you know what I meen.

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