Body Composition Numbers
In previous articles, I’ve explained What Does Body Composition Mean as well as showing folks how to do a variety of Body Composition Calculations. Continuing on in that theme, I want to talk a little bit about specific body composition numbers and what a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ body fat percentage might actually be. For the record, in a future article, I’ll look at various methods of measuring body composition and their pros and cons, along with giving some guidelines for how to apply them. So please be patient in the comments, all will be discussed.
What’s a Good Body Fat Percentage?
As it pretty much always the case with questions of this sort, the answer you get depends on the context of the question itself. Is the person simply trying to be ‘healthy’, or do they want to compete in bodybuilding/figure/fitness shows; is the goal competition in a specific sport or is appearance the only goal? The specific goal will determine what body fat percentage will be required, ideal, ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
That said, let’s look at some different numbers and categories.
For health or at least reducing health risks there is some debate regarding optimal body fat percentages. Some groups don’t even use body fat percentage, preferring the Body Mass Index (BMI) method, which correlates roughly with health risk, instead.
Semi-tangentially, it actually turns out that, in untrained individuals, BMI can be used to get a very rough estimation of body fat percentage. I used this method in both The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook and A Guide to Flexible Dieting.
I’d also note, and this is something I’ll discuss in a later article, that not only is BMI inadequate for folks who are training, it will often put people in the ‘obese’ or ‘overweight’ category even if they have healthy levels of body fat; this is because BMI can’t distinguish between increases in weight from muscle mass and body fat. Again, I’ll address this in more detail in a later article.
As it turns out, both too much and too little body fat can carry health risks although they typically do so for different reasons. And while groups still use the fairly archaic concept of ‘overweight’ and ‘underweight’, body composition and body fat percentage is a far more accurate indicator of what’s going on. The terms ‘overfat’ and ‘underfat’ would be a lot more accurate but simply aren’t in very common use.
Put differently, a 200 pound active athlete at 7% body fat isn’t at the same risk level as a 200 pound sedentary individual at 25% body fat, although they weigh the same amount (and have an identical BMI, assuming their height is the same). Saying that 200 lbs is ‘overweight’ (by BMI or some other method) misses the point.
Although the values are probably going up in recent years, average body fat percentage are usually listed around 12-18% for men and 21-28% for women. By extension, body fat in excess of those values correlates with increased health risks. ‘Healthy’ body fat levels are in the realm of 10-15% or men and 18-25% for women.
I should mention that there is abundant evidence that body fat patterning is as critical to overall health as total levels. Individuals who carry more of their fat around the midsection (central or android body fat patterns) are at more risk for negative health problems than people who carry it in the lower body (peripheral or gynoid fat patterns). This is at least part of the reason that, on average, men (who typically carry their fat more around the midsection) are at a higher health risk than women (who typically carry it in the lower body).
I would also note that, even if the above values are not attainable, a great deal of research shows that even small fat/weight losses (10% of current body weight) increases overall health and decreases the risk of many diseases. So even if someone can’t reach suggested ‘healthy’ levels, there is still indication that reducing body fat by even moderate amounts still has health benefits.
In a related vein, research is also showing that individuals who carry extra fat (weight) but are active are healthier (from a metabolic standpoint) than if they are inactive. They may even be healthier than thin individuals who are inactive although this point tends to be contentious in the literature.
That is, assuming one is active, even if they don’t lose a lot of fat/weight, they may still be healthy in a metabolic sense. Focusing solely on body composition, to the exclusion of all else can ignore this fact and it would be remiss of me not to mention it.
At the low end of body fat levels, folks run into other sorts of health problems; this usually starts to occur for males in the 4-5% range, females the 10-12% range (note, problems can start at higher levels depending on the specifics). I’ll come back to these at the end of the article.
Physique Athletes and Body Fat Percentage
Individuals in the physique sports (bodybuilding, fitness, figure) often don’t have much say in the body fat requirements of their sports, regardless of what may be healthy (based on my comments above). Generally, male contest bodybuilders will be 3-5% body fat on the day of the contest.
Females may be anywhere from 6-8%. In theory, a body fat percentage of 6% is impossible for a female (her essential fat levels should be higher than that) but this tends to be more of an artifact of problems with the equations than reality.
It’s worth noting that natural bodybuilders don’t maintain that level of leanness year round, at least not if they want to gain size or feel particularly energetic . The exception is those genetic rarities who maintain a very low body fat year round without effort but who are otherwise healthy. There are not many of these in the world.
And while it’s not unheard of for professional bodybuilders to maintain insanely low body fat levels year round, this is accomplished with a lot of drug use. Any hormonal problems that would otherwise occur can be offset by taking the right cocktail of drugs. I discuss this in more detail in Calorie Partitioning Part 1 and Calorie Partitioning Part 2.
I can’t honestly comment on the body fat requirements for fitness or figure competitions since they seem to be changing the requirements of what they want every few weeks and I simply haven’t worked with anybody involved in those activities. I would note that many female fitness/figure competitors have been penalized for being too lean since that doesn’t seem to meet the (ever-changing) desires of the judges.
As a kind of semi-related topic, I want to make a couple of comments on starting body fat levels for people with goals of competing in physique contests. An altogether too common problem, and this is especially true in individuals new to the sports, is underestimating current body fat levels and how long it will take to get into contest shape.
A natural male at 15% body fat may need 20 weeks or more to get to contest shape, assuming that they do everything correctly. But many will think they can do it within 12 weeks. And even if they can get there in those 20+ weeks in one straight shot, the effort will be momentous. A female in the mid to high 20′s body fat wise pretty much has no chance of getting to contest bodybuilder levels in a straight shot.
Rather, natural bodybuilders will benefit from keeping their body fat at an overall lower level year round so make getting to contest shape more realistic. A male should probably not go much higher than about 12% body fat, a female about 18-20% in the ‘off-season’ if they want to have a chance of getting to contest bodybuilder levels of leanness in a reasonable amount of time (again, fitness and figure, due to less stringent requirements for exceedingly low body fat levels are in a different situation that I’m not qualified to comment on).
This will not only allow them to gain some muscle (it generally being exceedingly difficult to gain muscle while keeping body fat low and unchanging). What I actually generally recommend to naturals with bodybuilding aspirations is to alternate short periods of active mass gaining with active dieting so that they can gain muscle while keeping body fat in a reasonable range for contest prep.
This is discussed in more detail in General Muscle Gain Philsophies.
So in practice, a male bodybuilder with contest aspirations would first want to diet down to the 8-10% range or so. Then they can do a mass gaining phase until they reach the top end cutoff of ~12% body fat. Diet down while holding the muscle, gain back up, diet back down. When it’s time for contest prep they will be in a much better place to reach contest levels of leanness without dieting for 6 months straight.
Female bodybuilders, again, would use a higher range (reflecting differences in inherent body fat percentage). A low end of 14-15% and a high end of perhaps 18-20% would be a good range.
Athletes and Body Fat
While many sports (figure skating, gymnastics) often have an aesthetic aspect to them (that is, part of the athletes score is based on appearance), this isn’t true of the majority of sports. Rather there, performance is being judged and the simple fact is that the amount of body fat being carried can impact on performance.
As a general rule, and this is especially true of sports where the athlete has to move themselves against gravity, more body fat tends to mean poorer performance. That is because body fat is just dead weight, mass to be carried that doesn’t improve performance (and often actively hurts it). Please note that this isn’t true of all sports and some sports (including many of the combative sports such as football, rugby, etc.) benefit from higher levels of body fat.
At the same time, I’d note that extremely low body fat levels can cause problems as well. That is, while it’s logical that if body fat is just dead weight, then reducing body fat as far as possible must be better. But this has to be weighed against some of the hormonal effect that i mentioned above.
Also, the amount of caloric and food restriction that is required to reach extremely low body fat levels often tanks performance and many athletes find that they simply perform better at a slightly higher body fat level. It can be a real balancing act, getting lean enough to improve performance but without harming performance.
With that said, let’s look at some representative numbers for various athletes, mainly of the endurance type. The power sports tend to be more highly variable. Sprinters and runners are invariably lean, throwers such as shot putters and discus are typically pretty big boys (although javelin throwers, due to the importance of the sprint to their throw are generally lean), football depends on the position (linemen need to be walls of meat, running backs and recievers need speed and tend to be built more like sprinters), you get the idea.
Typically, elite male runners clock in around 6% body fat, cyclists around 8-10% and swimmers at 10-12%. Female are, on average, a little bit fatter because of the difference in essential fat. A male at 6% total body fat is carrying 3% fat on top of the 3% essential fat, which is equivalent to a woman carrying 15% total body fat (3% on top of 12% essential fat).
This is part of the reason males outperform females in most sports: less dead fat weight to carry around. More muscle mass, for any given body weight, is another part of the reason. Basically, at any given weight, a male will carry more muscle and less fat at the elite level
Speaking of swimmers, now you know why some people think 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.
The reasons for this are a bit obscure and there seem to be changes recently in the physiques of top swimmers; old ideas held that the increased body fat made them float better, meaning less energy went into keeping them on top of the water. I’m not sure this idea is still supported or whether it matters with the current crop of suits.
It is worth noting that those crazy cold-water swimmers, who do stuff like swim the English channel have to carry more body fat to keep themselves warm and prevent hypothermia. They’re still nuts, in my opinion, but at least they stay warm.
As I noted above, when you start getting into other sports, there tends to be a lot more variability in body fat percentage depending on the specifics. For athletes who will have other large men slamming into them, carrying more body fat can be beneficial because it will cushion the impact.
I should probably mention powerlifters and Olympic weight lifters and do my best to dispel a very common myth. There is an idea that gets floated all the time that these athletes are fat. This is because, altogether too often, the only athletes that get much viewing are the super heavy weights since they lift the most weight. They are also in a class where there are no weight limits, they can weigh as much as they want.
And while fat can’t move the weight, there are other hidden benefits for being that big (not the least of which is being able to eat enough to handle the heavy training). And while the athletes in those classes often carry a lot of body fat, this simply isn’t the case in the lower weight classes. Not in the guys who are good anyhow.
In the lower weight classes, where athletes must make a certain weight, the top athletes in powerlifting and Olympic lifting are invariably extremely lean. This, of course, makese sense; if you only have a fixed amount of weight to carry, the more muscle and less fat you can carry (within the limits of health, performance, energy), the better you’re likely to perform.
General Appearance and Body Fat
The reality, mind you, is that not everyone wants to step on stage for bodybuilding or fitness, and not everyone is an athlete. Some people just want to ‘look buff’ or what have you. What’s a good body fat percentage here?
That is, what level of body fat will generally be required to reach the oft-stated goals of men and women who simply want to meet some standard of appearance (typically visible abs for men, lean thighs and a flat tummy for women)?
While there is some variance, on average a male will need to have a body fat percentage below 10% to have visible abdominals (i.e. the much coveted 6-pack) and get rid of their love handles. Unless a woman is genetically blessed, her legs may carry a lot of fat until she hits the 15% range (or so), although she’ll usually have abdominals showing at that level.
These are fairly low levels of body fat and getting there is often a problem for a lot of reasons. Not the least of which is that the last bit of fat (men’s ab/love handle/low back and women’s hip/thigh fat) is often quite stubborn for a number of related physiological reasons. All of which I discuss (along with solutions) in my Stubborn Fat Solution.
This is actually one of those amusing ironies, men will generally have lean legs but still have fat on their abs; females will get a visible six-pack long before they get lean legs. And both will want what the other has. The man would happily trade a bit of fat on their legs to have a six-pack and the female would rather have her legs get lean without the ripped upper body. Grass is always greener, folks.
As well, some men have more ‘female’ type body fat patterning and have visible abs at high percentage body fat levels but fat legs. Post-menopausal females who don’t go on hormones may develop a ‘male’ body fat patterning with a lot of fat around their midsection. There are also a lucky few who carry their body fat very evenly on their bodies and won’t look ‘fat’ even while carrying quite a high percentage body fat. Again, these topics and more are discussed in my Stubborn Fat Solution.
So, in practice, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, a male would be aiming for the 8-10% body fat range and the female around 15% to achieve the types of physical standards that are being presented in the media.
Lower Isn’t Better
Before winding up this article, I really want to drive the point home: lower body fat is not better. Not from a performance standpoint and not from a health standpoint. Although it’s probably as related to energy balance as body fat per se, the point is that when folks get beyond a certain point of leanness, hormone levels are disrupted in both men and women (and a great deal of this is controlled by leptin, discussed in detail in other articles on the site).
The normal menstrual cycle in women may stop (this is called ammennorrhea), indicating a problem with estrogen production. This tends to cause bone loss which is a very serious problem.
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.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Thyroid, growth hormone, IGF-1, metabolic rate, and the immune system are all severely depressed under situations of extremely low body fat (genetic oddities excepted). Cortisol goes through the roof at extremely low body fat levels especially when a lot of training is being done.
This is all just part of a coordinated set of adaptations that occur with both starvation and dieting (dieting is just starvation on a smaller/slower scale) to try to keep you alive. It’s frustrating but actually makes perfect sense, at least to your body.
A body fat of 5% in a man is likely occurring because there is no food. Your body can’t tell the difference between you starving it because you’re a crazy bodybuilder or you starving because there’s no food available ; it reacts the same way.
If there is no food, the last thing your body wants is for you to get your mate pregnant. Either there isn’t enough food to keep it alive or you’ll be dead before it’s born, and unable to fulfill your fatherly duties (watching TV, drinking beer, changing the oil and killing the occasional spider). So testosterone crashes to make it impossible in the first place. If you’re starving, chances are so is your mate so that’s a double whammy.
A woman dieting to 12% or lower body fat wouldn’t be able to bring a baby to term safely in the first place, so the body prevents it by shutting down the menstrual cycle. I should note that the reasons for the shutdown are actually more complex and some dieting women will lose their period at higher body fat percentages. It’s actually more an issue of energy balance than body fat per se but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
Some women look upon the loss of their period as a benefit, just one less monthly messy (sorry) hassle. But the bone loss and estrogen issue is not a joke, and can (will) cause problems down the road. Studies of female gymnasts and ballerinas are finding low bone densities similar to post-menopausal women. Certainly not the picture of a healthy athlete. And if the bone doesn’t develop during puberty, it may never develop at all.
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). As long as the person is at least eating at maintenance, hormones shouldn’t be too mucked up.
The same probably holds for athletes (most claims of insanely low body fat levels like 2-3% in athletes being gross over estimations). Without drugs, most athletes won’t perform well trying to compete at 5% body fat. They certainly won’t train effectively at that level, if for no other reason than the caloric restriction needed to get to that low of a body fat level will hurt training performance and adaptations.
As I noted above, bodybuilders usually don’t have a choice, they have to be walking anatomy charts when they step on stage. But with few exceptions, they don’t maintain that body fat level for any extended periods in the first place.
So those are body composition numbers with a look at what might be good, bad or ideal under a given set of circumstances. To avoid simply retyping the article, I’ve summarized everything in the handy chart below.
|Recommended for health||10-15%||18-25%|
|Attainable year round with meticulous food control||~8%||~15%|
|High end for natural bodybuilder off-season||10-12%||18-20%|
|Contest ready bodybuilder||3-5%||6-8%|
* Visible abs for men, lean legs for women; this assumes standard body fat patterning