What’s the Difference Between 10, 15 & 20% Body Fat?
updated October 5, 2018
As a person who takes care of their body, you know that the scale can only provide you with limited information. Sure it will tell you your overall weight. But it is unable to break that weight down into its most critical component - how much is lean muscle tissue and how much is body fat - that’s what you really need to know.
In this article we discover what the different body fat percentages look like - and how to attain to them.
Body Fat %age and BMI
Go to the doctor for a check up and she’ll put you on the scale and then compare your weight to the BMI (Body Mass Index). This is a chart which maps your height against your weight. It tells whether you are underweight, in the ideal weight zone or overweight. However, it does not take into account the ratio of fat to muscle. As a result, the BMI would show Mr. Olympia to be obese, despite his having an extremely low level of body fat.
Body fat percentage is a measure of your overall level of bodyfat. This is a far more accurate and useful guide to go by.
What Percentage Should You Aim For?
ACE Body Fat Guidelines for Men:
- Elite Athlete Fat Percentages for Men: 6-12 %
- Ideal Body Fat Percentages for Men: 13-17 %
- Obese Body Fat Percentages for Men: 25+ %
ACE Body Fat Guidelines for Women:
- Elite Athlete Fat Percentages for Women: 10-15 %
- Ideal Body Fat Percentages for Women: 17-22%
- Obese Body Fat Percentages for Women: 32+ %
Clearly, the lower your body fat percentage, the healthier and more athletic you are. The lower your percentage, the more defined, or ripped, you will also be. Your goal should be to get your body fat level as low as possible while either preserving or increasing your level of muscle mass.
How Does Age Affect your Body Fat %age
As we age, we tend to carry more body fat. As a result, the ideal range is modulated in accordance with age as follows:
- For men aged between 20 and 40, a healthy range is considered to be between 8 and 19%.
- For men over 40, the healthy range is between 11 and 25%.
- For women between the ages of 20 and 40m the healthy range is between 11 and 23%.
- For women over the age of 40, the healthy range is between 23 and 26%.
As we age, we collect more body fat around our vital organs, as well as within their muscles as intramuscular fat. This doesn’t mean that the increased percentage is necessarily to do with subcutaneous body fat.
Of course, many people become less active as they age while eating the same, or a higher, level of calories. In addition, we naturally lose muscle tissue as we age. A lower level of lean body mass will increase the percentage of body fat even if no extra fat is out onto the body.
Body Fat Visuals
This is range that you will find on the majority of bodybuilders when they walk on stage. This is the ultimate low level and is extremely difficult to attain, even for full time professional athletes. It is evidenced by striations in the individual muscle groups and an extreme level of vascularity.
This is still a very athletic look. A person in this range would be considered to be a peak athlete with a good level of vascularity and muscle separation. The abdominals will be clearly visible. It is the type of condition that you would expect a fitness model to be in for a photo shoot.
This is an athletic range that it's attainable for most people. You won’t be as defined as the person in the 5-7% range, but will still have abs. In addition, you won’t have as much vascularity and will be a little smoother.
You will be lean and will see some ab definition.
The separation between your muscle groups, such as the deltoids and biceps will be quite pronounced. However, your abs will not quite be visible yet.
You will still look quite healthy, but will not have the definition of the 13-15% group. You’ll probably still have a bit of an issue with love handles. You also won’t be very vascular.
You will have very little in the way of muscular definition and you may have a bit of obvious excess belly fat. This is the ‘average guy’ look that you see walking down the street.
This is the official entry point into obesity. You will have no muscle definition at all and will, in fact, have a rather round appearance. You will find quite a few powerlifters who look huge with 25%, but they’ve usually got a huge belly and no definition whatsoever.
At over 35% body fat, you are in the morbidly obese category.
How is Body Fat Measured?
There are numerous ways to measure your body fat, with some being far more accurate than others. The most accessible method (and the least expensive) is body fat caliper testing.
Body fat caliper testing takes skinfold measurements. Half of the body’s total fat stores lie directly beneath the skin, and this fat volume relates closely to the body’s total fat content.
To measure a skinfold thickness, grasp a fold of skin and subcutaneous fat with your thumb and forefinger, pulling it away from the natural contour of the body. The caliper’s pincer arms at their point of skin contact exert constant tension. Read the thickness of the skin’s double layer and subcutaneous tissue directly from the caliper dial and record the measurement in millimeters.
The most common anatomical sites for taking skinfolds include the triceps and subscapular, abdominal and upper thigh sites,and also chest, mid-axillary, and medial calf. Take all the measurements on the right side of the body with the person standing. Take a minimum of two or three measurements at each site, using the average as the skinfold score. The reliability of skinfold measurements is high if done by an experienced person, such as a qualified personal trainer.
Once you have taken the individual body fat measurements at the appropriate sites, plug those numbers into the body fat calculator found here to determine your body fat percentage.
Lean Body Mass
Your lean body mass is your weight once your body fat is subtracted. Let’s say that a 180 pound guy has a 20% body fat level. That means that he is carrying 36 pounds of fat (180 x .2). That leaves 144 pounds of lean body mass. That includes his organs, his skeleton, his blood, water and your muscle content.
Now, let’s say that this guy was able to train hard and get his body fat percentage down to 10%. He now has 18 pounds of fat mass. You have now got 12 pounds of lean body mass. That is an 18 pound increase in lean body mass.
Of course, the scale would have shown the trainer that nothing had changed, when, in fact, he had put on 18 pounds of lean body mass!
The Ultimate Strategy to Drop your Body Fat Percentage
In order to achieve the goal of dropping your body fat percentage, it is vital that we recognize each of the four elements that make up a successful fat loss program and give each one equal emphasis.
Individually each of these elements - nutrition, cardio exercise, resistance training and mental training - are important. Combined they have the ability to push your body transformation efforts into the stratosphere. That’s because of the power of synergy. This concept derives from the idea that an outcome is more than the sum of it’s parts.
The powerful interaction of the various elements work magically together, complementing and enhancing one another, to produce outcomes that are far beyond what one could achieve with just one or two of the elements in place.
A great example of the power of synergy in helping a person to achieve phenomenal fat loss results involves the combination of just two of the key elements - nutrition and weight training.
The energy balance equation tells us that excess calories will be stored as fat. However, when a person is training with weights, a decent proportion of those excess calories will be diverted to doing the job of repairing and rebuilding muscle. Now if a person is in a calorie deficit they are going to lose weight. The sort of weight they lose, though, is determined by the activity that they do.
A person who is sedentary will lose a large proportion of lean body mass - muscle. The weight trained person, however, will be retaining his existing lean mass and losing excess fat. In the process he will actually be adding to his lean mass, thus giving a further boost to his metabolism which, in turn, leads to even more rapid fat loss.
By combining a third element of a successful fat loss program, cardio exercise, you will be able to push your progress even further. By combining cardio, nutrition and weight training you can triple the rate of fat loss that you would achieve with only one, or two of these elements.
The more you train with a combination of resistance and cardio exercise, the greater will be the calorie deficit that you will achieve. Cardio exercise involves any exercise that is rhythmic in nature, involves the large muscle groups of your body and elevates the heart rate. Running outdoors, using a stationary cycle, running on a treadmill and using a stair climber are all good cardio choices.
The fourth and final element of the synergistic fat loss program has the capacity to transform you into a fat scorching machine. Yet it has nothing to do with weights, calories or cardio exercise.
This element - the power of the mind - is the most important of all. Without it, your efforts will be haphazard, inconsistent and disappointing. If you are able to unleash the power of your subconscious to control the forward momentum toward achieving your goals, you will be on an irresistible path to a lean, healthy, fat free body.
Combining the four elements just mentioned will ensure that you have every piece of the jigsaw need to create a leaner, stronger, better you. Utilize the power of synergism to make sure that, this time, you take it off and keep it off.