- Body Fat Percentage Comparisons For Men & Women- Do You Really Need To Be Tested?
- Body Fat Percentage Comparison: What Is A Healthy Body Fat Percentage?
- Body Fat Percentage Comparison: How Low Is Too Low?
- Body Fat Percentage Comparison For Men & Women
- Body Fat Percentage Comparison: Limitations Of Body Fat Testing
- Body Fat Testing- Skin Fold Calipers- The Pros and Cons
Body Fat Percentage Comparisons For Men & Women- Do You Really Need To Be Tested?
Nowadays the golden standard by which many health and fitness enthusiasts use to gauge their level of fitness is their body fat percentage. Ask just about anyone that is seriously into their training what their body fat percentage is, and quite often they can tell you exactly what it is to the nearest decimal point! When I started my training as an apprentice trainer almost 26 years ago back in the islands, my coaches frowned upon the use of skinfold calipers and body fat testing in general. While the training manuals might have said that it was important to measure your client’s body fat percentage as an indicator of their progress, my coaches all said that if a client couldn’t look in the mirror and see visible differences in their body or how their clothes fit then I wasn’t doing my job. Today in my practice as a personal trainer in New York City, my philosophy remains the same. At the end of the day, a change in numbers means nothing if your client still has layers of fat obscuring their midsection and no one walks around on the beach with their body fat percentage numbers printed out on their swimsuit! There are also some very considerable limitations to field methods of body fat testing that make it somewhat impractical and so I have never used it in my personal training practice. That said, it is a good idea to have a ballpark idea of what your body fat percentage is for health reasons more than anything else, unless you are an athlete involved in distance events where weight to power ratios are all important, and you need to know just how far down you can go body fat wise without affecting your performance. In this article we are going to take a look at what men and women tend to look like at different body fat percentages and the various methods of measuring body fat- and their limitations. Thanks for reading and as always, be sure to share this article with someone who you think might find it to be of interest!
Body Fat Percentage Comparison: What Is A Healthy Body Fat Percentage?
Most standards of ideal body fat percentages are far more cosmetic than anything else. For example, many bodybuilding and physique competitors describe themselves as ‘fat’ at body fat percentages far below what most people would kill to achieve. Athletes who take part in sports and activities where how your body looks is often considered almost as important as performance such as dance, diving, gymnastics and figure skating also can feel pressured to drop their body fat to levels even when their current weight and body mass is excellent in terms of health and optimal performance. That said, there are some loose standards of what a healthy body fat percentage generally should be, (as it varies at the lower limits based on the individual),- The American Council on Exercise recommends a body fat percentage of 6-25% for men and 14-31% for women while The American Dietetic Association recommends that men should be 15-18% body fat and women 20-25% body fat. For high level athletes, body fat percentages can vary from sport to sport but are usually lower than average. Healthy male athletes may have body fat levels as low as 5-12% body fat, and healthy female athletes can at times be as low as 12-20%. Competitive bodybuilding requires having the appearance of having as little body fat as possible and male competitors are often reported to go as low as 3-4% with females can getting as low as 8-9%. These numbers however are always estimates as current testing cannot accurately measure such low body fat extremes. You would think that the lower your body fat the healthier you would be but studies have shown that there is no added health benefit when men reduce their body fat under 8% and women drop their body fat under 14%.
Body Fat Percentage Comparison: How Low Is Too Low?
Body fat is an important component for our overall health as it serves some very important roles as it acts as an insulator to help our bodies conserve heat, it helps cushion and protect vital organs and fat plays a key metabolic role in the production of energy for everyday activity. We generally have two different types of fat-
- Storage Fat- which is stored under our skin, (subcutaneous fat), and for most males 12% of body weight is storage fat and for women 14% of body weight is storage fat.
- Essential Body Fat- which is needed to keep us alive and maintain proper hormonal and reproductive function. While storage fat levels for men and women are similar, essential fat levels are quite different as men have about 3% of total bodyweight while women have 13%.
Since fat is such an essential part of what keeps us healthy and alive, training and dieting to drop body fat levels under healthy amounts not only leads to a decrease in performance, but can also create vitamin and mineral deficiencies, fluid and electrolyte imbalances, an increased risk of bone fractures, suppress the immune system, adversely affect reproductive functions and damage the heart.[38,39] I can tell you from personal experience as well that while having a body fat percentage in the very low single digits might look great, you pretty much feel really awful as the numbers start to go down. You feel cold all the time, your joints tend to hurt more than they usually would, you tire quickly and you don’t sleep as well either. Not as glamorous as it seems and to be honest, most people are much happier with a body fat percentage that is low- but not too low as it does cut down on your quality of life. On the other end of the spectrum, high body fat is of course very much problematic. Body fat percentages above 25% for women and 20% for men are associated with a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and certain cancers [40,41,42,43,44,45,46,47] and while you don’t need to have a body fat percentage in the single digits to be healthy it is important that the numbers don’t get too high.
Body Fat Percentage Comparison For Men & Women
What do the various body fat percentages actually look like on a real person? To start, most guys who you would be considered ‘cut’ or ripped tend to fall somewhere between 7-12% body fat. Most of the women who display a tight and toned physique, (not the skinny fat look), and who would be considered fit are usually are in the vicinity of 12-18% body fat. That said there are exceptions, as my experience has been that two people can have exactly the same body fat percentages yet look as different as night and day. Some people can have rippling abs with 15% body fat whereas others have to go as low as 6% to start seeing real definition in their abdominal muscles because of differences in where they store fat, (which is a genetic factor- see my article on Why People Store Fat In Different Places) and levels of hydration. Bodybuilders, for example, who perhaps have the lowest body fat percentages, achieve their skinless look through a combination of dehydration and depleting body fat stores- as how much water you are holding can make a huge difference in how you look when body fat levels are extremely low. A male bodybuilding competitor could be ripped while dehydrated at an extremely low body fat level and after a few hours of eating high sodium foods would retain a significant amount of water that would make them appear bloated and with far less muscular definition. Except they would not have put on any additional body fat in such a short space of time and so their body fat percentage would be the same. The following images will give you a somewhat of a ballpark idea of what different body fat percentages look like on men and women.
Body Fat Percentage Comparison: Limitations Of Body Fat Testing
Before we delve into the various methods of measuring body fat percentages, it’s important to note that all methods are for the most part indirect and subject to error. 100% accuracy in measuring body fat is simply not possible without cutting someone up into pieces and physically measuring each piece. Since we’d rather know our body fat percentages while we are still in one piece the science is kind of like someone trying to figure out what’s inside a box without being able to actually open the box. We can make assumptions based on what can be measured outside the box, but at the end of the day we can’t always be 100% certain since we must rely on assumptions. The same applies to the equations used to calculate body fat percentages as they are all are based on theoretical models of that divide the body into, (usually), two components of fat and fat free body mass.[1,2,3] The fat mass encompasses all the lipids from adipose and other tissues while the fat free body mass includes water, protein and minerals. These models assume that the densities and relative proportions of protein, water, and minerals in fat free body mass are the same for everyone and that individual differ from the referenced ‘body’ only in the amount of fat they carry.[1,2,3] These assumed models are used to calculate body fat percentages from readings from advanced forms of body fat testing such as bio-impedance testing, air displacement testing, hydrostatic weighing and dual x-ray absorptiometry.
Research has shown that the assumptions made in these models do not always hold true for all groups. For example, fat free body mass densities can be significantly different due to gender, levels of muscularity, activity levels and ethnicity. [4,5,6] Malnutrition, obesity, osteoporosis as well as certain diseases can change the relative proportions of water and or minerals in fat free body mass, which could lead to errors when estimating relative body fat. So while some of the more involved methods of measuring body fat may be able to accurately measure total body mass, they may not be as accurate in determining body fat as they are limited by the formulas and assumptions they rely on for these calculations. (On a side note, formulas for skinfold caliper testing do take differences such as ethnicity and activity level into consideration, but have their own set of limitations which we will discuss later on in the article.)
How much of a margin of error are we talking about? In the vicinity of almost 3% according to some researchers  with hydrostatic weighing which is often used as a measure of accuracy for other forms of testing. On a purely cosmetic level, such a discrepancy is relatively insignificant but could be some cause for concern for an athlete trying to figure out how to keep their body weight as low as possible without adversely affecting performance. Precision for this group would be paramount- as a nearly 3% error margin could make the difference between winning and losing a highly competitive event where power to weight ratios make all the difference. That said, let’s take a look at some of the methods used to determine body fat percentages.
Body Fat Testing: BMI Charts
While not a true method of measuring body fat percentages, Body Mass Index (BMI) is perhaps one of the most popular method of informally measuring body composition. BMI is a measure of your bodyweight calculated in kilograms divided by the square of your height in meters(kg/m2), in essence, it is a simple and noninvasive method designed to determine excess weight- not necessarily excess fat and the numbers do not always hold true for everyone. That said, numerous studies have validated the effectiveness of BMI testing as an indicator of increased risk of various metabolic diseases and health risks and that high BMI status is strongly correlated with higher body fat for most of the population.[7,8,9,10,11,12] It is a cheap and simple way to screen for health risks at the population level and allows health care professionals to easily categorize and make comparisons for health risks across various regions, times, and subgroups.
There are, as we said, limitations on the individual level, as two people can be the same height and weight, (and thus have the same BMI), but be totally different from each other in terms of body fat percentages and health risks. I remember when I enlisted in the U.S. Navy, (I was 20 years old at the time), and showed up at the recruiter’s office weighing in at a solid 220 lbs at a height of 6 feet tall. After stepping on the scale, they punched in some number on the calculator, pulled out a chart and told me that I was significantly overweight and would have to lose at least 30 to 40 lbs before I could enlist. My BMI was 29.8, which gave me a reading placing me on the higher end of being overweight and almost obese. I couldn’t tell you how funny this was as I had a body fat level at the time of about 8-7% at the time- with rippling abdominals and barely any fat readily visible on my frame. When I stripped down so the recruiter could see what I looked like under my clothes, he was shocked! (It was my first winter in the United States and coming from Trinidad I had a lot of layers on!) Needless to say I had nothing to worry about and I was able to enlist but this would be a story that would play itself out over and over in doctors’ offices before they had a chance to see what I actually looked like. Twenty years later at 225 lbs. and at a body fat level of maybe somewhere around 9-10% and with abs still rippling, according to BMI measurements, I am now officially obese, which really highlights the limitations of the BMI scales for muscular individuals and it has been acknowledged that athletic individuals can’t be accurately measured using BMI scales.[13,15] There are other recognized limitations to BMI scales, women generally tend to have higher body fat percentages than men with the same BMI. Individuals of African descent tend to have lower levels of body fat that whites with the same BMI,[16,17] and Asians tend to have higher levels of body fat than white men with the same BMI.
Body Fat Testing: The Tape Measure Method-Anthropometry
Another simple method of testing body fat is the tape measure method or anthropometry which involves taking measurements at various parts of the body and using a formula that also includes body mass and standing height to determine body fat and fat free mass.[23,24] It is relatively accurate when measurement are taken by a skilled technician but with tape measurements, people who are muscular and with low body fat levels can get numbers 3 to 5 percent higher than their true percent body fat percentages. Again, since the theoretical models used to calculate body mass assume that fat free mass and fat densities are constant for everyone[3,25,26] which is not, [27,28,29,30,31] there is always going to be a margin of error. Especially with individuals at the lower end of the spectrum. So, what’s the bottom line? For many people, the tape measure test is enough to give you a basic idea of your body fat percentages and it can be done frequently at little or no cost but don’t expect exacting accuracy.
Body Fat Testing- Skin Fold Calipers- The Pros and Cons
Many personal trainers include skin fold caliper testing as a way to determine their client’s body fat percentage and their progress. With skin fold testing, calipers are used to pinch select parts of the body after which the individual’s body fat is determined based on the assumption that the amount of fat stored at these various sites is proportional to a person’s overall body fat. Studies have found skinfold testing to be a reasonably reliable test for measuring body fat percentages when performed by a skilled technician- comparing well with more direct methods such as computed-tomography measurements.  For an expedient method to measure body fat, skinfold calipers offer a quick and relatively non-invasive way to determine body fat in the field and unlike some more sophisticated tests, the formulas used are population specific and thus can be used to accurately measure body fat percentages in individuals from various ethnic groups, (Black, Hispanic and White), as well as make adjustments for both male and female athletes.
That said, there are some limitations to skinfold testing. It takes a significant amount of time and practice to be able to properly administer a skinfold test and very precise procedures must be followed in order to get a good reading. The type of calipers used are also important as high quality metal calipers have greater scale precision than the cheaper plastic ones often used in gyms, and the plastic models are far more prone to error when administered by those who have not been rigorously trained. Another limiting element is that skinfold calipers are not always able to measure the body fat of obese individuals, who sometimes have skin that is so thick that it exceeds the maximum aperture of the calipers. Time of testing is also important. Many trainers in gyms take measurements after their client’s workout to gauge progress but exercise, (resistance training in particular), can substantially increase intracellular fluid and thus adversely affects the accuracy of measurements from both tape and skinfold caliper tests that rely on skinfold thickness. In general, however, skinfold calipers are not the best way to track ongoing progress if you are doing any type of resistance training. Muscle tissue compresses the intracellular spaces between fat cells as it grows, so the total amount of subcutaneous fat in any part of the body that has experienced some degree of muscle growth can remain the same but occupy less space because of the increase in muscle mass. Skinfold calipers would measure this as a decrease in subcutaneous fat while a more involved scan such as an MRI, DEXA or CT scan would show no such changes at all. Equally problematic is the increased water retention (edema) that can occur for days after a high intensity workout which could further skewer results. There are other constraints to consider; skinfold calipers measurements are only taken at the belly of the muscle, so any changes in subcutaneous fat in other parts of the pinched muscle group go undetected. Studies involving before and after measurements of men and women involved in a 16 week program of resistance training found no changes in subcutaneous fat when assessed by skinfold calipers. However, researchers did find significant reductions in body fat when assessed by magnetic resonance imaging, computer X ray tomography and dual x ray absorptiometry.[21,22] The studies concluded that short term decreases in subcutaneous body fat from resistance training can only be accurately detected using MRI, CT and DEXA techniques and assessments from skinfold tests.[21,22] That being said, while skinfold calipers may have a range of uses, it is a tool that I employ in my own personal training practice.
Bioelectrical Impedance Testing
True bio-electrical impedance testing is far more involved, (and more accurate) than the more common methods in scales you have at home, at the gym or devices you can hold to measure body fat percentages. The way it works is that a small electrical charge is sent through the body, (arms and legs), and the individual’s total body water levels are estimated from impedance measurements. The greater the resistance, (measured in ohms), to the current flow, the more fat is present since fat tissue is a poor conductor of electricity due its low water content. The lesser the resistance, the more fat free body mass is present as non-adipose tissue is highly conductive due to its high water content.[34,51] These tests have been found to be relatively accurate when a current is sent through the whole body. In some ways bio-electrical impedance testing is easier than a skinfold tests as it can measure the body fat of obese individuals and does not require as much skill in order to administer the test. That said, there are some limitations as it can only be accurately administered if the subject has not eaten or had anything to drink within four hours of the test, has not used any type of diuretic medication within seven days of the test and it is not recommended for women who are retaining water due to their menstrual cycle. You also have to urinate within thirty minutes of being tested and most importantly for those using this form of testing to determine the progress of their training program, you must not have exercised within twelve hours of the test.
That said, segmented bio-impedance instruments such as scales that send a current through only the lower body and hand held devices that send a current only through the upper body, cannot fully measure total body water levels, only estimate them based on the part of the body that they do measure. There can be considerable discrepancies among individuals in terms of differences in fat free mass in the upper and lower body so only measuring one segment of the body introduces a margin of error. The use of scales and hand held devices may be popular among many trainers and gyms, (and are very often used after a workout in contradiction to the very strict usage guidelines), but their accuracy has never been validated the way full body bio-impedance has been with numerous independent studies, thus readings will always be questionable at best.
Advanced Body Fat Testing- The Pros & Cons of Hydrostatic Weighing
Hydrostatic testing, (or hydro-densitometry), for years has been the golden standard for body fat testing. It is a very involved and somewhat extreme procedure to say the least. It works on the precepts of the Archimedes principle which states that the upward force, (buoyancy), exerted on a body immersed in a fluid, whether fully or partially submerged, is equal to the weight of the fluid the body displaces. Since both bone and muscle are denser than water, (and would sink), a person with a high percentage of fat free mass, (like an athlete), will weigh more in the water because of their lower body fat percentage. On the other hand, fat tissue is less dense than water, (and would float) so a person with a large amount of fat mass will weigh less in the water because of their higher body fat percentage. I can attest to this myself as I can literally stand on the bottom of a pool and have a very hard time floating in general!
To perform the test you are first weighed in on dry land, then completely submerged in a tank of water while sitting on a scale designed to measure your underwater weight. The air in your lungs can significantly increase buoyancy and thus throw off the readings and so you have to expel as much air as is possible and remain completely still while your underwater weight it measured. This process is repeated no less than three times for accuracy purposes taking into consideration water temperature and the residual amount of air in your lungs, after which a special formula is used to gauge fat free weight and fat weight and determine your body fat percentage.[52,53,54] Not exactly a great way to spend your afternoon, and it is most certainly not for children, the elderly, people with physical challenges of any kind and the claustrophobic. Hydrostatic weighing does however can give a very precise reading of total body mass if the subject is able expel air comfortably underwater, and the residual air in the lungs is measured. However, while it is more accurate than caliper tests or tape measurements, it still has some degree of error. Hydrostatic weighing is limited by the formulas used to calculate body fat percentages. And as we said earlier in the article, these formulas are based on the assumption that the density of fat free mass is same for everyone and this assumption does not hold true for people of different races, genders, ages and activity levels.[4,5,6,49] It also cannot account for air in the intestines which can also have an effect on buoyancy, but you work with what you have and this is a very reliable method of testing.
Advance Body Fat Percentage Testing- Whole Body Air Displacement Plethysmography (ADP)
Offering an even less invasive but advanced form of body fat testing is air displacement plethysmography which measures total body density and body volume. In order to do the test, the subject is placed inside a sealed chamber called a Bod Pod and body volume is calculated by subtracting the volume of air inside the chamber when the subject is in it from the volume of air in the chamber when it is empty. Boyle’s Law states that the product of the pressure and volume for a gas is a constant for a fixed amount of gas at a fixed temperature, so conditions inside the chamber are kept at a stable temperature and the pressure is changed in order to determine total air volume. The entire test takes less than 5 minutes and its accuracy is comparable to that of hydrostatic weighing in adults. The speed and convenience of this form of testing makes it appealing for children, the elderly and the physically challenged, but like all tests it does have limitations. Studies have found that air displacement plethysmographs tend to overestimate the average body fat percentage of African Americans and underestimate the body fat percentages of football players. [61,62] It also has accuracy issues at the extreme ends with very lean and very obese individuals and of course is subject to the same error margins as hydrostatic weighing as it uses the same conversion formulas.
Advanced Body Fat Percentage Testing- Dual-energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA)
Dual-energy X-Ray Absorptiometry or DEXA is a relatively new method of measuring body composition. It measures total body mineral mass, mineral free lean mass and fat tissue mass through the emission of two different types of X-ray radiation, (in a very small dose, of course) and measurement of the differences in absorption of the two energies. DEXA gives a highly accurate reading of body fat percentage when compared to hydrostatic weighing.[26,55,57 The scan takes 20 minutes and is one that can be administered to children, the elderly or those with physical limitations. Another advantage is that unlike hydrostatic testing, DEXA takes into consideration differences in bone mass which can vary based on ethnicity and activity levels and is less affected by varying levels of hydration in the subject tested.  That said, it is not perfect as variation in fat distribution and front to back thickness of the person being scanned can affect the accuracy of DEXA estimates of soft tissue.
There are other forms of body fat testing such as Near-Infrared Interactance, which is a method developed by the USDA to measure body composition in livestock based on infra-red light absorption and reflection, but its accuracy is not high enough that it is seriously considered for testing purposes. At the end of the day, very few people really need a body fat percentage test and such tests can only give an estimate at best whereas you can easily look in the mirror to monitor your progress and see how you feel to know if you are where you need to be. So don’t get too hung up on the numbers and remember that building muscle is key if you are trying to get that look!
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