The term "body fat" tends to make most of us a little worried. After all, none of us want to have lots of "body fat" - but what exactly is it?
There's an actual term that can be used to describe the amount of body fat we each have and unsurprisingly, this is coined as "body fat percentage".
It's something of a cloudy topic in the world of fitness and nutrition, so here's a guide to distinguish exactly what it is and how you can get yours to the required level.
What is body fat percentage?
Many would suggest that the clue is within the name here. In simple terms, body fat percentage is the amount of fat that your body contains in comparison to everything else. When we talk about everything else, we literally mean everything. It's not just muscles; its organs, bones, water and whatever else you can think of.
The amount of body fat that you have is going to vary on your lifestyle. For starters, a woman is likely to have more body fat than a man. For example, while a male bodybuilder might have as little as 3% of body fat, a female could have as much of 9% - even though they both engage in the same profession.
What is the difference between body fat percentage and Body Mass Index?
A term that most of us will have heard is Body Mass Index, or BMI as the abbreviation. This is much more mainstream and the fact that your doctor will regularly refer to it is probably the reason for this.
The calculation for BMI is as simple as it gets; using your height and weight a ratio is calculated, with the result highlighting whether you’re a normal, underweight or overweight.
The reason why your body fat percentage is different is simple. You may have a body fat percentage of 8%, but weigh the same amount as someone of the same height, but has a body fat percentage of 30%. Ultimately, the difference occurs because your weight is perhaps comprised more of muscle, bone and water.
It means that a BMI scale can be somewhat inaccurate. There are obviously good reasons to use it, which is why doctors still rely on it, but if you're starting to take your training seriously there's no doubt that body fat percentage is a much more effective way of measuring yourself.
How is body fat percentage calculated?
We've just touched upon BMI and suggested that it's not the most accurate measurement for your body. One of the reasons it might be relied upon so much is due to the fact that it has a simple calculation behind it. The same cannot necessarily be said for body fat percentage.
Unfortunately, there's no simple equation for body fat percentage. Instead, there are just several approaches you can take - but none are by any means simple.
- Compare yourself to others: The internet is full of images of people who have had their body fat percentage scientifically measured (more on that later). Therefore, perhaps the quickest way to get a rough idea on your body fat percentage is to merely compare yourself and see which image resembles your body the most.
- DEXA scanning: When we spoke about scientifically measuring, this certainly falls into the category. It's regarded as the most accurate way to measure body fat and is comprised of an X-ray of your body composition. It only takes around ten minutes, but expect to pay up to $150 to the clinic you have the procedure carried out at.
- Bod Pods: Another scientific way to measure your body fat percentage comes in the form of the Bod Pod. These machines are clever in the way that they use air to discover your body mass and a whole host of other statistics. However, at $75 a time, it's again not something you can do regularly.
- Body fat calipers: This is one method of measurement that you can do at home. Body fat calipers only cost around $5, and simply involve you pulling the fat away from you muscles and taking a measurement. This measurement is then plotted on a chart to determine your body fat percentage. It's probably not the most accurate method out there, but it's cheap and will provide you with a basic overview.
- Body fat scales: Another method you can try at home is with body fat scales. This involves a current being sent through your body, allowing the device to measure your fat levels. Some suggest that these scales can be misguided with the amount of water in your body - but again, it might be something that provides you with a basic figure.
- US Navy measurements: In truth, you could use the US Navy measurements or even something like the YMCA measurement. Neither is going to be entirely accurate, but it will provide you with an estimate on what your body fat percentage is. They take various factors, such as your height, weight, hip, neck and waist measurements, before returning a result.
It's worth mentioning that as many of the above techniques return quite rough measurements, it can be difficult to track how your body fat percentage is progressing. For example, if the measurements are always going to be a couple of percent out, finding out whether you are making progress over a short period of time is all but impossible.
To ensure that you get as accurate results as possible, you should always be trying to take your measurements in a stable environment. This means using the same technique, and even goes as far as making sure the amount of liquid you have consumed that day is very similar. Such factors can affect the results, so it's worth being aware of.
What level should your body fat percentage be at?
Let's first put one notion to bed - you need at least some body fat for the purposes of survival. This is classed as essential fat and varies considerably between men and women. For example, for the former, you'd be looking at 2-4% of body fat. For women, it's more like 10-12%.
From this point on, it's all about how you want to look. From an overweight point of view, anything over 26% for men and 32% for women is classed as obese.
If you happen to be based between 18-25% as a man, and 25-31% as a woman, you're just about right and completely acceptable.
In terms of looking "ripped", there are a couple of ranges. Firstly, there's the movie-star appearance, or one that you would expect a professional sportsperson to have. For men, this is between 6% and 13%. For women, it's 14-20%.
Then, there's the category which sits below this. This is for those of you who want to look good and stand out somewhat, and is less than 18% for men and 20-23% for females.
How do you lower your body fat percentage?
As we've just covered, the lower your body fat, the better you look. Or something like that.
It means that the big question on most minds is just how you can lower these levels. Fortunately, it's just basic fitness principles and if you are looking to slash your percentage levels, some of these can work a treat:
- Basic calorie counting: We've all heard about calorie counting and in a bid to reduce your body fat percentage, the concept here is simple. You need to be burning more calories than you consume and ultimately, getting your body to store much less fat.
- Sprints and heavy weight lifting: Whether you are sprinting or lifting heavy weights, your metabolism eventually proceeds to "afterburn". This is a really important result, as it means that your body is burning calories after you have concluded your session. The upshot is that you burn more calories than a standard session.
- Refine your diet: Similarly to the first point we made, you are what you eat. Cutting out carbohydrates is the simple solution here as your body will start to turn to fat storage for its main supply of energy. Similarly, something like the Paleo Diet can work wonders.
- Only eat after working out: Also known as working out whilst fasting, it has been found that this can have a considerable effect on how you store fat. There are surprisingly few repercussions on your energy levels as well.
A conclusion on body fat percentage
It might not be as easy to measure as some other body statistics, but there’s no doubt that body fat percentage is really important for anyone who is looking to make strides in their fitness. As we’ve mentioned, it’s something that can paint a complete picture of a person’s fitness – rather than providing a general overview which might not be entirely accurate.
Considering the fact that it is so easy to influence as well, through basic fitness principles, this is something that you should be paying particular attention to – even if you are just measuring it via the basic comparison method that we touched upon.