Understanding Body Fat

What exactly is body fat? Body fat percentage is the total mass of fat divided by total body mass; this includes essential body fat and storage body fat. Essential body fat is necessary to maintain life and reproductive functions. The percentage of body fat for a woman is greatly higher because of the fat tissue in the breast and surrounding the uterus. A woman’s body fat is higher than it is for a man because the demands of childbearing and varies hormone functions. Body fat is distributed differently for a man and a woman. For an example some women may carry more body fat in their abdominal area while other may carry more around their thighs or arms. The same rules apply to a man, however most men carry extra body fat in the midsection.

Age has an effect on our body fat and how it’s measured. As we age, fat around the organs and within muscle tends to increase and most formulas take this into account. So a younger man may have the same subcutaneous body fat measurement (fat under the skin) as an older man but the measurements will be read differently. So a younger man in his 20’s to mid-30’s can measure at 15% while an older man in his 50’s will measure at 20%.

View the chart below to get a better understanding of the range of body fat


3-5% is the essential fat percentage for men (referenced through NASM) and is usually the percentage that bodybuilders achieve to get ready for competitions. With this low of body fat percentage, the muscles are extremely defined showing a lot of striations throughout the body. Also with this low of body fat, vascularity is very extreme. You will be able to see veins in your buttock region along with visibility in your abdominal area.

6-8% is more typical for male models and athletes. With this low of body fat, a lot like the 3-5% range you’ll have a lot of definition throughout your body. Vascularity will be visible in most muscles, especially in the arms, legs, and chest. Some visibility of veins will be visible in the abdominal as well. This percentage is more feasible for most men and easier to maintain than the 3-5% range.

9-12% is more obtainable for the common Joe. You will still have an aesthetic appearance but you won’t be turning a lot of heads at the beach. This range of body fat will still put you in the “lean and fit” category. Some muscle definition will be there and some vascularity. More definition will be shown in the arms and shoulders. There will be slight definition in the abdominal area but with very little to no vascularity.

16-20% your muscle definition will start to lose definition. There will be very little vascularity which usually appear more in the forearms than anywhere else. There will be no striations, and you will have a “soft” look or roundness to your midsection.

25% will put you in the obese category along with some health risks, especially if you’re older in age. With this percentage of body fat it can be hidden with normal clothing. So from appearance most people will not expect your body fat to be this high because most of the fat will be stored in the midsection with little around the neck and face.
30% your stomach will be more noticeable along with fat around your face, neck, wrist, arms, chest and even your back.

35% you will have a much increased size in your midsection. With this high percentage of body fat your waistline will be 40-45 inches.

40% is starting to put you in the morbidly obese category and a much increased risk in health. At this high percentage of fat, simple everyday tasks can seem very difficult. You will find it more difficult to walk even shorter distances; walking up and down stairs, getting off of furniture and even bending over to pick something up will be much more challenging.

View the chart below for visual reference.


8-12% is the essential fat percentage for women (referenced through NASM) and is equal to a man’s body fat percentage at 3-5%. This is the level of a female bodybuilder who is competition. The same appearance is expected as you’d have on a man. Very defined muscle definition and vascularity are visible throughout the body. This percentage of fat is not considered safe or healthy for women who will be unable to menstruate.

13-17% is considered very low for a woman. This is equal to a man at 6-7%. This level of body fat is reached by fitness or bikini models. The shoulder, abs, legs, and arms will have great definition with some vascularity. The buttocks and thighs will tend to have less shape due to the lack of body fat. A woman at this level might have problems to menstruate

19-22% is considered fit. You’ll typically find female athletes in this range. There will be slight definition in the abdominal with no vascularity.

24-27% is more on the “not too thin or too fat” shape. More curves will be apparent around the hips, thighs and buttocks. This percentage is the most obtainable for a woman.

30-35% is considered to be in the obese category. Women at this level tend to accumulate more fat around the face and neck while the hips will spread out wider. The risk of type 2 diabetes starts to increase at this percentage.

40-45% is in the super obesity category. This is when the skin will not appear as smooth as it was before. Thighs will become larger and the hips will spread out wider and can measure 40-45 inches in circumference

and will start to appear wider than the shoulders.

50% or higher is categorized as super-morbid obesity and in extreme health risk. At this percentage the hips will be noticeably wider than the shoulders.

View the chart below for visual reference

Does age really affect our body fat percentage?

We’re lead to believe that body fat differs with age. This belief is based on the theory that we have a decrease in hormones which lead to weight gain, so based on those theories it seems to be inevitable. As we get older we will naturally increase in body fat. (View the chart below for average body fat percentage according to gender and age) Well, in recent studies an increase in body fat does not occur with age. In a study conducted by Division of Geriatric Medicine, St. Louis University School of Medicine, Missouri, it was concluded that the percentage of body fat does increase slightly between ages 20 to 39 years and 40 to 84 years. But there were no significant differences noted in percentage body fat among the age groups 40-64, 65-74 and 75-84 in either males or females. The study showed no significant differences in percentage body fat between any age groups when age-matched for body mass index. The studies also concluded that patients over the age of 85 had significantly lower percentage body fat compared with all other age groups. It also shows that there was no significant increase in body fat after the age of 40. So in conclusion the study has confirmed that the major reason for the increase in body fat in older persons appears to be weight gain rather than a true age-related increase in percentage body fat. So age has nothing to do with an increase in body fat it only increases in the lack of activity and bad diet.

Athletes and body fat

The more active you are, the leaner you’ll most likely be. Active people, especially athletes burn off more energy than they are taking in. This is known as your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) which is a calorie deficit that will lead to weight loss. If you’re not burning off more than you are taking in, then you will, no matter what, gain weight. Here’s a chart to give you more of an idea that shows you the average body fat of athletes in their 20’s to early 30’s.

So what’s a real expectation for you and your body fat?

It is definitely possible for any man of any age to stay around 10 to even 8% body fat all year around if they are dedicated enough to their diet and fitness program. A woman, as we’ve covered, will naturally have a higher percentage of body fat so it’s not out of expectations for a woman to maintain 17 to 24% with the right diet and dedication. It really all depends on you and what you want your goals to be. Now that you have more of an understanding of body fat, you will be able to reach your own levels of expectations and maintain them successfully. Please click here to calculate the right diet for you and click here for the right fitness program.