As you know, your body weight is an abstract number that tells you very little about how much fat and muscle you have. Your body fat percentage can help to provide context and free you from focusing solely on your body weight. Your body fat percentage describes your body fat as a percentage of your total body weight. For example, if your body fat percentage is 15%, then 15% of your weight is body fat. Setting realistic body fat goals is crucial.
The body is composed of two elements: lean body tissue (i.e. muscles, organs, water, bones and blood) and body fat (or adipose tissue). The proportion of these two components in the body is called body composition. This is far more important than total weight.
Generally, anywhere from 8% to 15% of body fat is considered healthy for men, but they have vastly different appearances. You’ll need to reach about 12% body fat before you’re lean enough to see your entire abs. Unfortunately, no matter how many crunches you may do, it’s impossible to spot reduce body fat. The only way to increase definition in your abs or any other muscle group is by reducing your overall body fat percentage.
10% to 12% Body Fat
The 10% to 12% body fat range is what most people would consider an “athletic” or “Hollywood” look. You’ll be lean enough to see your abs and definition in most of your muscles, but you won’t be exploding with veins. The nice thing about the 10% to 12% body fat range is that you look great, feel great, and it’s relatively easy to maintain long term.
8% to 10% Body Fat
The 8% to 10% body fat range is what most people would consider a “fitness model” look. Your abs and obliques will be very defined, you’ll be able to see veins on your lower abdomen, and every muscle will pop. While many people can maintain sub-10% body fat for a short time (e.g., during the summer), few can maintain it long term. Maintaining sub-10% body fat simply takes significantly more dedication to diet and exercise than 10% to 12% body fat.
5% to 6% Body Fat
The 5% to 6% body fat range is where most bodybuilders compete. You’ll have virtually no fat on your body, and you’ll be exploding with veins. While 5% to 6% body fat may look amazing, you certainly won’t feel amazing. Generally, most guys experience adverse side effects when they dip below 8% body fat. They lose their sex drive, become easily agitated, and feel lethargic. They also usually struggle with hunger, cravings, and uncontrollable episodes of binge eating. No matter what someone’s appearance on social media may have you believe, it isn’t healthy, sustainable, or enjoyable to live below 8% body fat. Avoid these percentages at any cost.
Your Ideal Body Fat Percentage
The ideal body fat percentage is highly individual and varies based on your genetics and lifestyle preferences. Some guys feel great at 8% to 10% body fat, while others feel better at 10% to 12% body fat. There are also lifestyle tradeoffs to maintaining sub-10% body fat; you’ll need to maintain a strict diet and exercise routine that isn’t appealing to everyone.
Many guys like to get a taste of what it’s like to achieve sub-10% body fat. They learn how their body reacts to sub-10% body fat and the lifestyle tradeoffs. While most people enjoy how they look, they see the challenges in maintaining sub-10% body fat long term. The most important part is they know that they can always get that lean again.
Measuring Your Body Fat Percentage
Measuring your body fat percentage is a little tricky because it isn’t as easy as stepping on a scale. Scales and handheld devices that claim to measure body fat percentage are highly inaccurate. The only somewhat reliable methods for measuring body fat are medical-grade such as DEXA, Bod Pod, hydrostatic weighing, or an experienced body caliper professional.
However, even the most reliable body fat testing methods have an error rate of around 4% body fat. That means that a test could say you are 14% body fat when you are truly 10% body fat.
Given the challenges in accurately measuring body fat percentage, you should never track your body fat percentage in the same way you would with your weight.
It’s best to simply track and estimate body fat percentage using pictures. With pictures, you’ll only be able to estimate your body fat percentage within a range, but that’s all you need. It makes no difference if you are 10.4% or 11.2% body fat. What matters is that you are somewhere around 10% to 12% body fat.
To estimate your body fat percentage, shoot a front-facing picture with good lighting and compare it to the picture guide above. You should be able to roughly estimate your current body fat percentage. Next, set a realistic goal and take pictures once a month to track your progress.
Closing thoughts about setting realistic body fat goals
Setting realistic body fat goals is crucial for every person. When you know how to get lean whenever you want, you don’t need to be lean all year round. Few people enjoy the mental and physical sacrifices necessary to maintain sub-10% body fat. So, they’ll only diet down to sub-10% body fat for short periods of time—during the summer or on special occasions. For most of the year, you’ll be happier if you are 10% or higher body fat because you won’t have to follow as rigorous a diet and exercise routine.