If you want to know what works for calculating body fat percentage and what doesn’t, then you want to read this article.

Key Takeaways

1. Body fat percentage is the percentage of your body weight that’s fat.
2. A healthy body fat percentage for men is 8 to 17% body fat, and for women it’s 15 to 24%.
3. The best way to measure and track your body fat percentage is to weigh yourself daily, and take caliper and waist measurements and progress pictures weekly.

Here you go:

The first time I tried to formally calculate my body fat percentage, I was confused. Here’s how I looked:

I know that bodybuilders compete at 4 to 5% body fat, so I figured I was around 7 to 8%?

What would you guess my “score” was? Would you believe …

11%?!

That’s the number my friend and I were getting with our “bodybuilder approved” multiple-point caliper test (that we did several times to confirm).

I weighed about 184 pounds in that shot, so according to these calipers, I was still carrying about 20 pounds of fat.

To put that in perspective, here’s what just one pound of fat looks like in terms of volume:

You couldn’t pinch more than skin anywhere on my body, so where was all this phantom fat hiding, exactly?

And considering what it took to get this lean, if this really was 11% body fat, I guess 7% is just impossible?

Well, quandary in hand, I set out to find an answer. And in this article, I want to share what I’ve learned, including …

• What “body fat percentage” means.
• The pros and cons of popular ways of calculating body fat percentage.
• How to determine your body fat percentage with a fair amount of accuracy.
• Why obsessing over body fat percentage is counterproductive (and what to do instead).
• And more.

Let’s get started.

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• What Is Body Fat Percentage?
• Why Body Fat Percentage Is More Important Than BMI
• Can You Determine Your Body Fat Percentage Based on BMI?
• What’s a Healthy Body Fat Percentage for Men and Women?
• What’s the Lowest Body Fat Percentage You Can Maintain?
• How to Calculate Your Body Fat Percentage
• Body Composition Scales and Handheld Devices
• Body Fat Calipers and Skinfold Testing
• Pictures and the Mirror
• Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DXA)
• Bod Pod
• The Most Accurate Way to Calculate Body Fat Percentage
• How I Measure and Track My Body Fat Percentage
• I weigh myself daily and calculate an average every 7 to 10 days.
• I take bi-weekly caliper measurements.
• I take weekly waist measurements.
• I take weekly pictures.
• The Best Way to Reduce Your Body Fat Percentage
• How to Lose Body Fat in 5 Simple Steps
• 1. Use an aggressive (but not reckless) calorie deficit.
• 2. Eat a high-protein diet.
• 3. Do a lot of heavy compound weightlifting.
• 4. Use high-intensity interval training to burn fat faster.
• 5. Take fat loss supplements that actually work.
• The Bottom Line on Calculating Body Fat Percentage

What Is Body Fat Percentage?

Your body fat percentage is the percentage of your body weight that’s fat.

For example, if you weigh 150 pounds and have 15 pounds of fat, your body fat percentage is 10% (15 / 150).

This means that your body fat percentage is a moving target, changing when you gain or lose fat, of course, but it also when you gain or lose muscle.

For example, if you used proper diet and weightlifting to increase your weight from 150 to 170 pounds with just 5 pounds of additional fat gain, your new body fat percentage would be about 12% (20 / 170).

If you then stopped lifting for a year and lost, let’s say, 10 pounds of muscle but no fat, your body fat percentage would still be about 12% (20 / 160).

So, your body fat percentage ebbs and flows as you change your body composition.

Summary: Your body fat percentage is the percentage of your body weight that’s fat, and it can increase or decrease depending on how your body composition changes (and specifically, the amount of fat and muscle you’re carrying around).

Why Body Fat Percentage Is More Important Than BMI

Many people mix up body fat percentage and BMI, but they’re completely different.

BMI stands for “body mass index,” and it’s a numeric expression of the relationship between your height and weight.

You calculate your BMI by dividing your weight in kilograms by your height in meters squared. For example, here’s my BMI in the picture I shared earlier:

• 184 (pounds) x 0.45 = 82.8 (kilograms)
• 73 (inches) x 0.025 = 1.825 (meters)
• 1.825 x 1.825 = 3.3306
• 82.8 / 3.3306 = 24.9 (BMI)

And here’s how BMI values are correlated with body weight status:

• Underweight = <18.5
• Normal weight = 18.5 to 24.9
• Overweight = 25 to 29.9
• Obesity = BMI of 30 or greater

As you can see, according to the BMI measurement, I was borderline overweight. Silly, right?

That’s the rub with BMI: it’s useful for analyzing broad populations but not so useful for assessing individual fitness.

Of course, the reason for this is that I’m carrying a lot more muscle than the average person—about 40 pounds more—and this bumps up my BMI despite my low body fat percentage.

Summary: Body fat percentage is a much better way of monitoring your body composition and setting physique goals than BMI, and especially for relatively lean people.

Can You Determine Your Body Fat Percentage Based on BMI?

No, most people can’t.

BMI is solely based on your height and weight, and it doesn’t take into account how much of that weight is fat versus muscle.

This means that BMI can be high for very different reasons. On the one hand, it can be high because, like me, you’re pretty muscular and lean. On the other hand, it can be due to the opposite—a low or even average amount of muscle mass and high amount of body fat.

That said, there is one situation where you can use BMI to roughly estimate someone’s body fat percentage: In overweight people with normal levels of muscle mass (people who don’t lift weights), BMI is often similar to body fat percentage.

For example, a 5’10, 200-pound man at 30% body fat would probably have a BMI of roughly 30. Likewise, a 5’4, 160-pound woman at 40% body fat would probably have a BMI of roughly 40.

This correlation disappears when you look at lean people, though. For example, my body fat percentage is typically around 10%, but I’d have to starve myself to a life-threatening 76 pounds to get a BMI of 10.

This relationship also disappears with people with above average muscularity. My BMI in the picture you saw earlier was 24.9, but my body fat percentage was less than a third of that.

This is why I never recommend you use BMI to estimate your body fat percentage, even if it kinda-sorta works in some situations. Even then, there are many better ways to estimate your body fat percentage.

Summary: BMI is rarely a good way to estimate your body fat percentage because it doesn’t reliably represent it in most people.

What’s a Healthy Body Fat Percentage for Men and Women?

As much as it’s generally despised, body fat is much more than a layer of ugly, unwanted, greasy flesh.

It plays many vital roles in the body, including protecting organs from damage, maintaining body temperature, producing hormones like leptin and other chemicals, and much more. That’s why there’s a limit to how lean you can get before your health declines. What’s that limit, though?

Well, here are two body fat charts that show how various body fat percentages play out for both men and women:

(In case you’re wondering, the additional fat that women carry in their breasts, hips, thighs, and butt accounts for their generally higher body fat ranges.)

Studies show the absolute leanest men can get under any circumstances is about 4 to 5% body fat, and the leanest women can get is about 10 to 12% body fat.

The reason for this is because once you get this lean, all that remains is “essential” body fat stored in nerve cells, brain tissue, joints, and the pads of your hands and palms of your feet, and around major organs like the heart and intestines, and thus is required to stay alive.

Once you hit this essential body fat range, your life is literally on the line. Keep losing fat and your heart can stop or you can wind up in a coma, which your body protects itself against by beginning to break down muscle tissue and then internal organs for energy instead of relying heavily on body fat. This is why studies show that people who die of starvation still have most of their essential body fat.

You might be scratching your head at this point because of some of the sweet body fat brags you’ve heard around the gym. For instance, I’ve heard guys say they got down to 2% body fat for competitions, and I’ve heard girls claiming 5 or 6%. As you now know, this is physiologically impossible.

How can these people be so off in their body fat estimations?

Usually it’s just willful ignorance, but sometimes it’s because the methods they use to measure their body fat percentage are wildly inaccurate (and especially in people who are already lean—more on this in a moment).

For reference’s sake, here’s what 4% body fat actually looks like in a man:

And here’s what a real 10% looks like in a woman:

Yikes.

Unless you’re a competitive bodybuilder and know exactly what you’re doing and why, don’t ever try to get this lean. Your hormones can go haywire, your organs can fail, and even when you avoid disaster, the road back to normality can be quite long and bumpy.

Fortunately, you’re probably like most people and would never want to get that lean. Instead, you probably want to be in the lower end of the athletic range—around 7 to 10% for men and 13 to 20% for women—which is what most people would consider “ripped” or “shredded.”

Here’s what this looks like for a man:

And here’s what it looks like for a woman:

(In case you’re wondering, I’m sharing mostly pictures of elite athletes because there’s a lot of high quality research on them. This is why, for example, we know that the top level male athletes in many sports are usually around 6 to 10% body fat, and the females are generally around 13 to 20%.)

Anyone can get to this look with proper dieting and exercise, but it’s very tough to maintain for long periods of time. If you want to maintain this look, it requires strict control of calorie intake, which can be particularly hard if you’re fighting against your body’s natural set point, as well as a rigorous and regular exercise routine.

Furthermore, although you can be healthy at these lower levels of body fat, you don’t need to be that lean to be healthy (and below a certain point, getting leaner doesn’t improve your health).

Specifically, the health benefits of fat loss drop off around 15% body fat in men, and 25% in women.

In other words, reducing your body fat percentage below the “fit” range is more about vanity and feeling better about how you look rather than improving your health (which is a perfectly valid reason to do it, in my opinion).

What does this “fit” range of about 15/25% body fat (men/women) look like exactly?

Well, here’s ~15% in men:

And ~25% in women:

As you can see, this is where you look healthy and athletic but lack the definition and razzle-dazzle of the lower body fat levels.

Once your body fat levels rise above the “fit” range, you begin to look decidedly “overweight.” I generally recommend that people don’t exceed this range because it can get unhealthy, it slows down muscle growth, and it makes subsequent efforts to get lean long and grueling.

Here’s what I’m talking about in men:

And here’s women:

Summary: A healthy body fat range for men is around 12 to 15% and for women is around 22 to 25%. Although getting leaner than this isn’t necessary for health, it does improve your muscle definition and “aesthetics.”

What’s the Lowest Body Fat Percentage You Can Maintain?

Here’s another picture of me at my leanest (probably around 7% body fat):

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Mike Matthews (@muscleforlifefitness) on Oct 27, 2016 at 12:43pm PDT

I liked being this shredded because, uh, reasons, and tried to maintain it, but after a couple of months I ran into a few problems:

1. I wasn’t enjoying my workouts.

My strength was down on my big lifts by about 5% by the end of the cut that got me here, and it wasn’t coming back, and I didn’t have as much energy and drive in my training as I was used to.

Because I was only exercising 5 to 6 hours per week, I had to pay close attention to everything I ate and couldn’t do much in the way of cheating, and especially not with high-fat foods, so that killed the excitement of going to restaurants, and it made social gatherings less enjoyable.

3. I couldn’t eat as much as I wanted to.

I was getting hungry throughout the day, which is very unusual for me, and could feel that my body wanted more food than it was getting.

So, I increased my calorie intake (mostly in the form of carbs), and gradually let my body fat percentage rise to a more sustainable, healthy, and enjoyable range.

And here’s a picture of me now (around 10% body fat):

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Mike Matthews (@muscleforlifefitness) on Jun 11, 2018 at 7:19am PDT

The result?

I’m stronger, I have more energy in my workouts and in general, I can be more relaxed about my diet, and I can eat significantly more calories every day (despite only a small increase in body fat).

In other words, if I want to enjoy my life, the lowest body fat percentage I can maintain on my current exercise schedule is around 9%. Once I go lower, the problems begin. Why?

This phenomenon can be explained with what’s known as “set point theory,” which states that the body uses hormones, hunger, behavior changes, and other physiological mechanisms to “defend” a certain range of body weight (and body fat in particular).

A simple way to think of this is as a “thermostat” or “cruise control” system for body weight and fat levels. Whatever numbers are set are what your body strives to maintain.

While a more accurate term would be “settling point” because “set” implies fixed and unchanging, and fortunately this isn’t the case, the basic premise of the body weight set point theory is sound.

Your body likes to maintain a certain amount of body fat to maintain proper hormonal, metabolic, and reproductive function, and strength and cognition, and it fights back when you try to go lower than this amount. Hunger rises, anabolic hormones like testosterone drop, libido tanks, and recovery and muscle and strength gain grinds to a halt.

Everyone’s natural “settling point” is slightly different based on their genetics, activity levels, food choices, etc, but everyone experiences these side effects when they get lean enough. For men, this point tends to be about 8 to 10% body fat, and for women it tends to be about 18 to 20% body fat.

Anecdotally speaking, after having worked with thousands of men and women, I’ve found that the majority are happiest with how they look and feel when they’re in the upper end of the “athletic” range, or around 8 to 12% body fat for men and 18 to 22% body fat for women.

This is lean enough to have abs and decent muscle definition and vascularity, but not so lean that every day feels like an uphill battle against the lethargy and irritability that often accompany lower body fat levels. Most people can also maintain this level of leanness without meticulously counting calories, following a rigid meal plan, or doing excessive amounts of exercise.

Personally, I like to hang out around 9 to 10% body fat for most of the year because it’s easy to maintain on my normal workout schedule, and it keeps me within striking distance of lower body fat levels if I feel like getting really lean.

Summary: Most people are happiest with how they look and feel when they’re about 8 to 12% body fat (for men) or 18 to 22% (for women). Maintaining a lower body fat percentage than these numbers is not only tremendously difficult to do but is also unhealthy.

How to Calculate Your Body Fat Percentage

There are quite a few ways of calculating your body fat percentage and you can get quite a few different results.

In my case, the multiple-point caliper test said 11%, but the handheld device (which we’ll talk about soon) said 8%, and a different single-point caliper said 6%.

What gives?

Body Composition Scales and Handheld Devices

The simplest way to measure your body fat percentage is with a scale or handheld device.

These instruments use a method called bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA), which involves measuring your body’s resistance to a light electrical current.

Muscle conducts electricity well because it’s over 70% water and fat doesn’t because it holds much less water. Thus, the more resistant the body is to an electrical current, the fatter it must be.

That sounds reasonable enough but there are serious problems with BIA …

Electricity will take the path of least resistance.

As the current passes through your body, it will avoid fat stores for tissues that are easier to traverse. (Internal tissues will be chosen over subcutaneous fat, for example.)

Making matters worse is the fact that two-electrode devices (like most scales and handhelds) skip entire portions of your body.

Foot-to-foot scales miss your entire torso and hand-to-hand devices miss the lower half of your body.

As you can imagine, this corrupts the results.

Another problem with BIA is it uses mathematical equations to turn raw readings into body fat percentages and these equations can be fundamentally flawed.

You see, when a company develops a BIA device, they calibrate it using another imperfect method of measuring body fatness like hydrostatic weighing.

There are several steps involved:

• Measuring the body fat of a large group of people with the “control” method.
• Measuring them again with the BIA device.
• Developing an equation to predict BIA results based on height, weight, gender, and other variables.

This could work if the control method’s readings were accurate, but they’re often not.

That is, many companies are calibrating their BIA devices to conform to incorrect calculations of body fat percentage.

Hyrdrostatic weighing is most frequently used for BIA benchmarking, and studies show it can be off by as much as 6% for various reasons relating to ethnicity, body weight, hydration status, and more.

If 6% off doesn’t sound too bad to you, realize that when I’m talking error rates in this article, I’m talking in absolute terms, not relative.

In other words, someone at 10% body fat may register at anywhere from 6 to 16% with hydrostatic weighing.

Body conditions can dramatically influence readings.

Test your body fat with BIA when you’re dehydrated and you’ll read abnormally high due to lower conductivity.

Test after you eat and you’ll see the opposite effect—you’ll read abnormally low. (In one study, being fed reduced readings by 4.2%.)

Research shows the body is more conductive after exercise, so if you test after a workout, you’ll get another artificially low reading.

These are some of the reasons why scientists have said that consumer-level BIA devices aren’t suitable for accurately estimating body fat percentage.

What about using one for tracking changes to your body fat over time, though?

If BIA were at least consistently inaccurate, that would work, right?

Sure … but it’s just too all over the place even for that.

Readings are inconsistently inaccurate because they’re influenced by too many things that you can’t easily control, making these machines more or less useless.

Body Fat Calipers and Skinfold Testing

Skinfold testing uses calipers to measure the thickness of your skin at various points on your body.

The measurements are added together and fed through a couple of equations that ultimately give you a body fat percentage.

You probably already see where this can go wrong.

Namely, if you pinch too little skin, you’ll read lower than you are. Too much and you’ll read higher.

Unfortunately pinching perfectly isn’t a guarantee of accuracy, though, due to bad equations.

For example, in one study a team of scientists at the VA Medical Center in Durham North Carolina took skinfold measurements of 681 healthy men and women. As a control, they also measured everyone’s body fat percentage using a far more accurate technique known as the 4-compartment model (more on this in a moment).

They found that the skinfold measurements were about as accurate as the 4-compartment model for measuring the average body fat percentage of the entire group. When it came to individuals, though, the skinfold measurements were wildly inaccurate for many of the participants. In many cases, skinfold measurements either over- or underestimated body fat percentage by as much as 10 to 15% (absolute!).

That is, a guy at 20% body fat could get a reading of 5% body fat (shredded) or 35% body fat (obese) using skinfold measurements.

In another study, skinfold testing produced measurements that ranged from 5% too low to 3% too high. This study conducted with bodybuilders demonstrated similar error rates.

The upside to skinfold testing is some methods are more accurate than others and lend themselves well to tracking changes to body fat levels over time.

Pictures and the Mirror

This is the simplest and most obvious way to guesstimate your body fat percentage.

Most people around certain body fat percentages look similar … if they have similar amounts of muscle.

If they don’t, though, then the same body fat percentage can look quite different on two different physiques.

For example, a 160-pound guy at 10% body fat has 16 pounds of fat, and a 190-pound guy at 10% has only 3 pounds more fat but quite a bit more muscle, giving him a dramatically different look.

Here’s a good visual of this:

Both guys are around 10% body fat, but the one on the left has a good 20 to 25 pounds of muscle on his skinny fat neighbor.

Now, if you’re still reading this, there’s a good chance you’re into working out and have more muscle than the average guy or gal.

If that’s the case, then the following images will help you estimate your approximate body fat percentage.

The coveted “six pack” emerges around 10% body fat, ab/core vascularity becomes visible around 8%, and the “carved out of stone” look requires about 6% or less.

As you can see, 10% in men is relatively lean but in women, it’s competition lean.

Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DXA)

DXA (sometimes called DEXA) uses a full-body X-ray to help calculate your body fat percentage.

The scientific basis of the method is fat and fat-free mass absorb X-ray energy differently, which allows each element to be isolated and measured.

You might expect it to be highly accurate, and in fact many people believe DXA readings are unerring, but research shows otherwise.

They can be just as inaccurate as any other method we’ve discussed so far.

For example, in these two studies individual error rates using DXA were as high as 4%. In another study, DXA was off by 8 to 10%.

This helps explain why many bodybuilders in contest shape have been perplexed by DXA readings of anywhere from 6 to 10%.

There are several reasons for DXA’s fallibility:

• Results can differ between machines, both from the same and different manufacturers.
• Accuracy is affected by gender, body size, body fatness, and even disease state.
• Different machines use different algorithms to interpret the raw data from body scans, and some are better than others.
• The type of X-ray used (fan or pencil beam) influences the accuracy of the test.
• How hydrated you are during the scan can greatly affect the results.

So, as with other methods like BIA and skinfold testing, DXA scan can give an accurate calculation of your body fat percentage, but it can also be quite off.

Bod Pod

The Bod Pod is a machine that works similarly to hydrostatic weighing, but uses air instead of water.

You sit in a sealed chamber and sensors measure the amount of air your body displaces. Mathematical formulas are then used to translate the readings into body composition statistics.

We already know how inaccurate hydrostatic weighing can be, and unfortunately, the Bod Pod seems to be even worse.

Its accuracy is affected by more variables like facial hair, moisture, body temperature, and even the tightness of the clothing worn.

In one study, Bod Pod readings were off by as much as 15%. In other studies, error rates of 5 to 6% were seen.

This helped explain for me some of the rather shocking Bod Pod readings I’ve seen working with others.

I’ve come across dozens of people in my travels whose Bod Pod measurements were easily double their actual body fat percentages (you don’t need more than eyeballs to know that a guy is around 10%, not 20%).

Summary: There is no 100% foolproof way to measure body fat percentage. BIA and Bod Pod tend to be the least accurate, DXA and body fat calipers are slightly more accurate, and ironically, pictures and the mirror tend to be the most accurate (if you’re honest with yourself).

The Most Accurate Way to Calculate Body Fat Percentage

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably wondered how scientists were able to determine the error rates of various testing methods.

What were they comparing BIA, DXA, Bod Pod, hydrostatic weighing, and skinfold results against to check accuracy?

What’s the true “gold standard” of body fat calculation?

Well, it’s a method known as a “4-compartment analysis,” which involves using several testing methods to, piece by piece, separate body weight into four categories:

• Bone
• Water
• Muscle tissue
• Fat mass

Hydrostatic weighing is used to measure body density, deuterium dilution is used to measure total body water, and DXA is used to measure total bone mass.

The data collected from each of these tests is then manipulated with various equations and the result is a consistently accurate measurement of body fat percentage.

This is nice to know but of not real use to us because, well, it requires a team of scientists.

Fortunately, though, there is a method of calculating and tracking body fat percentage that I feel is accurate and consistent enough to warrant our attention.

How I Measure and Track My Body Fat Percentage

I track changes in my body fat percentage with calipers, a scale, a measuring tape, and the mirror.

Here’s how I do it …

I weigh myself daily and calculate an average every 7 to 10 days.

Your weight can fluctuate from day to day due to things you can’t see like water retention, glycogen storage, and bowel movements.

This is why you don’t want to put too much stock in daily weight measurements.

Weekly weight averages are much more useful because they give you a truer picture of what’s happening.

If your 7- or 10-day average is going up, you’re gaining weight. If it’s going down, you’re losing weight.

So, weigh yourself every day first thing in the morning after the bathroom and before food or water.

Record these daily weights and take an average every 7 to 10 days (sum the daily weights and divide by the number of days).

Watch those averages and you won’t need to fret over temporary movements up or down.

I take bi-weekly caliper measurements.

Generally speaking, if your skin is getting thicker over time, you’re gaining fat. If it’s getting thinner, you’re losing fat.

This is why caliper readings can be very useful, despite not being inherently reliable for extrapolating body fat percentage.

I’ve tried many calipers and skinfold testing methods, and here’s what I’ve found best:

I Want This

There are two reasons I like this caliper:

1. It’s a one-site testing method, which means there are less ways to screw it up.
2. It’s surprisingly accurate.

I’ve worked with hundreds of people using this caliper and rarely see flagrant misestimations (it seems to be accurate to within 1 to 2%).

Here’s how to use it:

I used to recommend you take weekly caliper measurements to coincide with weekly waist measurements and progress pictures, but I stopped for two reasons:

1. Skinfold thickness tends to change slower than other measurements.

Typically you’ll only notice a millimeter or two of difference from one week to the next, which can easily be missed by placing the calipers in a slightly different spot, not pressing down as hard, etc.

2. Taking caliper measurements takes considerably longer than taking waist measurements and progress pictures, and most people get tired of doing it every week (especially when the changes are so subtle).

That’s why I recommend you take bi-weekly caliper measurements, which leaves enough time for you to see a more significant (and less error-prone) change in your skinfold thickness.

I take weekly waist measurements.

The size of your waist (measured at the navel) is a reliable indicator of fat gain or loss.

An expanding waist indicates fat gain and a shrinking one fat loss, which is why it’s another good measurement to keep an eye on (and all you need is a simple measuring tape.)

I take weekly pictures.

If you’re like most of us gymgoers, the point of all of this is what you see in the mirror.

And when you look at yourself every day, you can get discouraged because you’re not seeing the gradual improvements.

Taking weekly front, side, and back pictures in good front-on lighting helps greatly with seeing your progress and staying motivated.

Summary: To accurately estimate and track your body fat percentage, weigh yourself daily and calculate the average every 7 to 10 days, take bi-weekly caliper measurements, and weekly waist measurements and progress pictures.

The Best Way to Reduce Your Body Fat Percentage

As you learned earlier in this article, the two ways to improve your body fat percentage are to . . .

1. Lose body fat while maintaining muscle mass
2. Increase muscle mass while minimizing fat gain

When you run the numbers, though, you quickly see that the first option is far more effective for reducing your body fat percentage than the second.

Allow me to explain.

With proper diet and training, you can expect to lose around 1 to 2 pounds of fat per week while cutting.

When lean bulking, though, the best you can hope for after your newbie gains are gone is 0.5 to 1 pound of muscle per month with about an equal amount of fat gain.

Furthermore, that target for muscle gain becomes smaller and smaller as you near your genetic potential for muscle growth, until it finally becomes vanishingly small.

For example, let’s say you weigh 150 pounds at 15% body fat. This gives you 127.5 pounds of lean body mass and 22.5 pounds of fat mass.

After a successful year of lean bulking, let’s say you’ve gained 10 pounds of muscle and 10 pounds of fat, putting you at 137.5 pounds of lean mass and 32.5 pounds of fat mass at a total body weight of 170 pounds.

Divide the fat mass by the total body weight . . .

32.5 / 170 = 0.19

. . . convert the quotient to a percentage . . .

0.19 = 19%

And you learn that despite gaining 10 pounds of muscle with minimal fat gain, you’re still quite a bit fatter than you were before the gaining phase.

Now let’s see what the numbers would look like if you decided to reduce your body fat percentage by cutting.

Again, let’s say you weigh 150 pounds at 15% body fat, which gives you 127.5 pounds of lean body mass and 22.5 pounds of fat mass.

During a successful cut, you lose 10 pounds of fat without losing muscle, reducing your body weight to 140 pounds.

You now have 127.5 pounds of lean body mass and 12.5 pounds of fat mass.

12.5 / 127.5 = 0.01

. . . which becomes about 10% body fat.

(I know, I know, technically you may lose some “lean mass” in the way of intramuscular water and glycogen, but it’ll be negligible—a couple pounds at most—and I want to keep things simple for the example.)

So in this case, not only did losing 10 pounds of fat by properly cutting reduce your body fat percentage by 50% (relative, natch), it did so in a quarter of the time it took to build 10 pounds of muscle.

This isn’t to say that building muscle won’t improve your physique, but it won’t have the same effect on your body fat percentage and appearance as quickly as losing fat will.

Summary: If you want to reduce your body fat percentage, setting your diet up to maximize fat loss is far more effective than setting it up to maximize muscle gain.

How to Lose Body Fat in 5 Simple Steps

You know what body fat percentage is, how to measure it, and the best way to reduce it—the “what” and “why” of getting the body you want.

Now let’s look at the “how” of losing body fat.

There are just five simple steps:

1. Use an aggressive (but not reckless) calorie deficit.

The only way to lose a significant amount of fat is to eat fewer calories (less energy) than you burn.

You see, the reason you’re carrying excess body fat is, over time, you consistently ate more calories than you burned. And the only way to get rid of that excess fat is to do the opposite: eat less than you burn.

When you do this, you’re in a “calorie deficit” because, well, your energy intake is falling short of your body’s needs. It must get that additional energy from somewhere, though, and its go-to is fat stores.

Now, the larger the calorie deficit, the faster the weight loss, but if you make it too large (by eating too little), you’re going to run into various problems related to “starvation dieting.”

We want to avoid that, but we also want to push the envelope as much as we can. That is, we want to be aggressive in our fat loss efforts, but not reckless.

Dieting isn’t fun no matter how you slice it, and the sooner it’s over the better.

And that’s why I recommend that you set your calorie deficit at 20 to 25% (eat 20 to 25% less calories than you burn every day).

Research shows that this will allow you to lose fat rapidly without losing muscle.

If you follow the rest of the steps in this list, you also shouldn’t run into much in the way of hunger or cravings, either.

Sure, you might feel twinges now and then, but nothing like what most people associate with “dieting.”

To find how many calories you burn every day, use the calculator in this article:

This Is the Best TDEE Calculator on the Web (2019)

Once you know how many calories you burn each (your TDEE), multiply it by 0.75 to find how many calories you should eat per day to lose weight.

If you prefer to skip the math, you can also multiply your body weight by 11 to estimate how many calories you should eat to lose weight.

Summary: Eat 20 to 25% fewer calories than you burn every day consistently, and you’re guaranteed to lose fat quickly.

2. Eat a high-protein diet.

When we’re talking body composition, protein is by far the most important macronutrient.

Studies show that eating adequate protein helps you . . .

The bottom line is high-protein dieting beats low-protein in every way, really, and especially when you’re cutting.

So, what’s the right amount of protein then?

Well, when you’re looking to lose fat, then you should eat about 1 to 1.2 grams per pound of body weight per day.

And if you’re very overweight (25%+ body fat in men and 30%+ in women), then set your protein intake at 40% of your total cutting calories.

For example, for a 195-pound man at 10% body fat, like myself, this would work out to around 200 to 230 grams of protein per day.

Summary: Eat 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day while cutting if you’re less than 25% body fat as a man or 30% body fat as a woman. If you’re over those values, set your protein intake at 40% of your daily cutting calories.

3. Do a lot of heavy compound weightlifting.

There are many ways to train your muscles, and when the goal is gaining size and strength as quickly as possible, nothing beats heavy compound weightlifting.

It’s better than workout machines, “pump” classes, bodyweight exercises, Yoga, Pilates, and everything else you can do to develop your muscles.

What do I mean by “heavy compound” lifting, though?

Well, by “compound,” I mean focusing on compound exercises, which are those that target multiple large muscle groups, such as the squat, bench press, military press, and deadlift.

And by “heavy,” I mean lifting weights that are above 75% of your one-rep max (weights that you can do 12 reps or less with before failing).

The main reason heavy compound weightlifting is so effective is it’s the best way to overload your muscles, which is the primary trigger for muscle growth.

By lifting heavy weights (and progressing to heavier and heavier weights as you get stronger), you create tremendous amounts of tension in your muscles, and this tells them to grow.

I think you can figure out how this benefits you when you’re restricting your calories for fat loss.

In short, it allows you to minimize muscle loss while dieting, or, depending on your circumstances, even gain muscle while you’re losing fat.

Summary: When restricting calories for fat loss, heavy compound weightlifting will minimize muscle loss while dieting and can even help you gain muscle while losing fat.

4. Use high-intensity interval training to burn fat faster.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a type of cardio that involves short, maximum effort sprints, followed by short periods of recovery.

I’m a big fan of HIIT for several reasons, but the main one is it allows you to lose more fat in less time than traditional slow steady-state cardio.

In fact, research shows that you can burn as much fat in 25 minutes of HIIT as 60 minutes of incline treadmill walking.

Another major benefit of HIIT is that it helps preserve muscle better than low-intensity cardio, mainly because you don’t have to do nearly as much to keep the needle moving.

To be specific, just two to four HIIT workouts per week, with each lasting just 20 to 25 minutes, is all you need to significantly boost your fat loss.

Yup, you really can lose weight fast doing no more than an hour or so of cardio per week!

The one major downside of HIIT is that it takes a much greater toll on the body than slow, low-intensity cardio, which means it can also interfere with your recovery from heavy weightlifting.

I’ve found that most people can tolerate two HIIT workouts without an issue, but some people—especially stronger people—sometimes notice a decline in performance when they do much more than that.

If you find that to be the case or simply want to do more than four cardio workouts per week, consider adding several 30 to 60 minute walks to your weekly workout routine as well. Walking is easier to recover from than HIIT and burns more calories than many people realize.

Summary: Do two to four HIIT workouts per week and/or several 30 to 60 minute walks per week to maximize fat loss.

5. Take fat loss supplements that actually work.

I saved this for last because it’s the least important.

Unfortunately, no amount of weight loss pills and powders are going to give you the body you want.

In fact, most fat loss supplements are completely worthless.

But, here’s the good news:

There are safe, natural compounds that do effectively speed up fat loss. When you combine the right supplements with a proper diet and exercise routine like you just learned about, you dramatically speed up the process.

Here are the top three fat loss supplements that actually work:

1. Caffeine. Three to six mg per kilograms of body weight per day is enough to maximize the fat-burning effects of caffeine. As weight loss boils down to energy consumed versus energy expended, caffeine helps you lose fat by increasing your body’s daily energy expenditure.

Caffeine also improves strength, muscle endurance, and anaerobic performance, and also reverses the “morning weakness” experienced by many weightlifters.

You can get caffeine from coffee or any other source, but I prefer to get mine from Pulse, which also contains six other ingredients proven to boost workout performance and improve mood and energy levels.

2. Yohimbine. 0.1 to 0.2 mg per kilogram of body weight taken before fasted training can increase fat burning during your workout, particularly of stubborn fat stores.

You can buy pure yohimbine supplements, but I recommend you try my pre-workout fat-burner supplement, Forge. Along with 10 mg of yohimbine per serving, it also contains HMB free acid and citicoline, which help prevent muscle breakdown and boost mood during workouts.

3. Phoenix. One to two servings per day is enough to maximize the fat-burning effects of Phoenix, a fat burner that Legion developed that contains seven natural compounds proven help you lose fat faster, including synephrine, green tea extract, and forskolin.

Summary: When cutting take three to six mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight, 0.1 to 0.2 mg of yohimbine per kilogram of body weight before fasted workouts, and one to two servings of Phoenix per day.

What is the ideal body fat percentage for a woman or a man?

There is no “ideal” body fat percentage for health, fitness, and aesthetics.

Instead, it’s better to think of ideal ranges of body fat based on your goals.

If your goal is to look athletic, stay healthy, and avoid disease, then you should aim for a body fat percentage of around 20 to 25% for women and 10 to 15% for men. Getting leaner than that isn’t necessary for health purposes.

If your goal is to stay impressively lean and you’re willing to be very strict about your diet, then you should aim for a body fat percentage of 16 to 18% (women) or 6 to 8% (men).

This isn’t generally sustainable long term, and I don’t recommend you try to maintain this level of leanness year round, but it’s doable for short periods of time.

How much body fat do you have to have to see your abs?

Men usually need to be below 10% body fat to see clear separation between their abdominal muscles, and women usually need to be below 20%.

You can use the chart below to learn how long it will take to get abs:

How Long Does It Take to Get Six-Pack Abs?

What is the average body fat percentage?

In the United States, the average body fat percentage for men is 28%, and the average body fat percentage for women is 40%.

In other words, most Americans have about twice as much body fat as they should in order to look athletic and stay healthy and disease free.

The Bottom Line on Calculating Body Fat Percentage

Your body fat percentage is simply the percentage of your body weight that’s fat.

It’s a better measurement of your overall health, fitness, and body composition than BMI, and it’s also useful for setting weight loss goals.

A healthy body fat percentage for men is around 8 to 16% body fat, and a healthy body fat percentage for women is around 16 to 24% body fat.

I’ve found that most are happiest with how they look and feel when they’re in the middle of this range—around 8 to 12% body fat for men 18 to 22% body fat for women.

Trying to stay leaner than this is usually more trouble than it’s worth.

Many people love to brag about their (supposed) body fat levels, but the only way to know your body fat percentage with absolute certainty is to remove all the fat from your body and weigh it.

And I doubt even the most narcissistic of the bunch are going to volunteer for that.

So with autopsy off the table and 4-compartment analysis out of reach for most of us, here’s the bottom line:

Body fat calculations themselves aren’t as important as how they’re changing over time.

This is why I don’t bother with inconvenient and expensive testing methods like DXA or the Bod Pod.

You may or may not get an accurate reading, so why bother?

Instead, you can just use your weight, skinfold results, waist measurement, and pictures, and know exactly what’s happening with your body.