What exactly is the body fat percentage? Why is this value significantly more important than BMI or body weight, especially for athletic people? What percentage of body fat is normal or healthy? What is the most accurate way to measure body fat? What is the difference between men and women? How much body fat do I have? Everything about body fat percentage is explained in more detail in this blog article.
Understand your body fat percentage correctly
Body fat percentage means the stored fat mass in the body in relation to body weight, or the total mass of the body. Therefore, the body fat percentage is also given as a percentage (%), i.e. it is a relative value. However, body fat can also be given as an absolute number, which is also the case with some body fat measurements. This figure is then given in kg.
The official abbreviation for body fat percentage is your body fat percentag. This abbreviation is used very often because the word itself is very long.
Why should you measure body fat percentage and reduce it if necessary?
Often only the body weight or the BMI is taken as a measurement. However, these two values alone are not sufficient in numerous instances to describe meaningful goals and an accurate physical condition. In the case of severely overweight people who, in addition, do not have muscles that have been built up through conscious physical activity, these two values are quite legitimate. But if someone is somewhat athletic, body composition is much more decisive. Especially in the case of athletes or muscular people, it is even possible that at first glance there is a BMI value that is too high or a rather high body weight relating to height. A man with a height of 1.85 m can have a weight of 95 kg either because of too much body fat or because he has built up a lot of muscle mass. In both cases, a BMI calculator would indicate that the man is overweight and therefore potentially at risk for cardiovascular disease.
The muscular man with the 95Kg, however, could have a body fat percentage of only 10% and accordingly have a lot of muscle mass, which keeps him healthy and protects him from such diseases. Muscle weighs more than fat tissue. This is why it is possible that a woman with a healthy body weight initially has slightly more fat deposits with a body fat percentage of 25%, then reduces body fat by 5 % through a targeted diet and exercise, but still has the same body weight. This is then because she has built up muscle at the same time as lowering her body fat percentage. She will see herself differently in the mirror, but with the result on the scales, she might be depressed because supposedly nothing has changed.
So, it makes sense to measure body fat percentage and not just body weight. Especially if you want to change your lifestyle and set physical goals, measuring your body fat percentage regularly - preferably at 3-week-intervals to 4-week-intervals - is an important tool!
Calculating/measuring body fat percentage - the different methods
There are now numerous measuring methods that can calculate body fat percentage. It is almost impossible to determine the value 100% accurately. The most important three measurement methods are explained and analysed in more detail here:
Measuring body fat - the DEXA Scan
The most accurate method is the DEXA Scan. This device uses a digital X-ray process and can distinguish between muscle mass, body fat and bone density. The device is expensive and requires a special doctor to take responsibility for the measurements.
A measurement is therefore expensive (about 70 EUR per measurement) and time-consuming, as you normally have to visit a medical facility for it. The DEXA Scan is therefore less suitable for regular body fat measurements.
Measuring body fat percentage - bioelectrical impedance analysis
A possible measurement method that many fitness studios use and that is also used in medical studies is a special body fat scale that calculates the body fat percentage by means of bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) via a body water analysis. The test person stands on the scale, which first measures the weight. Then a weak alternating current is passed through the body via metal plates under the feet and metal handles that are grasped firmly with the hands. The body puts up a resistance to this alternating current. This can be measured by the device and on this basis it then calculates values such as body fat percentage, muscle mass, body water etc. via an algorithm. In high-quality devices, the algorithm is calculated based on data from the DEXA Scan. A qualitative BIA measuring device has its price, it costs (depending on how much different data it spits out) between 6,000 and 16,000 EUR. You can already imagine that body fat scales for home use, which cost between 50 and 200 EUR, measure very inaccurately. So, you can save this investment; it's better to get measured and advised in a professional fitness studio.
By the way, even the high-quality BIA does not measure 100% correctly. First of all, it is important that you always measure under the same circumstances (same time of day, at least 2 hours fasting, no training beforehand, etc.). If these conditions are present, there can still be stronger fluctuations from one day to the next, primarily in people with a low body fat percentage and especially women are affected by this. This is because the measurement is based on the physiological water balance, which can fluctuate greatly in women due to the female cycle. Sleep, some foods (e.g., salt), sleep and also stress factors also have an influence here. Ultimately, however, it is a matter of interpreting the data correctly, and therefore you should seek the advice of an expert (e.g., a trained personal trainer) for the measurement. The advantage over the Caliper measurement described in the next section is that the BIA method also measures visceral body fat (inner fat around the organs, deep abdominal fat).
Measuring your body fat - the caliper measurement
Another body fat calculator is a programme that uses an algorithm to calculate the body fat percentage from the values measured by a skin fold caliper: The so-called Caliper body fold measurement, where you measure the subcutaneous fat in millimetres with a pair of forceps (caliper). Subcutaneous fat refers to the body fat in the subcutaneous tissue. In a professional caliper measurement, 12 to 13 skin folds are measured. An experienced trainer, nutritionist, or even doctor who has learnt to measure and practised for a long time can carry out such a body fold analysis. Here, too, there is a slimmed-down version in which you only measure 4 skin folds even with plastic forceps, which unfortunately hardly says anything realistic about the actual body fat percentage. In addition, there is a high error rate when measuring. You really have to learn how to grip the body folds correctly and always get the same spot. In addition, this measurement is also dependent on the person taking the measurement, which makes it important that the same person always measures you. This then (at least with the professional version with the 12-13 folds) also gives a measuring accuracy and a progress or regression can be clearly recognized.
The advantage of the measurement is that not only the body fat percentage and the lean mass (muscles) are calculated, but hormonal correlations can be recognized from the various skin folds. Body fat is not distributed randomly: It makes a difference, for example, whether a large part of the stored fat is on the hips or on the front thigh. Depending on what is most conspicuous, either the blood sugar should first be stabilized in terms of nutrition or one should suffer from oestrogen dominance. Other wrinkles are related to sleep and regeneration. A good consultant who takes the measurement can therefore make very individual dietary and lifestyle recommendations.
A qualitative caliper costs about 300 EUR, the training for it about 1200 EUR (weekend seminars are offered). The calculation programme, which uses the entered data of body weight, height and the measured skin folds to calculate the body fat percentage, also requires an investment of about 500 EUR for the trainer. So, you can imagine that these measurements and consultations also have their price, but also a high added value if you want to improve your quality of life and health and reduce your body fat percentage. Such consultations cost between 80 and 200 EUR per appointment, but are more than just a measurement.
The BIA analysis and the Caliper measurement as well as individual consultations are offered at the MTM Gym Berlin, for example.
How much body fat is normal?
According to official data, a healthy or normal body fat percentage for men is 12-25%. For women, it is 21-36%. The older we get, the more normal the upper limit is considered to be. However, these figures should be viewed very critically. Normal here means - as is often the case with issues of health and disease - that one is simply orienting oneself to an average of the population. Whether this is really healthy can be questioned at this point. A man with 25% body fat and a woman with 36% body fat are in any case potentially at risk of suffering from cardiovascular diseases in the long term - especially if the majority of the body fat is in the middle of the body. The most dangerous fat tissue in terms of health is visceral and abdominal fat.
Since the organs in this area are affected, a high proportion here leads to damage to the blood vessels.
However, one should differentiate: If you are very athletic and muscular, exercise a lot and take the right nutrients, but still have a slightly higher percentage of body fat, which is mainly around the buttocks and legs, you have less to worry about health-wise than someone who hardly exercises, has little muscle mass, goes on crash diets that lead to a lack of nutrients and thus has thin legs but a round belly.
Nevertheless, if you want to stay fit and healthy in the long term and perhaps also look slim and defined or muscular, you should aim for nothing over 25% as a woman and nothing over 18% as a man. However, an ideal body fat percentage cannot be named here; it depends on genetic factors, age, gender, and lifestyle influences that have prevailed for a long time in life.
Low body fat = six-pack?
Whether a six-pack is visible depends very much on the amount of body fat in the middle of the body. In addition, anatomical conditions also play a role…
What role does body fat percentage play for a six-pack in women?
With women, you can often see slight abdominal muscles with a body fat percentage of 14-16%, but a real six-pack with somewhat lower values. For men, you usually have to break the 12% mark. Athletes who have a high muscle percentage and little body fat range from 3 to 10% body fat percentage. However, the 3% is more likely to concern a bodybuilder on competition day.
Having a low body fat percentage does not necessarily provoke health problems, as a common myth has it. In the same vein, it is typically claimed that women with a body fat percentage below 14% will no longer have menstrual periods. This is only the case when there is a hormone imbalance: for example, with extreme crash diets such as the low fat diet, where important fats for hormone production are missing. If you have more muscle mass and keep your body fat low in the long term, and eat the right macro- and micronutrients, you should keep your hormone weight in balance. The fact is that a low body fat percentage generated in a healthy way promotes health and protects against numerous diseases - as long as it is combined with sufficient muscle mass.
Body fat percentage for women vs. body fat percentage for men
The body fat percentage in men is generally about 10% lower than in women. This is partly because men have a fundamentally different physique. They have more muscle mass than women, and their connective tissue fibres have a different structure. As a result, women genetically have significantly more fatty tissue - mainly on the legs - which also serves as a protective mechanism. A healthy body fat percentage is therefore different for women than for men.
Reduce body fat effectively
If you have the goal of reducing body fat mass, you should of course first have a measurement done so that you can then set concrete goals. You cannot calculate body fat percentage without measuring it. So, as mentioned above, there is no home body fat calculator that is much use. With the above-mentioned measurement methods, it is possible to determine from the measurement which type of diet is target-oriented. Basically, however, it always helps to stabilize blood sugar and avoid typical food allergens such as gluten, cow's milk, sugar and anti-nutrients. A proper breakfast in particular plays a decisive role in maintaining stable blood sugar levels. The main way to reduce body fat is through diet. To build up muscles at the same time, additional strength or interval training is helpful. Short and intensive training units are most effective, longer steady jogging less so.
You can find more tips in our blog-category Fitness!