If your goal is fat loss, start by exploring our male body fat percentage visual comparison guide.
You will learn the visual difference between body fat levels ranging from 8% up to 35%.
So you can get a more accurate picture of your own body fat percentage and what that means for your health.
This guide is created with expertise from delivering body transformation results for more than 25,000+ personal training clients at Ultimate Performance worldwide.
You will also learn:
Body fat, otherwise known as adipose tissue, is a normal constituent of every human body. Its primary role is to store and provide energy for metabolic processes for everything from your heart beating to your legs sprinting.
What most people don’t realise is that fat is an organ and it plays an incredibly important role in regulating our body size and ensuring our survival.
To understand how this works, we need to first understand the different types of fat and their roles.
Brown fat, the lesser-known kind of fat, is packed with mitochondria. Rather than store energy, it actually burns energy to produce heat, keeping us warm. Brown fat acts to break down blood sugar and fat molecules to create heat.
Babies have high amounts of brown fat to keep them warm before they develop the ability to shiver to produce heat. As we grow older, brown fat all but disappears, apart from tiny pockets in places like the back of the neck, albeit in very small quantities.
Like brown fat, beige fat produces energy to create heat in the body. This type of fat is that it is actually derived from white fat, the most common and plentiful type of fat in the body. This is why beige fat can be found in small quantities all over the body.
Studies are currently being carried out to understand how we can activate these fat cells to help combat obesity.
White fat is composed of visceral (found around the internal organs) and subcutaneous fat (visible just under the surface of the skin).
Visceral fat is extremely dangerous, partly because it isn’t visible. In theory, you could appear to be of a healthy weight externally. However, if your lifestyle involves high amounts of processed foods, little exercise, poor sleep and high intakes of alcohol, you could be storing your fat viscerally.
High amounts of visceral fat are associated with health issues including insulin resistance, heart disease, liver problems and chronic inflammation.
Subcutaneous fat is the type most people want to decrease when they start a new fitness regimen. It sits on the surface of the body and is the fat that we see in the mirror, so think of the typical ‘love handles’ or ‘muffin top’.
Body fat percentage is a measure of how much body fat you have relative to your lean body mass. Many people think that lean body mass refers only to muscle tissue, but it includes everything in your body that is not fat. This includes your organs, skin, bone, fluid levels, food weight, and stored glycogen.
We use a measure of lean body mass rather than total weight to assess each individual’s starting point and to create their initial nutrition plan. This is because body fat and lean body tissues do not have the same energy and nutrient requirements.
We use measures of lean body mass to set a calorie goal that encourages fat loss. It is also an important benchmark for setting protein intake, which will help to minimise muscle loss during a diet.
This level of body fat is most common among competitive bodybuilders. It is likely to be towards the lowest end of the scale for fat loss goals.
Under 8% is getting down to essential body fat, leaving only enough for you to survive.
Sub-8% body fat percentages are incredibly difficult to attain and maintain. Visually, you would see not only every muscle in your body, but likely individual muscle strands and striations.
Long term, maintaining this level of leanness could also cause health problems. To sustain this level of body fat, the calories you need to maintain your current weight would be very low. As a result, it would involve very low intakes of macronutrients such as dietary fat due to its calorie density. As a result, deficiencies in critical fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K become far more likely.
Over the longer term, you may encounter problems with your vision. You may also find that your skin is dry, thin and unhealthy, and your bones weak. You may also find yourself getting sick frequently as your immune system would be highly compromised. You would also experience a much lower sex drive and impaired fertility if you remain here too long.
This is where most men, whether trained or untrained, should aim if general health and aesthetics is your goal. For a typical cover-model physique, anything between 8-10% is where most guys need to aim. Here, should be able to see a visible six-pack (or even eight-pack if you’re really lucky) and good muscular definition.
It’s lean enough to look visually athletic and for most men to see visible abs, while being relatively easy to maintain. Most men shouldn’t have too much issue getting and staying here with sensible training and a calorie-controlled diet.
All in all, it would be considered healthy for most individuals. However, of course, this may differ from person to person based on their genetics and medical history.
This is probably the leaner end of the ‘average’ man on the street and where you will start slowly edging towards the ‘dad bod’. It’s likely that you wouldn’t see much muscle definition here and almost certainly no visible abs. Having said that, it’s also not necessarily unhealthy either.
At this point genetics and lifestyle are influential. If you weight train or exercise regularly, you will look okay in clothes, but probably wouldn’t make a magazine cover with your shirt off.
Your health would be good under most circumstances, and you should have low levels of visceral fat, providing your diet is in check.
Here we have the higher end of the ‘average’ scale. You’re soft around the middle, probably enjoy a few too many beers and your diet mainly consists of things that are delivered in 40 minutes or less.
This level of body fat would not be considered optimal health as the risk of inflammation and chronic diseases increases significantly.
If you don’t do so already, moving more and exercising regularly will pay dividends. Whether it’s weight training, playing a sport or any other activity, pick something that you enjoy and can do consistently.
At 25% body fat and over you are now getting a little on the ‘chubby’ side and you may need to think about making some lifestyle changes if you want to live a long and healthy life.
Aesthetics shouldn’t be your main concern here because they’re now some way off. You will have love handles, a bit of a belly and likely some unsightly ‘man boobs’. You may also not feel too great in clothes.
You are also likely to experience high levels of inflammation, with increased likelihood of insulin resistance and lifestyle diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
The more fat you carry, the higher your risk for illness further down the line. At this stage, it’s important to start moving more and bringing your diet under control start reducing your risk of comorbidities such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, cardiovascular disease among others.
Body fat of 30% and over is not healthy for a male. You probably won’t feel too great when you look in the mirror, fat will hang over tight clothes and will almost certainly wobble a little as you walk.
Poor diet, lifestyle and exercise habits are the main causes of this level of body fat. Inflammation and high risk of chronic disease are a very real problem and should be addressed as soon as possible if you fall in this bracket.
As a man, you will be lucky if you store most of this fat under the skin. However, due to the influence of testosterone, men are far more likely to store fat around the midsection, around the organs in particular.
If you are overweight yet your stomach is hard or looks pregnant, it’s a sign that you have high levels of visceral fat. Beer bellies are caused by this fat pushing against the stomach wall internally, making the outside feel hard and round.
A measure of 35% body fat or more is not considered healthy at all for men or women. This kind of body composition makes you a prime candidate for diabetes and certainly an elevated risk of heart disease further down the line.
People at this level of body fat also tend to suffer from a laundry list of ailments caused by inflammation, poor gut health, and joint issues due to the simple fact that they are carrying too much weight day to day.
This is the stage where it is important to take immediate action to start exercising and begin a calorie-controlled diet to control your weight and regain your health and body shape.
There are a range of tools that we use measure body fat so we can tell whether fat loss is occurring. The main thing to remember with all body fat measuring tools is that they are an estimate and all have a margin of error.
This is why we use range of tools and methods to measure progress, including:
Each of these measures provide different benefits and downsides, as shown in the table below.
As a result, we use multiple benchmarks to compensate for the inconsistencies that are unavoidable with any single measurement tool. Rather than drawing conclusions based on each method in isolation, which increases the risk of errors, we look at results across multiple assessment tools and data points to take a holistic view of the client’s progress.
For example, many clients will lose weight at a fast rate in their first few weeks of the program. If you were to look at only this change, fat loss may appear to be taking place too quickly, increasing the risk of muscle loss. However, when we also take into consideration skinfold and circumference measurements, it becomes obvious that this large change is mostly due to water loss and we do not need to make a change to the plan.
In contrast, there are many factors that influence scale weight. As a result, your weight may not always drop every day, even if you are following the plan to the ‘t’. By also tracking skinfold and circumference measurements, we can tell if fat loss is still taking place, regardless of daily weight fluctuations.
The only way we could truly know someone’s bodyfat percentage would be to cut all the fat off them and weigh it. For obvious reasons, this is not the preferred option for most people. But there are various scientific tools that can allow us to do this with different levels of effectiveness.
Every measurement tool has a margin of error. The main thing is to find an option that you can use as accurately as possible (i.e., sufficient training in a particular tool or going to an expert) consistently.
All you need to know is that these measurements can only give you an estimate of your starting point. You may need to refine your fat loss approach as you progress.
The table below summarises the three models and the tools that use them:
At Ultimate Performance, our primary method of measuring bodyfat percentage is through skinfold callipers and this is for several reasons.
Firstly, they allow us to be far more specific than circumference measurements as they pick up subtle changes in body fat distribution.
We measure the thickness of the skin and fat at particular sites and apply this to an algorithm, which calculates your total body fat percentage.
The advantage is that, even if one or two sites have not decreased, we can look at the sum of all measurements to see if change is occurring, albeit small.
However, skinfold readings may not be appropriate or possible for everybody.
The kinds of cheap callipers you may see online are not of sufficient quality to provide an accurate reading. Likewise, medical-grade callipers are expensive and are delicate pieces of equipment.
The accuracy of calliper measurements is also highly reliant on the skill of the person taking the readings and requires training and practice to get right. Skinfold readings should only be carried out by a trained professional. It is also almost impossible to take accurate calliper readings on yourself due to the nature of the sites measured.
Circumference is simply the distance around a body part from point to point. Reductions in certain areas, such as the trunk, or the thighs, are often associated with decreases in body fat and improved body composition.
Typical sites include the waist and hip or more gender-specific sites, such as arms for men or thighs for women.
Circumference measurements have a slight advantage over scale weight in that they are site-specific. This means that you will have a better idea of where you are losing weight, although we still cannot tell what type of tissue this is. While we mostly cannot spot reduce body fat, seeing specific sites decrease can be highly motivating for some people.
What is great about circumference measurements is that they are less susceptible to subtle changes in the body’s fluid levels. It is also a cheap and easy-to-use method that requires little training.
BMI or Body Mass Index is based on your height and weight and measures if your weight is healthy.
To calculate BMI, take your weight in kilos and divide it by your height in metres squared.
Bodyfat percentage measures how much body fat you have relative to your lean body mass. This includes not only muscle but everything in your body that is not fat, such as your organs, skin, bone, fluid levels, food weight, and stored glycogen.
However, when we are talking about what is ‘optimally’ healthy, there is an important difference between BMI and body fat percentage.
BMI does not account for body composition at all. As a result, an individual with a high level of muscle mass could be considered overweight or obese for their height. The irony here is that these types of individuals could be classed as ‘unhealthy’ whereas a typical ‘skinny fat’ person may be classed as ‘healthy’.
However, there are some important reasons why we need to consider not just our total body weight but what that weight represents.
If you dissect a pound (0.5kg) of hydrated muscle, you’ll find that it is only around a third protein, with the rest being minerals and water. As a result, a pound of muscle only contains roughly 800 kCal.
In contrast, a pound of human body fat contains around 500 kCal. Muscle mass is therefore far more metabolically costly to synthesise and maintain than body fat, which requires little additional output.
And the benefits maintaining higher levels of muscle relative to your body fat percentage is not purely aesthetic. Higher levels of muscle mass mean you can eat higher calories at rest without gaining weight. The risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure all decrease significantly.
One disadvantage of both BMI and body fat percentage is that it is incredibly hard to measure visceral fat. Some visceral fat is essential to protect our internal organs from blunt trauma. However, in high amounts, your risk of health issues such as insulin resistance, heart disease, liver problems and chronic inflammation all increase.
If more than 10% of your total fat is held viscerally, your risk of type II diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and colorectal cancer rise dramatically.
However, the good news is that the body taps into this visceral fat first when you implement a calorie-controlled diet and exercise.
Muscle gain and fat loss occur at very different rates so it would be very difficult to change your body composition significantly without the number on the scale also decreasing. In nearly all cases, lowering your body fat percentage requires weight loss.
The great news is that the science behind weight loss is very simple; you need to create a calorie deficit or a negative energy balance. That is, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn through your daily activity. The most effective way to do this is through a combination of reduced food intake and increased physical activity.
However, without putting some other conditions in place, you may lose muscle tissue before your body starts tapping into fat. This is because muscle is more costly to the body in energy terms.
There are two ways we can encourage the body to tap into fat stores, not muscle, during a period of sustained calorie deficit. The first is resistance training, which signals to the body to retain and sometimes build lean tissue. The second is eating a high protein diet, which is scaled based on your lean body mass.
For most men, 8-10% body fat is where they can expect to see defined abdominals. In most cases, it’s likely that your body fat percentage simply isn’t low enough yet to reveal the musculature underneath. However, body fat percentages will look different on each individual so you may need to get leaner for a full six-pack to appear.
You may also need to increase the size of the abdominal muscles through direct, targeted ab training. But it is worth bearing in mind that this will not give you abs in and of themselves; dieting to a low level of body fat is nearly always necessary.
If your stomach often feels doughy or solid despite even though your body fat level is low, it could be a sign of physical stress. In some instances, stress can increase fluid retention around the belly button area.
As long as you are of a healthy body composition, this is generally not unhealthy, but your fat loss efforts may feel as though they are stalling. Ensuring you get enough high-quality sleep and manage stress are two key things you can do to improve the appearance of this area.
Yes, body fat can affect testosterone both negatively and positively. When men diet to very low levels of body fat (anything under 10% body fat), the body may start to shut down non-essential functions like reproduction.
Men will often experience low sex drive, increased muscle weakness and fatigue towards the very tail end of dieting to low levels of body fat.
However, far and away the biggest risk factor for low testosterone is having an unhealthy body composition. Being overweight or obese has consistently shown to increase the risk of hormonal dysfunctions.
Several studies have reported decreases in sperm counts in Western countries over the last two decades, fuelled by environmental and lifestyle factors that result in reduced sexual function. The severity of the situation is such that experts have even suggested there is a male fertility crisis.
Sleep, stress, and body composition play a major role in testosterone production and are particularly powerful triggers for hypogonadism or low testosterone.
Research indicates that improving body composition through fat loss has a noticeably positive impact on obesity-related low testosteronevii,viii. One study monitored T levels in male participants and found that the prevalence of low testosterone halved after losing 10% and more of their total body weight through diet and exercise.
Changes in hormonal levels due to being overweight or obese can also trigger shifts in how your body stores fat. More fat in the limbs, hips and breast area are all signs of high oestrogen levels in men. In nearly all cases, this can be reversed through diet and exercise.
No and, in effect, you wouldn’t want it to be. Fat is a critical organ in the human body – without it, you would quickly die.
Among other functions, subcutaneous fat sends vital messages about how much stored energy we have. This information helps to inform our hunger signalling. The more fat you have, the stronger the ‘fullness’ signal your body fat emits, up to a point. If you are incredibly overweight, it is also possible to ‘break’ this signal, resulting in overeating.
Visceral fat often gets a bad rap, yet we also need it in small amounts to provide cushioning to our internal organs. Without it, even relatively low impacts could cause internal bleeding and trauma to our internal organs.
We also need both brown and beige fat as this has a role in regulating energy balance and our internal body temperature. There is also some evidence that cold exposure may increase brown fat in the body, which may help us to burn more calories without changing our food intake or activity.
One study asked healthy mean to undergo a month of exposure to mild cold for at least 10 hours each night. All their food was provided and controlled for calorie and macronutrient content. At the end of the month, participants’ brown fat had increased by 42% and there was a 10% increase in fat metabolic activity and improved insulin sensitivity.
Interestingly, after the participants returned to their normal lives, all these measures reversed. The findings indicate that humans may adapt to colder temperatures by increasing brown fat, which may improve our ability to process carbohydrates.
See Women’s Body Fat Comparison in Pictures here.