This article includes advice and insights from Cameron Falloon, co-founder and joint CEO of fitness franchise BodyFit Abs Training and a former AFL strength and conditioning coach.
If you’ve found yourself on the eternal quest for visible abs, you’re guaranteed to have hit the brick wall that is body fat percentage. No matter how much muscle you stack onto yourself, if you don’t lose fat, you’ll always have a bit of chunk in the trunk, hiding your best assets. Losing body fat, in a word, sucks. It’s easily the toughest part of a fitness regime to maintain. The reason for this is that it requires tight control of diet, alcohol intake, and consistent cardio over a fairly long period of time. You can put heaps of muscle onto yourself by working out more, but cutting the fat will always be the cherry on top of the fitness cake.
Now, it’s a big thing to note that no matter how you look, you’re somewhere on that journey and abs aren’t a must-have. Never let yourself be beaten into the idea that you’ve got to look a certain way, but, if you’re keen to take the dive into the washboard lifestyle, we’re here to chat through just how much of a herculean effort you’ll have to undergo, what various body fat milestones will look like and just how to keep the fat off of you.
What is a Healthy Body Fat Percentage?
For most men under 30, anything over 25 percent body fat will classify you as technically ‘obese’. Instead of your mind going directly to the largest American tourist you’ve seen, it’s good to note that obesity is the term for the point at which the amount of body fat you have is creating a negative impact on your health.
From a general perspective, obesity looks like moobs and feels like being out of breath, but from a physiological perspective, Cameron Falloon, co-founder of fitness franchise BodyFit Training explains it has a lot more to do with body composition. A fitness expert, Falloon is the joint CEO and co-founder of BodyFit Training and previously had an extensive career as the strength and conditioning coach for a number of high profile AFL and soccer teams, even serving as Princess Diana’s personal trainer.
“Your body fat percentage is essentially a figure that tells you what percentage of your body is made up of fat,” Falloon tells Man of Many. “It is not a visual representation of being overweight or skinny, but rather one aspect of your total body composition. There are generally accepted “healthy” ranges of body fat for males and females and equally, there are unhealthy ranges also.”
With that in mind, knowing what is unhealthy allows you to clearly define what a ‘healthy’ body fat percentage will be. If you’re under 25 percent then you’re at a healthy level, further reductions may be mostly cosmetic, rather than health-based, but staying active and keeping your body running at optimum performance can help fight disease, increase life expectancy and lead to lasting mental health benefits.
If you calculate your body fat as being over 25 percent then it’s not the end of the world, but it might be time to be getting a bit more serious about your health and fitness. Here are Falloon’s healthy body fat ranges.
|Gender||Age||Healthy Body Fat|
What Body Fat Percentage Do I Need to See Abs?
As with so much in fitness, the answer boils down to ‘it depends. But 10 percent body fat is a great bet for looking cut, lean, and mean. From 15 percent and lower, you’ll generally be able to see your abs, but they might not have the crispy definition you’re after.
The long and the short of it: Between 10 – 15 percent is where your abs will start to rear up and start saying hello to the world.
“Everyone stores body fat differently, so there is no clear-cut rule to what someone looks like. With height and body type coming into play, there is no easy “look”,” Falloon says. “But someone who has under 10% is generally very lean.
These ranges will be very different for males and females. As a very general rule, someone at the upper end of the “acceptable” range will likely look healthy, someone in the middle of that range will look fit and someone at the lower end will look athletic.”
One thing to consider is that body fat doesn’t show up or disappear in the same place for everybody. As individuals, we’ve all got different body types and genetics that determine where fat collects, however, women’s body fat generally hangs out more in their thigh and buttocks region and men’s body fat sets up shop more in their gut or stomach region.
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) determined average fat percentages differ according to different categories and specific groups.
|Obese||30% +||40% +|
What 20% BF Looks like
Twenty percent body fat is a cushy level – figuratively and literally. It’s where the vast majority of the ‘relatively fit’ gym goers sit. At 20 percent body fat, you’re only seeing abs when twisting and in top-down light, but you’re at a healthy point, and almost definitely have decent muscle building underneath your fat.
A rough realization is that some amount of fat will always be between your muscles and the world. Looking tight and making Arnie proud will require a solid amount of work from 20 percent to get down to a ripped rig. At 20%, you’re looking ‘skinny fat’, still need to feel a bunch more of ‘da pump’ before you get to your goal. But also, you’re healthy here, so have those carbs if they make you happier than skinny feels.
Training required: Light strength training, some cardio
Diet: No set diet, caloric surplus
Physique: Light muscle with moderate fat, often referred to as ‘skinny fat’
Attainable: Very attainable
What 15% BF Looks like
At 15 percent body fat, you’re starting to see some noticeable changes. From here on down your abs are beginning to show, you’re at a healthy level and your gut’s almost definitely gone. You’re more of a Kmart underwear model than Calvin Klein, but hey, you’re getting paid for your looks.
In more legitimate terms you’ll probably be able to notice at 15% that your top abs are showing prominently, while your bottom abs are a bit softer. You’ll have the beginnings of ‘the v’ with your obliques (aka cum gutters, thank you Rick and Morty for slamming that term into our brains forever). You’ll also be popping into the world of vascularity, which is your veins showing tight against the skin. Put simply, 15 percent body fat for men is generally where you’ll start looking cut.
Training required: Moderate strength training, cardio
Diet: High protein, not structured, caloric surplus
Physique: Solid muscle with moderate fat
What 10% BF Looks like
When you start to hit 10 percent body fat, you’re looking excellent. As a general rule, this is where your abs are absolutely popping and you’ve still got enough body fat to stay within healthy levels. You’re looking like Ryan Reynolds, or Michael B Jordan, on a good day. This is ultimately the amount of body fat most people think of when you’re talking about being ripped. It’s a long process to get here, but the results will speak for themselves.
You’ll have muscles on solid display, just make sure you remember the journey you took to get here, it’s not easy for everyone, and getting to 10 percent can definitely depend on genetics with how hard you’ll have to work. It’s an achievable goal to get to, but don’t beat yourself up for the time it takes to get here. Comparison will always be the death of success.
Training required: Moderate strength training, cardio
Diet: High protein, caloric deficit
Physique: Solid muscle with very limited fat
Attainable: Attainable but difficult to maintain
What >10% BF Looks like
Here you’re being ridiculous. Less than 10 percent body fat looks ripped to the point of stupidity and while realistically no one needs to be in single digits, it’s the goal for many bodybuilders and physique models.
In addition to hard work in the gym, diets, and supplements you’ll probably be needing to go on water fasts to get to this level. “Generally, you will have defined abs if you are sub 10%, but it will always depend on your body type, hormones, and where your body stores fat which is specific to the individual,” Falloon explains.
When you think of big sweaty men posing and yelling, this is the body fat percentage they’ll be at, but it comes at a cost. Anything less than 10 percent body fat can have drastic effects on your health. Muscular atrophy, organ shrinkage, nerve damage, dehydration, and fragile bones can all occur due to single-digit body fat percentages.
If you’re seeking to get to this mecca of the muscle world, maybe just to prove you can, that’s great! But do so with caution, advice, and the awareness that this will never be a safe place to stay.
Perhaps the biggest consideration here is that remaining below 10 percent body fat for extending periods is not sustainable. Even bodybuilders like Chris Bumstead have on and off-season, meaning they cultivate mass and shred prior to competitions. Staying this lean year-round is next to, but not completely, impossible.
Training required: Heavy strength training, regular cardio
Diet: High protein, large caloric deficit
Physique: Very visible muscle with very limited fat
Attainable: Attainable but not sustainable
How to Calculate Body Fat Percentage
There are a variety of ways to calculate your body fat percentage. You can look at any number of sites to get a rough estimate of your body fat, where they’ll ask you to measure your wrists, your hips, your waist, neck, and maybe your arms. These measurements are taken alongside your height and weight to give you a rough guess as to what your body fat will be. Be aware that this is far from a reliable method and can lead to a massive disparity between websites.
“When it comes to measuring your body fat, you can do a skin fold test using calipers, get a body scan or you can try measuring it manually using body circumference measurements,” Falloon says. “It is important to have consistency with your approach to any of these measures.
If using calipers and a tape, have the same person complete the measures on each occasion to limit the user margin of error. For body, scans follow the advice on preparing for your scan which will include avoiding certain foods and fluids for a period of time pre-scanning for consistency in results.”
If you are keen to measure your body fat, look to regulate the subcutaneous (under-skin) fat level at 3-7 points on your body. You’ll probably need a friend with a steady hand for the most accurate results. Getting into technical ways to measure body fat professionals can harness the power of science in some wild ways to give you an accurate reading:
- Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis – Involves firing a current through your body and noting where it slows down, and by how much, to gain an exact reading on your body fat percentages, and it’s location.
- Hydrostatic Weighing – Tests how buoyant (floaty) your body is as an indication of your body fat.
- ‘Bod Pod’ – Infrared lights will scan your nude body and take precise measurements of your entire body from top to toe. Be prepared for the results. I did one and it showed me as an oversized fat baby. A hilarious, yet pretty rough fitness awakening.
How to Lower Body Fat Percentage
There is no easy way to lower body fat percentage, but the absolute biggest consideration is diet. Cardio and cutting alcohol will help with your cutting journey, but if you’re eating trash you’ll never get to the percentage you’re looking for. If you’re committed to lowering your body fat be prepared to eat nothing but steamed greens and chicken, drink a whole amount of water and run pretty much every day.
It’s a point of routine and focuses to lower your body fat, with cutting calories certain to play a role. For 10% body fat, you’re looking at cutting cheat days and focusing on a caloric deficit. This is where the number of calories you expend through exercise and activity outweighs the number of calories you consume.
This state will lead to weight loss, however, this doesn’t always equate the fat loss. It’s important that even within a caloric deficit, you continue to perform strength-building exercises and consume a high level of protein-rich foods.
It won’t be easy, but don’t be disparaged, with the right steps you’re able to cut 1-3% body fat a week. Luckily, once you’re at a decent body fat percentage it’s easier to stay there than to cut down to it. Above all else, remember that body fat percentages are not something you should be obsessing over. Make sure that you are keeping healthy and happy.
“Body fat is not a reflection of strength or fitness or indeed your health, so obsessing about it depends on your goals,” Falloon says. “At BFT we drive our members to get results based on their specific goals – to build muscle, to improve cardiovascular fitness, improve range of motion, etc – and decreased body fat percentage is a by-product of this. Unless your specific goal is to drop body fat, don’t waste your time getting hung up on it. Your relationship with fitness and food should be a healthy one.”