“Body fat percentage is what portion of your overall body composition is fat and what portion is lean mass. While body mass index (BMI) is a fine measurement for the average person, if you have a lot of muscle, body fat percentage is a better tool to assess your goals by since most guys’ goal is to trim fat,” says ACSM Health Fitness Instructor Jim White, R.D., owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach.
According to the American Council on Exercise, the average body fat for a guy is 18 to 24%. 15 to 17% puts you in the fitness category, while 6 to 13% is athlete status. But what’s the real difference among the numbers?
Guys below 20% typically have muscle definition of some sort. As the numbers drop, that definition increases. And it’s mostly in the abs, since men generally tend to accumulate the most fat in their stomach.
But body fat distribution is also heavily influenced by genetics, explains Christopher Jordan, C.S.C.S., Director of Exercise Physiology at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute and creator of the 7-Minute Workout. That means if you and your friend shed the same amount of body fat, he may secure two more ab outlines, while your biceps and triceps carve deeper (hey, there are worse fates). “Look at your father and grandfather—that’ll give you an indication of your genetic body fat distribution pattern,” he adds.
The other difference is your weight. If two guys are 200 pounds with 10% body fat, they both have 20 pounds of fat. But while the numbers are the same, 180 pounds of lean muscle looks significantly different on a guy who’s 5’8” than one who is 6’3”. The former will be lean, but a thicker mass of muscle, while the latter probably looks skinnier, explains personal trainer and strength coach Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., instructor at Equinox in San Diego.
You need a certain amount of essential fat—3%—which is found in the vital organs and is essential for normal functioning in a guy, Jordan explains. “Consequently, the minimum healthy percent body fat a man can achieve is around 3%, typically seen in endurance athletes, but also bodybuilders on competition day.” If that sounds ridiculously unachievable, don’t freak out—all our experts agree somewhere in 10 to 15% is the most realistic for looking cut. But, decide for yourself. Click through the following slides to see visuals and read exactly what it looks like to have 5-8% body fat, 9-13% body fat, 14-17% body fat, and 18-20% body fat. Then, on the last slide, find out how to achieve each one.