Athletic body fat percentage is often lower than the average person's body fat percentage. Body fat percentage is how much of your total weight is made up of body fat. But this percentage only tells part of the story about your overall health and wellbeing.
Male athletes typically have between 6 and 13 percent body fat, whereas female athletes have about 14 to 20 percent body fat.
What Is Body Fat Percentage?
Body fat percentage is a measurement of the total fat mass in your body. To find out your body fat percentage, you need to assess the weight of your fat and the weight of your total body.
According to Winchester Hospital, one of the most common assessment methods for measuring body fat percentage uses a device called a caliper. A caliper is a small, pincer-like tool that uses skin pinch tests to estimate total body fat.
To use a caliper, a health care worker takes several measurements at different points around your body, such as your waist, legs and arms. The measurements are then added into an equation that allows the health care worker to estimate your body fat percentage.
Though widely used, calipers are one of the least accurate ways to calculate body fat percentage as there is room for error in measuring. Other, more accurate methods are available, but are used less frequently due to cost and duration. Some potential options for measuring body fat include:
- Underwater weighing involves using Archimedes' principle that an object displaces its own volume of water. When you know the volume of water displaced, you know your own volume, which relates to your density. It tends to be a long, expensive test.
- A dual X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan uses X-rays to estimate body fat percentage.
- Air displacement measures how much air your body displaces and makes a correlation to your body's volume.
- Bioelectrical impedance measures the speed of electrical impulses sent through the body, which estimates the amount of water versus fat in your body.
As described, each body composition assessment tool measures body fat indirectly, meaning there is no direct way to measure body fat. Instead you have to make estimations based on different measurements. There are errors and inaccuracies associated with all methods, and one is not necessarily superior to another.
Body Fat Percentage Ranges
Body fat is essential to life and everyone needs a certain amount of body fat to be healthy. Men and women need different amounts of fat to maintain the basic functions since there are different physiological functions of fat for the two sexes. According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), men require a minimum of 2 to 5 percent body fat, and women require a minimum of 10 to 13 percent body fat. In other words, it is possible to have too little body fat.
It's important to understand that there is no body fat percentage that dictates when your body achieves optimal health. And because there are errors with all testing methods, these ranges can vary from person to person and from test to test.
Athletes typically have the lowest percentage of body fat when compared to other groups, according to ACE. Other than sex, these ranges can vary between sports, age and health parameters.
ACE identifies three additional groups of people, based on their general fitness level and average body fat percentages. These include fitness, acceptable and obesity. Each group is further divided between men and women. All the groups have expected ranges of body fat percentages so that everyone fits in a group.
For example, ACE identifies a man with 14 to 17 percent body fat or a woman with 21 to 24 percent body fat to be in the "fitness" category. ACE also categorizes 18 to 24 percent body fat for men and 25 to 31 percent body fat for women as "acceptable" ranges.
Finally, ACE identifies men with over 25 percent body fat and women with over 32 percent body fat as people with obesity. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, if you fall into this range, you are at a greater risk of developing health conditions such as heart disease, kidney disease and Type 2 diabetes, among others.
What About BMI?
If you have paid attention to doctors, pop culture and weight-loss shows, you've probably heard people discussing BMI. But what is BMI?
BMI stands for body mass index, and it is a measurement of your body's general size. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you can calculate your BMI using either inches and pounds or meters and kilograms. Your weight and height are used in an equation to calculate your BMI.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute provides a chart, measured in inches and pounds, that can give you a general idea of your BMI. You just need to know your height (in inches) and your weight (in pounds) to get your BMI. For example, if you are 60 inches tall and weigh 128 pounds, your BMI is 25.
Similar to body fat percentage, BMI is divided into categories based on your score. According to ACE, there are six BMI categories, ranging from underweight to Grade III obesity as follows:
- Underweight is defined as a BMI below 18.5.
- Normal weight is in the BMI range from 18.5 to 24.9
- Overweight ranges from 25.0 to 29.9.
- Grade I obesity entails a BMI of 30.0 to 34.9.
- Grade II obesity
entails a BMI of 35.0 to 39.9.
- Grade III obesity is any BMI over 40.
However, BMI does not tell the whole story of your overall health. As a result of their increased muscle mass, it is possible for athletes to have a higher-than-expected BMI and therefore total increased body weight. On the other hand, it is possible for non-athletes to have a normal BMI even though they may not be in good health.
According to a review of studies published in the Journal of LIfestyle Medicine in July 2018, most, but not all, master athletes have a lower BMI than the rest of the population. In this review, a master athlete is usually any person over the age of 35 years who trains on a regular basis or competes in an organized, competitive sport, indicating a lifetime commitment to fitness.
Another review of studies published in the Sport Journal in April 2019 found similar results. The researchers indicated that in over 44 percent of studies, the master athletes' BMI was significantly lower than the general population's. Overall the athletes averaged "normal" BMI, whereas the majority of the non-athlete population was classified as "overweight" BMI. In addition, all the studies indicated that the master athletes' average BMI was lower than that of the general population.
Read more: How to Calculate BMI for Athletes
BMI vs. Body Fat Percentage
BMI and body fat percentage are complementary tools meant to help fitness and health care professionals get a better idea of your overall health. Often, if you go for a physical, your doctor will initially assess your BMI, because it is a good screening tool. On the other hand, a personal trainer may initially get your BMI and use a caliper to check your body fat percentage to tailor a workout program specifically for you.
In fact, the CDC defines BMI as a good screening tool, but not a diagnostic tool. The CDC recommends that a health care professional perform additional tests and not just rely on the BMI score. In other words, your BMI could indicate that there is a health concern with your overall body size but that you will need further testing to determine if your BMI number accurately reflects your true state of health and wellness.
If your health care provider does find that you have a high BMI, they will likely perform other assessments to determine your overall health and potential risk factors. This can include finding your body fat percentage and also measuring your waist circumference. Other aspects of your health, including blood work, blood pressure, heart rate and fitness, will show a more well-rounded representation of your state of health.
For some athletes, their BMI may not accurately reflect their health and wellness. Many athletes develop heavier muscles that can throw off their BMI score. For people with athletic bodies, fat percentage may be a better measurement of overall health, while performance in their sport or exercise will reflect whether this is an appropriate weight and body composition for them.
Read more: BMI Vs. Body Fat Percentage
- Winchester Hospital: "Your Body Fat Percentage: What Does It Mean?"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Health Risks of Being Overweight"
- American Council on Exercise: "Percent Body Fat Calculator: Skinfold Method"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Defining Adult Overweight and Obesity"
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Body Mass Index Table 1"
- American Council on Exercise: "BMI Reference Chart"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "BMI Calculations"
- Journal of LIfestyle Medicine: "Body Mass Index in Master Athletes: Review of the Literature"
- Sport Journal: "Endurance Masters Athletes: A Model of Successful Ageing With Clinically Superior BMI?"