Body Fat Percentage – Women’s Edition

Body Fat Percentage (W) Blog Graphic

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So, usually a few weeks go by before I circle back round to another CXP Fitness post – I’ll typically cycle through Nutrition / Edge / Zen [and an occasional personal post] before I get back to the Fitness side of things. However, this time around, I felt it pertinent to offer up back-to-back articles in a bid to prevent confusion, and give both men & women a simultaneous shot at better understanding the importance of Fat Loss vs Weight Loss!

With two “editions” (or parts) to this topic/article, I wanted to ensure that the line was drawn in the sand: Men on one side. Women on the other. Not to be sexist. Just to acknowledge that on a biological/physiological level it is absolutely crucial that we get the facts straight and the numbers right; because what can be perfectly healthy for a woman (body-fat-wise) can be quite unhealthy for a man… and vice versa!

One thing that I’ve been delighted to see in the past couple of years is that women are gradually starting to obsess slightly less over the number on the scale.

I have one client who is an absolute star with this – she’s more concerned with being fitter, *looking* better, and feeling more athletic than with how many lbs she weighs. When she started training with me, she was tipping the scale at over 200lbs… in barely two months she was already down 20lbs – her training is in check, her nutrition is superb, and she’s doing [both] all the hard things and all the right things!

Now, 200lbs sounds like a lot for the “average woman”… but then, the ‘average’ is someone who measures 5’ 6” and weights 125lbs… This client is 6-feet tall [for starts], and so, weight-wise she is bound to *need* to weigh significantly more than a hundred and twenty five pounds! At that weight she would likely look malnourished and somewhat “emaciated”…

‘… women need higher levels of body fat than men… for healthy circulation of oestrogen.’

Sure, she’d like to be in the 170’s or under (and we can get there), but just seeing the dress sizes drop and understanding that ‘spot reduction’ doesn’t work, she accepts that the weight will a) come off from different areas first [that may not be exactly *where* she wants initially], and b) that part of our process is trying to also achieve greater lean mass, so where body fat is reducing, muscle is also building, and therefore, the overall weight loss isn’t as “huge” as it could be because we’re adding muscle where fat is being lost…

This is where understanding Body Fat Percentage comes in. And while it is good for women (as well as men) to grasp that the percentage of your body’s overall composition that is made up of fat needs to be the focus, it is also [debatably] MORE important to understand that the percentages that women want to aim for are entirely misaligned from those of men!

That is to say that you do not want to stress about dropping body fat levels down as low as what a man would, and this comes down to basic physiological necessity. See, women need higher levels of body fat than men – it provides a more optimal environment for healthy circulation of oestrogen. For men – conversely – this is a bad thing; if men have too much body fat, then oestrogen levels will be too high, rendering testosterone levels too LOW, which can have many negative ramifications for men.

So, while women can “enjoy” hanging on to a little more body fat (?)… ladies, you also do NOT want to drop too much body fat! Men can dip below 10% into the single digits and this is just fine – oestrogen is nice and low, testosterone is nice and high; the large amount of muscle mass on a man will also lead to a greater metabolism, and all is ‘tickedy-boo’. Women should definitely not try for sub-10% body fat as this imbalance of hormones [owing to such low fat levels] is a red flag for too many of the biological functions that are vital to a woman’s health!

But okay, so what are the ranges we’re looking at? Well, take a look:

Body Fat Percentage (Multiple Women)

You’ll notice that even ‘just’ 10% body fat looks extremely lean on a woman, whereas for a guy, 10% would look a little more like the next pic (15-17%). At this level, muscle definition is very clear, as is vascularity (visible veins). So, this relatively broad range [from 10-17%] is very, very athletic – you pretty much have to – same as men – be living and breathing fitness (i.e. it’s your day-to-day and you’re an athlete by profession).

Banding the next few together, it is clear to see that anything from 18-26% body fat looks pretty darn good! All three are physiques that could pass as being very *fit*, and are perfectly healthy – not too low, and not too high! You’ll notice more definition at the lower end of this range, and less [obviously] at the higher end. Vascularity will not be visible. Quick thing to point out: 25% body fat on a MAN is considered overweight (borderline obese!).

‘… let’s face it… we all wanna feel sexy when we look at ourselves in the mirror!’

Once we start creeping towards the top end of the twenties, this is where you’ll want to start keeping things in check. Luckily for women, sub-30% (but above 10%) is healthy and optimal. However, just like men, going above thirty can start to trigger warning signals.

Now, I’ve worked with a lot of female clients throughout my career… in fact, I’d hasten to say that about 80% of my clientele have been women. And the absolute average body fat percentage that I have seen women at (when they come to work with me) is around the mid-thirties. By the time we’re ‘done’ they’ll be in the 20-25% range, and they’re really happy with their results.

The number of pounds lost to reach this clearly varies from person to person, but generally, the “look” (physique) is one where they’re now feeling ten times healthier, but also, they’re super happy with what they see in the mirror – not super lean, but not ‘FAT’ either. Just fit and sexy! And let’s face it – guys AND girls here – we all wanna feel sexy when we look at ourselves in the mirror!

But okay, let’s just hone in on some of the issues here associated with going above 30%, towards 40%, and heaven-forbid… around or above 50%.

Now, in my entire career, I have only met one person (woman) who was at the 50+ mark… and it just broke my heart initially. This is the most extreme level, and offers the fewest solutions (outside of simply addressing nutrition first and foremost). See, the problem is that at this high a body fat percentage mobility is significantly impaired (making exercise almost impossible), inflammation is horrific as diabetes and arthritis are commonly present. This is a level at which *medical intervention* is basically essential, and doctors will be the ones to best advise on the course of action.

Sub-40% though… this is where the line is more or less in front of you – cross it, and there may be no coming back (without medical intervention), but forty percent and under still offers a lot of hope.

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In the 30-40% range, you’re going to notice that lethargy can be an issue. Inflammatory conditions (like IBS and/or arthritic conditions) are very likely [towards the 40-mark]. Mobility can be more laborious. Looking at the pics above [for 30-40%] these women clearly look simply curvy, and not like they’d have any of these health issues, however, do note that this percentage range could look/feel entirely different from person to person…

I remember seeing two ladies who came to me about Personal Training in the same day, and one was about 5’2″ but 38% body fat, whereas the other was 5’8″ yet 32% body fat… to look at them, the shorter lady was [what I refer to in the Men’s Edition of this article as]: ‘Skinny Fat’ – in other words, she looked perfectly “normal”, but her body fat levels were very high (and her visceral fat – the fat that surrounding the organs – was worryingly high!). The taller woman was actually very large – while she had lower visceral fat levels, she carried it all around her hips and waist.

Generally, you’ll want to begin by addressing nutrition first… What you eat is almost always going to be the most imperative thing to rectify before jumping headlong into some intense fitness routine.

The paramount thing to get right here is to *ease into* the fitness side of things. It can be all too tempting to leap into some kind of HIIT class five days per week and play into all the hype surrounding High Intensity Interval Training – ‘lose fat quicker, and in less time’… yeah, but like you’ll have heard me say about so many things in these CXP articles: moderation is key!

Now, I love HIIT – hell, I specialize in it! But for a beginner, it can be more of a detriment than anything. So, if you’re new to fitness or haven’t been active for several years, then I’d suggest getting back into fitness with some basic aerobics and light resistance (weight lifting) work first, then drip-feed some HIIT in there as your body becomes more capable of handling the stress of *intense* training.

For ladies who are closer to the 40% mark, you’ll do well to start off with some Aqua Aerobics (or just straight up swimming), and yoga/pilates; gradually introduce new stimuli like a “Body Sculpt” class and try lifting weights a couple of times per week (consult a Trainer if you’re unsure/unconfident in this area). Once your body fat levels are closer to the 30% range, you’ll likely have accrued enough muscle, burned enough fat, and acclimated [fitness-wise] to the point at which HIIT is now a viable option.

So, what do we extrapolate from this post at the end of it all? Well, it’s pretty straightforward: keep your body fat percentage under 30% (closer to 20%) and you’ll be just grand! If you want to really vie for the more “athletic” look, or if you want to start competing in things like Spartan Races and whatnot, then the 15-20% will be a tad more conducive to this (not *essential*, but just ideal).

Fitness Content (3)

Where men want to be in the 10-20% range, ladies – you’ll want to be in the 20-30% range. For men and women respectively, these are the healthiest, most achievable and easiest to maintain ranges. Your body will be physiologically at its optimal level on a hormonal level, inflammation-related conditions may well improve (or possibly go away altogether), and you’ll be happier in general – as much with how you look as with how you feel.

Ladies, I hope this has opened your eyes a little more as to what constitutes healthy body composition for YOU (in contrast to what works for men). Whether you’re five and a half feet tall, or six foot… weigh in at one-thirty or one-ninety… keep light of the fact that the scales can be misleading, and aren’t going to be the determining factor of good health [vs bad health] as much so as how much actual body fat you’re carrying.

‘Strive to be the healthiest version of YOU that you can be…’

You can get your body fat percentage measured easily at any decent gym where they’ll usually use callipers. Being totally truthful here, it can be a tad embarrassing (perhaps even pseudo-invasive), but it is one of the more/most accurate ways to take measurements. While scales and devices with bio-impedance sensors are less “intrusive”, they will often churn out numbers that are way off…

So, without sounding callous… suck it up for a few minutes, and do it the smarter way. Get it done once, then truck on and work towards dropping that percentage. After a month or two, you can take the measurements again, but this time, you should be looking and feeling way better about your body, so the self-conscious factor should be greatly diminished. Remember that it is vital to know where your start point is, so that you can see how far you’ve come when you get closer towards your goal.

That’s all for today’s post. Some points in this article may have been a tad provoking (?), but please take no offense – view it as a wake up call, view it as a challenge, use it as motivation not criticism. Strive to be the healthiest version of YOU that you can be, and remember to stay inspired by reaching a goal that makes you happy with what you see in the mirror, not satisfied with a number that is completely relative.

I’ll catch you in the next post, but for now remember: Train Hard, and Train Smart.

Yours in Training,

Chris Atkinson | Master Personal Trainer, SDO


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