In the Nutrition Setup Guide, I talked about using body-fat percentage to guide your decisions on when to cut, bulk, or recomp (chase simultaneous muscle gain and fat loss while aiming to stay at the same body weight).
(To explain very quickly: when you are either too skinny, carry too much fat, or have too much training experience for a recomp to work or be appropriate, you need to build your physique in cycles of cut and bulk phases. I recommend 10% as the lower boundary to end a cut and 20% as the upper boundary to end a bulk.)
But as I firmly stated, ALL the body-fat measurement methods we have available have horrible inaccuracies on an individual level, and I strongly recommend people avoid trying to gauge progress based on them.
This puts readers in a tricky situation. On the one hand, I’m telling you to use body-fat percentage to guide an important decision. And on the other, I’m saying, “But all the ways of measuring it are flawed!”
So I knew I needed to create a visual guide. Fortunately, I had ten years of client results photos to draw from when creating it. What a wonderful trip down memory lane this has been. If you look closely, you’ll see that nearly all of these guys have both before and after photos included.
Body Fat Percentage – Men
What 7-9% Body Fat Looks Like
Whether you look skinny or ripped at 8% body fat is dependent on you having enough muscle mass. These guys have been training for years, so they can get to this level of leanness and get the ‘fitness model’ look. The lower back fat is mostly gone at this point.
What 10-11% Body Fat Looks Like
See if you can spot the before and after photo pairs of these clients within the article. There are plenty more on the client results page.
What 12-14% Body Fat Looks Like
You can see that even at 14% body fat, if you have enough muscle, a blurry six-pack will show. You might want to get a little leaner than this before bulking, though, so that you can bulk for long enough to put on enough muscle without feeling too fat and needing to cut again.
What 15-17% Body Fat Looks Like
At the 15–17% body fat level, I suggest most clients continue cutting. If you are in a bulk phase and reach this point, you should consider ending your bulk and cutting soon.
What 18-20% Body Fat Looks Like
If you’ve dieted down to this point, that’s fantastic. But if you wish to bulk, you should get leaner first.
If you have been bulking and you’ve got to this point, you should stop bulking and switch to cutting.
What 21-24% Body Fat Looks Like
You can see that Emilio (bottom right) has a little loose skin. This is because he lost a lot of weight before we worked together (~40 lbs), and he did it a little too quickly.
In all but the most extreme cases, the skin comes tight over time and isn’t something you need to worry about. So please don’t get sold on the idea of surgery. Wait for a few months after you finish cutting and you may be pleasantly surprised.
What 25-29% Body Fat Looks Like
What 30%+ Body Fat Looks Like
Some technical definitions define people over 30% body fat as obese. If this describes you, from conversations with clients over the years, it can come to define how you feel about yourself. Try to change that. Instead of thinking of yourself as “fat,” frame it as, “you currently carry too much fat.” This slight change in phrasing can cause a big mental shift that leads to a ripple effect. Don’t let it define you. Take inspiration from others.
All of the individual stories of the clients on this page can be found on the online coaching results page.
Body Fat Percentage – Women
Unfortunately, I cannot make a female version like the male one as I only work with men, so I don’t have the client photos nor experience level. However, I have this guide from our Muscle and Strength Pyramid: Nutrition book, which may be helpful:
1. I’ve always judged body-fat percentage by eye. I have no way of knowing if the categorizations you will see below are correct, but if you pair this guide with the recommendations on when to bulk vs. cut, it will help guide your decisions.
2. Bear in mind that the more muscle mass you have, the higher your body fat level you will have visible abs at. The guys below all have training experience. You can’t expect to cut and reveal decent abs if you don’t have muscle mass. This may lead you to underestimate your body fat percentage.
3. Most people underestimate their body-fat percentage. If you haven’t cut down to see your abs before and you are trying to estimate how much fat you have to lose, add 50%, and you’re probably closer to the truth.
4. If you’re still unsure after looking at the images, consider using my US Navy Body-fat Percentage Estimation Calculator, which just requires your neck and stomach circumference measurements and height.
5. The guys are all flexing (tensing their muscles).
I don’t recommend you try to gauge your progress based on these pictures; rather, use them to help guide you when to start and end cut, bulk, and recomp phases. Here’s a summary from my related article:
Here’s precisely how I get clients to track physique progress using a tape measure, scale weight, and a few other things.
Body Fat Percentage Pictures FAQ
Your abs will typically start to show between 11-15% body fat, depending on how much muscle mass you have. The less muscle mass you have, the lower your body fat percentage has to be before your abs show. You can see plenty of examples in this guide.
Don’t limit yourself by comparing the body fat percentage of others at your age unless you wish to be average.
It is not possible to calculate body fat percentage, but it is possible to estimate it. All of the available methods are flawed, with error rates of up to 8% in some! I recommend you use this Body Fat Percentage in Pictures guide to compare yourself and combine that with the US Navy Body Fat Calculator, which only needs a tape measure and your weight.
No. See: Do Ab Workouts Burn Belly Fat?
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