The internet is filled with dozens of articles that aim to give you, the reader, a visual reference of what a certain body fat percentage looks like. Many bloggers, websites and forums have already done a great job at covering this topic and explaining certain aspects that affect the aesthetic appearance of someone at difference body fat percentages. There are even websites solely dedicated to body fat percentage pictures at different weights, ages and heights! However, there are a few often-overlooked factors that must be addressed in regards to this topic. So, this body fat percentage article is quite different. I am personally one of many who used body fat percentage pictures online to “estimate” my own body fat percentage during different stages of training. Sometimes I was dieting, sometimes I was bulking and sometimes I was in between and I wanted a “concrete” reference to see if whether I am making progress or gaining too much fat. But, I noticed that whenever I used those visual references, I ended up being more confused and frustrated than I initially was! How so? Shouldn’t I have felt more relieved to find out what my body fat % was? Not exactly. Fast forward to today and I don’t even bother looking or thinking about those visual references anymore and I am glad I ditched the matter altogether! Instead, I follow different “references” that I will address at the end of this article. But first, let’s see why body fat percentage pictures suck!
#1) Difference in lean body mass
This one has already been covered by a few bloggers before. The main point is that we can have two different people who have the same body fat percentage, yet they would look immensely different! Let’s look at two examples:
After looking at the two pictures above, you are probably already confused! Those 4 individuals have the same exactly body fat percentage yet they look drastically different. How is that possible? The main difference between those four individuals is the amount of lean body mass each one of them has. For instance, in the first picture, the person on the left has at least 10-15 lbs. more muscle than the skinny dude on the left, thus giving him more definition and a more muscular look. The person on the right looks like he doesn’t even know what the word muscle means! Nonetheless, the more muscle you have, the leaner you will look. This is also true since muscle mass pushes up against the skin which gives you an even leaner look, but fat mass doesn’t have this effect!
In the second picture, the individual on the left has about 20-25 lbs. more muscle on his frame than the person on the right. Thus, the person on the left has a better, more defined and a more aesthetically pleasing look. Keep in mind that all those individuals have the same exact body fat percentage.
NOTE: Body fat percentage is a mere ratio. It’s the ratio of non-fat mass (muscle mass, water, organs, bones…etc.) to fat mass (body fat). So, those 4 individuals probably have different weights as well, but not necessarily since the same principle can apply to two individuals with the same height and weight but different musculature. Example:
Person A is 6″ feet tall and weighs 180 lbs. at 20% body fat. Thus, this person carries 36 lbs. of fat and 144 lbs. of lean body mass.
Person B is also 6″ tall and weighs 180 pounds, however, this person has a body fat percentage of 10%. Thus, person B carries 162 lbs. of lean body mass and only 18 lbs. of body fat!
The end result is that both individuals will look drastically different. But, this isn’t the whole story because body fat percentage and visual appearance are also impacted by a few other factors. This leads me to the next point.
#2) Body fat distribution
We are all different. One of the many benefits of exercising and transforming your body is that you learn a lot of things about the human body and your own body in the process. No two people are alike on this planet, including twins (to a lesser degree, of course). Every person has his own unique genetic code that dictates all his/her physical and mental characteristics. Thus, you shouldn’t expect to look like someone else no matter how hard you try. And you shouldn’t try to look like someone else anyway! Instead, focus on becoming the best version of yourself because there is only one “you”. With that said, so far we learned that differences in lean body mass impact our aesthetic appearance greatly, but one question may have crossed your mind: what if we have two people with the same weight, height, body fat percentage and amount of lean body mass, shouldn’t they look exactly alike? No! Before I explain why, let’s look at the following pictures:
Both individuals in the pictures above at roughly around the same percent body fat, but they still look quite different. Their level of muscular development is also quite close and they seem to be of similar height which makes this comparison more viable. The person on the left has more definition in his arms, shoulders and midsection than the person on the right. How could this be? Body fat distribution is the answer! We are all genetically pre-disposed to distribute fat in different patterns. Some people have extremely lean arms and faces even at high body fat percentages, yet they seem to store almost all their body fat on their midsections! Some people store body fat evenly throughout their bodies which gives them a leaner look even at high body fat percentages. Some individuals store more fat on their arms, chest and legs than the rest of their bodies. You get the point. Every person has a unique body fat distribution pattern that is dictated by his or her genetics and there is no way to change that. The only thing you can change is to lose fat and your body will take care of the rest!
Generally, the taller someone is the leaner he/she will look. This is basic common sense. An individual who is 6 feet tall and has a body fat percentage of 10% will usually look leaner than a 5″8′ individual who also has a body fat percentage of 10%. Note that weight and amount of lean body mass still play a significant role in how both individuals will look. However, the taller individual’s fat mass will be dispersed over a larger physical area (body) than the shorter individual and as a result he will look leaner.
Your hair color is not the only thing that changes as you get older! When it comes to body fat percentage and aesthetic appearance, age plays a huge role on how someone looks. As we age, our bodies start to store more fat around our organs (visceral fat) and within muscles (intramuscular) as opposed to subcutaneous fat (under the skin). Thus, a 40-year-old individual with 10% body fat and lean body mass of 165 lbs. will look leaner than a 20-year-old individual who has the same body fat percentage and amount of lean mass! The former will look leaner despite having the same exact amount of fat mass. The difference is that the older person’s fat mass is “invisible”. Additionally, older persons have what’s called “mature muscles”. Mature muscles as eloquently called in the bodybuilding realm simply refers to muscles that aged well and thus have more definition and visible striations. Next time you are at the gym, look around to find an old guy/gal who are somewhat muscularly developed. You will inevitably notice how defined and striated their muscles are as opposed to younger individuals.
I know I have covered part of genetics above when I mentioned body fat distribution, but there are more genetic factors to address. Here are a few factors that can and will make individuals look different at the same body fat percentage with everything else being equal (age, height, gender, muscular development…etc.):
- Muscle striations: Some individuals are genetically blessed with more muscular definition than most people. Muscle striations are visible thin rods that could be seen with the naked eye when body fat percentage is low enough. Visibility of muscle striations is directly related to how well a muscle is developed and overall levels of body fat. A picture speaks a thousand words:
- Muscle tonus: Some individuals have harder and tighter muscles than most people. Muscle tonus is the amount of tension inside a muscle at rest (when it’s not doing anything). Those with high muscle tonus have fuller, tighter and harder looking muscles than those with normal or low muscle tonus.
- Intramuscular fat: Just like body fat distribution, some individuals have lower than normal amounts of intramuscular fat. This brings out muscular definition and makes it more aesthetically pleasing.
- Muscle bellies and muscle insertions: Muscles come in different shapes, lengths and insertions. Some people have short muscle bellies while others have long muscle bellies. Some have perfect muscle insertion points that make their muscles look bigger and fuller than most people. The actual muscle size could be the same, however, the angle at which it is inserted could greatly enhance its look. Some people have bicep peaks, while others will never have those nice double-mountains-looking biceps no matter how they train.
#6) Measurement error
The only accurate way to know your body fat percentage is to literally dissect you and find out how much fat and lean mass you have (or had I should say). Thus, autopsy/biopsy is the way to go! Don’t do it. However, we have a few somewhat accurate ways that can give us good estimates of what our body fat percentage is. The two most accurate measurement tools are:
- DEXA scan.
- Hydrostatic weighing.
While those two ways provide good estimates, they are by no means 100% accurate. There is a still a margin of error. So, if you see a picture of a person who is supposedly 10% body fat, he could be really at 12% body fat due to unintentional measurement error (margin of error). And vice versa. Thus, it’s naive to say with confidence that an individual is precisely at a certain body fat percentage.
Am I doomed forever?
Yes! No, I am just kidding. The point of this post is to encourage you to not take online body fat percentage pictures so seriously. Yes, those pictures provide decent estimates of what certain body fat percentages look like, but the only way to know how YOU would look at a certain body fat percentage is to simply get there. Do you want to know how you would look at 10% body fat? Train hard and diet smart until you achieve that goal and I guarantee that you will look different than any online visual reference you may have compared yourself to. So, take those online estimates/references with a grain of salt! Plus, body fat percentage doesn’t matter that much in the long run.
Body fat percentage doesn’t matter!
Okay, this subtitle is a bit misleading. Body fat % does matter when it comes to improving your health and aesthetic appearance, but what I mean is that you shouldn’t focus on reaching a specific number of figure. Instead of constantly chasing 10% body fat, you should aim to lose as much fat as possible until you get to the point where you are happy with how you look, feel great, healthy and able to maximally perform at the gym or whatever physical activity you do. So, constant visual checks are your best way to achieve a certain goal. The mirror is your friend. Don’t get too worked up on numbers and how some people look. After all, there is only one you as cliché as this sounds. Here are some ways to help you track your body composition changes:
- Take progress pictures. I didn’t believe in taking progress pictures at first. I read it a thousand times, but I was still not convinced. Honestly, I was just too lazy! It wasn’t until I started taking progress pictures every couple of months and comparing them when I realized that our eyes can be deceiving sometimes. We see ourselves in the mirror everyday which makes it hard to visually track or notice any physical changes. But, when you start taking progress pictures and comparing them you will look back and say “wow! I have come a long way.” which will motivate you to pursue your goal even more.
- Use a tape measure. Pick a few points that you can constantly measure so it’s easier to track any progress. Record measurements of those points every week or two weeks. For example, you can choose to measure your waist circumference to see if you are losing weight or gaining too much weight or not. Having exact figures like this will make your progress-tracking endeavors easier.
- Track your body fat. I am not telling you to go get a DEXA scan every week or so. Besides the fact that this is unrealistic, it’s also unnecessary. What I am suggesting is finding a way to track changes in body composition combined with tape measurements. For example, using body fat calipers will make this job easier. Note: don’t chase certain “numbers” on the caliper either. Instead, if your goal is to lose fat/gain muscle, your goal is to decrease the caliper measurements over time. This will indicate fat loss.
Body fat percentage pictures are nice and can be fun to look at and visualize yourself at that same body fat percentage, but the truth is that you will never look exactly the same as that person in the picture! So, why bother stressing over something that is unrealistic and unnecessary? Focus on becoming the best version of yourself. Focus on losing fat until you are happy with how you look. Do not chase exact numbers because they don’t mean crap in application. Change your mindset so that instead of wanting to achieve “10% body fat” you would want to look lean with visible abs and maybe some vascularity. The truth is, no one knows what you will look like at a certain body fat percentage, so just get down to that level and discover what you will look like. The journey will be more than worth it. Save your energy and mental health and focus your efforts on building muscle, losing fat and improving your health and performance.