So you want to get ripped? At least lean enough to see some muscle definition. Lean enough to get your abs to pop and striations that carve out some lines on your physique. You know, lean enough that when you step in front of a mirror you go, “Damn, I look good.”
There’s more than one way to get there through diet and exercise. But to really know where you’re at right now and what you need to do to get lean, getting accurate data on your body fat percentage can be helpful.
Chasing body fat percentage goals
So how lean do you need to be to get the kind of muscle definition that pops?
That’s a great question, because a lot of people think that getting body fat as low as possible is a smart goal. But that isn’t necessary, or healthy, even if you’re competing in bodybuilding shows.
Here’s a cautionary tale:
Austrian bodybuilder Andreas Münzer may be one of the few bodybuilders in history to work as hard as Arnold Schwarzenegger. For more than a decade, Münzer competed in bodybuilding shows. He racked up wins and top 10 finishes at competitions around the world, including stepping on stage at Mr. Olympia five times.
Getting body fat as low as possible to be the most ripped, the most shredded, and the most noticed on stage was a driving force for Münzer. And he was willing to do anything to get there.
Intense training, extreme dietary restrictions, and a long list of supplementation, including some that can hardly be “generally recognized as safe.”
His efforts helped him achieve 2 to 3 percent body fat. But that’s not a healthy body fat percentage. And it’s not sustainable without suffering severe complications that are a lot worse than fatigue, moodiness, low libido, stress, loss of strength, and hunger. Münzer was shredded year-round, but there would be a heavy price to pay.
After months of of intense abdominal pain while still competing in 1996, Münzer finally seeks medical treatment. But it would be too late.
“The medical examiners find that long-term poisoning, especially caused by anabolic steroids, has led to an organ deterioration,” according to an article published in the Austrian newspaper Der Spiegel. “The liver is almost completely dissolved. In addition, there is an acute poisoning, presumably the result of a stimulant. In addition, they register a “huge electrolyte derailment” and an extremely high potassium content in the body.”
If you’ve ever obsessed about body fat percentage, you’re not alone. If you’re trying to get shredded you do need a certain amount of discipline to get there. But for most, a reasonable goal is:
- 6 to 12 percent men body fat for men
- 10 to 17 percent body fat for women
“Andre Münzer is the most conditioned person to ever step on stage with a true 2 to 3 percent body fat level,” says Team RSF Coach Jordan Ferguson. “But it cost him his life. Crazy.”
5 ways to measure body fat
Just so we’re clear, low single-digit body fat percentage isn’t sustainable, necessary, or healthy to get the kind of lean muscle look most people want.
But you can carve out an incredible physique if cut some body fat. And there are a few ways to measure it, some better than others.
Bioelectrical impedance (highly inaccurate). If you own a scale that calculates body fat percentage or your gym has one, it’s probably attempting to measure body fat using bioelectrical impedance analysis. Basically, an electrical current travels through your body and measures fat mass, and everything else (bone, tissue, water, organs, etc). And it’s not reliable.
For example, during a recent weigh-in using a scale with a bioelectrical impedance feature, it calculated my body fat at 20 percent and reported me as obese based on Body Mass Index.
It’s an inaccurate way to measure percent body fat, even though companies that make these devices claim otherwise. And there’s a bigger downside than just being inaccurate. The more muscle you gain, the more inaccurate this way of measuring percent body fat becomes. If it’s the only way you’re measuring your progress, it can leave you feeling defeated.
Skinfold caliper measurements (fairly accurate). It’s been around the longest. Using skin calipers, you take measurements by pinching fat in several areas (such as the chest, thigh, abdomen, or triceps). Then the measurements can be used to calculate percent body fat and lean muscle mass. Even though it’s an old-school way to measure body fat percentage, it’s still fairly accurate when done correctly.
Hydrostatic weighing (accurate). In a lab setting wearing a Speedo or lightweight swimsuit, you step into a tank of water. Exhale hard to blow out all the air in your lungs, and hold still. It’s a highly accurate way to measure percent body fat and lean body mass.
DEXA scan (highly accurate, recommended). If you’re looking for the most accurate way to measure body fat percentage, this is it. A DEXA scan (aka Duel-energy X-ray absorpitometry). This measures bone mass, fat tissue, and muscle in your body, and research shows it’s the most accurate of any other method to measure body fat percentage.
How it works? You lie down on a full-body x-ray table, and the machine scans your body in just a couple of minutes. Then a computer program uses all the data to generate a report that measures fat, bone, and lean muscle mass.
Mirror test (recommended). There’s nothing very scientific about standing in front of a mirror. But it can be an effective way to gauge body fat percentage. And it’s even more effective to take weekly progress pics to measure your results.
Here’s how Team RSF Coach Jordan Ferguson prefers to measure body fat:
“I look in the mirror and say, ‘Shoot, Jordan. Too many burgers, son. Time to diet. You’re looking fat,’ Or maybe it’s something like, ‘OK. Some nice lines. Abs are visible. Keep eating.’”
If you don’t see any muscle definition, you’ve got some work to do. If you can see the outline of your abs and other muscle striations beginning to appear, you may only need a few more weeks of dieting and training to achieve your goal.
What’s the best way to measure body fat percentage? It’s the DEXA scan. And while it might cost a couple hundred dollars at a gym, lab, or research university, it’s the most accurate.
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- SPIEGEL-Verlag Rudolf Augstein. (1996). Blond, strong, and dead. The Mirror. From: http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-8910978.html
- Dehghan, M., et al. (2008). Is bioelectrical impedance accurate for use in large epidemiological studies? Nutrition Journal. From: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2543039/
- Ball, S., et al. (2004). Comparison of anthropometry to dual energy X-ray absorptiometry: a new prediction equation for women. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. From: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15487289