Leaner Body Fat Percentages in Male and Female Athletes

By Jane Kirby, The American Dietetic Association

Women have higher percentages of body fat than men, because female reproductive hormones require more fat. Women with healthy weights are generally between 15 and 25 percent body fat and men fall into the 10 to 20 percent range. But for the athlete, optimal body fat may be 10 to 20 percent for women and 5 to 12 percent for men.

The following sums up the difference between percent body fat in the general population and what’s considered ideal for optimal athletic performance.

Percent Body Fat in Athletes and Nonathletes
Women Men
Athlete 10 to 20 percent 5 to 12 percent
Normal (optimal) 15 to 25 percent 10 to 20 percent
Overweight 25.1 to 29.9 percent 20.1 to 24.4 percent
Obese Over 30 percent Over 25 percent

Skaters, gymnasts, and dancers, who are judged for their aesthetic appearance as much as their physical skill, strive to achieve minimum body fat. Runners, too, find that they run better when their body fat is low — because it means that they have less mass to move. Swimmers, on the other hand, find body fat helps them with buoyancy.

You can have too little body fat. If a woman’s body fat falls below 12 percent of her total body weight, hormone production can be compromised, and menstruation can be interrupted, and therefore the risk of osteoporosis (thinning bones, which is directly related to hormonal status) is high. Body fat below 10 percent in women and 4 percent in men may be an indication of an eating disorder.

Specific body compositions aren’t recommended for individual sports, but generalizations have been made through observation of elite athletes. These generalizations are summarized in the following table.

These are observations, not recommendations. Additionally, they’re observations in adults and should not be used as standards for adolescents.

Observed Body Composition Characteristics of Athletes*
Sport % Body Fat
Men Women
Ballet 12–22
Baseball/Softball 13 14–24
Basketball 7–14 15–24
Bicycling 8–13 8–15
Field Events
Decathlon 3–13
Pentathlon 8–14
Throwing 19–35
Discus 12–21
Shot 12–21
Jumping 6–10 10–15
Field Hockey 14–25
Defensive backs 5–14
Running backs and wide receivers 5–13
Linebackers 9–19
Offensive line 12–19
Defensive line 13–24
Quarterbacks 8–21
Gymnastics 4–9 16–17
Lacrosse 8–17 14–24
Racket sports
Tennis 6–16 20–24
Squash 7–15
Ice hockey 5–14
Speed skating 5–10 11–20
Skiing (Nordic) 5–9 18–21
Soccer 5–14 15–27
Swimming 6–12 12–20
Distance runners 2–8 11–18
Sprinters and hurdlers 3–13 7–14
Triathlon 7–17 15–18
Volleyball 7–13 14–21
Weight lifting and bodybuilding
Olympic lift 8–12
Power lift 8–10 20–23
Bodybuilding 8–10 12–15
Adult 5–13
Sumo 26–28

*Adapted from Sports Nutrition, A guide for the Professional Working with Active People, 2000. Data has been rounded to the nearest whole number.