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Your BMI – is it fat or muscle? Surprising pictures – your weight has little to do with your body fat


Here is a compilation of body images to (hopefully) shock you into exercising, especially if you are older. And – if you already are, give yourself pat on the back.

Did you know that after the age of 30 – you lose 250 grams per year of muscle and gain 500 grams of fat? (reference)

Point 1: Weight on the scale does not indicate a healthy body fat.

I love this image from Jason Seib‘s post on his client Deb’s transformation. Deb stayed the same weight, but leaned out considerably. And is now impressively strong.

  • Waist went from 32.75 inches to 30 inches.
  • Chest went from 39.75 inches to 37.25 inches.
  • Hips went from 36 inches to 34 inches.
  • Upper arm went from 11.25 inches to 10.75 inches.

California mum Adrienne quit dieting four good and started lifting heavy weights, her body transformed yet her weight stayed the same. You can read her story here: Mum drops three dress sizes but only loses less than one kilo

And from CrossFit Revelation

This woman is 9 bls (4kg) heavier – yet looks leaner, especially in the abdomen

5 pounds of fat takes up much more space than the same weight of muscle (approxomately twice as much). If you’re shedding fat and gaining muscle your weight might not change but your clothes will fit better and you’ll look trim and fit.

And here is another picture of the same woman 2 years apart – in both she is 160lbs, yet looks far slimmer in the second photo with more muscle mass and less fat. Image is from this post: Body Composition: That ‘Last Five Pounds’, and How to Deal With ‘Problem Areas’

160lbsAnd another photo I found on sexyfreak.comfat muscle


Taking a look on the inside – DXA scan

A DXA (DeXA) scan (dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry)  is a low dose x-ray known as DXA, to determine percent fat. DXA can be used to estimate bone density, lean mass and fat mass.

Here is a cool colour pic of a DXA scan (link) – you can distinguish fat from muscle and bone.

From this article:  BMI scale not accurate measure for obesity

2 men – exactly the same BMI (What is BMI? – it is a ratio of weight to height, it does not tell you if that weight is healthy muscle, or unhealthy fat) DXA images below are of two adults with the same BMI. While their weight and height may be similar, resulting in the same BMI, the person on the right has twice as much body fat as the person on the left. DXA images allow doctors to analyse bone density, lean mass and fat mass.

Man on left:
Muscle Mass 88.7 kg
Fat Mass 13.8 kg
Bone Mass 3.8 kg
Body Fat 13%
Total Weight 106.3 kg
Height 1.83 m

Man on right:
Muscle Mass 69.5 kg
Fat Mass 25.8 kg
Bone Mass 2.8 kg
Body Fat 26.3%
Total weight 98.1 kg
Height 1.76 m

This graphic shows scans of real men all the same height and weight, however fat percentage and distribution is very different. (Source: Visualizing BMI’s “Blind Spots”)


Many top athletes for example, some of our (New Zealand’s) rugby players (yes we did win the world cup) would measure obese according to their BMI.  Sonny Bill Williams has a BMI of 29 – bordering on obese (height 6’4″, weight 238lbs)

Want more eye-candy? – check out this video: Sonny Bill Williams removes his shirt

And now for an amazing cross section of a leg: an aging triathlete, compared to a couch potato. A graphic illustration of the importance of keeping active – particularly strength exercise to maintain muscle mass

The Incredible un-aging athlete from this study Chronic Exercise Preserves Lean Muscle Mass in Masters Athletes

And here is a rather sobering view of  the inside if you are very overweight

Crushed lungs, strained joints and a swollen heart – the extraordinary scans that reveal what being fat does to you

Take home message – keep up with your weight resistant exercise and eat real food

Links to read:

Must view: Body Fat Pictures and Percentages – What people look like at different body fat percentages, also great comparison pictures of same body fat combined with different amounts of muscle

BMI – real people in pictures: A collection of pictures of people with their height, weight and BMI, clearly pointing out the variation in sizes at different BMIs

Lifelong Exercise and Strength Training in Older Adults

Exercise only preserves the muscles you actually use

Exercise dosing to retain resistance training adaptations in young and older adults

Seniors can still bulk up on muscle by pressing iron

Sarcopenic obesity: strategies for management.

http://www.happyhealthylonglife.com/happy_healthy_long_life/2011/06/bones.html (the importance of weight resistant exercise for strong bones, ignore the diet advice)




  1. I’m a bit confused about your linking to Happy Healthy Long Life. The site owner is Vegan and doesn’t eat nuts or use oils.

  2. Nice post, and I’m not just saying that because you included a pic of SBW!

    It’s striking being on the floors and looking at the measurements for a person and then seeing them in person… Frequently the numbers just don’t seem to fit the person you see, or at least the expectation the numbers might give you (this works in both directions). Waist circumference seems like a useful number to include in this kind of analysis, but it’s almost never used.

    The push to use BMI as a “useful” measurement for kids seems particularly poorly guided… Surely we can think of something better!

  3. wow! i had no idea sbw was obese.

    finally i’ve found a flaw i can pick on to make myself feel better. thankyou so much. hahaha!!

  4. this is SO helpful. We moved a few months ago into the city to cut down on our commute to work. We used to be in the car almost two hours a day. When we moved i started walking 1/2 a mile to work everyday (so a mile a day) plus walking to and from things where we used to just only drive every where! my weight hasn’t dropped a lot since our move but my clothes are fitting better… wasn’t sure if i was on the right track! but this makes me feel a whole lot better.

  5. Hello Julianne,
    I just turned 30 and this statistics looks scary:”After the age of 30 – you lose 250 grams per year of muscle and gain 500 “grams of fat?”

    Does it apply to both men and women?

  6. The entire article is based on one assumption; BMI is worthless because it does not take into account lean body mass.

    But what evidence do we have that excess lean body mass does not come at some cost to health?

    Take the athlete “eye-candy” you have listed. The gentleman, according to you, is apx 235lbs and, from his picture, appears very lean. Your argument is that this individual can not be in the same catagory as someone who really is “borderline obese” becuase this individual is lean. But again, what evidence is there that the excess lean body mass is actually benefiting the individual’s health and how do we know it isn’t actually costing him something in overall health and longevity?

    Would the individual have better overall health at a lesser body mass even if he wasn’t as lean? Everyone seems to operate under the assumption that excess muscle mass comes, at a minimum, at no cost to health and longevity. But what is the evidence to back it up?

    We all know that 20lbs of additional fat has a high cost to overall health and longevity. But what is the cost of 20lbs of additional musle?

    • I don’t think BMI is completely worthless – but is a only a very broad guideline. You may be in a normal BMI range, but have excess body fat, and think you are okay. Or your BMI may have stayed unchanged for your entire life, but your ratio of fat to muscle could have changed considerably as you aged.

      A good question – is there a cost of having a larger than average amount of muscle? Have you researched this?

      Why do we look at lean muscled athletes and think they are over muscled? I would assert that the regular person is undermuscled, and most athletes bare a much closer resemblance to our hunter gatherer ancestors who were lean, and strong boned.

      • Unfortunately I don’t have anything to rely upon. It is just a question I often wonder about. I also agree that the overwhelming majority of people are under-muscled but my point was that those who do seek “fitness” seem to operate under the assumption that muscle mass is “free’, meaning that it comes at no cost to health and most seem to believe it is actually beneficial to health.

        I agree, most people would benefit from adding muscle. But when to those benefits begin to deminish? When does that muscle mass actually being to become a detriment to health?

        At a minimum acquiring musle mass requires the individual to eat a consistently hypercaloric diet and do excessive amounts of work. These things clearly cause stress to the body but is the stress high enough to be determental?

        So basically the question is, should Le Corre and Sissons be the ideal or is it okay to pursue excess muscle mass so long as it is done with ancestrial foods? How big is too big, no matter how lean it is?

      • Both “overmuscled” and “undermuscled” are opinionmaker “Spinn-Doctor”s style word use.
        Over 95% of al people are lifestyle-FIT muscled , just excluding the muscle desease patients, and the myostatin gen defect exceptions and some artificially blown up muscle builds (read : DOPING).
        The human body has the natural protection reflex to maintain about a 70% activation rate from the potential (genetically defined) available {Max.power / kg of muscle mass}. If you use frequently more, the body starts building new muscle, to SAFEGUARD the average protective 70% use level, and when you use frequently less, the body will just as well break down muscle, to get at the 70% again….
        From a biological viewpoint, that’s called a feedback mechanism.

      • AMEN! Most of the population, both sexes, IS undermuscled! Not only that but people have a fear of muscle! My goal is to build as much muscle as I can, my exercise regimen is 90% weight training and callisthenics.

        • I personally like “very well muscled woman”.. 🙂 … but that is a romantic “attraction” preference, and has nothing at all to do with objective needs. Nobody on earth is “undermuscled”, when their muscle size FIT their NEEDS.

  7. I am so glad you shared this Julianne, and found your info on muscle loss so important as a women in her fifties, it was a major consideration and my goal was/is to build muscle as much as possible as I age (lifting weights is huge), and it is never too late!
    Normally there is a link to my Facebook attached to the article and I don’t know if anyone is interested but here is the link just in case. (Everyday Paleo’s Scale addict)
    thank you,

  8. I write in response to Adam Atkins question regarding the cost of ‘excess’ lean body mass. I’ve been a personal trainer for more than 11 years now and have never heard anyone ask this before. Not one of my clients have ever lost motivation from the overall health benefits they’ve achieved from heavy weight lifting exercises. (I refuse to do fluffy stuff.)

    However I do make allowances to those who have Osteoarthritis or similar painful conditions with limited range of movement. For some people it’s just too painful to move a heavy weight through any range of movement. But who says you have to move weights to increase lean muscle mass? You don’t! So I get them just to hold the heaviest weight they can without movement. (Always in the safety of a cage). Muscle supports your joints. Increased muscle mass will only support it more! Muscle wastage reduces the support on the joints.

    We know that lean muscle mass requires energy to stay alive! But fat requires no extra energy because it is just that… ENERGY.

    Everyone has a genetic potential. I ask my gym junkie clients why they do it? (Probably addicted to the endorphins Serotonin or vanity). I think it’s pointless if the goal is to end up being a good looking corpse. Go out there and DO the things you love to do with the healthiest body you can make for yourself.

    Lifting weights – gaining lean muscle mass is only MEANS TO AN END. Some people (Body Builders) are motivated to stand on a stage and show off… but thankfully the majority of us want to use that lean body mass for other purposes.

    I’m not against show ponies. But these people tend to push the boundaries to the point that they drop fat reserves dangerously low <3%. There has been recorded deaths.

    Everything to excess has detrimental side effects. But we're talking about people who's life time's ambition is to win that perfect sculpting prize of having the best body in the 'Universe'. If that's your gig, great. But it is interesting to note that there is an ever ageing population of people doing amazing feats of strength.

    There is a close correlation between lean muscle mass and biological age. The great energy/blood supply needed to sustain that mass keeps the body in tip top shape. Letting that go seems ludicrous. I'm a firm believer that the benefits of more muscle mass FAR outweigh the 'costs' associated with it.

    Sure, it can be uncomfortable challenging muscles to gain more lean muscle mass. But it requires less effort than you think. Muscle stimulated to the maximum need time to recover. Most people do not give themselves enough time and the novelty constant muscle tension soon squashes the most keen weightlifter.

    I train my clients just once a week using the four basic compound lifts. Push, Pull, Bend at the knees and bend thru the hips. It's easy and requires no more than 30 minutes just once a week to improve your lean body mass no matter what level you are at. That 30 minutes also includes a comprehensive stretch too.

    Sorry, but I can't think of a single reason why you wouldn't want more lean muscle mass. (Except if you in a sport with weight divisions such as boxing etc.)

    Hear's to better HEALTH.

    • Thanks for your reply.
      I agree – all evidence points to increased lean mass as beneficial, it takes some effort to build it and maintain, I find it hard to imagine anyone would get excess muscle.
      And it especially important for health as one ages.

      However the bodybuilders who do it with chemical help – that’s a whole other story.

  9. Wonderful, wonderful!! Thank you for posting the real deal! Good food and good exercise make for a healthier person than those stupid numbers on the scale. Resting heart rate, fasting sugar levels, and cholesterol numbers say a LOT more about a person than “BMI” or weight. Keep this up!

  10. Although muscle is slightly more dense than water, and fat tissue is slightly less dense than water, muscle tissue is not “THREE TIMES” as dense as adipose tissue.
    Do you have a citation for the statement that “5 pounds of fat takes up THREE TIMES as much space as 5 pounds of muscle”?

    • I’ll leave the math up to you, but any web search should reveal muscle tissue is 12%- 18% more dense than fat. This means simply 1lb of fat will occupy 15% more space than 1lb of muscle. The more you scale up in weight, the larger that 15% will become, 15% percent of 1lb is nothing, 15% of 50lbs is a much much greater area. Hydration plays a key role in this as a visual measure as well as a scientific one. The more hydrated you are, the more space your muscles will occupy. Not so with Fat.

      Think of fat as popcorn, and muscle as, well, steak lol. Now put 1 pound of each into a bowl and compare the two. Fat cells accumulate much like the popcorn will stack into the bowl, and will do so wherever they can. While lean muscle is usually long and thin, and will contour the bone structures of the body. This creates an obvious visual distinction.

    • Your BMI can be measured – but dont take it as a measure of health or body fat if you are muscular – best to get your body fat done – or check your waist is half your height or less to see if you are a healthy body fat.

  11. Hi… I am of 99 kgs. With 32% BF but when I look at my self into the mirror I feel I am built in. Even my friends have mistaken my obese body to be a muscular one. I can feel the muscles that are just covered from the skin. What am I supposed to do to have visible muscles do I need to shred. Do I need to play for cuts.

    • Keep exercising to maintain your current muscle mass, Taha, and log your daily calories to ensure you’re keeping them at 2000; your BF relative to muscle mass will eventually drop to where it needs to be, and your muscles will become visible. A good personal trainer can help you get the look you want in just a few weeks.

  12. Useful information, I feel much better about myself. I workout with light weights and run 12 miles a week. I’m 5’10 199lbs with a 34/35 waist. With an athletic build. I get depressed cause I just can’t lose a few lbs but all my clothes look and feel better. My vitals are perfect also. By the way I’m 51 yrs old and really feel much better about myself after reading your informative wonderful

    • Thanks. I’m very pleased this article was useful for you 🙂 Your waist measurement is very good for your height by the way – which is what I go on – instead of weight

  13. I can tell you from real experience that BMI is not accurate as it does not take into account your bone structure andhowbig it is most scales will not except me as a woman as i have bones larger than their largest frame for a woman and much denser I had a Bariatric surgery i only eat very healty but very little and i excersise to death i lost 60 kilos and the surgeons istimated that i have about 20 to 25 kilograms of ecess skin the scale and BMI calculator counts ny excess skin as fat and even my bone debsity so yes it is not correct new research has found that BMI percent ages that was set left very little to no fat in the human body so if anything happens where a person can’t eat for any reason they die becuse their is not enough fat for the body to burn to survive real medical research

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