The main scientific theory explaining why we find certain traits attractive is that they showcase genuine advantages (study, study, study). For example, the healthiest body-fat percentage range for men is between 10–20% (study), so we’d expect that amount of fat to be considered the most attractive by women. That’s not what we see on magazine covers, though, where men are typically far leaner.
Do women really find men with the healthiest body-fat percentage the most attractive? Or do they have a preference for even leaner men with more chiseled abs?
Okay, so, first of all, why do women care about your body-fat percentage to begin with? If we can understand that, then we can better understand why they’d prefer some body-fat percentages over others.
There are a few reasons that having a healthy body-fat percentage is so important:
- Far more testosterone, much less estrogen (study)
- Less stress, lower anxiety levels, and better overall mood (study)
- Reduced risk of developing diabetes (study)
- Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (study)
- Reduced risk of heart attacks (study)
- Better movement, healthier joints (study)
- Better fertility and sexual performance (study, study)
When a woman is choosing a partner, it makes sense that she’d be more attracted to the men with all of those benefits, even if that attraction is happening subconsciously.
Assuming for a moment that women are attracted to men who look healthy, the first anomaly we run into is body-mass index (BMI), which is the leading method that health professionals use to determine whether someone is overweight or not. Oddly enough, it turns out that women are most attracted to men with a BMI of 26 (study), which is technically overweight. For example, for the average 5’9 man, his most attractive body weight is around 175 pounds, which most health professionals would consider too fat to be healthy.
However, this mismatch is easily explained by the fact that BMI is a blunt measurement that doesn’t differentiate between fat and muscle. If we look at the body composition of the men that women preferred, we see that women didn’t prefer men who are carrying extra fat, they preferred men who were carrying extra muscle. So much extra muscle, in fact, that it popped them into the overweight category. (Here’s our article on the most attractive amount of muscle mass.)
The reason strong men break the BMI system is because it’s so rare for a man to be that strong. Most men don’t lift weights, and even most men who lift weights don’t do a very good job of it. If you do lift weights, though, and if you take care to do it properly, then your BMI won’t tell you very much.
There’s also the skinny-fat problem. Some guys aren’t overweight, they’re just over-fat. In fact, 29% of men who have a technically healthy BMI are still at an increased risk of developing heart problems and diabetes because of their low muscle mass and high body-fat percentages (study). In this case, you might have a guy who’s 5’9 and weighs 160 pounds, which medical institutions would consider perfectly healthy, except for the fact that most of that weight is in his stomach. (Here’s our article for guys who are struggling with being skinny-fat.)
Anyway, if attractiveness is based on how healthy someone looks, it’s no surprise that BMI is a poor predictor of attractiveness. You can get a much better idea of how healthy someone is by looking at their muscle mass, overall body shape (such as shoulder-to-waist ratio), and, of course, his body-fat percentage.
When it comes to body-fat percentage, since men store most of their fat in their guts, the best way to tell a man’s body-fat percentage is to look at his stomach. (Here’s how to estimate your body-fat percentage by looking at your stomach.)
If having a lean stomach is a way for a man to showcase his health, that would explain why abs are so coveted. After all, in order to have abs, you need to have a very lean stomach.
Another little-known fact is that in order to have abs, you also need to be quite muscular. Now, some overweight people naturally have muscular abs because of how much bodyweight they’re carrying around. For skinny guys, though, they often need to intentionally bulk up their abs.
But is having abs healthy? Is it attractive?
Is there such a thing as being TOO lean?
Most people know about the harm of being too fat, but the harms of being too lean are just as bad—arguably even worse.
When we see a shredded physique on a magazine cover, we’re not seeing someone who’s in great shape, we’re seeing someone who’s starving themselves to death, jeopardizing their health in order to have a more remarkable physique.
Bodybuilders and fitness models who diet down to 5–7% body fat run into a ton of problems:
- Terrible testosterone production (study). For example, in this case study of a bodybuilder who dieted down to 5% body fat, by the time he finished his diet, he was only producing 1/4 as much testosterone.
- High levels of anxiety and stress (study). Including rising levels of the stress hormone cortisol (study), which can even rise high enough to prevent proper sleep.
- Increased likelihood of steroid abuse, eating disorders, low self-confidence, and body-image issues (study).
- Worse cardiovascular health than obese men (study). In terms of overall health risks, guys who are overly lean are at greater risk of heart attacks and organ failures than guys who are obese.
However, more often than not, these models and bodybuilders will only maintain those low body-fat percentages for a few days before climbing back up to a more sustainable body-fat percentage. That doesn’t make it healthy, but it does help mitigate the longterm harm.
Even in the general public, though, the prolonged calorie deficits typically required to get extremely lean have been proven to cause fatigue (study, study, study), increase the production of stress hormones such as cortisol (study), reduce sleep quality (study), and increase anxiety (study). These negative health effects often start to happen long before guys start having shredded abs, let alone shredded glutes.
Given how incredibly hard it is to get that lean, shredded physiques are certainly more impressive, demonstrating both conscientiousness and discipline. But if attractiveness is tied to health, you’d expect these physiques to be considered less attractive than those with a healthier body-fat percentage.
The lower limit of body-fat percentage for general health seems to be around 8–11% (study). For some, getting down to even 11% can negatively impact health and mood. For others, even 8% can feel comfortable and natural. It depends on the person.
However, dropping below 8% body-fat isn’t associated with any health benefit, only harm. So if attractiveness is based on how healthy someone looks, we’d expect women to have a preference for guys with body-fat percentages above 8%. In fact, just to play it safe, we might even expect them to prefer guys who are a few points above 11%.
But do women judge men’s physiques based on how healthy they look?
Is the most attractive male body-fat percentage based on health?
A 2016 study titled The Body and the Beautiful: Health, Attractiveness and Body Composition in Men’s and Women’s Bodies, looked into the link between health and attractiveness.
They brought in both men and women, and they had them manipulate images to create the body composition that looked the most attractive to them. Separate from that, they also asked them to create the body composition that looked the healthiest. They found:
- The male body-fat percentage that looked the healthiest also looked the most attractive. Women really were attracted to men who looked visibly healthy.
- Women were able to accurately guess the ideal amount of body fat for health. That body-fat percentage that women thought looked the healthiest fell right within the ideal range for health (10–20%).
- Women thought that men with a body-fat percentage of 16% looked the most attractive. Women found the men who were in the middle of the healthy body-fat percentage range looked the most attractive.
This suggests that, yes, it’s possible to be too lean, both in terms of general health and attractiveness. And that, yes, women are most attracted to men whose bodies look as healthy as possible.
However, this study used computer-generated images, and all of those images were of men wearing shirts. How well does this line up with what women prefer when looking at real photographs of guys with their shirts off?
Do women find men with abs more attractive?
A few years ago, we ran a survey where we asked women to rate the attractiveness of various male bodies. We presented them with photos of male torsos, heads cropped off, and they told us which of the bodies they found the most attractive. We also asked them why they found some male bodies more attractive than others.
Some of those photo arrays were designed to see whether women preferred men with healthy body-fat percentages, and they did:
In this photo array, 58% of women chose a man with a body fat-percentage of around 14%.
In this comparison, women found Gerard Butler more attractive when he dropped from a body-fat percentage of about 30% to around 15%.
This was as expected. Women were picking the men with lower body-fat percentages because those lower body-fat percentages were healthier. But what happens when we drop the body-fat even lower?
Other photo arrays were designed to see whether women preferred men with abs. They didn’t:
Here, 63% of women found a body-fat percentage of around 13% the most attractive, preferring it it to the physiques of guys with more chiseled abs.
In this photo array, 82% of women chose the guy with a body-fat percentage of around 14%, greatly preferring it to the more muscular, shredded physiques.
The next thing we did was ask women why they found some physiques more attractive than others. Here are some direct quotes from their survey responses:
- It looks the most natural/normal.
- It looks healthy and not overdone!
- Fit but not overdone.
- I don’t find particularly defined abdominal muscles nice looking.
- I don’t like overly defined abs. It’s less natural looking.
- He isn’t disgustingly ripped.
- Not excessively ripped!
- Not too overboard in fitness
- Healthy, toned, but not too much. The others are a little too intense.
- Looks healthy, young, and not overly defined
- The abs don’t pop out as much, it looks more like a body of someone who is fit because of a sport as opposed to someone who does it for looks.
Having an extremely low body-fat percentage also affects the appearance of your face and neck
The other thing to keep in mind is that low body-fat percentages also affect the appearance of your face and neck. Most men will start to have a hollower face and a skinnier neck as they begin to drop below 10% body fat, ultimately looking underfed even if they’re quite muscular elsewhere.
At very low body-fat percentages, even as a guy’s muscles look more and more shredded, it might have a negative impact on his overall appearance, at least as far as women are concerned. Not only will he look smaller in clothes, his face and neck may begin to look older and frailer.
What’s the most attractive male body-fat percentage?
Overall, it seems like all of the research lines up quite neatly. Women prefer men who look healthy and strong, which means a body-fat percentage of 8–20%, with the majority of women preferring men with a body-fat percentage somewhere in the middle.
Mind you, an attractive body-fat percentage is going to look a little different on everyone, and it will also vary depending on how much muscle mass you have. The more muscle you have, the leaner you’re going to look at the same body-fat percentage:
You may also want to pick a body-fat percentage that has you feeling strong and energetic, and allows you to live a lifestyle that you enjoy. It won’t necessarily impact your appearance, but it will allow you to be a more attractive person overall.
Anyway, given all of the research, if I had to put on a number on it, I’d say the most attractive male body-fat percentage is around 11–15%, which also lines up perfectly with what’s likely best for your general health.
Whether or not you have abs shouldn’t matter much too much. It’s certainly not required. If your goal is to be attractive to women, the main thing is looking visibly healthy and strong. A flat stomach, maybe some upper abs peaking through—that’s more than enough.