What Exactly Does It Mean to Have an Ideal Body Composition?

Your body composition might already be what you want

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Much debate exists in the nutrition world about how to define ideal body composition and whether or not it even exists. Professor Ormsbee provides his own definition and how to precisely calculate this number.

Man performing push-up and dumbbell rows with digital skeleton
Key points from the extensive field of exercise and nutrition physiology can help you to achieve your ideal body composition goals. Photo By wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock

The Last Five Pounds

Perhaps you don’t have an ideal body composition. Chances are that you may be at a healthy weight and perfectly happy with your body composition, and you just want to learn more about the extensive field of exercise and nutrition physiology.

“Despite your excellent health, though, I would bet that at some point you’ve said, ‘I’d like to lose these five pounds before some upcoming event,”’ Professor Ormsbee said. “And as you probably know, the last five pounds are often the ones that people dread losing the most. They just seem to be stubborn—not budging much, despite your best efforts.”

It could be that you’ve already come a long way—maybe you’ve vastly improved your body composition over the past year, for example. After all that time and being so close to your goal, it is no wonder that last little bit seems like it is so hard to conquer. 

It is sort of like a long road trip in the car. The last hour always seems like the longest part of the drive.

“Most times I can quickly identify easy-to-fix behaviors that can be manipulated to get results,” Professor Ormsbee said. “These are basic things that my clients know but have just forgotten over time because they’ve been at this for so long. For example, it is very easy to go to the gym for 60 minutes, but that is not the same thing as exercising with a specific goal in mind and a specific plan for 60 minutes.”

Other times, much more sophisticated nutritional changes can be implemented to help in your final push to optimize body composition. 

Set-Point Theory

“Sometimes I’ll employ these changes for athletes before a single race or event, but they are not something I would say is sustainable over the long term,” Professor Ormsbee said. “Even with some changes that can be made to fine-tune the last five pounds, you’ll end up fighting your physiology at some point.”

The set-point theory describes how and why your body is typically within just a few pounds of your usual body weight. In other words, this is the body weight that you just don’t seem to budge from. In this article series, you’ll learn about ideal body weight, set-point theory, and some common habits Professor Ormsbee often observes that make losing those last five pounds difficult—but not impossible.

What Is Ideal Body Composition?

Let’s start with a simple question: What is your ideal body composition? Just like many topics in this field, your ideal body composition is different from that of your spouse or your best friend. 

“Simply stop comparing and some of your stress will immediately decrease,” Professor Ormsbee said. “But I know this is tough to do.”

For ideal body weight, first, think about what weight you were able to sustain as an adult where you felt the best you’ve ever felt. Chances are that this is more reasonable as a target then some former version of yourself with totally different life circumstances, stresses, and priorities.

“Many doctors and experts have stated publicly that there is no such thing as an ideal body weight,” Professor Ormsbee said. “I disagree. To me, your ideal body weight and body composition is when you feel your best, perform your best, and look your best.”

Now, this ideal weight may change over time, and it is dependent on your goals. If your goal is to run a marathon, then clearly lower body fat levels and body weight will be advantageous to make you feel and perform better well while running. 

On the other hand, maybe you don’t have much muscle mass right now, and this makes doing some basic things like picking up kids or grandkids or being as active as you want to be difficult. Then for you, adding muscle mass and body weight may be ideal for you in order to feel, perform, and look your best.

Calculating Ideal Body Weight

Calculating your ideal body weight is a good first step—although this will involve some trial and error, of course. First, get your body composition measured. 

Multiple measurement techniques exist including a skinfold test, bioelectrical impedance analysis, or a DXA scan. Your best bet is to look up exercise science labs at local universities or colleges or speak with some professional staff at your health club. 

Just be sure to use the same method for measuring each time. Once you have your body composition measured, take your weight of muscle mass and divide it by one minus your goal body fat percent. This value is your ideal body weight at your selected percent body fat.

For example, let’s say you weigh 195 lbs (89) kg, have 137 lbs (62 kg) of muscle mass, and 30% body fat. The goal you’ve set for yourself is to lose 5% body fat. 

Now, take the weight of your muscle mass or 137 lbs and divide it by 1 minus 0.25, which is your goal percent body fat. This becomes 137 divided by 0.75, which equals 183 lbs (83 kg). 

This is your new goal weight. Then, just subtract your goal weight of 183 from your current weight of 195 and you’ll see that you need to lose 12 lbs (5½ kg of fat) to weigh 183 lbs and have 25% body fat.

Your ideal body weight may be simple to calculate, but making it a reality is obviously the tough part. Despite implementing the right steps for diet and exercise, sometimes, a plateau still hits you unexpectedly. In tomorrow’s article, Professor Ormsbee will delve into why this happens so that you can begin to gain back some control.

Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
About Kate Findley 450 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.