What's the perfect BMI for a cyclist?

Body Mass Index, or BMI, is widely used to measure if you are a healthy weight… but does it work for bike riders?

bmi cycling
Power to weight is vital for cyclists – but how do you know what numbers to aim for?
(Image credit: Cycling Weekly)

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a scale used to measure if you are a healthy weight for your height. Your BMI is found by dividing your weight by your height squared, for example, so if you weigh 60kg and you're 1.65m high then your BMI is:

60 ÷ (1.65 x 1.65) = 22.03.

You can find a BMI calculator here.

A healthy BMI for adult men and women is between 19 and 25; below 19 is considered under-weight and above 25 over weight.

What's a healthy BMI for a cyclist?

The four cyclists below are all in the healthy range – just – but a very powerful, muscular rider like Robert Förstemann is almost in the overweight category, whereas Chris Froome is verging on being underweight. Conor Dunne is very tall and Nairo Quintana short, but both have exactly the same BMI.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Nairo Quintana1675921.2
Chris Froome1866919.9
Robert Förstemann1749029.7
Conor Dunne2048821.1

BMI is widely used by health professionals and is a useful tool, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. It was designed by a Belgian statistician in 1832 for examining normal growth rates in a large population, but it was not designed to monitor obesity or health in individuals. As a means of looking at large scale trends it is still very useful but if you happen to be very tall, or very short, or (as is the case with many cyclists) very muscular and very lean, then it can be misleading.

BMI doesn’t take into account what your body weight is made up of, how much of it is lean muscle, and how much is fat. Even more importantly, it doesn’t give you any information on where that body fat is stored. For the full picture you need to find out your lean body mass.

Watch: six weight-loss tips for cyclists

Calculating Lean Body Mass

Lean body mass is the amount of weight that you carry which isn’t fat. This is far more important to a cyclist than BMI. Fat is metabolically inert, it contributes nothing to your cycling performance, and if you are dragging extra weight uphill it is just going to slow you down.

A healthy body fat percentage is 14-17% for men and 21-24% for women, but professional athletes have lean body fat percentages as low as 6-13% for men and 14-20% for women. Anything below those lower limits is damaging to health, as a small amount of fat is essential. Someone like Förstemann, as per our earlier example, is at the upper limit of the healthy range for BMI but has a low body fat percentage – which is a good example of why looking at BMI can be misleading.

>>> Calories burned cycling: Everything you need to know

If you want to improve as a cyclist, but remain healthy, it is your lean body mass you need to know. This can be found at home by using body mass scales such as these from Tanita.

Other methods for finding lean body mass include body fat calipers, which measure the fat in a skin-fold, or the sophisticated method of underwater weighing, which can only be done in a laboratory. For most of us, though, a set of scales will work perfectly for measuring lean body mass.

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Hannah Reynolds

Hannah Reynolds interest in cycling started while studying for a degree in Sports Science at the University College Chichester. A number of students and lecturers were elite and even world class cyclists, many of whom went onto long-term careers in cycling. Despite being a complete novice she was taken under the wing of the experts and given a fast-track introduction to the world of road racing, cross-country mountain biking, time trials and cyclo-cross. A committed dabbler whose passion outweighed her talent Reynolds has competed across all disciplines of cycling bar BMX. In the very distant past she has been south-east road race champion, southern cyclo-cross champion and finished third in the European 24hr Solo mountain-bike champs in 2011. She was also the Fitness Editor of Cycling Weekly for 15 years. 

In more recent times Reynolds has worked as a cycle guide in the UK and France. She is author of several cycling books, France-en-Velo a guide to the ultimate 1000 mile cycle route from the Channel to Med; Britain's Best Bike Ride. LEJOG1000; A 1000 mile journey from Land's End to John o' Groats and 1001 Cycling Tips. Her cycling now is less competitive and more focussed on travel and helping her young son to experience the world by bike.