Months before a bodybuilding competition, male bodybuilders typically aim for as low as 3-4 percent body fat for that lean look, while their female counterparts go as low as 8-9 percent for that beautiful, lean physique.
This has led many to believe that their body fat levels should fall between the same percentages as bodybuilders.
Is this healthy?
The direct answer is no. Having too little body fat can be just as bad as having too much of it.
It’s true. Starving yourself for a bikini-ready summer body or over-exercising for six-pack abs before spring break can be just as damaging as being overweight. In fact, being skinny or finally getting that flat abs you’ve seen on Instagram don’t necessarily mean you’re taking proper care of your body.
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Consider this comment on a Reddit bodybuilding thread where bodybuilding competitors were asked how it felt to prepare for competition: Finally, a woman who was once at 9.5 percent body fat shares her experience: Lack of energy. I feel exhausted. Miserable. Are you noticing a pattern?
However, all these answers are anecdotal, right?
If you’re looking for solid information and established research results on whether or not it’s healthy to drop your body fat into the single digits, read on!
In this article, you’ll learn that body fat isn’t as dangerous as you think it is, ideal body fat levels, and more research-backed information on why you should never aim for extremely low body fat.
Being low in body fat is unhealthy and unsustainable
Many tend to assume that body fat is good or bad for you. But it is more complex than that.
While research supports the idea that people with high levels of body fat are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome, body fat levels that are too low aren’t necessarily good for you either. The reality is that there is more to body fat than meets the eye.
Essential vs. Storage Fat: What’s the Difference?
For starters, there are two main types of body fat: essential fat and storage fat.
As its name implies, essential fat plays a critical role in your overall health and cellular processes. In Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance, essential fat is described as “…the fat in the heart, lungs, liver, spleen, kidneys, intestines, muscle, and lipid-rich tissue of the central nervous system and bone marrow.
As a metabolic fuel, essential fat makes sure you have enough energy reserves and helps conserve body heat when needed. It also protects internal organs and joints from injury by acting like a soft, fluffy cushion.
As chemical messengers, they help ensure that body processes such as metabolism, growth, and immune functions go as planned. Lastly, essential fat plays an important role in a woman’s reproductive abilities.
Normal bodily functions will go haywire if essential fat drops below the minimum recommended level of 5% in men and below 15% in women. Women have high ranges of essential body fats as a result of fertile and reproductive needs.
Meanwhile, non-essential or storage fat is stored as body fat for energy stores. This is the fat you notice on your body.
What is body fat percentage?
Simply put, body fat is the amount of fat you have on your body, excluding your fat-free mass (or lean body mass). Your fat-free mass is made up of your bones, organs, muscles, and body water.
Your body fat percentage (also known as body fat percentage) reflects how much of your weight is made up of body fat. It is calculated by dividing your body fat mass weight by your total weight. Currently, there is no official standard for acceptable body fat percentage values.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recognizes a range of 10-22 percent in men and 20-32 percent in women to reduce the health risks associated with fat or excess fat. These ranges center around the idea that the average body fat percentage for women is 23 percent while men are pegged at 15 percent.
At InBody USA, we recommend a body fat percentage range of 10-20 percent for men and 18-28 percent for women.
What Certain Body Fat Percentages Look Like in Men and Women
Before we jump into dangerously low body fat, let’s take a look at the following five body fat percentage ranges for men and women.
Obesity: >25% (Men); >32% (Women)
Men and women who fall into this body fat percentage category are obese and more likely to have rounder body shapes. The excess fat will be present throughout the body, often concentrated in the abdominal area, thighs, and hips.
Individuals within this range of body fat percentage are at increased risk of metabolic or cardiovascular disease. Obesity is also linked to low self-esteem, as well as low energy levels.
Overfat: 20-25% (Men); 28-32% (Women)
Men and women who fall into this body fat percentage range may not have as much excess body weight as those in the obese category but still have excess body fat.
While it is true that some people in the overfat category will be overweight, it is also possible to have a normal or average body weight loss but have too much body fat. This is also known as sarcastic obesity or skinny with fat.
Like their obese counterparts, potential problems include low energy levels, increased risk of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease, low self-esteem due to physical appearance, and shorter life expectancy.
People who are lean with fat are also particularly vulnerable to health problems because they have body compositions similar to those of overweight people but may have very few visual indicators that can warn them of their health risks.
Average Fitness: 15-20% (Men); 23-28% (Women)
Men in this body fat percentage category are often described as moderately lean and fit. While muscle definition may not be obvious, stretch marks may appear slightly. Some vascularization may be present in the arms.
For women, this category is neither thin nor overweight. With more body fat around your thighs and buttocks, curves will begin to form in your hips.
Both men and women can have some muscle definition, but you can take on a smoother appearance. Off-season athletes often fall into this category. People in this category typically enjoy high energy levels, better sleep, and overall good health. They can also look good in tight clothing which in turn leads to better self-esteem. Health problems due to excess body fat are less likely to develop over time.
Athletic fitness: 10-15% (men); 18-23% (Women)
Men and women who fall into this body fat percentage category have the classic beach body look. They are lean, muscular, and clearly fit. There is little fat to pinch and muscle definition is particularly obvious in the shoulders, upper arms, and abs. Professional athletes may fall into this category.
Vascularization may appear on the arms, but may not be as pronounced on the legs among men. Women with this body fat percentage may have fat in their arms and legs, but it’s not as obvious as those with higher body fat percentages.
In addition to looking really fit, individuals with this body fat percentage tend to enjoy excellent general health and well-being. They also experience fewer cravings due to regular physical activity and strict adherence to a diet that works for them.
Exceptional Fitness/Bodybuilder Rank: 3-10% (males); 12-18% (Women)
This body fat percentage category often includes bodybuilding competitors and fitness models.
Muscle definition tends to be high in both men and women and there is very little fat. Bodybuilders, for example, may target the extreme low end of this range in cycles when they are competing because, in order to look competitive, they require almost zero body fat.
This is an incredibly difficult body composition to maintain consistently over time, especially at the lower end of this range.
You can learn more about the different body fat percentage ranges and How to set a body composition goal that’s right for you.
Health risks and dangers of low body fat in adult men and women
Men with less than 6 percent body fat and women with less than 16 percent body fat are considered too short. They are usually bodybuilders in contest training or fitness models on the day of their photoshoot. These individuals have done everything possible, such as being on a strict diet and exercise regimen for weeks.
You might be thinking that these body fat percentage ranges are actually healthy because they are still above essential fat values.
But not so fast
In a 12-month case study conducted by the International Journal of Sports Physiological Performance, researchers tracked the body composition and fitness of a male competitive bodybuilder whose body fat percentage was around 4.5 percent for the competition.
The researchers noted that several negative outcomes consistent with overtraining had occurred, including decreased physical performance and reduced immune system function.
More recent research showed that in order to achieve these extremely low levels of body fat, these athletes had to rely on steroids and other drugs to help them achieve their goals, practices common within the field of bodybuilding/figure competition. What is now becoming clear is that these practices, while useful in helping to achieve the desired look, are associated with a significantly increased risk of heart disease and liver dysfunction.
These athletes went on to explain that these negative physiological changes are unfortunate, but necessary, repercussions of competitive bodybuilding.
Female bodybuilders, on the other hand, experience an additional side effect of having an extremely low body fat percentage — the temporary cessation of menstruation, or amenorrhea. It forms one part of a condition known as the Female Athlete Triad.
Additionally, competitive female bodybuilders have been shown to share the same eating habits as those with bulimia. They may avoid social events that involve dining out and may not have time for other activities. Female bodybuilders may also experience other reproductive and fertility problems.
Bodybuilders’ bodies are not ideal
Despite their impressive physical appearances, bodybuilders do not have an ideal body composition.
Your sports demand puts your body through stress to the point where normal biological functions are impaired. Therefore, looking like a bodybuilder should not be a goal (unless you are a bodybuilder).
Can low body fat improve athletic performance?
While low levels of body fat appear to be associated with improved athletic performance, body composition alone is not a great predictor of athletic success. There is little evidence for any health benefits when men fall below 8 percent body fat and when women fall below 14 percent body fat.
Furthermore, trying to achieve a body fat percentage that is similar to professional bodybuilding goals can lead to a number of health problems and complications such as impaired body thermoregulation, increased risk of injury, fatigue, loss of muscle tissue, and poor performance. suboptimal body.
Line: Go Beyond Body Fat Percentage
Although your body fat percentage is a meaningful and useful metric, relying on it alone will not provide you with solutions or answers that can improve your overall health and fitness.
You will need more specific values than your weight and body fat percentage like your skeletal muscle mass, visceral fat, and even segmental lean analysis. Not only will this help you maintain a healthy body fat percentage relative to a healthy weight, but it can also help you figure out if you have muscle imbalances, low muscle mass, or aren’t eating enough.
Your body is a very complex system of specific components that work together. Think of your body fat percentage as just a single tree in a large forest. It is important to obtain as much information as possible about the health of the entire forest and not just for a specific tree.