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Body fat % -- how low is too low?

skatey-mark's picture

So I was measuring my body fat with my calipers this morning and it came out to 6.2%...  It varies a little day to day, so I'd say a conservative estimate is maybe around 6.5%.  The last couple weeks have seen it drop a little, where it had seemed to stabilize around 7% for at least a month, maybe more.


Anyway, so I've been thinking this morning -- how low should I let it get?  I'm sure there comes a point where it's too low, and you have more potential for possibly getting sick or whatnot.  Interestingly, my weight hasn't changed much during the last month -- so it's staying the same, but body fat is dropping...  That's a good thing I guess, since it implies that it's only flab coming off -- if the calipers are correct.


Any thoughts are appreciated.  I'll probably do some googling and see if I can find some more information on it.  I may get my body fat checked by a professional too, just to see if the calipers are in the right ballpark.  Kinda scary that I was over 15% when my weight peaked over the winter.


- SM -



skatey-mark's picture

Body fat ranges for athletes and mere mortals

Okay, so I decided to screw around at work obviously and do some googling. Curiosity got the best of me...




That suggests that 6% is the low end for athletes (men, 14% for women), and indeed confirms that there is a minimum amount of fat required for good health.


This site says 5% for men, 12% for women...





This site says 5% for men (college wrestlers)...




This site is kinda cool... Says 5% for men, 8-12% for women. But it also has "profiles" of olympic athletes that show typical stats...




I think that's about enough to answer part of the question - what the "official" minimum ought to be. I'd still be interested in hearing some personal experiences though...


- SM -


eebee's picture

My personal bodyfat preference...

...seems to be around 25%. Ok, give or take 5%!! I was glad to see 25% as 'healthy' on one of the links you provided. Speaking from a female perspective, the phrase "It's either my face or my butt" becomes all too real, the older I get, and I am definitely learning to embrace my fat. Losing a layer of fat really shows up in the face when we're no longer twenty-something. I have concluded that this is why so many of those women bodybuilders look like men (in the face, too). I studied their faces in photos that had even been airbrushed, to try to figure out why they looked so darned haggard. It's my opinion that aside from steroids and the tanning-bed fried look, shaving off all that body fat left their faces hard and gaunt. However, there are some 'middle-aged' female athletes with very low body fat, whose faces still look good.


I'm sure your posting was more to do with body fat from a training perspective, rather than a looks perspective, but my take on it all is that I'm happier with how I feel and look when I'm around 23-25%.

skatey-mark's picture

body-fat percentages for non-olympic athletes...

Yes... I should have mentioned the whole ranges, and not just the lower-end before it gets unhelathy... The following table is from the first site I linked to:


General Body Fat Percentage Categories

Classification Women (% fat) Men (% fat)
Essential Fat 10-12% 2-4%
Athletes 14-20% 6-13%
Fitness 21-24% 14-17%
Acceptable 25-31% 18-25%
Obese 32% plus 25% plus



So under 24% is very good for women. And under 17% is very good for men. For me, I felt about as healthy as a jelly donut at 15%, but everyone is a little different... :)


The last site I linekd to (with the profiles of olympic athletes) was very interesting to read. In particular the differences in body composition betwen the cross-country skiers and ice hockey players. Cross-country skiers were at the low end of the range (5%) and hockey players were at the upper end (13%). I guess the hockey players need a little extra "padding" to absorb the hits...


Also interesting that part of the typical diet of the hockey players was beer - although the specified non-alcoholic beer on the page. But still...


- SM -

skatey-mark's picture

Body Fat Reality Check

Okay, so the more I thought about it, the more a sub-7% body fat reading seemed ludicrous. Looking in the mirror, there's absolutely no way I'm as lean as some olympic athlete. Still, I thought it would be prudent to get it checked by someone that knwos what they're doing, so I made an appointment to see Dr. Eschbach at Meredith College... http://www.meredith.edu/hess/ess/lab/default.htm


They can do either the 7-site skinfold method or hydrostatic weighing. I figured as long as I was going out there, I'd get the hydro -- plus he does the 7-site anyway when you do the hydro. So for $30, I got both. (Just getting 7-site skinfold is $10...) The hydrostatic method was very interesting. First, we had to determine my lung volume by inhaling as much as I could, then blowing into this little device. I repeated that a few times until it was reasonably consistent. Then we went over to the pool. They have a harness attached to a scale (the hanging kind). I put on a weight belt to help submerge me -- we did this is 4 feet of water, so it's safe even if you can't swim... I sat in the harness and, when ready, blew all the air out of my lungs while dipping my head below the water. I'd continue blowing until there was no more air, then wait for Chris to yell "OK!". Then I'd come back up for air. We did that 3 times, then went back to the lab for him to punch the readings into the computer.


7-site measurement said about 11% body fat. Hyrdo said about 13%. He also ran the calculation for the 3-site based on the 3 appropriate measurements and that came out to around 9%. Given the margin of error is probably +- 2-3%, it could be any of the numbers, or more/less... No way to really know for sure what the exact amount is. As with my home measurements, it's probably more useful to just observe the changes over time and not worry about the exact number.


In this case, though, I did want to see if I could safely drop a little more weight. And that seems to be the case. So I could probably drop as much as 10 pounds more if I want to, although I'm not going to try this late in the season to do that... Really just something to keep in mind over time. If my weight drifts gradually lower, that will be fine. Otherwise, I'll probably wait until the off season (or spring even) to make a concerted effort to lose any more weight.


I probably won't get the hydro done again if I go back. It was really just to satisfy my curiosity about it. The nice thing about the 7-site method (and the 3-site even) is that you can see the parts of the body that are changing (for the better or worse) over time. So I think that even if it is technically not as accurate as hydro for getting the actually body fat percentage, that it is probably more useful in measuring the composition in different sites. Of course, you can do the same thing with a measuring tape too -- no need for calipers or anything. I imagine that measuring your waist, thigh, and maybe chest or bicep would give you some interesting data over time. Here's a neat product that helps do that without needing another person to help: http://www.bodybuilding.com/store/acc/myotape.html


I'll keep using my calipers too, and hopefully can get my readings closer to what Dr. Eschbach came up with. There were some subtle differences in how & where he took the measurements, so I'll be trying to use those. Here are the calipers I have: http://www.bodybuilding.com/store/acc/fat.html -- maybe overkill for most people... The software it comes with is pretty lame, so I wouldn't really recommend blowing the extra money on it.


A better deal seems to be this one: http://www.bodybuilding.com/store/acc/fattrack.html -- less than half the price of the "pro", does pretty much the same thing, and comes with the measuring tape I linked above... The only things the "pro" does that this doesn't is store up to 50 profiles (the cheaper one does 3, which most people will only use 1), and the "pro" version can do both 7-siteand 3-site measuring, where the cheaper one just does 3-site. 7-site is not possible to do without someone else taking the measurements, so I don't see anyone needing that. The "pro" version also comes wih software to track your results over time, but it's not very good and a simple Excel spreadsheet would work just as well.


So, this gives me a good excuse to keep watching my eating habits, and maybe try to get a little more lean over time. I've reaped the bulk of the benefit already, so I'll probably see less improvement as more weight comes off. But I'll be trying to figure out what weight I want to be at now -- most likely, somewhere between my current weight (177) and perhaps somewhere around 165... 170 sounds like a nice round number, so if I feel good there, that might be where I try to stay.


- SM -

timv's picture

Random thoughts on body fat percentage

Good info Mark! Thanks for the posting.


My recollection from running days was that there were a number of elite male marathoners who were as low as 3% body fat. That's an event where every ounce you carry on your self is extraordinarily important, and the top athetes can look positively skeletal to outsiders.


But I try to keep in mind that there's a big variation from person to person for all these sorts of statistics. What's ideal for, say, Frank Shorter (badly dating myself there!) would never work for me, or even for a number of other world-class distance runners. It seems that there will always be at least as much variation within a category as there is between categories, and there's a danger in trying to reproduce someone else's results.


That said, getting your percentage tested in a lab sounds like a really good move. At the very least it gives important context to all the data that you might find out there about other athletes' figures. The real genius of training seems to be in building on your own experience and figuring out what works best for you. And you seem to have lots of well-documented experience to build on by now.


Just curious: Have you looked into anything from Chris Carmichael in this context? It seems like he and Lance Armstrong were extremely aware of caloric intake and body composition, and always playing that against getting enough (of the right kind of) calories to recover from workouts and preserve output wattage.


skatey-mark's picture

Chris Carmichael

I haven't checked into anything by CM, but maybe I should add him to my list of books to read... :)  A quick search turned up this:  http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/039915194X?v=glance


And of course he has his own website as well:  http://www.foodforfitness.net/  


Reviews look pretty good.  I guess he talks about periodization of nutrition during the year.  Eating different things depending on where you are in your training.  Makes sense...


- SM - 

timv's picture

Food for Fitness

I noticed that several of the reader reviews remarked on Carmichael's tendency to promote his website, his coaching business, and products that he's paid to endorse. And when he was commentating on cycling shows on OLN, he certainly didn't pass up many chances to promote that book on the air along with all those other things, which is how I came to be aware of the book.


But yes, that book is a big part of what made me think of him in relation to this subject. With used copies at under $10 shipped, it seems like it might be worth taking a chance. And one reader actually complained that it has too many pages, which is much more of a recommendation from my POV.


I thought one of the editorial reviews made the good point that there are all kinds of books and nutritional advice available for the sedentary obese, but very little indeed out there for people training at a high level and trying to knock off those last few percentage points. And I've generally been impressed by what I've seen of Chris and Lance's training approach, how much they built on their experience and quantified their results wherever possible

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