How low should you go

It's impossible for body fat levels to drop to zero since some fat is located internally and is necessary for normal body functioning. This is called "essential fat." Essential fat is necessary for energy storage, protection of internal organs, and insulation against heat loss. Essential fat is found in the nerves, brain, bone marrow, liver, heart, and in nearly all the other glands and organs of the body. In women, this fat also includes sex-related fat deposits including the breast tissue and uterus. Essential body fat is 2-3% for men and 7-8% for women.

Competitive bodybuilders and endurance athletes such as marathon runners have been known to reach body fat levels as low as 2-4% in men and 8-10% in women. With today's obsession for leanness, the safety of dropping to very low body fat levels has often been questioned. Being extremely lean is undoubtedly healthier than being overfat. However, trying to maintain extremely low body fat levels for too long a period of time might not be realistic or healthy.

This is particularly true for women. With few exceptions, most women who try to maintain their body fat levels at or below 10-13% can have problems with estrogen production, their menstrual cycles and reproductive systems become disrupted and bone density may decrease, putting them at higher risk of osteoporosis as they grow older.

Reaching these extremes of body fat during a competitive season is par for the course. Trying to keep it there for a prolonged period is when the problems may occur. Training and dieting in cycles so that body fat level varies between in-season and offseason is healthier and more sensible. The typical female bodybuilder or fitness competitor will maintain a very lean (and healthy) 13-16% for most of the year, then drop down to 8-12% for competition. Men may drop as low as 3-5% for competitions, then increase to 8-10% in the off-season.

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