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Optimum body fat for general athletic endeavors and overall health

Andi-in-BKK

Level 5 Valued Member
I’m coming to the end of a bulk cycle in the next month or so, with a current body fat around 19-20% and a good bit more muscle mass as well. It’s been a while since I’ve been this high (BFP is usually 15-16% when I’m active), but the funny thing is apart from being a little tired/rusty in BJJ on account of inactivity (Thailand has been on lockdown since July) I feel fantastic. I’m recovering from 2-3x daily workouts 3-4 times a week (KB Strong Short Course, some light barbell work, plus BJJ on MWF=3-4 hours of workout). My mental health has been better than it has been as well. I just look fluffy.

All of this has me wondering, in general terms, is there an optimum level of body fat for general life?

I know in weight-class sports, having a better power to weight ratio is advantageous so having lower “useless” mass makes sense. But being extremely low can impact hormones and stress. And on the flip side, obviously carrying too much fat, especially visceral fat, is very dangerous in the long term for a variety of reasons.

Is anyone familiar with a study on the topic? Specifically, optimizing body fat for health and athletics specifically (not aesthetics)

I’m interested in everyone’s experiences on the topic, anecdotal or otherwise.
 

piratebum

Level 6 Valued Member
Maffetone and others are a big fan of waist half your height for metabolic health.

I’d imagine most would look pretty good at that point.
 

Andi-in-BKK

Level 5 Valued Member
Maffetone and others are a big fan of waist half your height for metabolic health.

I’d imagine most would look pretty good at that point.
That definitely speaks to visceral fat storage, a major health indicator. But wouldn’t sub-cutaneous fat storage be largely a genetic deal? Like some folks get it on their butt, man boobs, or belly as a general problem area (and generally the last place to drop fat).

Pre-bulk/hypertrophy, I would be sub15% BF and have a 34-35” belly at 70” tall(165lb and 16” neck- for the Naval method calculations). I’m interested to see if that changes as I cycle to maintenance or a slight cut this time around.
 

PeterLuffman

Level 6 Valued Member
I'm not familiar with a study on the topic, but some athletes would see a performance increase with lower body fat due to simply having a lighter chassis.
 

mikerobinson

Level 5 Valued Member
I know when the top college basketball players, who workout a decent amount with weights get assessed for entry into the NBA, then anything above 10%. body fat raises eyebrows. Some of those guys are pretty built with explosive muscle. There was one college guy called Tyler Lydon drafted by the Denver Nuggets a few years bag. An elite athlete, otherwise wouldn’t be in the pros, but his body fat raised a lot of concern and commentary at 13%.

Roy Keane, the former Man United player, dropped his body fat down to 4-6% for one season, and confessed to having energy and strength problems. Felt fatigued a lot.

So, for a competitive athlete somewhere between 8-10% might be the sweet spot — depending on the sport. Obviously, Olympic lifters aren’t going to be anywhere near that.
 

Andi-in-BKK

Level 5 Valued Member
I know when the top college basketball players, who workout a decent amount with weights get assessed for entry into the NBA, then anything above 10%. body fat raises eyebrows. Some of those guys are pretty built with explosive muscle. There was one college guy called Tyler Lydon drafted by the Denver Nuggets a few years bag. An elite athlete, otherwise wouldn’t be in the pros, but his body fat raised a lot of concern and commentary at 13%.

Roy Keane, the former Man United player, dropped his body fat down to 4-6% for one season, and confessed to having energy and strength problems. Felt fatigued a lot.

So, for a competitive athlete somewhere between 8-10% might be the sweet spot — depending on the sport. Obviously, Olympic lifters aren’t going to be anywhere near that.
I saw a video from Mind Pump Podcast that claimed a similar range for general health and anabolic response.

I wonder if it’s best to step your way down in cut and clean bulk cycles or try to reduce fat to that point in one continuous diet?
 

BillSteamshovel

Level 5 Valued Member
I get the impression 10-15% is healthy enough for average bloke in the street. I would be getting slightly tubby at 20%
currently waist 92 height 183 and 15ish BF (from the photo comparisons). I am always astonished at videos of tubby people lifting massive weights and kettlebells - must be heaps of strength hidden under the insulation.
From what I have read it is quite difficult for an average person to maintain single digit %ages for a significant period of time whilst feeling happy healthy and sane - keen to hear if anyone on the forum is maintaining below 10% for a long time and can comment on that ?
 

Hung

Level 7 Valued Member
Roy Keane, the former Man United player, dropped his body fat down to 4-6% for one season, and confessed to having energy and strength problems. Felt fatigued a lot.
which session? I only read that there was a time when he tried Ryan Gigg diet and yoga advice and feel like crap.
(And when he started to drink redbull again things felt better! But that's not related to bodyfat, that's just a good example about do not change thing drammatically).
 

Andi-in-BKK

Level 5 Valued Member
I get the impression 10-15% is healthy enough for average bloke in the street. I would be getting slightly tubby at 20%
currently waist 92 height 183 and 15ish BF (from the photo comparisons). I am always astonished at videos of tubby people lifting massive weights and kettlebells - must be heaps of strength hidden under the insulation.
From what I have read it is quite difficult for an average person to maintain single digit %ages for a significant period of time whilst feeling happy healthy and sane - keen to hear if anyone on the forum is maintaining below 10% for a long time and can comment on that ?
I’m interested in hearing from the single digit guys too. I’m curious what day to day life looks like for them.

Personally I feel the best around 15%, I’m around 20% currently after doing a bulk for a while, and I’m clearly the strongest I’ve ever been and stamina is coming back in BJJ. Previously when I got below 15% I was just skinny fat then just skinny and had to go to drastic lengths to get that low (1200-1500cal/day) which then caused a drastic jump in body fat when I tried to go to 2200-2500/day even with 4-5x weekly BJJ. I’m hoping that now I can cut on 2500-2800 as I’ve stabilized at 3300/day which should prevent a drastic crash when I finally try to maintain.
 

mikerobinson

Level 5 Valued Member
which session? I only read that there was a time when he tried Ryan Gigg diet and yoga advice and feel like crap.
(And when he started to drink redbull again things felt better! But that's not related to bodyfat, that's just a good example about do not change thing drammatically).
He talked about it recently in Gary Neville's Overlap interview with him. Whole interview is worth a listen if you're a United or Keane fan.
 

mikerobinson

Level 5 Valued Member
I’m interested in hearing from the single digit guys too. I’m curious what day to day life looks like for them.

Personally I feel the best around 15%, I’m around 20% currently after doing a bulk for a while, and I’m clearly the strongest I’ve ever been and stamina is coming back in BJJ. Previously when I got below 15% I was just skinny fat then just skinny and had to go to drastic lengths to get that low (1200-1500cal/day) which then caused a drastic jump in body fat when I tried to go to 2200-2500/day even with 4-5x weekly BJJ. I’m hoping that now I can cut on 2500-2800 as I’ve stabilized at 3300/day which should prevent a drastic crash when I finally try to maintain.
I worked with a person who trained and ate seriously into his 60s. We ran him through a BodPod and DEXA scan and he had 7-8% body fat. The problem was that he went into a catabolic state, and his body started “eating” muscle to the point of it becoming a medical issue. His immunity was also worn down at that age with low body fat and he kept catching everything going.

He had the type of body where he struggled to put on weight even with a big calorie intake. We got him to cut down training volume and eat as much as he could, all healthy foods, and he crept back up to 12-13%, where he remains.

His health, strength, and immunity all dramatically improved, and have done so for the last several years.
 

Period

Level 7 Valued Member
All of this has me wondering, in general terms, is there an optimum level of body fat for general life?

I know in weight-class sports, having a better power to weight ratio is advantageous so having lower “useless” mass makes sense. But being extremely low can impact hormones and stress. And on the flip side, obviously carrying too much fat, especially visceral fat, is very dangerous in the long term for a variety of reasons.

Is anyone familiar with a study on the topic? Specifically, optimizing body fat for health and athletics specifically (not aesthetics)

I’m interested in everyone’s experiences on the topic, anecdotal or otherwise.
As for weight-class sports, where I come from (wrestling) most people below superheavyweight will hover between 8-12% of bodyfat in-season, the middle- and lightweights usually between 8 and 10 %. I'd estimate that on average, they will go up by 2-4% off-season, since being on the low end of the spectrum takes a toll on you - mentally and physically, and you will be more prone to injuries. At superheavy, you will find more people who are closer to 20%.
As for daily life - it depends on a number of things, like genetics, eating habits (and the relation of those two), hormonal balance, exercise habits, your day job etc. Personally, I am most comfortable between 10 and 12 %, but only if I'm active - if I don't have enough time to train pretty much daily, I have to watch what I'm eating a lot more to stay down, and that will usually tend to lead to lower energy, mood swings etc. In the latter case, I'd rather go up to 12-14%, but definitely not more. Part of the reason I'm more comfortable at a lower weight is that I am pretty banged up from my wrestling career in a number of places, and any excess weight I am carrying will put unnecessary stress on those.
 

Steve Freides

Staff
Elite Certified Instructor
@Andi-in-BKK, I think it was just yesterday I found myself writing, in a different thread, that for most people whose main sport isn't lifting weights, the difference between having a 1.75 x bw deadlift and a 2.0 x bodyweight deadlift just isn't important. One should focus on the goals one has, and lift, and you'll figure out after a while how much lifting and how much strength works for you. I'd say the same thing about bodyfat percentage.

First of all, every test I've ever been given relies at least partly on formulas, which has lead me to the conclusion that the only truly accurate bodyfat percentage measurement we'll ever get is when we measure a corpse by taking it apart and actually quantifying what we find.

Optimal is going to depend on a lot of things. A friend of ours, a long time ago, once pointed to the small belly he had and told my wife and I that he called his belly fat his "good life" because, if you don't have any, people think you aren't living the good life. I like that approach, and I know I don't do well when I get much thinner than I am right now. My personal "bulk" and "cut" cycles are a matter of a few pounds at most. I've just returned to serious powerlifting training, and I'm lifting a lot more, and putting a little muscle on my frame, and my weight is up maybe a kilo, 2-3 lbs or so. I won't let myself get any bigger, and when it comes time to make weight for my next meet, I'll drop the kilo I've added and one more, and I'll make weight, and that'll be that.

"Listen to your body" sometimes sounds like a touchy-feely maxim from the 1970's, but it still rings true to me. While in the big picture of things, a person might feel like they're doing more work to track calories and the like, to my mind, that approach avoids the real work of figuring out how to develop and maintain a good sense of how you're doing. True confession - I get on the scale almost every morning. True confession #2 - when I'm traveling or otherwise not getting on the scale every morning, once I get home, my weight doesn't vary by more than a pound or two.

-S-
 

Andi-in-BKK

Level 5 Valued Member
As for weight-class sports, where I come from (wrestling) most people below superheavyweight will hover between 8-12% of bodyfat in-season, the middle- and lightweights usually between 8 and 10 %. I'd estimate that on average, they will go up by 2-4% off-season, since being on the low end of the spectrum takes a toll on you - mentally and physically, and you will be more prone to injuries. At superheavy, you will find more people who are closer to 20%.
As for daily life - it depends on a number of things, like genetics, eating habits (and the relation of those two), hormonal balance, exercise habits, your day job etc. Personally, I am most comfortable between 10 and 12 %, but only if I'm active - if I don't have enough time to train pretty much daily, I have to watch what I'm eating a lot more to stay down, and that will usually tend to lead to lower energy, mood swings etc. In the latter case, I'd rather go up to 12-14%, but definitely not more. Part of the reason I'm more comfortable at a lower weight is that I am pretty banged up from my wrestling career in a number of places, and any excess weight I am carrying will put unnecessary stress on those.
I’m assuming that if you stay at 8-10% in season that would let you cut water weight going into a meet in the same way MMA athletes do.

I’m familiar with doing it for BJJ(but only to a limited extent because we weigh in mat-side), not the extreme 30+ pounds that some mma guys do before a fight.
 

Andi-in-BKK

Level 5 Valued Member
@Andi-in-BKK, I think it was just yesterday I found myself writing, in a different thread, that for most people whose main sport isn't lifting weights, the difference between having a 1.75 x bw deadlift and a 2.0 x bodyweight deadlift just isn't important. One should focus on the goals one has, and lift, and you'll figure out after a while how much lifting and how much strength works for you. I'd say the same thing about bodyfat percentage.

First of all, every test I've ever been given relies at least partly on formulas, which has lead me to the conclusion that the only truly accurate bodyfat percentage measurement we'll ever get is when we measure a corpse by taking it apart and actually quantifying what we find.

Optimal is going to depend on a lot of things. A friend of ours, a long time ago, once pointed to the small belly he had and told my wife and I that he called his belly fat his "good life" because, if you don't have any, people think you aren't living the good life. I like that approach, and I know I don't do well when I get much thinner than I am right now. My personal "bulk" and "cut" cycles are a matter of a few pounds at most. I've just returned to serious powerlifting training, and I'm lifting a lot more, and putting a little muscle on my frame, and my weight is up maybe a kilo, 2-3 lbs or so. I won't let myself get any bigger, and when it comes time to make weight for my next meet, I'll drop the kilo I've added and one more, and I'll make weight, and that'll be that.

"Listen to your body" sometimes sounds like a touchy-feely maxim from the 1970's, but it still rings true to me. While in the big picture of things, a person might feel like they're doing more work to track calories and the like, to my mind, that approach avoids the real work of figuring out how to develop and maintain a good sense of how you're doing. True confession - I get on the scale almost every morning. True confession #2 - when I'm traveling or otherwise not getting on the scale every morning, once I get home, my weight doesn't vary by more than a pound or two.

-S-
I’m hoping to get to that point in a year or so. I don’t have trouble getting to 15% or so (can do it in a few months from 20% on a hard cut). But I’m going to try to do it sustainably this time around with a gradual cut that doesn’t completely bomb out my metabolism and maybe lets me keep some of the muscle mass I’ve worked for.
 

Period

Level 7 Valued Member
I’m assuming that if you stay at 8-10% in season that would let you cut water weight going into a meet in the same way MMA athletes do.

I’m familiar with doing it for BJJ(but only to a limited extent because we weigh in mat-side), not the extreme 30+ pounds that some mma guys do before a fight.
Yes, it helps with that - lower body fat means higher water percentage, which means you can cut more, even though other factors matter as well. Some people are remarkably good at that and even surpass the 30 pound cuts of MMA fighters weekly during the dual meet season, with weigh-ins an 60-90 minutes before matches (some of them manage to regain 20-25 pounds as well during this time, and even more remarkably, manage not to throw up on the mat). Please note: I am not saying this is healthy in any way, shape or form, nor do I advocate it. I've only made cuts this extreme twice in my career, and both times I went through some quite miserable phases. However, this may put some things in perspective - if you're used to cutting 20-30 pounds weekly and wrestling an hour after the scale, the MMA system with weigh-ins on the day before just seems like a walk in the park in comparison. It is also common with international tournaments, and you can observe that most wrestlers will cut about 10 pounds more for tournaments.
 

Andi-in-BKK

Level 5 Valued Member
Yes, it helps with that - lower body fat means higher water percentage, which means you can cut more, even though other factors matter as well. Some people are remarkably good at that and even surpass the 30 pound cuts of MMA fighters weekly during the dual meet season, with weigh-ins an 60-90 minutes before matches (some of them manage to regain 20-25 pounds as well during this time, and even more remarkably, manage not to throw up on the mat). Please note: I am not saying this is healthy in any way, shape or form, nor do I advocate it. I've only made cuts this extreme twice in my career, and both times I went through some quite miserable phases. However, this may put some things in perspective - if you're used to cutting 20-30 pounds weekly and wrestling an hour after the scale, the MMA system with weigh-ins on the day before just seems like a walk in the park in comparison. It is also common with international tournaments, and you can observe that most wrestlers will cut about 10 pounds more for tournaments.
There’s definitely a reason that guys that have been wrestling since a young age are so successful in other combat sports (and in military selections as well).

There’s a certain amount of mental toughness required to be able to do that from a young age that other sports just don’t bring to the table.
 

Period

Level 7 Valued Member
There’s definitely a reason that guys that have been wrestling since a young age are so successful in other combat sports (and in military selections as well).

There’s a certain amount of mental toughness required to be able to do that from a young age that other sports just don’t bring to the table.
It's part of it, sure, with physical toughness and athleticism to boot. Although I'd personally say the biggest advantage is an ingrained feeling for position, levers and balance, which is a lot harder to develop after your teens, even if you bring all the other attributes to the table.
Plus it needs to be said that there is a constant "weeding out" process during the 1-2 decades of wrestling most people undergo before switching over to MMA - "The cowards never started, and the weak died along the way", so to speak.
 

Steve Freides

Staff
Elite Certified Instructor
I’m hoping to get to that point in a year or so. I don’t have trouble getting to 15% or so (can do it in a few months from 20% on a hard cut). But I’m going to try to do it sustainably this time around with a gradual cut that doesn’t completely bomb out my metabolism and maybe lets me keep some of the muscle mass I’ve worked for.
Always remember that habits are hard to break, and eating habits are no different. My usual advice to people looking to lose weight is to expect to be hungry for at least several weeks, and several months isn't uncommon. This, too, shall pass. Once you get used to eating better and eating less, your weight should remain stable.

-S-
 

Andi-in-BKK

Level 5 Valued Member
Always remember that habits are hard to break, and eating habits are no different. My usual advice to people looking to lose weight is to expect to be hungry for at least several weeks, and several months isn't uncommon. This, too, shall pass. Once you get used to eating better and eating less, your weight should remain stable.

-S-
Oh yeah, I’ve done extremely restrictive cuts before (1200-1500/day for almost a year to get down to 75kg from 97kg). The trouble was when I went to 2200 “maintenance” I gained weight rapidly. So I spent the past 6 months or so slowly adding calories and some fat came with it (but so did a bunch of muscle mass as well). I’m really hoping to do a slower cut this time around (5-7kg over 4-5 months) and be able to stabilize at comfortable intake when I get to my goal.
 
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