Ultra Low Body Fat Isn’t Healthy- The Downside Of Being Ripped [Updated 2023]
Ultra low body fat isn’t healthy and I can tell you from personal experience that being ripped isn’t all that it is made out to be. So much so that both men and women turn to drugs and all manner of insane practices to get that ripped/shredded look. For many, the ultimate sign of fitness is an ultra low body fat percentage as it offers a very distinct look and is considered the pinnacle of looking physically fit. Men with ultra low body fat and muscles are considered extremely attractive and the same applies to women as well, evident by the innumerable images of fitness models, figure and bikini competitors, physique athletes and bodybuilders that are so popular on social media, the internet and magazines. This very athletic picture of health, with abdominals rippling, muscle definition and ultra low body fat percentages are a prerequisite today to be a social media fitness personality. As those with the most followers are almost always ripped with ultra low body fat, and advertisements for almost all fitness related products and services are promoted with models sporting an abnormally low body fat percentages. So ubiquitous is this look that many hold it in their minds that being at or around 5% percent body fat for men, and under 15% for women is the be-all-and-end all to their fitness dreams and aspirations. For good number of men and women this is all they care about in terms of appearing fit, and it isn’t common knowledge that models, bodybuilders and athletes don’t usually stay at ultra low body fat levels for more than a few weeks out of the year, as doing so is unhealthy and staying that way is also unhealthy. In this article I will give you some personal insight into what it feels like to be at an ultra low body fat percentage for a prolonged period of time, as a natural athlete, without the aid of any drugs or supplements. Which might seem to be the healthier way to achieve ultra low body fat, but the truth remains that ultra low body fat simply is not healthy, regardless of how you get there, for reasons we will explain in the following paragraphs. Thanks as always for reading and do be sure to share this article with anyone who might find it to be useful.
Bodybuilders & Cyclists Aren’t Healthy At Extremely Low Body Fat Levels
As a natural bodybuilder, I regularly competed at an insanely low body fat percentage of somewhere between 4 to 5% body fat. It was a grueling experience every time and in the very small world of competitive bodybuilding, men over 5% could sometimes be termed fat! It’s a ridiculously high standard, and bear in mind that the average healthy young male has a body fat percentage of between 10-20% and that most male athletic models have about 12-10% body fat! See my article- Body Fat Percentage Comparisons For Men and Women for a visual guide of what this looks like) This skewered perspective doesn’t only exist in bodybuilding, as the same rigorous standard applies for many other athletes as well. Long distance cyclists are a prime example. All the major contenders for the biggest cycling event in the world, the Tour De France, compete at just about 5% body fat or lower. Take a look at any professional long distance cyclist right before a race and you’ll see that he or she will have a very a gaunt and drawn look as opposed to what they may look like when not actively competing. In the cycling world, the formula for winning a grueling event like the Tour De France requires a sustainable energy output of 6.7 watts per kilogram of body weight. Increasing power is difficult as there is only so much training can do. However, reducing body weight can increase power output ratios, and so any excess weight, in the form of body fat, and with cyclist, much of their upper body muscle mass, is shed to be as light as is humanly possible.
Problems with Ultra Low Body Fat- Our Bodies Need Body Fat To Function
The biggest problem that an ultra low body fat percentage creates is that our bodies need fat to function correctly. Body fat isn’t a bad thing, even though you might want to get rid of it all, and it might surprise you that the athletes who appear to be the epitome of health because of their lowered body fat levels, often have a hard time going up and down stairs, don’t feel very energetic and suffer from suppressed immune systems that make them especially susceptible to colds and other viruses. Not much of a healthy picture there! Females usually experience a cessation in their menstrual cycle as a consequence of going too low body fat wise, as their bodies feel that they are in the midst of starvation, and so does its best to prevent pregnancy as their bodies no longer have the energy stores to carry a baby to full term. It is not a state that the human body wants to maintain, and it explains why it is so hard to reduce your body fat levels to sub normal percentages and why people have to go to such unhealthy extremes to achieve an ultra low body fat level.
What Does It Feel Like For Men To Have Ultra Low Body Fat?
What does it feel like to be under five percent body fat? It’s a bit surreal as everyone who sees you with your shirt off can’t stop commenting about how fantastic you look, while anyone who sees you with your clothes on keeps asking you if everything is okay as you look like death warmed over. Imagine if you will, not being able to get a full night’s sleep, as you are always waking up earlier and earlier, even though you are tired and feel fatigued all the time. At such ultra low body fat percentages, your body perceives itself to be in a state of starvation, and so it alters your sleep cycle so you are awake more than usual so you can spend more time looking for food. A rather unhealthy place to be, but your body has no idea that your low body fat levels are a self inflicted wound, and is trying its best to recover from the nutritional deficiencies and caloric deficits that are almost unavoidable at such low levels, even if vitamin supplements are used. The degree of lethargy, I experienced as well at such low body fat levels is hard to put into words. Usually I am very energetic, yet when my body fat dropped below a certain point, just the idea of walking a block and a half to the train station filled me with a sense of dread. Daily activities became Herculean tasks as I always just wanted to lie down and always felt hungry, even though I was eating every 3 hours or so. I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, so perhaps the effect was more pronounced with me, but I was always cold. Sometimes to the point of shivering slightly, and this would be the case if the temperature was 75 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. So while everyone else is walking around in shorts and t-shirts in summer, I was not out parading how great I looked, as all I wanted to do was stay warm and bundled up in long sleeves and a hoodie.
One of the important functions of body fat is its insular properties, as subcutaneous fat acts as a layer that keeps in the heat generated by the body. Lean muscle tissue generates heat, so at an ultra low body fat level, you feel warm to the touch, but since there is no layer of fat to hold that heat in, you feel cold all the time. When I was filming and doing the promotional shoots for my bodybuilding DVD, I had to maintain an ultra low body fat percentage well into November, and it was extremely uncomfortable being that lean so late in the year. Subcutaneous fat also acts as a protective layer for your body and your organs. Imagine sitting on a very hard bench made of stone, and you’ll have a bit of an idea what it feels like to have an ultra low body fat sitting on anything that isn’t well padded, as your behind isn’t well padded at that point at all! You also bruise easier than normal, as I found out teaching my martial art classes, and your feet hurt all the time as well. As a personal trainer and martial arts teacher, I don’t spend a tremendous amount of time on my feet, but when my body fat drops below a certain level, my feet hurt all the time as the fat that pads the bottom of your feet is significantly decreased and you can literally feel the floor when you walk. Even when wearing well padded sneakers. Fat loss occurs in different parts of your body, like your face for example, with your eye sockets becoming deeper and more pronounced, and your cheekbones and jaw bones standing out as the fat around them melts away. You look like someone in the throes of starvation who hasn’t eaten in months, and in terms of being fit and healthy, you are far from it. I would get a cold very easily whenever my body fat dropped too low and you would literally feel that if someone sneezed on you that you would get sick! In the gym, the differences are most pronounced in terms of strength losses. Mentally, you are not as motivated to train as hard or as intensely as you would be with a higher body fat percentage, and there is a point where no matter how much you focus, you simply are not as strong as you would be if your body fat was only slightly higher. It’s like a wall that you run into once body fat dips below a certain level and in my experience that wall of strength decline can vary between individuals, and the decrease in strength can also be exacerbated if body fat drops quickly, or if there is a large component of aerobic exercise involved in the fat loss program. (See my article- Does Aerobics Negatively Affect Strength Training.)
What Does It Feel Like For Women To Have Ultra Low Body Fat?
Decreases in strength appear more pronounced in women and they have some additional issues to deal with when body fat levels drop to ultra low percentages. Menstruation tends to stop completely, and amenorrhea and menstrual irregularities are very common among female athletes who reduce their body fat through diet and exercise. Breast tissue is composed of fat and so breast size is reduced among women who reduce their body fat. Which is why breast augmentation is so common among female physique competitors as it is simply impossible for a woman to attain a sub 12 percent body fat percentage and not lose a considerable amount of breast size. Large breasts and ultra low body fat simply doesn’t exist in nature, and perhaps this is why many members of the general public perceive something as being wrong when they see a woman with rippling abs, but large breasts. As it goes against evolutionary cues as to what a woman with lowered body fat would ordinarily look like. Thus far almost all of the unhealthy effects of ultra low body fat have been mostly cosmetic, but what happens on a clinical level when body fat levels are reduced to extremely low levels? There isn’t much in the way of studies as the number of men and women motivated to endure the discomfort, training and diet required to achieve an ultra low body fat level without the use of drugs is a very tiny sliver of the population. That said, there is a study that tracked a natural bodybuilder’s pre-contest fat loss and the findings were cause for some concern.
The subject utilized the typical regime of a reduced calorie diet with a program of weight training and aerobic exercise, with a high protein intake to preserve muscle mass. During the pre-contest period the following physiological changes were noted in a male natural bodybuilder with a body fat level measured at 4.5 percent:
Negative Outcomes Observed From Ulta Low Body Fat Percentages:
- Heart rate dropped from 53 beats per minute to 27 beats per minute
- Blood pressure dropped significantly from 132/69 to 104/56 mmHg
- Testosterone levels were almost 75% less than baseline levels with a decline from 9.22 to 2.27 ng/mL
- Red blood cell count dropped significantly
- Thyroid function was decreased
- Cortisol levels were increased
- One repetition maximum strength dropped from 7% to 13% depending on the exercise
- Fatigue increased and vigor decreased as measured by a profile of Mood States questionnaire
Most alarming for most men seeking to achieve extreme muscle definition is that testosterone levels dropped to far below reference levels, creating a state similar to energy-deficit-induced
female amenorrhea. Low testosterone or hypogonadism, is associated with fatigue, decreased energy, poor concentration, decreased sense of well-being, depressed mood, decreased vitality, and depression [3,4]. Symptoms demonstrated in this subject, and in just about every athlete I have ever seen or worked with who achieved an ultra low body fat level. Testosterone helps the body’s tissues take up more blood sugar in response to insulin, so men with low testosterone more often have insulin resistance as they need to produce more insulin to keep blood sugar normal. Low testosterone levels are also associated with marked decreases in libido, [5, 6] decreased muscle mass and strength, decreased bone-mineral density (BMD) and osteoporosis and mild anemia,  which could explain the decrease in red blood cells. Thyroid function was also decreased as indicated by lowered T4 and T3 levels, and there is some speculation in my experience, that the combination of overtraining, extreme amounts of aerobic exercise and energy restrictive diets to achieve low body fat levels may be responsible for the higher incidence of hypothyroidism among women who use these methods in the past to achieve lowered body fat levels. Hormone changes were reported to return to baseline levels, with the exception of leptin and ghrelin, hormones that can trigger overeating, after a three month period. Strength levels in the subject decreased even though muscle mass remained relatively constant during the pre-contest period, and it took 4 to as long as 6 months for a complete return to baseline levels.
It’s important to note that the lowered testosterone levels, and elevated leptin and ghrelin levels create the perfect environment for overeating and increased body fat storage when a regular diet is resumed. And unfortunately, almost every athlete, male or female, who is not naturally ultra lean, will undergo a significant degree of weight gain when they resume a non energy restricted diet. As evidenced by the extreme weight gain often seen in bikini, figure, physique and bodybuilding competitors post contest. Increases in body fat that are often greater than what they were before they began their regime, and as noted earlier, changes in thyroid levels may cause permanent damage among some females, who are never able to attain ultra low levels of body fat at a certain point. The irony of an ultra low body fat percentage is that unless you are competing in a contest, there is no need for any normal man or woman to want to aspire to such degrees of lowered body fat and at a certain point, a lowered body fat level not only confers no additional health benefits, but becomes harmful. Not only is such lowered body fat unhealthy, but how long it takes to achieve muscle definition of this degree is usually far longer than most people realize, and the negative physiological changes that come with such a low body fat might be permanent. The study cited is subject to the error of small numbers, as only one person was studied, but all of the symptoms cited match my experience and the hundreds of men and women I have seen and or worked with over the past forty years that I have been surrounded by bodybuilders and physique competitors. After I filmed my workout DVD, I made the decision that I would never again let myself drop to 5% body fat or lower. Not only such ultra low body fat level unnatural, but to be honest, being as low as 7%-10% looks just as good to 99.9% of the population and avoids the deleterious effects of an ultra low body fat level. I have been able to maintain my body fat within these levels for the better part of ten years and I feel fantastic as long as my body fat percentage doesn’t dip too low. If I miss meals, and or ramp up my activity level to the point where my body fat drops even a few percentage points, I start feeling the lethargy coming on and have to increase my caloric intake. Not a bad problem to have and I beleive it to be the best and healthiest way to maintain a healthy body fat percentage, as it isn’t predicated on energy restriction and extreme exercise. In the end, our media driven societal idea of ultra low body fat being an ideal, is nothing but a recipe for poor health and exercise addiction, as looking superfit is often a sign that you might be super unhealthy.
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Featured everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to CBS News, Kevin Richardson is an award winning personal trainer, natural bodybuilding champion, creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Personal Training and one of the best personal trainers in New York City.
References for Ultra Low Body Fat Is Unhealthy
- Rossow L.M, Fukuda D.H, Fahs C.A, Loenneke J.P., Stout J.R.Natural Bodybuilding Competition Preparation and Recovery: A 12-Month Case Study. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2013
- Ireland M, Nattiv A. The Female Athlete. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders; 2003.
- Bhasin S., Cunningham G., Hayes F., Matsumoto A., Snyder P., Swerdloff R., et al. Testosterone therapy in men with androgen deficiency syndromes: an endocrine society clinical practice guideline. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2010
- Buvat J., Maggi M., Gooren L., Guay A., Kaufman J., Morgentaler A., et al.Endocrine aspects of male sexual dysfunctions. J Sex Med 2010
- Travison T., Morley J., Araujo A., O’Donnell A., McKinlay J. The relationship between libido and testosterone levels in aging men. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2006
- Corona G., Mannucci E., Ricca V., Lotti F., Boddi V., Bandini E., et al. The age-related decline of testosterone is associated with different specific symptoms and signs in patients with sexual dysfunction. Int J Androl 2009
- Dohle G., Arver S., Bettocchi C., Jones T., Kliesch S., Punab M. Guidelines on Male Hypogonadism. Arnhem: European Association of Urology.2012