SSD Health & Wellness Q&A – Bodyfat

Recently our SSD Health & Wellness Team created a Q&A section within the monthly newsletter for questions and answers directed to me. Below is the first question posed to me from a member of our department:

Ian, in the last two years my body fat percentage has bounced from 6% to 19% percent. Its a constant struggle to maintain a low ideal body fat percentage. I am guessing your body fat percentage hovers around 5% to 6%. I haven’t seen too many top level athletes that can maintain that type of lean muscle mass. Are you a genetic mutant? What’s your secret?
First of all we need to define normal ranges of BF% for men and women.


                        Women            Men


Essential              10-13%     2-5%

Athletes              14–20%      6-13%

Fitness                 21–24%     14–17%

Acceptable         25–31%     18–24%

Obese                 32%+          25%+


Thanks to our lousy eating habits in the western world, the median ranges on this chart have changed over the past couple decades. The range that has not changed is the Essential BF% for men and women. Any lower than that and we see a decline in health and performance. Women maintain higher BF% due to physiological factors related to procreation and rearing children. They are made to survive the worst of times in order to carry and nurture new life. BF% can be measured many ways and is a much more reliable tool than BMI calculations, which are highly inaccurate due to factors in the person being measured and then compared to an archaic “normal average” – the results are highly skewed.


My personal feelings are that more often than not, most men & women find themselves in the “fitness” to “acceptable” ranges, but that doesn’t always mean they are happy with that. Although I will concede that those bodyfat percentages are rising, again due to our lousy eating habits and the false information the FDA and USDA are trying to feed us – pun intended. Almost everyone wants to see better definition in their muscularity and wants to see that six pack come out. It’s there, it’s just got a layer of fat over it. That’s where a diet aimed at reducing insulin levels and reducing caloric intake, thereby allowing the body to burn BF as a fuel source, becomes the pivotal ingredient. Men will start to see an increase in definition and have improved health and performance around the 10% range. Women find this around the 16% range. Below this we see increased definition and vascularity while still maintaining good performance and, if trained correctly, a profound strength to weight ratio. For athletes and performance based individuals, that means being able to move large loads, longer distances, faster. In other words, an increased power output, which is all that matters in the realm of performance. 


Once we dip into the very low BF% “essential ranges” we have a higher likelihood of health & physical problems coming up due to metabolic derangement in the body caused by not enough BF. For women, this can be really hard on the body and can yield some long-term problems. Athletes should not stay here for long periods of time. Cycling in and out of low ranges like this is usually what happens and although hard on the body, is a sustainable practice. I personally employ this ideal in my training and I have been victim of the 5% BF performance reduction issues. I function optimally at 6-7% and in strength gain periods (winter programming), I will allow the range to get up to about 9%. Cycling back and forth is not a bad thing and can yield gains in various areas of training and health, just don’t let it get too out of control.  


Sure, the other side of this coin does have stuff to do with genetics. There are Ectomorphs (thin, hard gainers), Endomorphs (medium build), and Mesomorphs (heavy, easy weight gain). There’s not much we can do to change our hardwiring, but we can control it by diet and making particular modifications to an exercise program dependent upon our needs and desires. The Ecto’s are going to have a fairly high metabolism and correspondingly low BF%. For athletes of this type, they will have a higher ration of slow twitch muscle fibers and tend to be better at endurance based efforts.


Endomorphs tend to be the “lucky ones” with broad shoulders, small waists, fast moving but not hyperactive metabolisms, and they can cut and gain weight fairly easy. These types of folks maintain that “fit” appearance most of the time if they put in a little effort and their corresponding BF% tends to keep them in those ranges. These folks are pretty well rounded athletes with an ability to do well at both ends of the athletic spectrum – endurance & strength.


Mesomorphs are heavier built individuals with a slower metabolic rate. Bones may be heavier and denser and their ability to gain weight, muscle and fat, can be a bit easier. That can be good or bad. BF% tend to be higher on these individuals. These people tend to have very good strength and power outputs with a good mixture of fast and slow twitch muscle fibers.


Keep in mind you can move around from classification to classification, but for the most part you’re not going to take a marathon runner (Ecto) and make him a world class Olympic Weightlifter (Meso). Folks in either category can push up or down to some extent and see gains with changes to diet and training.


The athletic training you are doing has a lot to do with metabolism and BF%. They are intertwined.  Unbeknownst to most folks, we are programmed at a genetic level to thrive in short, high intensity workouts. We are not designed for repeated and continual long duration, oxidative work. It is very damaging to the human body to do this time after time. It also does nothing for the metabolism as there is no EPOC cycle post workout. EPOC stands for “Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption”.


EPOC is the body’s way of making up for the caloric and metabolic deficit it is in after a short high intensity workout (15-25 min training session at 75-80%+ Max. Heart Rate). EPOC kicks in with the feeling of a very ramped up metabolism after a hard, sprint or interval based workout. This cycle can last up to 8 hours. When a person is in EPOC and they have worked their diet out correctly, the EPOC cycle helps re-establish a normal state (homeostasis) in the body by pulling all the calories and energy it needs to re-establish metabolism from your pre-existing BF. So, you lose a ton of BF post-workout due to this short high intensity training. There is almost no EPOC cycle in long training cycles (60+ Min), so there is almost no post-workout BF burn off. In a long workout, BF is only burnt during the workout due to the low heart rates and metabolic requirements and it is a substantially shorter time frame than the long EPOC cycle.


Also not present in long training cycles is the hormonal response in the body that stimulates growth. Too long of training sessions blunt the neuroendocrine response and cause a build up of stress hormones that actually break down the muscle you are working to create. The desired hormonal response created by proper strength and conditioning programs creates a very anabolic environment in the body, so muscle and bone grow and strengthen very well. Remember, an increase in lean body mass means an increase in metabolism as muscle needs more energy than fat to sustain itself. The build up of negative hormones and metabolic factors causes inflammation at a structural and cellular level. The problems created by inflammation can be mitigated by supplementing the diet with fish oil.


Don’t get me wrong, we need to workout or participate in sports or athletic endeavors that will make us work for a long time, but not on a regular basis as is commonplace. Going long in the pool, track, bike or workout/cardio routine a couple times a month is plenty and is good to keep the adaptation process in the body continually moving forward. This also lets the body work at a lower heart and respiratory rate for a longer period of time and places new stresses on the body for it to adapt to and overcome to increase health and athleticism. 


So, let’s say you have consulted someone in the know, dialed in a personalized diet and workout program and got to where you want to be, composition or weight wise. Now what? If you have been tracking your diet and workouts, you will know exactly what is necessary to maintain or change those new ratios. Both of those factors are the keys to maintaining your new BF% and performance. Your diet can be changed somewhat to accommodate for particular training.


For example, on a programmed strength day (i.e., 5×5 Squats, 5×5 Press, and 3×5 Deadlifts at 82% 1 RM for sets across– a tough day of barbell work), I would up the protein intake a bit more in the post workout meal/shake and a tad throughout the day. Carbs would remain at about 45g post workout to help refuel and shuttle aminos back to the muscles and improve recovery. Protein would be a tad higher to help the muscle repair process. Fat would be minimal in this meal to help the replenishment process – this is the only meal you would eat that would be low/no fat.


If I were to do a high intensity conditioning workout (timed circuits, intervals, Olympic weightlifting or barbell work mixed with metabolic conditioning with no or minimal rest) that extended out to the 20-30 min range, I would recommend about 45g protein and about 90g carbs for a post workout meal or shake. The higher carb content helps replenish the fuel in the muscles and liver while the protein helps muscle regeneration. Again, low or no fat in this post workout meal. Both these post-workout meals help maintain and increase LBM and don’t support body fat. Just don’t ruin your efforts by screwing up the remaining meals in the day.


In the end, I would take any person and define their somatype (body type), their athletic/health goals, and then get them on an insulin controlling diet (Paleo, Primal or Zone), and put them on a good personalized strength and conditioning program involving barbell work for strength and high intensity, short duration training for metabolic impact and overall conditioning. Dependent upon the body type and goals, you may tweak one area of work above the other to gain the desired response.


Does this really work? Yes it does. It just takes commitment and desire. Some would say I am genetically lucky, but the truth is I am no different than any other person, I have just experimented to find the things that really work and produce results that keep me healthy and happy. I have faith you can do the same!


3 thoughts on “SSD Health & Wellness Q&A – Bodyfat

  1. Pingback: More info from our local expert: Ian Carver « SSD Health and Wellness’s Weblog

  2. Eric D

    Great read first of all! Do you think athletes can maintain their strength levels when dropping from the 14-17% BF range down to the 6% range? I guess to clarify, does the only drop in performance come when an athlete hits the “essential” BF zone?

    Thank you!

  3. Eric – There is a trade off between BF% and strength output. The lower it goes the more likelihood there is that your strength numbers will drop. This can be alleviated to some extent by following a strict lifting program that takes into account intensity and volume as it relates to your current composition and ramps up to maximize your “strength to weight” ratio (i.e., in season athlete vs. off season athlete). The biggest drop in performance will be an all around performance output at the lower BF%’s. The body simply doesn’t have enough energy substrates to fuel the athlete, the immune system gets overworked and suppressed, and recovery is poor which inhibits the ability to put out 100% at each effort. Elite athlete do get down there, but they are elite and know how to capitalize on it and still show benefits of being lean and mean at game time. Too much time in that zone though and they too will suffer. When athletes get too low, it will go fine for a bit and then they run the chance of tanking. Caloric intake needs to go way up once athletes reach their ideal composition to maintain peak outputs for extended periods. This is where diet protocols need to be tweaked (more fat) and followed closely along with how those meals are affecting performance and recovery.

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