For most people, having a body fat percentage around 7% is not sustainable or healthy long-term. However, it may be a reasonable goal for competitive bodybuilders preparing for a competition. Achieving and maintaining 7% body fat requires extreme diet and exercise discipline.
What is Body Fat Percentage?
Body fat percentage is the amount of fat mass in your body relative to your total body mass. It is expressed as a percentage. For example, someone with 20 pounds of fat mass and a total body mass of 150 pounds would have a body fat percentage of 13% (20/150 = 0.13).
There are a few different methods for measuring body fat percentage. Some common options include:
- Skinfold calipers – Use calipers to pinch skin folds at certain points on the body. The thickness of the folds is used to estimate overall body fat.
- Bioelectrical impedance – A small electrical current is sent through the body to measure resistance. Since fat tissue has low water content and is a poor conductor of electricity, a higher fat percentage leads to greater resistance.
- Hydrostatic weighing – Calculates body fat based on underwater body weight and the principle of displaced water.
- DEXA scan – Uses X-ray beams to measure fat, muscle, and bone mineral density.
Of these, DEXA scans are considered one of the most accurate methods. But other options like skinfold calipers can also produce reliable results when done correctly.
Is 7% Body Fat Healthy for Most People?
For the average person, trying to achieve or maintain 7% body fat is neither realistic nor recommended in most cases.
Here is a rough guide on body fat percentage ranges for general health:
As you can see, only elite athletes should aim for a body fat percentage close to 7%. And even then, the low end is not ideal for most sports.
Getting down to 7% body fat typically requires following an extremely restrictive diet combined with high volumes of intense exercise. This is not sustainable for the general population long-term without adverse health effects.
Potential risks of maintaining very low body fat percentages include:
- Hormonal imbalances – Low body fat can disrupt hormones like testosterone, estrogen, cortisol, leptin, and thyroid hormones.
- Loss of muscle mass – The body may start breaking down muscle tissue for energy.
- Weakened immune system – Increased susceptibility to illnesses.
- Bone loss – Low body fat can reduce estrogen levels and accelerate bone mineral density loss.
- Fatigue and low energy – Carbohydrate and calorie restriction can lead to chronic tiredness.
- Increased cardiovascular strain – The heart has to work harder with limited energy availability.
- Electrolyte imbalances – Sodium, potassium, and other electrolytes can become depleted.
- Mood issues – There may be an increased risk of anxiety, irritability, depression, and disordered eating patterns.
Achieving single digit body fat percentages should be reserved for competitive physique athletes. It is not advised for regular gym-goers or the general public.
Who May Benefit From 7% Body Fat?
Here are some examples of populations that may healthily maintain a body fat percentage close to 7%:
- Competitive bodybuilders – During contest preparation phases, male bodybuilders often aim for 3-5% body fat and females 8-11%. However, this extreme leanness is only for brief peaking periods, not long-term maintenance.
- Physique competitors – Categories like bikini, figure and men’s physique may aim for 7-10% body fat when nearing competition time. The lower range requires strict dieting and dehydration techniques.
- Photo shoots/modeling – Some fitness models and physique athletes may reach 7% body fat for photoshoots or commercial projects. But they don’t maintain this long-term.
- Professional athletes – Sports like boxing/MMA, cycling, running, and gymnastics benefit from a lower fat percentage. But most only reach 7% leading up to peak performance periods.
The key point is that 7% body fat is a short-term target for competitive athletes. Their training, nutrition, recovery, and drug testing protocols are all carefully managed by coaches. Staying super lean year-round is unrealistic and unhealthy.
Bodybuilders are among the leanest athletes. But striving for single digit body fat year-round could have negative health consequences:
- Hormone imbalances – Suppressed testosterone, high cortisol
- Loss of strength and muscle fullness
- Increased injury risk – From pushing hard training in a depleted state
- Greater reliance on diuretics and stimulants pre-contest
- Higher chance of rebound weight gain post-competition
Theemergence of “shredded” divisions has pushed body fat limits. But most pros still only reach sub 7% body fat briefly before shows. Trying to maintain super lean levels causes problems. Intelligent contest prep focuses on health first.
Women’s divisions like figure and bikini aim for a lean yet feminine look. While 7% body fat may occur:
- Striated muscles and very visible vascularity are often marked down
- Judges look for a smooth, toned appearance without extremes
- Losing a menstrual cycle is unhealthy and may reduce estrogen-dependent body parts
The leanest competitors do intensify dieting in the final weeks before a show. But they take health precautions to avoid long-term issues like bone mineral density loss.
How to Safely Reach 7% Body Fat
Here are some tips for healthily getting to 7% body fat:
- Work with an experienced coach to design a personal fat loss plan.
- Set realistic timelines. Rapid extreme dieting increases muscle loss risk.
- Incorporate planned diet breaks. This helps provide metabolic relief and reset hormones.
- Emphasize nutrition first. A moderate caloric deficit and adequate protein intake are key.
- Weight train to preserve muscle mass. Use moderately heavy loads on compound exercises.
- Include HIIT cardio for extra calorie burn. But don’t overdo steady state endurance training.
- Monitor health markers like blood pressure, hormones, menstrual cycles, strength levels, energy, sleep quality, appetite, and mood.
- Be prepared to reverse diet back up once you hit your body fat goal.
Patience and moderation are vital. Crash dieting typically backfires by cannibalizing muscle and torpedoing your metabolism. A modest caloric deficit of 300-500 calories combined with proper macronutrient targets and weight training is best for retaining muscle while losing fat.
Maintaining 7% Body Fat Long-Term
Here are some tips if trying to maintain 7% body fat year-round:
- Accept that some muscle fullness may be reduced. Pick priorities – extreme leanness or maximum muscular size.
- Meticulously track calorie and macronutrient intake. Being underfueled by just a couple hundred calories daily can stall fat loss.
- Cycle calories and carbs to keep your metabolism humming. Avoid extended restrictive dieting.
- Take periodic diet breaks at maintenance calories to normalize hormones and hunger signals.
- Manage stress and get adequate sleep. High cortisol elevates fat storage.
- Weigh yourself daily to catch weight fluctuations early. Adjust nutrition as needed.
- Experiment to find your personal carb tolerance for maintaining low body fat.
- Consider using cardio 365 days per year. HIIT is excellent for fat burning without overtaxing your body.
At the end of the day, staying shredded involves great genetics or strict dietary diligence. Most find the sacrifices required to sustain single digit body fat levels are simply not worth it for the average person.
A body fat percentage of around 7% is only appropriate for competitive physique athletes peaking before a competition or photo shoot. For the general population, such minimal levels are unrealistic and unhealthy to maintain long-term.
A more sustainable target body fat range for most men is 10-15% and 20-25% for most women. With diligent training and balanced nutrition, these levels can provide a great aesthetic physique while avoiding the risks and sacrifices required at the extremes.
Be wary of dangerous fad diets making unrealistic promises. Achieving a truly shredded physique is difficult work requiring great genetics or temporary phases of intense diet and exercise. Focus on adopting healthy, sustainable habits you can stick with for the rest of your life.