Once upon a time, it was generally accepted that the easiest way to assess what kind of shape you were in was to hop on the bathroom scales. But weight – as understood via the body-mass index (BMI) – is a crude metric. Very tall or muscular people are significantly more likely to be labelled overweight. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson? Clinically obese.
Which explains why body-fat percentage has become the metric of choice for those looking to track their progress. Your fat-to-lean mass ratio is a far more reliable marker of health. It’s not perfect, but if more than a quarter of your body weight is fat, you’re liable to be at an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Past 28%, things get stickier.
But how lean can you get before turning translucent? The answer lies in your genes. ‘A healthy body-fat percentage differs for all individuals,’ says PT and transformation coach Mark Ross. ‘Some men can be healthy at a very low percentage; others won’t be.’
While the ballpark for a conspicuously toned physique is somewhere between 5% and 15%, single-digit body fat is considered ‘stage lean’, says Ross – not easily sustainable. Going below your natural level requires a punishing mentality. ‘It’s not achievable without 24/7 effort and full focus,’ he says. Which will squeeze out Deliveroo and work-night pints.
Fat is an organ, and your body needs a certain amount to function. Without fat reserves, your immune system takes a battering, testosterone levels tank and your metabolism stutters. Dip below 5% and you risk nervous system damage and brittle bones. At best.
If you’re intent on achieving visible abs, maintaining 10% to 14% body fat is the best way to balance good health with the aesthetic you’re after. Just remember to enjoy life, too.
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