T Nation

How low is too low?

I’ve been told women should not go below 12% bodyfat for health reasons. I have had every intention of staying around 12 and no thought of going down lower until now. I just found out by a 4 point caliper test that I am currently 11.4 % bodyfat. You’d think I’d be happy right? I mean, only two years ago I was 30 something%. But here is my problem - I still have fat hiding my abs. Now before you go tell me to do some crunches, I have very strong abs (my favorite body part to work) and I can feel deep lines in them with my fingers. But, only the two vertical lines close to my hips are showing. Is it possible that some women won’t see their abs without sacrificing health? I know caliper tests can be up to five percent wrong - so I will get the water immersion test done when I can. Still, I’m so lean everywhere else. When I work out, my veins on my forearms are scary. They go back down when I’m not workng out. Here is my question - can some women go lower bodyfat as long as health issues don’t arise? Or should I resolve myself to not seeing my abs and be proud of what I’ve accomplished?

Depending on how they’re performed, three- and four-site caliper measurements have been known to significantly underestimate bodyfat levels. A six-site caliper check would be far more accurate. (From your description, my guess is that a six-site measurement will show you to be ~15-16% BF.)

Ok, I’m off to find a six point formula on the internet. Thank you :slight_smile:

I have alot of experience with women with low bodyfat. It seems that they can often get away with high single digit bodyfat % without much health compromise. I believe that the “essential” bodyfat level is 3% for men and 6-7% for women. But it’s very individual as some women probably need a bit more. I guess you should judge the relative safety of your low bodyfat by how you personally feel and not some normative criterion. If you dont have menstrual irregularities and your blood work comes back fine, then you are probably ok. I will warn you however, trying to stay below 10% for a woman is very tough. You may be really lean now but getting the totally ripped look is damn hard to do and isnt easily be maintained year-round.

Um, you wouldn’t happen to know one you could post on here for me would you? My google search is coming up dry.

Thank you both for your replies. I am going to find a way to get a water bodyfat test done, but even then, I am going to go for my desired look and not worry about my exact percent unless my health seems to be getting compromised. Once again, thank you.

Ironbabe: Lyle McDonald – the well-known diet guy – had an excellent page devoted to the six-site measurment technique. I’ll see if I can find it again and somehow point you in that direction. By the way, Lyle is one example of the inaccuracies inherent in low-number site measurements. Specifically, he believed at one point in time that his BF was ~15%; unfortunately, the three-site technique he used had underestimated his BF by 5%, so he was actually closer to 20%. (He detailed all this once in a autobiographical page called, I think, “How to lose a year of training.”) Although the three- and four-site techniques are less accurate for men than women, the six-site technique is by far the best way to go for both sexes.

Women undergoing calorie restriction for life extension purposes routinely drop below 6% bodyfat. I believe this does interfere with a woman’s menstral cycle, but there is nothing inherently unhealthy about it (in fact, you will live much longer, if you are eating nutritious foods).

Many female athletes get below 12% (such as gymnists), and usually there is no problem. However, like others said before a good indication that your body fat is too low would be amenaria, and if that happens (unless it is right before a show because then it is to be expected) you should try to stake care of it, or risk you reproductive health. It may be low body fat, or bad nutrition (low iron, or potassium commonly cause it also). Basically, under 12% should not hurt you though.

If the moderator is willing to make a URL posting exemption in this one instance, the following pages provide excellent instructions and calculators for a seven-site test (these are from the personal site of John Williams, an MFW regular):

Men: http://www.enforcergraphics.f2s.com/formmal7.htm

Women: http://www.enforcergraphics.f2s.com/formfem7.htm

My friend’s girlfriend stays too lean year around and hasn’t had her period in a very long time. However, in her case it stems from a battle she had in high school with anorexia which in some way has still screwed up her self-image. Make sure you don’t run into a nutrient deficiency by trying to lean up even further.Take a multi-Vit./Mineral, extra antioxidants, calcium, essential fatty acids. Do you use resistance in your ab training? Maybe try to use heavier ab training with low reps.

My gilrfriend stays pretty lean year round.You can see her abs but their not “in”.She has not had her period in over 2 years.She supplements with vitamins,minerals,calcium,protein and good fats.Do you think this will effect her getting prego once she “fattens up” a little bit?

I do use low reps and heavy weight - it drives me crazy to do high reps (though I have gone through periods of high reps on purpose). I know the problem is not ab development. I read something by Lyle today that said women who carry fat predominately over their abs (me) are not likely to get accurate caliper measurements from 4 site tests. So, I now know the problem. No biggie - I can get my hubby to do the 7 site test on me tonight and I bet I’ll find I am higher than 11.44%. I think I am. If worse came to worse and I lost my period because of trying to find my abs, I’d just put a little more fat on, no big deal.
I bet though, I’m closer to 14%. That, I can believe. Thank you to Bob and to the moderators for letting me get this url. I can’t wait to get a better estimation of my BF%. I’ll keep you guys posted.

D’oh! I forgot one very important thing, Ironbabe. If I’m not mistaken, you’re currently doing the Fat Fast diet, which is ketogenic. As you know, keto diets have diuretic effects; thus, your skinfold measurements will to some extent be less than they would on a “normal” diet (i.e., you have less subcutaneous water than you would “normally” have). This could also result in a slightly less accurate (lower) bodyfat computation. (I honestly have no idea how much lower. It would be interesting to compare the pre- and post-Fat Fast numbers.)

I’ll keep up with my pre and post numbers and let you know what happened. I didn’t think about that - I guess the keto diet would affect the numbers.

Bob, I just took a look at the site. I guess I’m somewhat skeptical of the methods used because it does not ask for weight nor height. I don’t see how cumulative caliper measurements can be used for PERCENT bodyfat. Wouldn’t this method overestimate bodyfat for someone who has a lot of muscle?

Hyok: If I understand your argument (please correct me if I don’t), you’re absolutely right. Calculations based on caliper measurements can’t possibly measure the percentage of total bodyfat because they’re only taking the measure of subcutaneous fat; thus, they don’t take into account either visceral (inter-organ) or intramuscular fat. However, they’re still fairly accurate for measuring lower bodyfat levels (<20%) because – much to the consternation of most bodybuilders – the body tends to shed the visceral fat first and save subcutaneous fat for last. (All BF testing methodologies have their share of inaccuracies. For instance, water immersion testing tends to be highly inaccurate in athletes with dense bone structures. This explains why WIT calculates many African-American athletes with negative BF percentages. In my case, I’m caucasian but my one WIT test indicated that I had a 2% BF level at the time. Yeah, right…) The most accurate method to determine BF would necessitate first breaking a person down into his or her component parts. For obvious reasons, other methods will have to suffice.:slight_smile:

If there are studies correlating raw pinch numbers to a percent bodyfat, then I guess that is good enough for me. What I was getting at was that the pinched fat measures the thickness of the fat layer below the skin, right? Then the total quantity of the fat would depend on the surface area in question, ie the amount of skin. Then the total quantity of fat would have to be divided by the total mass to get the percent bodyfat. I was thinking of a situation where you put on some muscle, but maintain the same skin fold measurements. Shouldn’t the percent bodyfat change? Only explanation I can think of is that adding muscle adds volume also, so the subcutaneous fat layer should also get slightly thinner (like blowing up a balloon), therefore the lower bodyfat would be detected. Sorry, but I’m cursed to be an engineer! I’m taking the Professional Engineers’ exam tomorrow, so I’m in “that” analytical frame of mind.

Ironbabe,though I’d tell you some of my personal experiences with bodyfat, maybe it will help you decide. First off I’m 5’6, long waisted and have always been on the lean side. Body type somewhere between ecto and mesomorph.
The first sport I really got into was long distance running. I ate lots of carbs and worked up to doing 10 miles every other day. My weight dropped to 106 and stayed there,I stopped having my period, I was skinny, weak and looked like most long distance runners.
My bf was low,I don’t know how low, BUT I don’t think it was any lower than when I have competed. While dieting for a show, I have never had any problems with my cycle. My bf at the last show was measured at 8% (calipers,6 sites,and I agree those only help you make an educated guess.)The difference, I think is that I was, and am, much more nutritionally balanced and therefore healthier. My body knows that and does’nt shut down on me. Generally my bf ranges around 12-14% (caliper again).I don’t know what study the “below # 12% is unhealthy” info was derived from, (I’ve heard it too)but Im wondering if that was on athletes whose bf is low year round, or on women who have dieted radically, not allowing their bodies to acclimate. I would say keep dropping your fat,eat clean, take your vitamins and don’t worry about a number. If your abs are where you “hold” fat it may be tough to get them to really show at first, but on your next cutting phase it should be easier, there will be less fat to lose and your metabolisim will be faster due to more muscle. My order of fat loss is last place I put it on , is first off- abs, breasts legs and butt(never could get my rear to really cut up and my boyfriend was glad of that). Hope this helps a little, it sounds like you are doing a great job. Hang in there!

Being involved in a branch of alternative medicine that uses the characteristics of a womens period as a important indicator of her health, I believe that body dat levels have less to do with maintaining her period and properly nourishing the body is a much greater factor. I have seen female patients with bf levels in the high teens loose their peroids do to poor diet and lifestyle factors while i have seen many properly trained and nourished female athletes maintain normal menstruation with bf levels in the single digits. The health of the body has a bigger influence than bf levels. And I do believe that women loosing their menstruation for an extended peroid of time is a very unhealthy situation