How Important is a Low Body Fat Percentage?


In an effort to be as fast as possible on race day, many athletes try to reach an ideal weight or a race day weight by the time they pin that number on. Typically, athletes want to be as light as possible on race morning. On the surface, this seems to make a lot of sense, especially when we talk about power-to-weight ratio. While being as light as possible has its advantages, focusing too much on body weight can also have a number of negative consequences as well.

An athlete may reach their race day weight, but did they get dehydrated and waste muscle? This athlete may look at the number on the scale and think this is a huge success, but their race day performance may tell them otherwise. If we as athletes simply have a body weight target in mind, we actually may be setting ourselves up for disaster. So, let’s start to focus on the number that really matters so that we can be lean and fit, not just on race day, but year-round.

What is Body Fat Percentage?

How much we weigh is not the key; rather, what we are made up of is the key. Therefore, the number we want to focus on is our body fat percentage (BF%). BF% will tell the story in terms of one’s overall health and fitness level. An individual can actually be “skinny and light”, but he/she can very easily have a very high and unhealthy amount of body fat. When it comes to an athlete wanting to achieve optimal performance, recovery and attain the physique they desire, focusing on BF% is THE number to pay attention to.

According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), here are some body fat percentages to keep in mind. There is a certain amount of body fat that is essential for men and women in order to regulate body temperature, insulation of organs, etc. Essential body fat for women is 10-12% and 2-4% for men. Ideally, female athletes should be 14-20% and male athletes, 6-13%. There are a number of ways to measure body fat percentage such as skinfold measurements, body composition scales, hydrostatic weighing, bod pod, etc. Each of these modalities can differ in terms of BF% readings. For example, skinfold measurement will typically give a lower amount of body fat percentage as compared to the body composition scales.

Now that we have these numbers in mind, we can start to set our sights on body fat loss goals and not weight loss goals. All too often, body weight loss will result in a loss of muscle and water. From an athlete’s perspective, this will significantly hamper performance and recovery. Also, when an individual’s weight loss is strictly water, this individual will also experience a very fast increase in body weight. Weight loss that is not body fat loss is very temporary, and this leads to that individual losing and gaining the same 10, 15, 20 pounds.

The Five Main Components of a Lower Body Fat Percentage

In order to get leaner, there are five main components that we need to focus on. We could and will go into much more depth of these five components in a later article. For now, we’ll simply introduce them.

1. Build muscle. 

Losing body fat means that we need to increase our metabolism and in order to do so, we need to build lean muscle. It can still be common in the world of endurance sports for weight training to be taboo; but it is the weight training that is key to building lean muscle and changing one’s body composition

2. Nutrition. 

I’ve been asked many times over the years, “Rick, I want to get my abs ripped; what is the best exercise to do this?” My answer has always been the same. The best exercise for ripped and lean abs is not exercise at all – it’s nutrition, nutrition, nutrition. Proper nutrition is a vital piece of the puzzle for losing body fat, getting lean and getting well hydrated. When it comes to nutrition, eating healthy is not the key; rather, eating “right” is the key. (And yes, carbohydrates are a key macronutrient for getting lean).

3. Heart rates. 

Sure, cardiovascular exercise is imperative for our sport-specific goals and it is very important for body composition change and body fat loss. But, not just any cardiovascular exercise. Training at the proper heart rates is critical for body fat loss and body composition change.

4. Sleep. 

Strength training, eating right and training at the proper heart rates are all three very important pieces to getting lean. The one component that may trump all of these is getting the proper amount of sleep each and every night.

5. The Mind. 

Encouraging individuals to switch their focus from body weight loss to body fat loss can often times be a mental struggle. Individuals may have to forget everything they ever thought and believed to be true about nutrition, fitness and weight loss. For example, individuals may believe that consuming carbohydrates will cause them to gain weight. Or, individuals may believe that weight training is going to make them “bulky”. We have to change the belief in order to change the result.

If you are ready to maximize performance and recovery and achieve that lean physique you have always desired, start to switch your focus and let body fat loss and body composition change take precedence over your body weight. Click here to view my webinar on body composition change. 

About the Author

Dr. Rick Kattouf

Rick Kattouf II, O.D. is a 2x Best-Selling, Doctor of Optometry, Personal Trainer, Triathlon Coach, Sports Nutrition Specialist and Heart Rate Performance Specialist. Rick has been seen on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox affiliates around the country. And Rick has been seen in the USA Today, Chicago Tribune, National Examiner,,, Runner’s World, Bicycling Magazine, Men’s Health UK, FIGHT Magazine, Florida Cycling Magazine, Pace Running Magazine,, Chicago Athlete and The Independent in the UK. Dr. Rick has personally coached individuals in 30+ states and 10+ countries. Rick can be reached at 866-966-1422

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