Body fat measurement compares the amount of fat on your body versus your lean body mass. Many athletes typically possess a lower body fat than the average person because of their training and demands of their sports. Although there is no perfect shape for an athlete, low body fat can help improve performance for sports such as gymnastics, basketball, triathlons and running.
There are no “official” standards for body fat. Body fat is usually defined as a range because age, genetics and body type differences influence the amount of fat to lean tissue that you carry. Women, even athletes, generally have a higher body fat level than equally trained men because of the need to support childbearing. The amount of fat an athlete carries also depends on the sport—shot putters or sumo wrestlers can bear extra fat, but athletes who need to propel their bodies horizontally or vertically benefit from being lean.
According to the American Council on Exercise, male athletes typically range from 6 percent to 13 percent body fat. Female athletes range from 14 percent to 20 percent. Bodybuilders might have slightly lower amounts to increase their vascularity—appearance of their veins—and make their muscles appear as defined as possible. Compare these numbers to the typical fit man who ranges from 13 percent to 17 percent or woman who ranges from 20 percent to 25 percent. Men over 25 percent fat and women over 32 percent fat are considered overweight.
Benefits of Lower Body Fat
Carrying too much body fat reduces an athlete’s speed and ability to move efficiently. Low body fat levels help athletes jump higher and improve agility. A low body fat level does not automatically mean you will be a better runner or speed skater, but it might give you an edge in competition. During competition season, it is not advised to diet to lower your body fat because this could leave you without enough fuel to perform optimally, notes "Scientific American" in February 2010.
It is possible to have too little body fat. Your body needs some essential fat—considered to be about 4 percent for men and 10 percent for women—to help with hormone production, vitamin absorption and to pad the internal organs. Women need body fat to keep their menstrual cycle regular. Although some bodybuilders might dip below these levels for competition, it is not recommended you try to maintain extra-low levels for any significant amount of time.
Reducing Body Fat
An athlete who seeks to reduce body fat must be careful not to lose lean muscle as well. Meal timing, protein intake, workout intensity and workout type must be factored into an athlete’s body fat reduction plan. Deprivation is not the key to body fat reduction; rather, an athlete should focus on revving the metabolism and discouraging his body from storing fat, says Ken Mierke, author of "Training for Triathlon Running" and head coach of Fitness Concepts and director of training for Joe Friel 's Ultrafit, on sportfactory.com.