Male models with ripped abs who flex their biceps on the cover of fitness magazines boast of having low body fat levels. Those models work hard to dramatically lose a notable amount of body fat just before their shoots, much like bodybuilders get exceptionally lean for a show, but they usually don't maintain such low body fat levels over the long term. Men need some body fat to support bodily functions, however, and sustaining low levels requires extreme behavior that's not realistic.
Necessary and Essential Fat
A certain amount of body fat -- called essential fat -- is necessary to regulate a man's body temperature, pad his internal organs and provide energy. A body fat of about 3 percent is necessary to support these functions in a man's body. This essential fat is found within the bone marrow, internal organs and central nervous system, and some men may genetically carry up to 5 percent essential fat.
Men's essential fat levels are lower than women's, whose hormones drive the storage of extra fat to support pregnancy and breast feeding. A woman's body can't risk having too little fat to support a fetus.
Body Fat Extremes
Body fat higher than 20 percent puts a man at increased risk for developing chronic diseases, and having too little body fat can have health consequences as well.
Men have different reasons for shedding body fat. Athletes might seek super-low body fat levels to make them lighter on the track or field. Bodybuilders look more vascular and defined when body fat levels are low, too. A fit man may make achieving low body fat a priority to earn bragging rights at the gym.
The extreme dieting, macronutrient ratios and hydration manipulation required for a man to reach extremely low body fat levels, sometimes below essential fat, can result in nutritional deficiencies and fluid and electrolyte imbalances. If your body fat is too low, your bone strength may suffer, and you could become susceptible to illness and lose reproductive function. All of your bodily systems, including the central nervous system, cardiovascular system and immune system, suffer when your body fat percentage becomes too low.
Body Fat Ranges for Men
No absolute standards for body fat exist because men store fat differently, especially as they age. A healthy man's body fat may be anywhere between 11 and 20 percent. As you age, you usually fall into the higher end of the range because of the natural loss of muscle mass and diminishing bone density.
Younger, trained athletes are usually in the lower end of this range because of their increased muscle mass and their need to support sports performance. Some men may manage a body fat of 5 to 11 percent and be perfectly healthy, while others may suffer from health issues in this range. Having a body fat below 8 percent doesn't provide an extra health benefit either; the effect is purely aesthetic. Your doctor can help you determine if your body fat level is too low for your physique and health needs.
What It Takes to Get Low Body Fat
A man must be dedicated to exercise and be diligent about his diet to achieve low levels of body fat. While a body fat of 13 to 15 percent is fairly easy for many young men to maintain with regular gym visits that include cardio and strength training as well as a fairly healthy diet, dipping to levels of 10 to 12 percent require greater attention. You have little room to "cheat" with refined carbohydrates, high-sugar foods or alcohol and can't often skip a gym date.
To reach levels below 10 percent, a strict, portion-controlled diet and regimented workout routine is required. Bodybuilders and fitness models achieve their extraordinarily low body fat levels of 3 to 6 percent with a full-time schedule that involves strict dieting, precise macronutrient ratios and meal timing as well as stringently planned workouts, sleep schedules and hydration.