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What is the ideal body composition?

Hard to say, although questions of what is “ideal” or “perfection” when it comes to human bodies have been around for centuries.

Over 500 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci penned a picture of what is perhaps the most famous drawing of any man in the world. He’s often considered to be an image of the “ideal man” You might not know his name, but that’s because he doesn’t have one. That’s this guy:

This is the Vitruvian Man, often considered to be an expression of perfect and ideal human symmetry and form.  Is this the ideal? Do you need to look like the Vitruvian Man to have the ideal body composition?

The problem with “ideal” is that it is an inherently subjective word, an adjective that means different things to different people that can change depending on the situation.

One person’s ideal body composition might be completely different from someone else.  What really matters are your own personal goals.

Still, even the most educated and driven among us still fall into this trap from time to time. You work hard to lose fat and gain muscle, and it’s not easy. You sacrifice the food you crave and spend endless hours working out to achieve some vision you have of your ideal body.

Although working hard to change your body composition is a great goal, this can be problematic and even dangerous if you have an unrealistic image of the “ideal” body composition or body type in your mind.

So, let’s take a look at a couple notions of the ideal body and see if there is an ideal body composition and if so, how you can get it.

“I Want to Look Like a Greek Statue”

When we think of someone who has the classic “ideal” body composition, we often imagine a hero from a movie, a popular athlete, or even a god from an ancient myth.  Whether we’re aware of it or not, what we imagine frequently comes from Classic civilization: ancient Greece and Rome.

This is a statue of the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon.  Sculptures of male gods like Poseidon abound the ancient world, and nearly 100% (if not 100%) of them are sculpted as being incredibly lean and muscular.

The ancients, however, weren’t silent on the ideal female figure either.

Probably one of the most famous sculptures in the entire world, the Venus de Milo, is a representation of the Roman god of love, made to look in what they believed to be the ideal female body type.

In terms of contributing towards an ideal body composition, however, it’s the idealized physique represented by the male statue that has made major contributions towards setting results to aspire to.

There are people who earn their living and dedicate their lives to sculpting their bodies to look like the images the Greek and Romans sculpted from blocks of gleaming marble. These people, of course, are known as bodybuilders.

Do they have the ideal body composition?

“Perfection” Comes With a Price

Bodybuilding is a competitive sport in which contestants are judged subjectively on primarily physical appearance (how they look) as opposed to physical prowess (how much they can lift).  This is made explicit in the rules that guide the sport.

According to the guidelines set forth by International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB), which sponsors the well-known Mr. Olympia competition, Article 7 of the Men’s Bodybuilding rules states that competitors will be judged in the following manner:

Key among these is the description of muscle quality, which is defined as a combination of density, separation, and definition.  While the other criteria (proportion, symmetry, muscle size) are all primarily achieved through specialized strength training/muscle gaining programs, definition is achieved by having an extremely low body fat percentage.

How low is low?  Because bodybuilding is a sport judged on aesthetics – more art than science – there isn’t 100% agreement on what body fat percentage a bodybuilder must be at in order to be competitive. However, the general consensus is that for men, that number hovers around 3-4% for men and 10-12% for women.

This type of body composition produces bodies that look like what you see in competitions:

Source: Flickr

This person would have a body composition that would resemble this profile:

Female bodybuilders often look something like this:

Source: Flickr

With the corresponding body composition:

Do these bodybuilders – who have bodies that most resemble the physiques that the Greeks admired so much that they imagined their gods to look like – have the ideal body composition?

Not necessarily.  The images that you’re accustomed to seeing of bodybuilders are what’s called “competitive shape.”  This means that they usually only look like they do – with those extremely low body fat percentages – when they are about to compete, not in their daily lives.

A recommendation found in Natural Bodybuilding suggests that male bodybuilders try to maintain a body fat percentage of around 10-12% and female bodybuilders around 18% when they are not competing. These percentages are suggested so that bodybuilders can drop to competition shape as needed when they are in season.

Another – very significant – reason why a competitive bodybuilder’s body composition isn’t the ideal body composition is that competitive body fat percentages put them dangerously close to reaching their essential fat.

What are essential fats?  In Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance, McArdle describes essential fat as:

“…the fat in heart, lungs, liver, spleen, kidneys, intestines, muscles, and lipid-rich tissue of the central nervous system and bone marrow.”

Essential fats differ from the other major grouping of fat, which is called storage fat. As its name implies, storage fat is stored energy. This is the fat you can see.

The actual amount of essential fat may vary slightly from individual to individual, but generally speaking, the amount of essential fat that men carry is about 3% of their body weight, and for women, it’s approximately 10-12%.

Take a look at the following graphs that show the estimated distribution of fat, divided between essential in storage for men and women:

Notice something?  Competitive shape for bodybuilding and essential fats are by some accounts the same. This means that to be in competitive shape – to look like that Greek statue – the bodybuilder is required to lose virtually all fat on their body that isn’t required for basic survival.

But don’t let this mislead you into thinking that just because that fat isn’t required for basic survival, it’s not required for a properly functioning body.

In a yearlong case study conducted by the International Journal of Sports Physiological Performance that tracked the body composition and physical state of a competitive bodybuilder, the bodybuilder under study achieved a body fat percentage of 4.5% for the competition.

However, in addition to tracking body fat percentage loss over time, the researchers observed other, less than desirable physiological changes:

The researchers indicate that several negative outcomes consistent with overtraining, such as decreases in physical performance and reduction in immune system function, occurred as a result of training for a competition.

The authors went on to further explain that these negative physiological changes are unfortunate, but necessary, repercussions due to the nature of competitive bodybuilding:

Female bodybuilders experience an additional side effect of having an extremely low body fat percentage unique to them only: the temporary stop of menstruation.  This temporary stop, known in scientific literature as amenorrhea, forms one part of a condition known as The Female Athlete Triad, which occurs in part due to excessively low body fat percentages/stores.

Despite their impressive physical appearances, bodybuilders do not have an ideal body composition.

Because their sport demands that they put their body through undue stress to the point where normal biological functions start to become impaired, looking like a bodybuilder should not be a goal, and their body composition should never be considered “ideal” (unless you are, in fact, a competing bodybuilder).

There’s a second group of people, however, who put themselves under a lot of physical stress but don’t cause their bodies to start operating poorly.  Quite the opposite: their entire careers depend on their bodies operating at the absolute highest levels of physical performance.

These people, of course, are athletes.

Do they have the ideal body composition?

Are Athletes Ideal?

What does it mean to be “athletic” from a body composition standpoint? Is “athletic” ideal?

In order to answer this question, we need a baseline for comparison. According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), athletic body fat percentages for men and women are:

  • Men: 6 – 13%
  • Women: 14 – 20%

Unlike bodybuilders, a successful athlete is judged by what he or she is able to produce while playing their sport of choice.

Instead of seeking to simply be as physically developed as possible while maintaining the absolute lowest body fat percentage, athletes must have a more nuanced body composition that gives them an edge in whichever sport they play. For this reason, you often see a range of body fat percentage presented as “athletic” instead of a baseline number as in bodybuilding.

Do athletes have the ideal body composition? Maybe – but only ideal for their particular sport and their particular role in it.  This leads to body compositions varying significantly between athletes that even can extend beyond the “athletic” body fat percentages recommended by ACE.

This makes it difficult to neatly declare “athletic” as “ideal.”

To illustrate this, here is the body composition data accumulated by the NCAA describing common body fat percentages of college student-athletes, organized by sport.

College student-athletes are some of the most physically fit individuals, playing at the highest level with the exception of professional or Olympic athletes. Yet even they can have variable body composition data that falls outside of a rigid “athletic” range.

Take, for example, female basketball players.  The lowest measured level for female basketball players was 20%, which is the upper limit for what the ACE stipulates as “athletic” for women.

On the other hand, female gymnasts were recorded with body fat percentages as low as 10% – which brings them dangerously close into their essential fat range.  It is also a full 4% under what the ACE considers “athletic.”

Now take a look at Football (linemen). The lowest recorded body fat percentage for this group is 15%, 2% higher than the ACE’s upper range for athletic males (13%).

Trying to set an athletic body composition range becomes even more problematic when examining ranges within the same sport.  Here is a second table, also compiled by the NCAA, of the body compositions of football players performing at the NFL Combine between 2006 – 2013.

Since athletes who attend the NFL Combine can only do so at the invitation of the NFL, the data above reflects athletes whom the NFL believed to have had promise at playing at the professional level.

This sample size is reflective of the best of the best in collegiate football, and many current NFL players would have been included in this sample population.

Even within this talented and athletic pool of athletes, note the massive variation in body compositions at every single player position. The range for every position falls both under and over the 6 – 13% athletic range for men set by ACE.

Thus, it becomes extremely hard to determine whose body composition is ideal and whose isn’t.  Since athletes are drafted by ability and not by their body composition results, it is virtually impossible to pin down what is “ideal” at each position, let alone each sport.

So What IS The Ideal Body Composition?

If having a body fat percentage like a body builder is too low, yet body compositions for athletes can range all over the place, what IS an ideal body composition?

There just isn’t one.  There are many healthy types of bodies and body compositions, and you can work hard to optimize your body composition for whatever purpose or appearance you would like to have.

One underlying factor of all healthy body compositions, however, is a body fat percentage in a healthy range.  One of the better options are the ranges based on the standards set by Lee and Nieman in Nutritional Assessment. Those ranges look like this:

The strength of the Lee and Nieman ranges is partially in the verbage.  Unlike body fat ranges endorsed by ACE,  the Lee and Nieman ranges don’t attempt to categorize someone with subjective terms like “athlete” or “athletic.”

Instead, it provides an optimal range, which favors fairly low body fat percentages.  It is also wide enough to include 14% in the optimal range for men, which was was found to be the average expected body fat percentage for the Reference Man – a theoretical model of the average man.

But still, even if you have a body fat percentage of 14%, it’s hard to call that “ideal.”  It might be ideal if you’re a soccer player, but not if you’re a wrestler.

So what is the ideal body composition? A healthy body with a body composition in a healthy range that allows you to achieve your personal goals, whatever those are.

What’s ideal is whatever is ideal for you.

You can optimize for strength and focus on developing as much Lean Body Mass as possible, while accepting a moderate (but not unhealthy) amount of Fat Mass.

If appearance and leanness is important to you, you can optimize your body composition for a low body fat percentage, but not to the point where you get towards essential fat and risk health complications.

Whatever your goals are, don’t worry about aspiring to an ideal.  It doesn’t exist.  You can be fit and you can be healthy, but there is no ideal you.  The only ideal you is the one you set for yourself.

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