In this article we are going to take a look at some arguments for the ideal body mass index for physique athletes. I am going to discuss a few different points of view and then give you my recommendations for the best body mass index.
These recommendations are built off of well established strength levels and body fat measurements for natural body builders. My goal with this article is to give you some realistic targets to shoot for in your quest to become lean and strong.
One thing to get out of the way right up front is that notion that you can build up your muscle mass and then strip the fat right off it without affecting any of the underlying muscle tissue. This is a myth that has been popularized by the fitness media, cut and bulk etc…
Your body is not a structure that you can build up and modify at will. Varying hormones levels regulated by your bodyweight, food intake and lifestyle will continuously alter the amount of muscle tissue you are able to hold on to.
When most naturals cut bodyfat they end up with reduced intramuscular triglycerides, lowered glycogen stores and lower levels of muscle mass. This is the main reason that most people have more weight to lose then they think to get truly ripped. Every ounce of subcutaneous body fat you lose will be accompanied by ounces of water, glycogen and intermuscualr triglycerides.
Most people are not really sure what weight they should be trying to cut to. This article will give you some reliable targets.
“Everyone thinks they’re on their way to single digit body fat as soon as they see a blurry four-pack in the right lighting.”
BMI vs. Body Fat vs. Realtive Strength
When looking at the correct BMI for physique athletes, its important to consider the many well established standards for BMI, body fat and relative strength.
Body Fat Percentage – Total mass of bod fat divided by the total body mass of the individual. This measurement is altered by the amount of fat relative to the muscles, bones and connective tissue as well as vital organs.
Body Mass Index – Formula for calculating the body mass relative to the height of an individual in order to establish height to weight standards. The actual formula is body mass divided by the square of the height.
Relative Strength – This is a measure of strength relative to the body weight of an athlete.
While most people are familiar with one or two of those, few people pay attention to all three as they change over time. The truth is that BMI, Body fat and relative strength are all important and are in fact related.
To give you a quick example, suppose that you have a man that is 5’4″, weighs 180 lbs and can has a one rep max in the squat of 360 lbs. a one rep max in the bench press of 325 lbs. and can do a weighted chin up with 145 lbs attached to his body.
Now consider a man who has the same 1 rep maximum in the squat, bench press and weighted chin up and also weighs 180 lbs. but is 5’11” tall. Picture how these two men look. If you haven’t figured it out, the man who is 5’4″, most likely has a much higher BMI and bodyfat percentage then the man who is 5’11” tall.
This has to do with a number of factors. According to his strength vs. bodyweight, he has the same relative strength as the man who is 5′ 11″ tall. However, due to the taller man having to move the weights over a greater distance due to the longer level arms of his limbs, he actually will have to produce more force to move the same weights.
This in large part explains why the man who is 5’11” will be leaner. Even though he has the same relative strength on paper, he is actually producing larger amounts of force for his 180 lb. body weight. It makes sense that he will be leaner. Besides being important for aesthetics, body fat and BMI play an important role in translating strength gained in the gym to the functional movements and sporting endeavors.
As you will see later in the article, BMI is important in predicting performance in any activity that requires locomotion or the athletes to move their bodies. Besides helping to predict performance, considering BMI and relative strength together gives a more accurate picture of what someone will look like then relative strength alone.
Finally, the more a sport or activity is dependent on locomotion, the more important Relative Strength vs. BMI becomes. Consider the two men in the above example. Which one do you think would complete a marathon more quickly if they both had to run one???
Most people already know that relative strength is important for peak sprint velocity. What’s more interesting is that relative strength combine with BMI is a very useful predictor of endurance performance.
BMI, Body Fat and Relative Strength for Natural Physique Athletes
One of the biggest differences between preparation for physique sports and preparation for any other type of sport is that physique athletes attempt to maximize BMI while minimizing body fat. That is, regardless of their height, bodybuilders try to add as much muscle to their frames as possible while minimizing the amount of body fat they carry.
In order to have more accurate targets for a BMI and body fat range to shoot for, its helpful to know some of the statistics surrounding BMI and body fat averages for athletes and non athletes alike.
To compare those BMI’s of the average person with some BMI’s for Olympic athletes I have some examples of athletes from various sports. Notice which one’s you think look the best or which ones are the closest to how you would want to look.
The majority of athletes in the various sports conform to very tight ranges for BMI. In fact, after conducting a study of the age, height, weight and sex of athletes at the 2012 London Olympics, the official who aggregated the data gave the following comment.
“An interesting find in the data is that even though height and weight is dependent on sex, the sports which have the highest/lowest average weight/heights are the same for both sexes. We even checked for average BMI. The sport with the highest average height is of course basketball with an average of 2m for men and 1m 87cm for women. The sport with the shortest athletes is Artistic Gymnastics with an average height of 1m 67cm for men and 1m 55cm for women. The sport with the highest BMI is weightlifting and the sport with the lowest is the Triathlon.” – The Guardian
How Understanding BMI Can Help You Look Better
Looking at normal BMI’s for various sports in important because it gives you an idea of what people look like when training is their job. All of the athletes shown above train with weights and do some type of conditioning. Obviously their training is very different, but these are all highly trained individuals who take their rest and recovery serious.
Some of you might be wondering how this is a useful set of data as these athletes are trying to maximize for performance in their sports and not for muscle mass. The reason it is still useful is exactly because these athletes are not graded by how much muscle they have.
If they were judged on muscle mass, they would be useng any substance they could to enhance their physiques. We already know what that competition looks like, its called IFBB pro bodybuilding and the physiques of those athletes are a far cry from what most people want to look like.
Most people want to have a decent amount of muscle and a small amount of body fat. In order to have realistic goals for this look you need to have a realistic idea of what body weight you can achieve this goal at. In order to answer this same question, Martin Berkhan of Leangains devised a formula to determine the upper limit of body weight a physique athlete can hope to achieve when they are in lean condition, 5-6% Body fat.
How Do These Numbers Affect My Training
If you remember earlier in the article we discussed how most physique athlete’s have a goal of getting as lean as possible at the highest BMI possible. What you will find is that most men will top out right around where Martin’s formula puts the maximum muscular potential of 24.5 – 25.0 BMI.
For most people, this is the ceiling for natural muscle growth at a low body fat of around 5-6%. Keep in mind that most people who think they are near single digit body fat usually have 10-30 lbs to lose before they get there. Keep that in mind if you have a BMI of 30 and believe you are 10 lbs. away from single digit body fat.
The above limit is for athletes who are advanced or have years of serious resistance training under their belt. Considering this, an important question is, what is a reasonable BMI for trainees who are not at their genetic potential but still want to be in “ripped” condition at 5-6% body fat.
A good place to start for this information is the work of dietary expert Dr. Joel Fuhrman. I really like his work because he goes to extremes in his work. From extreme dietary recommendations to extreme BMI recommendations, you can learn much more from studying Dr. Fuhrman’s extremes then other diet experts who offer more agreeable solutions.
Dr. Fuhrman regularly discusses that men and women should be much lighter and leaner then what is considered normal. In fact, in some of his writing he makes it clear that he believes men should be close to single digit body fat if not solidly within the single digits. For an author that deals primarily with obese patients, this is certainly an extreme recommendation.
What makes his suggestions reasonable is that he recommends a lower overall BMI then the American Medical Association’s or most health oragnizations. In fact, he talks extensively about how politics in the medical field have allowed the BMI recommendations to slowly rise over the years.
Dr. Fuhrman believes older recommendations that place a BMI of 23 as the ceiling for a healthy weight are actually correct. He therefore recommends that all his patients shoot for a BMI between 18.5 -22.5. The only exception is if the person has a significantly higher level of muscle mass from weight training.
This exception explains the examples seen in Martin Berkhan’s clients who each can reach 5-6% body fat close to a BMI of 25. These clients dedicated years of work to reaching that level of size. Don’t be confused, these are not guys that simply went to the gym for a while, they are competitive physique athletes.
Most guys who want to get ripped in the next few months should consider Dr. Fuhrman’s BMI recommendations. He is intimately familiar with how much body weight it takes to get into the single digit body fat percentages. I can’t tell you how many bodybuilders and bodybuilding coaches I have seen who honestly think they are in the single digits when they look like they are at 15% body fat.
Keep in mind, essential fat is 2-4% in men. That means that the fat that is needed to keep you alive and pad your organs etc… accounts for that 2-4% of your body fat. If you are claiming you are at 5-6% bodyfat, dehydrated, you are going to look like a skeleton with muscle. If you are looking at stuff on your body and your not sure exactly what it is, you are not at this level of leanness, at this level everything pops out. Consider one of Martin’s clients below from his article maximum muscular potential of a drug free athlete.
Martin’s Client After an 8 Week Cut
As you can see at 5’11” and 175 lbs. in the above picture, Martin’s client looks huge at a BMI of just 24.4. This is what many people do not understand about natural bodybuilding. If you focus on getting as large as possible and as lean as possible, you probably will never get above a BMI of 25 while ripped. However, you can still look amazing, almost unreal.
For the person wanting to get ripped to look good at the beach or the pool or whatever, a BMI of 25 is probably more wishful thinking then realistic. While you certainly can get to a BMI of 25, it is probably going to be your genetic ceiling. For most guys staying a little bit lighter will make it much easier for them to maintain leanness.
The reason for this is that everyone have genetically determined levels of hormones their body can produce to break down and repair muscle tissue. In order to reach your genetic potential for muscle growth, you need to be maxing out every part of your day to day environment you control to get the most out of your body’s hormones.
This means that you would need to be eating close to the ideal amounts all the time, sleeping at least 7-9 hours on most nights and making sure that you set the conditions to have good training sessions on time week in and week out. This is fine and exactly what you should be doing if you can prioritize your training and nutrition.
However, if you have some lifestyle factor that prevents you from maximizing everything in your environment for holding onto muscle tissue, it makes sense to shoot for a “ripped” condition at a slightly lower body weight. For example, if you have a work schedule that is less then ideal, a new borne child that is constantly waking you up, or some type of sports training that you must participate in, it doesn’t make sense for you to shoot for a ripped condition BMI equal to that of someone training under ideal conditions.
If you have some lifestyle factors that make holding onto muscle a bit more difficult, it is best to shoot for a ripped condition BMI between the ceiling that Dr. Fuhrman gives for a lean body weight and the one Martin Berkhan gives for the maximum muscular potential. In this case you would be shooting for a BMI between 22.5 and 25. For a genetically average male, that would give you the following weight ranges.
|Height in inches||Low Range BMI 22.5||High Range BMI 25.0|
If you wan’t to get ripped, make it easy on yourself and shoot to get as big and strong as possible within the above ranges. If you are new to training plan on being ripped at the bottom end of the range. If you are an advanced trainee, you should be able to hit the higher end of the range.
As you can see, this leaves a lot of variance for your body weight based on your training experience. For example, the average height male s around 5’10”. At this height you can count on being ripped around 156 to 174 lbs. That’s a full 18 lbs. of room for muscle growth. Keep in mind that this assumes you are regularly performing some types of resistance training. If you are not training regularly you might never be able to get to 5-6% body fat.
What’s The Point of This, What If I Don’t Care About Being Ripped?
BMI, body fat and relative strength are still important to understand for nearly every type of athlete. As mentioned in the introduction, the BMI of athletes has a strong affect on their performance in sports that require locomotion. While relative strength is important to all athletes, BMI becomes increasingly important as the distances covered by an athlete increase.
This has to do with the efficiency of locomotion at different BMIs. Basically athletes with lower BMIs are better at covering longer distances. However, all things being equal, the athlete with higher relative strength and lower body fat will usually perform better. To understand what I’m talking about, lets look at athletes from the 100m sprinter to the marathoner.
“The most reliable way to increase any athlete’s performance is to improve his or her strength-to-weight ratio, which is a fancy way of saying minimizing the amount of bodyfat the athlete carries while maintaining or adding lean body mass.” – Sprint Coach Erik Minor
Sprint coaches know that increasing an athletes relative strength is the most reliable way to increase their ability to accelerate and move quickly. In fact, in Barry Ross’s book Underground Secrets to Faster Running he argues that relative strength largly dictates maximum running speed.
At shorter distances an athletes BMI needs to be higher to maximize relative strength for their event. There is a very simple reason for this. Maximal strength and size of the muscles involved in producing force for short duration running needs to be achieved to realize the athletes potential for sprinting. In sprinting, the larger type II muscle fibers are more important to reach maximal relative strength levels for the duration of the event.
As the running distances increase, the BMI of the athlete needs to be lower and lower. The reason for this is that maximal relative strength over a long duration event like marathon running is achieved by maximizing the strength of the slow twitch muscle fibers while minimizing body weight.
The ideal physique for a long distance runner is one who has extremely high relative strength over a long period of time. While a marathoner may not be able to display high relative strength for a shorter event like a 100m sprint or a one rep max deadlift, they have much higher levels of relative strength for continuous events such as 2+ hours of running.
All athletes depend on relative strength, the duration of the events over which that strength is displayed and whether or not it must be continuously displayed determines the difference in “ideal” physique for each sport. As you can see in the chart below, the various running distances for different events have very tight ranges of BMIs competitive athletes fall into.
In the research study BMI a performance parameter for speed improvement, researchers looked at the BMI of athletes across various running events. In the above graph, average speed of the athlete during the event in meters per second is shown along the bottom and body mass index is shown along the left side. You can see the tight groupings for athlete competing in events from the marathon to the 100 meter sprint.
As you can see, all athletes need to be aware of their BMI. Maximizing relative strength and muscle mass is important in nearly every athletic endeavor. Whether you are marathoner trying to get your type I muscles as strong as possible while minimizing body weight or a physique athlete trying to get as lean as possible while maximizing body weight, its important to have a realistic idea of what BMI you should be shooting for.