If you follow me on Snap Chat (SRShenanigans), you were privy to me, sans makeup, embarking on my second DEXA scan adventure. My first scan was completed at the end of January, at the top of what would be considered my “offseason,” when calories were high (slightly above maintenance) and I was competing in powerlifting, so body composition in terms of aesthetics was not my main focus- strength was.
That scan was to be my baseline reading. I was the heaviest I had been in years, 124 pounds, since losing a significant amount of weight a few years ago, but my body fat was still considered very lean for a woman, clocking in at a scanned 15.7%, which was incredibly surprising to me. Further details of this scan can be found in my writeup here.
This scan was to be a true test: I weighed in on my home scale at 114.2 pounds, though the scanner put me at 115 with all my clothes on, well hydrated and such- negligible difference, and still 9 pounds lighter than my scan 5 months prior. I had continued to lift heavy, with a powerlifting emphasis, throughout the time between scans, and though it was obvious via the scale, tape and caliper measurements, and visual proof that I was losing body fat, what I really wanted to know was did I gain muscle mass? I had only been in a significant caloric deficit for 9 weeks prior, having had my first figure contest of the season the Saturday prior, with my second the Saturday following, with my calories hovering around maintenance level or slightly under in the weeks prior… except when I was in Australia. Because TimTams and Korean BBQ, let’s be real.
So I popped on over to the Body Comp truck, parked outside a crossfit gym a couple of neighborhoods over, and jumped on the scanning table for a second time. The process takes about 5 minutes, during which time all you have to do is lie still on a table as a robot arm passes slowly over your body, scanning you in sections, top to bottom. If you’re lucky, you get an interesting tech who will chat you up like my dude James does.
As I put my shoes back on, I glanced over at the screen, which James was staring at in disbelief.
“Stephanie, this is incredible. We’ve never scanned a woman this low before. Not even professional athletes. And we scan competitors all the time. But never sub-10%.”
I looked up at the screen to find that indeed, my body composition read an astonishing 9.6% fat.
Let’s take a look at those numbers,to analyze the changes that occurred in a four month span:
- Weight: down 8 pounds
- Body fat percentage: down 6.3%
- Lean tissue: up 0.5 pounds
James was in utter shock. Not only had I managed to lose 8 pounds of fat in 4 months, I had actually gained muscle mass simultaneously. Common broscience says this is impossible!
“Whatever you’re doing, everyone needs to be doing, Stephanie, because it’s working.”
This is what I came for. This is exactly what I wanted to see. This cannot be attributed to newbie gains. This is not magic. This is heavy lifting, attention to nutrition, and pure, unadulterated science. I gained muscle in a caloric deficit, drug-free.
The distribution of my fat in my body is pretty well balanced, as well.
My visceral fat, or the fat surrounding your internal organs, in the “android” region, is very low. This is important, because this is a pretty good indicator of overall health. High levels of visceral fat are correlated with type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even breast cancer, so a low number here is just what you’re aiming for.
I was not surprised to see that I hold just the slightest bit more fat in my legs than anywhere else. I’ve noticed during this contest prep that my legs have not leaned out as quickly as they have previously.
I won’t bore you will the graphs for each individual body section, but all areas of my body saw a decrease in body fat- the graphs all look just like this Total Body graph.
My bone density, again, gets an A+. Thanks, skeleton, for being rock solid, even though I don’t drink milk. If I still talked to my mother I’d rub that in her face for sure.
My overall muscle mass graph is the piece I’m most proud of here:
Breaking it down by body part, the graphs say I lost slight muscle mass in my arms- about 0.5 pounds (BOO… I’ve been working on those as I know they are a weak point in my physique!), retained all of my muscle mass, that is, no change, in my legs, but gained about a pound in my trunk region. Now, because they split up your trunk into three sections- trunk, android (belly) and gyroid (hip), this just serves to quantify what I already knew:
Lats and delts: I grew them.I didn’t need a scanner to tell me that, it’s pretty plainly obvious. But the numbers are a neat proof.
The scanner also gives you an estimated resting metabolic rate (RMR), or number of calories your body requires simply to remain alive if you were in essentially a vegetative state. Mine increased by 4 calories, to a whopping 1347.
As a fun comparison, I also took skin fold caliper measurements when I got home. I use this to gauge progress, though it has variable accuracy based on fat distribution throughout a body, the experience of the person doing the pinches, and the equipment used. I’ve been doing it on myself, with Zack’s help, for years, so I’m fairly confident in the precision, if not accuracy, of the numbers to at least gauge changes. Pinches tend to get more accurate as a person is more lean, due to fat distribution typically being a bit more even (consider, I have no “rolls” that hinder my pinches or throw off the data in any area. Not talking shit, just accounting for precision). I use a three site pinch method- one fold on my ab, one on my thigh, and one on my tricep, though you can also do 5 or 7 or 234694 site pinches if you want, but these three I can mostly do on my own, and that’s good enough for me.
Adding up the sum of my three pinches and putting that number into the little spinny wheel calculator thing that my calipers came with put me solidly at 9-10%. And now I feel extra confident in my pinching abilities. Your results, again, may vary, but at the very least, skin folds are a super good way, in combination to taking circumference body part measurements, to gauge progress and change in body composition.
So here’s the question: am I healthy?
My markers indicate that, yes, I am. I have very low visceral fat, strong bones, and have been able to increase muscle mass while in a caloric deficit. But my body fat percentage is at the cusp of or just below what is commonly considered “essential body fat,” that is, the minimum threshold for, you know, being alive.
I will say that I don’t feel as bad this prep as I did on my last one. But I don’t feel massively awesome, either.
So here’s what it’s like to be 9.6% body fat:
My sleep has been affected as I’ve gotta leaner. Whether this has a biological, physical cause, or is simply because I find it more difficult to arrange my bones in a comfortable manner I am unsure. With so little fat on my body, finding a comfortable sleeping position, or sometimes even a sitting position, becomes something of a task. My limbs fall asleep because there is little padding between my bones and chairs, or my other limbs, sometimes, so things get pinched and uncomfortable sometimes, and I move around a lot trying to get comfortable, both sleeping and awake. I haven’t hit my 7 hour sleep goal in months.
My lifts haven’t suffered tremendously, but they also haven’t progressed, either. I’ve had to severely restrict my deadlifting, as I’ve found it makes me retain up to 6 pounds of water in the days following a really heavy day, and mentally I just cannot handle that when I’m prepping for a show and am fairly reliant on my scale and visual leanness as indicators of progress. As of this weekend, I was still able to pull 275 for 5 singles, though, so I’m definitely maintaining strength for the most part. My squat has also taken a small hit, largely because I stopped squatting for a few weeks in order to focus on unilateral movements to accommodate for an imbalance in my quad development (which the DEXA shows I was actually able to fix! No significant muscular imbalances in my legs- in fact, less of a difference than my first scan showed!) I’ve largely replaced flat benching with overhead pressing again this prep, for the purpose of building up my delts, but luckily find that these pressing movements have a pretty strong carryover for me. Overall, I think that going back to training to compete in powerlifting later this year should be fairly seamless, and I should be able to add to my total, but not as much as if I had continued to train for this purpose specifically, of course.
I haven’t had a period in years… though it’s tough to say how much of that can be attributed to my IUD. My doctor recently told me that even without it, it’s unlikely I would have a period because I am so lean. Her evidence for this was the fact that I no longer even experience the monthly hormonal fluctuations that many women still have even in the absence of bleeding with their IUDs. I have nothing- no fluctuations weight or attitude (though I pretty much act like I have constant PMS, like a 13 year old girl who hasn’t yet gotten ahold of her hormones yet, right now…)
My brain sometimes is a bit foggy, I’m a little forgetful, and a lot short tempered… though again, less so this time around than during my first prep. As I’ve practiced, I’ve found that I am much more able to manage myself and act like a reasonably human being. Reduced calories tend to affect my brain and my mood much before my body, it seems. I am often preoccupied with food, and spend hours watching food TV and scrolling through Instagram food porn.
I have a low bullshit tolerance normally, and being in a prolonged deficit, and at low body fat levels, only serves to exacerbate this. At this point, after 10 weeks, I’m pretty much at a zero bullshit/zero stupid questions/don’t fucking talk to me if you don’t have anything useful to say point.
Socially, I’m pretty much a hermit, because I’m annoyed with most things and most people. I will say that I am making an effort to not be like this. Last prep, I didn’t. I sat on the couch with my surly ass self and made mean faces at my husband for existing for a few weeks. Not cool. But low body fat seems to make you just hate everyone and everything. Again, this is something that I have to make a conscious effort to not act on. I have to remind myself multiple times each day that people are not going out of their way to annoy me, and I should not be mean to them. I do ok.
Worst of all, your libido takes a hell of a hit. Last prep, for a few weeks I didn’t even want to kiss my husband or hold his hand. I couldn’t stand hardly sharing the couch with him. I’ve gotten a better handle on things this time around but I won’t pretend that things are “normal,” either. My quickly swinging attitudes are a hindrance, as is my physical lack of interest. So that sucks for everyone. I look my absolute sexiest, but feel the least like sex I ever do. BODY WHY.
Overall, I have this idea that I feel better than most women do, or would, at this percentage. The fact that my winter scan had me at just 15.7% makes me think that perhaps there is something genetic at play, here, that allows me to maintain very low body fat with few consequences that other might face at similar levels. I’m considering getting a full bloodwork panel to see if there is anything I can learn, aside from the standard labs my doc runs a few times a year for me.
I do not think that aspiring to be where I am, in terms of leanness, is a reasonable goal for a non-competitor, or even for many competitors. When someone comments “goals!” on my photos, I cringe a little. This is not sustainable. This is not pleasant. Yes, my abs are pretty, but would I rather have a beer? Many days, yes. This level of leanness is a sacrifice I make for my sport, but for a limited time only. Yes, it’s pretty to look at, but it’s not the best way to live life. Instagram likes and trophies don’t make my tummy feel less grumbly, or my husband feel loved, or make me better at my job. This is a temporary status.