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Austrian bodybuilder Andreas Munzer, who died 19 years ago this month, remains both the gold standard and a cautionary tale for men striving for the ripped, lean look the sport demands.
Although it could not be confirmed, he appears to have died from multiple organ failure, the likely result of years of alleged anabolic steroid abuse. He was 31, and easily recognizable from the images that have gone viral in recent days.
Munzer's autopsy revealed he had almost 0 percent body fat, the legend goes. Such a small amount of body fat could have hastened his demise, experts say.
"You need body fat for cellular function, energy use and to pad the joints and organs," said Carol Garber, professor of movement sciences at Columbia University in New York City. "Having too little can lead to nutritional deficiencies, electrolyte imbalances and malfunction of the heart, kidney and other organs."
Men require at least 3 percent body fat and women at least 12 percent in order for the body to function properly, Garber said. Below that is where you start to see serious health problems. Sometimes it leads to organ failure and death, she added.
But despite the risks, Munzer's pictures and profile frequently go viral on bodybuilding forums all these years later because of the sports' perpetual obsession with stripping every last ounce of adipose tissue from their body, according to Brian Washington, commissioner of the United States Bodybuilding Federation.
"Percentage of body fat is a major issue with bodybuilders," Washington said. "They devote a lot of their efforts and money on products to go as low as they can possibly go."
Others agree. "There are still some bodybuilders obsessed about their numbers who take their body fat percentage readings on a regular basis readers," said Louis Zwick, the producer of Musclemania, a bodybuilding and fitness competition production company, adding that even those who don't care about an exact percentage do care about getting as ripped as possible for competition.
Zwick, who said he was part of the film crew that taped Münzer's last competition before his death 10 days later, said the Austrian was very lean but doubts his body was completely absent of fat.
"I've never really seen anyone who really had zero body fat," he said. "You just can't be. You wouldn't survive."
But it is possible to get down to so little body fat it becomes unmeasurable by standard methods, Columbia's Garber said. Pinching the skin to measure the thickness of fat just below the surface is the most common way of measuring body fat percentage, she said. It wouldn't be precise enough to estimate the degree of accuracy needed to make such a claim, she said.
The average bodybuilder is probably between 3 and 5 percent body fat, at least during competition season, Musclemania producer Zwick estimated. Some cycle up in weight during the off-season but as the sport has moved toward a more natural look in the past decade, many strive to stay in shape all year long, he said.
Munzer, Zwick said, was leaner than most. He was always muscled up and stripped of fat.
"That's why he's still a legend today," he said.