Research Corner February 2014 – Body Fat Measurements of Elite Athletes
During the past few weeks, I’ve found myself gravitating more and more towards literature on human body composition and body fat percentages at the highest realms of athletic competition.
What sparked the idea for me to delve into the body composition figures of elite (and not-so-elite) athletes was seeing the 2013 NHL Draft Combine fitness results.
If you don’t know what the NHL Draft Combine is, allow me to explain.
Every year around 100 top draft eligible prospects around the world are called by the NHL to partake in an assessment involving interviews, medical screenings and fitness tests over a four-day period. These fitness tests – including the bench press, vertical jump and VO2max, among others – are arranged so that the teams can better evaluate the prospects’ physical attributes prior to the actual draft night.
For the players, the combine provides a chance to showcase their mental and physical maturity, thus aiding their selection at a higher draft number. The earlier in the draft you’re chosen, the likelier your chance of one day playing in the NHL.
According to the combine fitness results of 2013, Jonathan Drouin, the #3 overall pick for the Tampa Bay Lightning, measured a 5.4% body fat percentage. (1)
Below is a picture of Drouin at the Combine.
First off, I believe Drouin is going to be a heck of a hockey player in the NHL.
He thoroughly impressed me with his vision and puck handling skills as a 17-year-old at the 2013 World Junior Championships, although his performance at the 2014 WJC wasn’t up to par with my expectations of him. But the same thing happened to Blackhawks’ first round pick Teuvo Teräväinen a year ago, and look how he came back to dominate the WJC this year. The prospect of watching Drouin setting up Steven Stamkos for a juicy one-timer on the left side hash marks on the powerplay in a couple of years has got me foaming at the mouth.
With that out of the way, I want to tackle the body fat reporting issue that becomes obvious to anyone accustomed to looking at shirtless men like the one in the pic above. Ah, the perks of being involved with the fitness industry.
If there’s one thing I know with certainty is that people grossly misjudge their body fat percentages. Regular peeps are claiming to be “somewhere around 8% body fat” without much effort, when in fact that’s far from the truth, which I will address in a minute.
In this inaugural issue of the Research Corner, we’re going to discover what research has to say about the body fat and body composition profiles of elite athletes, dispelling a few persistent myths along the way. While we’re at it, your own bodyfat percentage will – if my calculations are correct – drop by about 2.36% by the time you’ve finished reading this post.
Methods for Measuring Body Fat: A Short Introduction
If you’ve read my book Next Level Strength Training, you’ll know that very little has changed in the world of strength training for chemically non-assisted folks in the past 50+ years.
What has definitely changed is people’s obsession about their body fat percentages. Anywhere you turn online, people are posting up their pics on different training forums for others to judge and estimate their level of leanness in terms of a body fat percentage.
But before delving deeper into body fat percentages of top athletes, we gotta answer the following question:
“How to measure body fat in the first place?”
Various ways exist for measuring and determining body fat levels. The two “gold standards” of body composition measurement include underwater (hydrostatic) weighing and DXA scanning (via dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry). (4)
A more common way of estimating body composition involves the use of calipers. Apparently skinfold calipers are being used at the NHL Draft Combine since measurements are calculated by using the Yuhasz equation. (24)
The drawback of using skinfold measurements is that they’re pretty much impossible to be used by yourself, so you need someone trained and competent to take the measurements for you. Depending on their competency, this can result in a total hit or miss situation. Furthermore, skinfolds poorly predict visceral (internal) fat changes.
Another problem with calipers is that although very practical and affordable, they’re not exactly the most reliable tool available for measuring individual body composition. Using skinfold predictions of body fat % can underestimate it by 3.5% compared to other techniques. (6)
Another method for measuring body fat percentage is via bioelectrical impedance spectroscopy (BIS). However, compared to DEXA, BIS also tends to underestimate the proportion of fat mass. (5)
The Leanest of the Leanest – Bodybuilders
If there’s one group of people who carry less fat than anyone else walking on this planet, it’s bodybuilders. These guys get down to such levels of extreme leanness that the condition can’t be physically upheld beyond the couple of days at and around competition time. But how lean do natural bodybuilders really appear on stage?
Most people would probably guess that bodybuilders in contest shape carry virtually no fat at all on them. However, according to the research available, about 3-5% bodyfat is considered essential in males. That means you can’t get rid of it, and even if you somehow did, you’d be dead. (2; 3)
Da Silva and others studied the body composition values, somatotype and proportionality of 23 elite Brazilian bodybuilders in the 2000 Brazilian Bodybuilding Championships. The average body fat among the competitors was 9.65%. (11)
A 12-month case study followed a 26-year-old male bodybuilder throughout his competition prep. Most notably, body fat percentage declined from 14.8% to 4.5% during preparation and returned to 14.6% during recovery. (17)
Check out how the bodybuilder’s stats progressed leading up to the competition, and then quickly regressed back to more “human” figures. Also notice how skinfolds markedly exhibited lower BF % values than the more accurate and reliable 4C model of determining body fat percentage.
If you bother to read the rest of the study (which I recommend), the subject’s testosterone levels, strength on barbell lifts, and overall mood all went into the shitter the closer the competition date edged. Not exactly a state you want to be in 24/7, if you ask me.
Other sources have estimated that most elite drug-free bodybuilders compete at body fat levels between 6.8 and 9.9% body fat. (3)
NFL players are considered by many to be the toughest athletes in the world. They’re strong, they’re fast and they’ve got impressive physiques.
Snow and colleagues conducted a study which assessed the physical characteristics of 36 current NFL players back in 1998. Individual body fat percentages ranged from 7% to 31%, with defensive backs and offensive backs showcasing the lowest body fat percentages on average, which ranged approximately between 10-12%, depending on whether skinfold measurements or hydrostatic weighing was used. (7)
Below you can see the results of the study.
Now, some of you may be thinking that the Snow et al. study doesn’t carry that much merit, since the general perception seems to be that football players have gotten visibly bigger and more muscular in the past decade or two.
A more recent study, published in 2014, measured a whopping 411 NFL players with DEXA scans. Defensive backs and wide receivers topped the charts, maintaining average BF percentages of 12.1% and 12.5%, respectively. The leanest measured individual clocked in at 7.1% body fat. (8)
An interesting study compiled various statistics of Montreal Canadiens players between 1981 to 2003, including bench press 1RM, VO2max and body composition. The data revealed the mean BF % to be 8.3% to 12.4%, while most years the average hovered just above the 10% mark. (10)
However, the method applied for assessing body fat levels was the Yuhasz equation that was also used for obtaining the too-low-to-be-true 5.4% for Jonathan Drouin. As we already discovered, skinfold measurements typically underestimate body fat figures considerably. So I believe we can confidently add a few percentage points to the figures obtained by the Canadiens hockey club, which would bring the real values up to about 11-14%.
Another research paper published in 1988 studied 27 NHL players with an average body fat percentage of 9.2% (determined by underwater weighing). (12)
Another team sport featuring skilled athletes is soccer, though soccer players are not exactly known for their supreme muscularity and leanness, especially when compared to their American football counterparts.
Interestingly, I’ve noticed a trend among certain soccer players who are spending more and more time in the gym as of late. In the 90’s, a ripped soccer player like Ade Akinbiyi was a rare sight, whereas nowadays the upper body development of a Micah Richards, Cristiano Ronaldo or George Elokobi no longer fits the mold of a traditional soccer player image with weak and lanky upper bodies.
In a study by Sutton and co-workers, the researchers assessed 64 senior male professional soccer players, recruited from four upper-level clubs competing in the English Premier League. (9)
Defenders, midfielders and forwards all had quite similar levels of body fat around 10%, whereas goalkeepers had a significantly higher average level of body fat at 12.9%. Interestingly, non-Caucasian players demonstrated lower average levels of body fat (9.2% on average) compared with Caucasian players (10.7%).
Callan et al. investigated the physiologic profiles of members of the 1997 US Freestyle Wrestling World Team. Mean body fat percentage was measured at 7.6%. Again, the measurements were conducted by skinfolds, so the real BF % value would be approximately 10%. (18)
In another study, 92 male wrestlers (53 Greco-Roman and 39 Freestyle competitors) were tested for their body fat percentage, ranging from 10.3% in the lightweight class to 14.1% in the heavyweight group. (19)
Yet another study looked at a four-time World Champion wrestler’s physical attributes. His body fat percentage was measured at 8.4%, although the figure probably is slightly higher because skinfold measurements were taken.
Powerlifters and Olympic lifters differ from the other athletes discussed above in that their sport is lifting weights. So for them strength training is sport-specific training.
In 1980, Katch and others studied 39 males identified as body builders, power weight lifters, and Olympic weight lifters. The lean body weight and percent fats of the subjects were: body builders = 74.6 kg, 9.3%; power weight lifters = 73.3 kg, 9.1%; and Olympic weight lifters = 68.2 kg, 10.8%. (14)
Brechue & Abe observed 20 elite male powerlifters (including four world and three US national champions). The researchers noticed that while the average body fat percentage was similar between the light-weight and middle-weight groups (13.7% and 14.4%, respectively), it was significantly greater in the heavy-weight group (26.7%). (22)
According to a research paper by Keogh and others that examined the anthropometric dimensions of 54 male Oceania competitive powerlifters, body fat percentages varied between 12.1% and 14.3% in the light- and middleweight classes. (23)
Summing It All Up
It is a rare breed of human being who can get down to sub-10% body fat levels and stay there around the clock. You will notice that even elite athletes rarely achieve levels markedly lower than that. And as the bodybuilding case study depicted above demonstrates, bodybuilders hover closer to 5% BF than 10% BF merely 1-3 months prior to competition before getting ultra-shredded just in time for the comp, after which they quickly revert back to a more natural BF percentage.
So whenever you hear a guy claiming to be “around 6-8%” bodyfat, especially when you know they’re not a physique competitor or otherwise a high-level athlete, here’s my standard response…
(2) McDonald, Lyle. The Stubborn Fat Solution. Lyle McDonald Publishing, 2008: 14.
(3) Butt, Casey. Your Muscular Potential: How to Predict Your Maximum Muscular Bodyweight and Measurements. 4th ed. Myogenic Enterprises, 2009: 19.
(4) Baechle, T. R., and Roger W. Earle. Essentials of Strength and Conditioning. 3rd Ed. National Strength and Conditioning Association, 2008: 252.
(5) Svantesson, U. et al. Body composition in male elite athletes, comparison of bioelectrical impedance spectroscopy with dual energy X-ray absorptiometry. Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine. 2008, 7:1.
(6) Terbizan, D. et al. A Comparison of Different Body Composition Assessment Techniques. Missouri Journal of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. 2009; 19: 104-111.
(7) Snow, TK. et al. Body Composition Profile of NFL Football Players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 1998 Aug; 12(3):146-149.
(8) Dengel, DR. et al. Body Composition and Bone Mineral Density of National Football League Players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2014 Jan; 28(1):1-6.
(9) Sutton, L. et al. Body composition of English Premier League soccer players: Influence of playing position, international status, and ethnicity. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2009 Aug; 27(10):1019–1026.
(10) Montgomery, DL. Physiological profile of professional hockey players — a longitudinal comparison. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2006 Jun; 31(3):181-185.
(11) Da Silva, PPR. et al. Body composition, somatotype and proporcionality of elite bodybuilders in Brazil. The Revista Brasileira de Medicina do Esporte. 2003 Nov/Dec; 9(6):408-412.
(12) Agre, JC et al. Professional ice hockey players: physiologic, anthropometric, and musculoskeletal characteristics. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 1988 Mar;69(3 Pt 1):188-92. Abstract.
(14) Katch, VL et al. Muscular development and lean body weight in body builders and weight lifters. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 1980;12(5):340-344. Abstract.
(17) Rossow, LM et al. Natural Bodybuilding Competition Preparation and Recovery: A 12-Month Case Study. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 2013, 8, 582-592.
(18) Callan, SD. et al. Physiological Profiles of Elite Freestyle Wrestlers. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2000; 14(2):162–169.
(19) López-Gullón, JM. et al. Physical fitness differences between Freestyle and Greco-Roman elite wrestlers. SCIENCE OF MARTIAL ARTS. 2011; 7(4):217-225.
(20) Mirzaei, B. et al. A comparative study of body composition, aerobic power, anaerobic power and strength of Iranian Free-style and Greco-Roman wrestlers participating in the Beijing Olympic Games 2008. Exercise & society, Journal of Sport sciences. 201; 49:192-194.
(21) Mirzaei, B. et al. Anthropometric and physical fitness traits of four-time World Greco-Roman wrestling champion in relation to national norms: A case study. JOURNAL OF HUMAN SPORT & EXERCISE. 2011; 6(2):406-413.
(22) Brechue, WF et al. The role of FFM accumulation and skeletal muscle architecture in powerlifting performance. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2002 Feb; 86(4):327-336.
(23) Keogh, JWL. et al. Anthropometric dimensions of male powerlifters of varying body mass. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2007 Oct; 25(12):1365 – 1376.
(24) Detailed Assessment Protocols For NHL Entry Draft Players. http://www.metodikaikozpont.hu/edzoi/5nhl.pdf
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