• Introduction
  • What is body composition exactly?
  • Body composition vs body mass index
  • How is body composition measured?
  • Why should body composition be tracked?
  • Why are athletes built differently?
  • Genetic factors of body composition
  • Sex differences in body composition
  • Age and body composition
  • Training background and body composition
  • Diet and body composition
  • Benefits of having an optimal body composition for your sport
  • Final thoughts


Athletic performance is a combination of sports-specific technique, skill, as well as the components of fitness (endurance, strength, power, speed, and balance). To some degree, these fitness components are also always related to your body composition. For example, your strength and power capacity are directly related to lean muscle mass because a bigger muscle also contracts with more force. Naturally, this can also improve your acceleration and maximum speed. 

On the other hand, lower nonessential body fat can also have a beneficial effect on your endurance and agility. The reason behind this is that additional weight creates more resistance during exercise, meaning that your muscles have to work harder to maintain a certain level of performance. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that a higher body mass, whether it is lean muscle or fat, can negatively impact your mobility, balance, and even coordination. This is due to the fact that additional muscle mass can create physical barriers to the natural movement of a joint or limb. As a result, you may not be able to fully utilize its full range for proper coordination and balancing aid. That is why athletes like gymnasts, dancers, and figure skaters often have lower levels of body mass. 

This post explains the basic mechanics of body composition and how it can affect your athletic performance.

What is body composition exactly?

Body composition refers to the method of breaking down the body into its core components. These measurements accurately divide your body into body fat (essential fat & stored fat) and fat-free mass (protein, minerals, and water in the body).

Body fat is the most varied component in your body. It is made up of essential fat and stored fat. Essential fat refers to fatty acids that you need to maintain normal bodily functions such as cell regeneration and hormone regulation. Because your body is unable to synthesize these fatty acids, they must come from the food you eat. Stored fat, on the other hand, describes the fat tissue directly beneath the skin (subcutaneous fat) as well as around your organs (visceral fat). While stored fat has the benefit of insulating the body and working as an energy storage, too much visceral fat can have significant negative health effects. 

Fat-free mass refers to everything in your body that is not fat. This includes skin, bones, muscles, organs, and even body water. Fat-free tissue is also metabolically active, which means that it requires energy to sustain itself. Although the ”term fat-free mass” is often used interchangeably with ”lean body mass”, they do not mean the same thing. This is because lean body mass also includes some essential fats located in internal organs and bone marrow.

Body fat percentage norms



Minimum Essential Fat



Elite Athletes



Healthy and Fit









*Note that these are average percentages made to measure a large population. Individual percentages may vary greatly. 

Body composition vs Body mass index

While body composition is often used interchangeably with the body mass index (BMI), they have some key differences. BMI is merely a mathematical equation made to measure the relationship between weight and height. It is mainly used in statistical analysis for a larger population, and therefore often unfit for individual health assessment. After all, it only measures changes in body weight regardless of whether it is fat, muscle tissue, or water weight, which is why two people with the same BMI may look entirely different. This oversimplifies possible health risks and forgets the positive health and performance effects that lean muscle mass might offer.

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Body Composition

Describes the proportion of fat and lean muscle massUsed in health and wellness assessmentsHelps when customizing training & nutrition programsCan have an impact on physical performance

How is body composition measured?

Body composition can be measured in several ways in either a laboratory setting or with anthropometric measurements, such as height, weight, skinfold thickness, and body circumference. Although accurate, laboratory measurements are often inconvenient and expensive for most people, which is why athletic trainers and coaches also use field methods to measure body composition when laboratory tests are unavailable. The most common body composition measuring methods include;

  • Hydrostatic weighing: Also known as underwater weighing or hydrodensitometry, is the most accurate method to measure body composition. It requires you to be fully submerged in water, which is used to measure your total body density by using the Archimedes’ principle, the physical law of buoyancy. 
  • Dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA/DEXA): A DXA scan is done in a clinical setting and can be used to assess bone mass and density. 
  • Air displacement plethysmography: Requires a specially made plethysmograph (enclosed chamber) that calculates how much airflow is displaced when sitting in the chamber. 
  • Bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA): Utilizes a weak electric current that flows through the body. The voltage is measured to calculate the impedance (resistance) in the body which estimates fat and lean muscle mass. A non-invasive and low-cost alternative to measuring body composition. 
  • Ultrasound: Can be used to measure muscle thickness and subcutaneous (under the skin) fat thickness 
  • Skinfold measurements: Uses calipers to measure fat thickness under the skin in several places on the body. Inexpensive but can also be inaccurate. 
  • Circumference measurements: Skeletal protein can be calculated via a mid-arm muscle circumference measurement (MAMC). 

Why should body composition be tracked?

It is important that coaches, trainers, and athletes understand the relationship between body composition and performance. On top of that, these measuring methods should be consistent, easily accessible, and reliable. Tracking changes in fat, lean, and body mass consistently and purposefully gives quantifiable data on the effectiveness of a training program and/or diet during different times of the season. This helps sports nutritionists develop dietary interventions, and athletic trainers create, evaluate, and customize training programs for individual needs. 

Not only does this optimize performance, but it can also record sudden changes in body composition that may be a signal of different health concerns. This is especially important for at-risk athletes with extremely low body fat. As an example, for women athletes this could lead to a phenomenon called the female athlete triad, which refers to low energy availability or disordered eating, menstrual dysfunction, and low bone density, resulting in a heightened risk of injuries. 

These problems are especially apparent in aesthetic sports and weight class sports where low body fat and extreme dieting are all too common. For safety and ethical reasons, body composition measurements should only be implemented when the athlete is fully grown. Furthermore, these measurements should be used with caution and the results need to be shared as sensitively as possible. Choosing the wrong words may only increase the chances of unhealthy eating habits and unhealthy body image, which can even lead to eating disorders. 

The most effective way to have an impact on your body composition is through a well-balanced diet.

Why are athletes built differently?

Your body composition is a result of several different physiological factors. These include genetics, sex, age, training background, and even your diet. Not only do these determine your body type, but they can also have a significant impact on your physical performance. 

Genetic factors of body composition

Genetic factors have a significant impact on your body composition. After all, your biological makeup determines your height, weight, how naturally lean you are, your tendency to store fat, as well as where the fat is stored. 

Some studies have stated that the heritability of athletic traits is around 66%. This can further be broken down into other individual physical traits. For example, height can be critical in certain sports, and it is estimated that nearly 80% of it is due to genetic factors. 

The body type is also highly heritable. For example, research has stated that strength and power are 30-83% related to genetics depending on the muscle and type of contraction. This may be partly due to having a higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers (type II) which are not only more suited for higher force production, but also larger in size. This may give some athletes a more muscular appearance. On the other hand, studies have estimated that endurance is around 50% tied to genetics. This is aided by having a higher proportion of endurance-oriented slow-twitch muscle fibers (type I).

Modern genetics have also identified specific genes that may affect both body composition and performance. One of these is a so-called ACE gene that is associated with better endurance capability. Another example of this is an ACTN3 gene that is only found in fast-twitch muscle fibers and used during explosive exercises. It is said to have a specific variant that may have a performance effect on elite-level performance. Conversely, there is also an FTO gene that is closely related to weight gain and obesity. 

Sex differences in body composition

Your sex also has a significant impact on body composition, especially when it comes to body fat. The reason for this is that women tend to naturally carry more fat due to reproductive reasons – a higher amount of body fat helps prepare for pregnancy and nursing. These physical changes often appear during and after puberty. 

While essential fat (necessary for health) values vary between sexes (women 8-12% and men 3%), your genes ultimately determine where most of this fat is stored. Interestingly, there seems to be more variability among women whether they carry subcutaneous fat (under the skin) around the hips and thighs or in the upper body. On the other hand, men usually have more fat around the trunk and the abdomen (visceral fat), which is proven to have a more negative impact on health. 

"The best way to improve your body composition is increasing lean muscle mass and decreasing excess body fat."

Gender-specific hormones also have a slight impact on body type. For example, female hormones like estrogen and progesterone also affect water retention during different times of the month. This makes the body’s cells swell up with water especially during days leading up to the menstrual cycle, causing the feeling of bloating. However, it is also important that these changes are taken into account when comparing data between measurements. In addition to sex hormones, thyroid hormones also play an important role in energy balance (energy homeostasis) and heat production (thermogenesis), leading to possible changes in body composition.

Fat percentage and fat accumulation are not the only gender-specific factors that can affect your body composition. For example, women tend to also have less lean muscle mass than men of the same BMI. On average men have 38% more muscle mass than women and 31% when compared to overall body mass. These differences were greater in the upper body (40%) than in the lower body (33%). One reason behind this is that males have 7-8 times more testosterone in the body. Since it is an anabolic male sex hormone (boosts growth) produced in the testicles, men tend to accumulate more muscle mass, especially during puberty.

Age and body composition

As your metabolism slows down as you grow older, your body composition will naturally go through some physiological changes. One of these is an age-related loss of lean muscle mass, function, and quality known as sarcopenia. Some studies have stated that you lose as much as 3-5% of overall muscle mass every decade after the age of 30. Typically sarcopenia speeds up around the age of 75, but can also start sooner or later. Of course, this is heavily related to your level of activity and diet.

Having less metabolically active muscle tissue also means that you’ll have a higher percentage of fat in relation to your overall weight. This can slow down your metabolism even further. On a positive note, these effects can be prevented or even reversed with well-planned weight training and the right diet. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that bone density tends to naturally decline as you age. This is due to reduced physical activity and the body’s tendency to reabsorb calcium and phosphate from the bones instead of keeping the minerals in the bone. Additionally, lower levels of testosterone in men and decreased levels of estrogen in women during menopause are both significant causes of bone loss. As the bones lose their mineral density, they also become more frail, making them more prone to fractures. 

The ideal body composition depends on your sport and playing position.

Training background and body composition

Aside from genetic factors and diet, it is well known that body composition changes due to physical activity, making it one of the major components of fitness and overall health. This means that athletes relying on strength, faster force production and speed are often more muscular than endurance athletes. While consistent exercise shapes your body to fit your personal physical needs, the same goes for inactive individuals as well. A sedentary lifestyle accelerates weight gain and may cause obesity.

Strength and power athletes often have more lean muscle mass to provide a stronger contraction during sports-specific exercises. However, this comes with a cost. Studies have shown that a higher body mass, regardless of the cause, has a negative effect on maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) and endurance performance. This is especially important to remember if you participate in aerobic-anaerobic sports that require endurance as well as high levels of strength. Soccer being a prime example. 

Endurance athletes are often built leaner, with better aerobic capacity (highest amount of oxygen used during a maximal performance). Having less muscle mass also means that you don’t have to constantly carry any extra weight with you. This means that you use less energy with each step or repetition, making every movement more efficient in the long run. More intense activities also improve your speed endurance, anaerobic capacity (total amount of energy from non-oxygen energy system), and lactate buffering, making sure you perform better during longer exercises with a high heart-rate. However, higher intensity and higher resistance training will eventually also increase muscle mass – which may not be what your performance needs.

Diet and body composition

While your age, sex, and training background have some clear effects on your body composition, none of them affects it more than your diet. This is largely due to energy balance which leads to either storing energy as fat or maintaining a balance between food intake and energy usage. After all, eating more energy than you use leads to gaining weight, and vice versa. Understanding the relationship between individual energy need and energy usage is the key to ideal body composition. This will also help you to either lose or gain weight depending on the needs of your sport. 

While some foods may help build more muscle and others can contribute to fat mass, the most important thing to remember is maintaining a proper daily calorie intake. This means that if you want to stay in the same physical shape, you should eat the same amount of calories you use on a daily basis. Eating too much or too little can result in significant negative health effects. 

If you want to change your body composition, you should try to maintain a gradual 200-300kcal surplus or deficit per day over a long period of time. This means that you don’t need to starve yourself and you can still enjoy a few cheat meals every now and then. 

Most importantly, you must remember that food is not just the calories that you consume. In fact, what you eat is even more important than simply filling your daily calorie need. A good rule of thumb is avoiding processed foods that are high in fat and sodium and replacing them with balanced fresh meals instead. Eating an adequate amount of high-quality protein, a wide range of different vegetables, fiber-rich fruits, and whole-grain products are ideal for maintaining a healthy body composition while still keeping you energized for daily activities.

Your training goal should not be in reaching a certain body type. It’s the performance that matters - not looks.

Benefits of having an optimal body composition for your sport

Contrary to popular belief, there is no perfect body type for athletic performance. In fact, the ideal body composition is directly related to the physical demands of your sport. For example, athletes who need both mass and power to perform better in their sport tend to have a higher fat percentage as well as more lean muscle mass. Greater body mass also increases inertia, making athletes harder to move, which can be extremely beneficial for some sports and playing positions (football linemen etc.).

On the other hand, a lower fat percentage and better strength-to-mass ratio can be vastly more beneficial in sports that rely on power, speed, agility, and jump performance. These include weight-class sports like martial arts, mixed martial arts, wrestling and boxing, aesthetic sports like gymnastics, cheerleading, dancing and figure skating, as well as gravitational sports such as running, skiing, climbing and jumping. However, precision sports like darts, bowling, and snooker are less dependent on body composition. Thus, the optimal fat, lean, and total mass values also vary between sports, playing positions, and competitive level. While this sounds intuitive, the scientifically proven optimal values have yet to be determined.

”There is no perfect body type for sports performance.”

Endurance athletes can also significantly benefit from lower overall body mass. In fact, multiple studies have found a clear connection between lower skin-fold thickness and long-distance performance in 1,500m, 10,000m, and marathon events. This is also supported by research stating that a higher body mass, be it fat or muscle, negatively affects maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) and endurance performance. This means that more muscular athletes are less likely to perform well in longer endurance events. However, sports scientists have suggested that these results may be caused by differences in muscle fiber composition and individual training programs.

Generally speaking, athletes benefit from lower fat percentage and higher lean muscle mass, and elite-level athletes tend to have similar fat ratios regardless of being a speed or an endurance athlete. However, a speed or a jumping athlete naturally has a higher level of lean muscle mass leading to a better strength capacity. These findings are supported by multiple studies stating that an increase in body fat has a connection to decreased athletic performance. 

One thing to remember is that your training goal should not be in reaching a certain body type. After all, it’s the performance that matters – not looks. The real goal should be in obtaining the optimal sports-specific values of fat and lean muscle mass for the upper body, lower body, and as well as overall body mass. Thus, making sure you have the right amount of muscle without slowing you down. This should also be the goal of every training and nutritional program.

The ideal body composition is not just about overall weight or fat percentage.

How to train for the ideal body type

Research shows that strength training and high-intensity exercises are essential for adapting your body composition. This is because it increases muscle mass, which also boosts resting metabolism, and eventually reduces overall body fat. Sure, you may not lose weight, but you’ll essentially replace stored fat with muscle. 

Endurance exercises also help maintain a healthy body composition – or even improve it due to increased energy use. The biggest benefit of this is that low-intensity exercises are far easier to keep up, meaning you can maintain an elevated heart rate for an extended amount of time. Your body also adapts to these exercises by improving your ability to utilize fat for fuel. However, it is important to remember that these kinds of exercises do not significantly increase muscle mass. 

With this in mind, every sports-specific training method will ultimately adapt your body to meet the physical demands of your sport.

Final thoughts

The ideal body composition is not just about weight or body fat. In fact, there is no optimal one-size-fits-all body type for every person out there. It all depends on what you aim to do. Rather than trying to morph your body to resemble a successful athlete’s body type, you should aim for the best version of yourself. Simply trying to look like a successful athlete may only perpetuate unhealthy thinking and eating habits, which can do more harm than good in the long run. With this in mind, there is no specific diet for that either. For athletes, the most important factor is to maintain adequate energy intake and ensure you eat enough protein. This will provide your body with enough nutrients to recover and maintain an anabolic (muscle building) state. 

For most people, maintaining a good body composition is a matter of lifelong health and fitness. This is achieved via a balance between proper diet, exercise, and sufficient rest. Not only does this achieve a favorable balance between fat and muscle mass, but it also promotes bone health and even good hydration. All these factors are closely tied to better heart health with a lower risk of diabetes, lower cholesterol, and blood pressure while maintaining a lower overall weight.

If you want to improve your body composition in a more healthy direction, don’t try to make too drastic changes at once. Small adjustments are usually the best way to make lasting lifestyle changes. It is worth it, because even a slight improvement can significantly improve your physical and mental health.

As for athletes, make sure you maintain a balance between training, proper nutrition, and recovery to ensure your workouts are as effective as possible. The way you train will determine the optimal body composition for you. 

Did you learn anything new about body composition? Let us know in the comments.


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