How Important is Body Fat Percentage for Athletes?

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Not too long ago there was an episode of Behind the B, which goes behind the scenes for the Boston Bruins.

At one point, the strength coach for the Bruins was discussing percent body fat. Some of the percentages for the Bruins were astronomically low.

In order to play at the NHL level, it is not uncommon to see some of these athletes in single digit body fat percentages.

When we move back to the real world and remember that NHL players make up such a small percentage of the population, we have to realize that not every athlete is going to be under that percentage.

Right now we have an obesity epidemic combined with more access to information than ever before. This is dangerous.

People know enough to create ideas but not enough to make intelligent decisions about them.

I feel body fat is falling into this category. The other day I did a few %BF measurements on some hockey guys that were just curious to see where they were at. Athletes are generally recommended to be around 10-15% (for males).

Ideal-Body-Fat-Percentage-Chart1

I can tell you now that they were not necessarily happy with what they saw. The numbers were not bad (between 10-15%) but they were not happy with them because they were not in the single digits.

The biggest part of the equation that gets missed is how performance is affected.

If someone’s body fat is higher than average and they are still playing at a high level, then there shouldn’t be an issue. If they are playing slow and sluggish, then we have something to address.

Performance is a huge part of the scenario. Blindly asking someone to drop a bunch of body fat because the Bruins are all under 10% is probably not going to end well.

The Bruins have access to the best equipment, nutritionists, and freedom to make this a reality. They are financially sound enough to buy whatever services and foods they need and have the time to focus on it.

Most other athletes have to go to school or work to get by and this affects those factors above.

Athletes that have tons of skill and a great work ethic but seem to be slow and lethargic may need to cut some body fat and it will help their performance.

Others will try to lose it on their own, use the wrong processes, and their performance suffers because they had the wrong strategy.

The plain truth is that body fat percentage is only important if it is affecting performance, for the majority of athletes. 

For those that are going to try and drop their body fat percentage.

  1. Meet with a nutritionist that can keep track of body fat.

The only alternative is a strength and conditioning coach that has a sound nutritional base. Trying to do this alone is not going to work. Rely on the professionals to get you there.

jamar-medical-skinfold-caliper

Diet is the number one influence on fat loss and it must be done properly. Otherwise, performance may drop dramatically.

  1. Keep track of your resting heart rate, mood, and hours of sleep

To measure RHR, count the beats of your pulse for 1 minute upon waking up. A heart rate monitor works here. A number in the 50’s is good. This number should also go down/stay over time.

Hours of sleep should be at least 7.5 every night. Rate mood on a scale of 1-10 and it should not get worse during the course of the process.

If RHR is increasing while mood and sleep are decreasing then the process is not working and stress is taking over. 

  1. Do not dramatically change body fat in the middle of the season

This will affect your performance and you may not be happy with the results if the changes are negative. Save body transformations for the off-season.

  1. Accept that it is a slow process.

Average (and safe) fat loss rates are about 0.5% per month. You’re in this for the long haul.

There are a few questions to ask when considering body composition changes.

  • Is my performance suffering because of body fat?
  • Could I be faster, quicker, or play with more energy?
  • Will losing the body fat help me get to my end goal?
  • Am I ready to seek out the right professionals to do this?

If the answer is yes to all of those questions then you have the right mindset to start a change. If not, it is not advised to jump into it.