Ideal Bodyfat Percentage For Footballers
Science, so far, hasn’t pinpointed a universal ideal bodyfat for everyone.
However, there is a bodyfat % range in which most people are going to thrive in terms of their athletic performance.
We know that below a certain bodyfat percentage is potentially too low for optimal athletic performance and above a certain percentage can also limit performance, but there are always going to be outliers. Around 90% of people find optimal performance levels within the ideal bodyfat range.
Too Little Bodyfat
Fat stores in the body are essential for normal health, so improving your performance is never about attempting to eliminate all fat from your body.
Fats help to support the skin, provide lubrication, cushion the joints, aid the central nervous system, store vitamins, and provide the building blocks of many hormones.
Too little bodyfat increases the risk of micronutrient deficiencies, especially the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and it can lead to a noticeable reduction in strength, an increased risk of infection and injuries, and potentially some hormonal imbalances such as a reduction in testosterone and an increase in cortisol levels that may affect performance.
Too Much Bodyfat
Science has shown that in males, a bodyfat percentage of over 10% (certainly over 12%) correlates with a decline in endurance performance.
Too much bodyfat can hinder performance, and as a footballer, excess weight through fat stores can be considered deadweight that will also potentially slow you down and affect your speed.
Football is a stop-go sport with aerobic and anaerobic components. Sprints, jumps, rapid stops, and the general agility required in a game all involve moving your body mass against gravity, so any excess weight is an unnecessary load that’s going to place an additional burden on the energy mechanisms being used, making it more difficult to perform the movements and keep performing them for the duration of a match.
Optimal Bodyfat Range
The optimal bodyfat range is gauged through the performance of professional athletes and the range in which they’re thriving. In football, this includes players in top leagues, those representing their country, playing in the English Premier Division, or any other players that can be categorised as elite.
Average bodyfat percentages in elite players:
Premier League – 10.2%
Brazilian National League – 10.7%
US National team – 9.5%
Australian professional players – 9.7%
Canadian Olympic team – 9.8%
By looking at these figures, the optimal bodyfat range for male footballers can be defined as between 8 and 12 %.
However, the amount of bodyfat a player has is going to vary depending on the position they play. A defender might have a different bodyfat percentage to a mid-fielder, and a mid-fielder might be different to a striker, but what research suggests is that bodyfat compositions within the 8-12 % range are optimal in terms of the performance of elite players.
Key point: There will always be outliers. A player might be at 15%, and others might be below 8% (Ronaldo, for example) but the majority of team players are going to be in the 8-12 % range.
Optimising Football Performance
Mid-field players tend to have a lighter body mass to allow them to move through space and cover greater distances efficiently, and defenders are generally slightly taller with more lean body mass, but bodyfat percentages remain within the 8-12 % range despite differences in build.
Research has also revealed that players in lower level teams such as the Scottish League, Croatian League, or college football teams have slightly higher bodyfat percentages, with an average of 14.9%.
This suggests that if you’re currently out with the upper-end of the optimal range and closer to 15%, lowering your bodyfat to within the 8-12% range could be of benefit in terms of optimising your performance as a player.
Optimal Bodyfat Range for Goalkeepers
There’s limited data available on the bodyfat percentages of goalkeepers, but current figures show a range of between 11 and 18%.
Without further research, the optimum range for players in this position remains unknown, but goalkeepers need to be able to jump and accelerate quickly, suggesting that excess weight could potentially limit performance.
Until further data is available, aiming for the 8-12% bodyfat range is a sensible guide.
If you’re currently out of this range, it could be a worthwhile experiment to see if lowering your bodyfat leads to overall improvements in your performance.
Optimal Bodyfat Range for Female Players
Women store more fat on their bodies than men.
On average, this can be as much as 7% more, and the reasons for this remain unclear.
The best scientific guess is that women may have evolved to have greater fat stores in reserve in preparation for times of starvation when they’re pregnant or lactating, therefore ensuring they’re able to continue providing nourishment to a foetus or a child as well as themselves.
There's very little data available on bodyfat percentages in female footballers compared to male players. This is in part due to bodyfat measurements not being taken as a matter of course in elite female teams until very recently, with only lean body mass and BMI measurements being used.
These measures don’t give a good indication of body fat stores and bodyfat percentage, so in terms of providing an optimal bodyfat range to aim for, it comes down to educated guesswork.
Research across female athletes in all sports has concluded that less than 8% bodyfat can negatively affect menstruation, or stop periods altogether, and even lead to serious health issues.
For health reasons, average bodyfat percentages in female athletes need to be higher than in male athletes, and by looking at data obtained from other intermittent sports (field hockey, basketball, handball), a range of anywhere from 12% up to 22% becomes evident.
For this reason, an educated guess is that female footballers should aim for a bodyfat range of between 10 and 18 %. However, with limited data available, a degree of flexibility is needed, and experimentation may be required to help you find the optimal bodyfat percentage for you in terms of improvements in your performance.
How To Lower Your Body Fat Percentage
Your current level of body fat is directly influenced by your training, your nutrition and you psychological state.
The type and timing of both your nutrition and training can be the difference between burning off stubborn unwanted fat...and running yourself into the ground whilst seeing little progress (in some cases that can even lead to an increase in body fat percentage.)
Throw mindset and hormones into the mix (which can also affect your body's ability to lose unwanted fat) and you can begin to understand why so many of the general population struggle (sometimes for decades) to lower their body fat percentage.
Footballers face an even greater challenge...
It's often pretty straight forward for people to go from 25% to 15% body fat with the help of a trainer within a relatively shorter period of time. But getting from 13-15% (where many wannabe pro's will be sitting) down to 8-12% can be unbelievably challenging, you may feel like your body just isn't budging.
Image of Ronaldo from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/-__mdk_-_/4759652743
Image of Nani, Manchester United from: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/510384570244476353/
Image of James Milner, Liverpool: https://www.instagram.com/p/BzlJM_pFqXD/