Body fat percentage for elite athletes can vary based on many factors, so no "typical" guideline exists. Although elite athletes in some sports are often slim and muscular, this isn't the case with all elite athletes. The gender of the athlete, genetics, age, the sport in which the athlete competes, and, sometimes, even the position an athlete plays in a particular sport can contribute to body composition.
Male vs. Female Athletes
Men, in general, often have lower body fat levels than women, and the same is true of elite athletes. Male athletes typically have a body fat percentage of between 6 and 13 percent, and female athletes a body fat percentage of 14 to 20 percent. For example, a male cross-country skier in the Olympics may have a body fat percentage of about 5 percent, while a female Olympic cross-country skier's body fat percentage is probably closer to 11 percent. The same is true of Olympic ice hockey players, with men having about 13 percent body fat and women having about 17 percent body fat.
Variation by Sport
In some sports, you have an advantage in being lean and having a lower body fat percentage, such as swimming, distance running, gymnastics, dance, figure skating, judo, rowing and wrestling. In other sports, such as football, hockey, skiing and shot put, it can be an advantage to be a bit heavier. The typical body fat percentage of college-aged male wrestlers is between 5 and 16 percent, while that of male shot putters is between 16 and 20 percent, for example. Female college-aged gymnasts have body fat percentages between 10 and 16 percent, while female basketball players average 20 to 27 percent body fat. Female elite volleyball and basketball players have very similar body compositions, which vary greatly from those of softball or soccer players, who tend to have less muscle, according to a study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics in 2015.
Variation Within Sports
In some sports, such as professional football, body fat percentage varies greatly based on the position an athlete plays. The range of body fat percentage for NFL players runs from about 3.4 percent to 35.6 percent, but the average body fat for a given position is somewhere in the middle. A wide receiver has an average body fat of about 9.4 percent, with a range between 3.7 and 19.4 percent, while an offensive lineman has an average body fat of about 24.6, with a range between 13.9 and 35.6 percent. The average body fat percentages of players in other positions fall in between those of wide receivers and offensive linemen.
Other Contributors to Body Fat Percentage
Age can have an effect on the body fat percentage of elite athletes, as both male and female athletes gain significant amounts of weight as they go through puberty, with boys gaining more muscle and girls tending to gain more fat. Thus, a female elite athlete who hasn't gone through puberty will most likely have a lower body fat percentage than one who has.
Genetics also plays a role, as some people tend to have a lean body type that is a little muscular without a lot of fat, while others usually have a wider and stockier build or a stronger and more muscular build. Individuals with stocky builds, sometimes called endomorphs, often put on weight and body fat more easily than those of other body types.
Elite Athlete BMI Considerations
Elite athletes can get their body fat measured if they're concerned about it, as calculations used to estimate body fat aren't very accurate for them. For example, body mass index isn't a very good indicator of body fat percentage in elite athletes, according to a study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness in 2009.
Getting down to the very low body fat percentages of some elite athletes takes a lot of work and very strict attention to diet. In fact, you may need to spend so much time exercising and have such a restrictive diet that it isn't easy to participate in social outings with friends and family or to have other activities besides fitness. Paying so much attention to diet and exercise may also lead to eating disorders in some people.
- Journal of Human Kinetics: Body Composition of Elite Female Players in Five Different Sports Games
- NCAA: Body Composition: What Are Athletes Made of?
- The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness: Correlation Between Body Mass Index and Body Composition in Elite Athletes
- U.S. Figure Skating: How Much Body Fat? It Depends…
- American Council on Exercise: What Are the Guidelines for Percentage of Body Fat Loss?
- Precision Nutrition: The Cost of Getting Lean
- Montana State University - Bozeman: US Olympic Athlete Profiles