Body Composition of Elite Olympic Combat Sport Athletes (1)
Reale, R; Burke, LM; Cox, GR & Slater, G. EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF SPORT SCIENCE Volume 20, 2020 - Issue 2
We jump from the previous study looking at a far less common performance trait in the form of genetic characteristics, to a more commonly measured and understood measure in terms of body composition.
When analysing frequently observed and optimal body composition in sports, at either end of the physiological performance spectrum there are obvious advantages to different body types in different athletic activities, These have been supported
empirically, with low body mass index (BMI) as being advantageous for endurance athletes (2) , and a high level of muscle mass is advantageous for strength and power
(3) athletes .
Body composition statistics in combat sports are surprisingly scarce, and the few studies that have documented common observations have often used suboptimal measurements such as caliper testing and bioelectrical impedance. Often body composition statistics, as well as other physiological measurements are documented with combat sports athletes being grouped together, not acknowledging the significant difference between the different combat sports.
Most combat sports are competed in weight divisions, where there is more often than not a perceived advantage to being heavier, and whilst this is supported by some studies (4,5), the evidence is mixed (6,7). Due to this possible advantage, chronic, and to a greater extent acute weight loss strategies have long been employed by athletes and coaches to maximise fight weight.
The objective of this study was to examine the body composition of elite olympic combat sport athletes to continue to build a database of relative normative data, and also to investigate the appropriateness of the athlete’s self-selected weight divisions in comparison to an internationally recognised classification system (the NCAA minimum safe weight scheme).
94 (56 male, 38 female) international level athletes competing in boxing, taekwondo, wrestling and judo underwent dual-energy
x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) assessment as an estimate of body composition. The measurements were taken 7-21 days out from competition, assuming that the athletes would be close to competition body mass, but had not yet begun the pre-competition acute weight loss strategies.
Each individual’s “safe weight” was identified according to the NCAA minimum wrestling weight procedure. Also evaluated was each athlete’s body fat level compared to the 2011 NATA position statement, which suggested there should be a minimum cut-off of 5% in males and 12% in females in regards to a safe body fat percentage for competition8 .
Body fat percentage averaged across the cohort was 11.7% in males and 22.7% in females. Amongst the male athletes, body fat percentage was lowest in taekwondo (8.8%), followed by boxing (9.1%), wrestling (13.1%) and judo (14.5%). In the female athletes, body fat percentage was lowest in wrestling (21.6%), followed by boxing (22%), taekwondo (23.1%) and judo (24.9%).
In regards to body mass in relation to weight division, male competitors were on average 2.5% heavier for wrestling, 3.5% heavier for boxing, 4% higher for judo and 5.5% higher for taekwondo, whereas females were 3.5% heavier for boxing, 5.5 heavier for judo,and 6% heavier for taekwondo and wrestling.
In contrast to previous research4 ,6, athletes on average weighed a similar amount relative to body weight above their competition weight limit. 8 athletes were lighter than their competition weight limit,
and 5 athletes (2 female – both wrestlers & 3 male – one wrestler, one boxer and one taekwondo athlete) weighed more than the NCAA safely recommended weight.
In both male and female athletes, taekwondo players had lower BMI scores (M-20.7/F-21.3), followed by boxing (M-22.7/F-22.5), wrestling (M-24.2/F-24.7) and judo (M-26.1/F-24.5).
Sport had an interesting relationship between lower body/upper body lean mass distribution, as taekwondo athletes had the highest level of lower body lean mass, followed by judokas, wrestlers and finally boxers.
Finally, there was a trend towards increased lean and fat mass with higher bodyweight.
This study was quite concise with measuring what it aimed to measure, and produced outcomes that broadly fall in line with that of other studies (even those using measurement techniques with lower reliability and validity). Whilst a total sample size of 94 participants on the face appears reasonably powered, when the athletes are separated by sport, gender and weight category, it becomes obvious that the study lacks sufficient power to draw conclusions that would significantly impact practice. However the increasing accessibility of higher-level body composition assessment should allow studies such as this to be replicated, and over time build a growing database of relevant measures.
The authors acknowledged the potential for further individualisation within these populations, including taking ethnicity and
anthropometrics (limb length etc.) into account when analysing body composition.
It would also be of use to compare this data with measures from professional athletes, although when it comes to these specific sports, boxing is the only one that is practiced on a large scale in a professional setting. These are olympic sports, participated in by amateur, albeit elite athletes, who are representing their country or region. Because of this, athletes may have to compete in a weight division that is not the most appropriate for them, in order to fill a spot, or allow for a better chance at selection. This concept is undoubtedly more prominent with lower levels of competition (e.g. state/college/high school etc.). This is not likely to be an issue in professional forms of the sports, and as such may give a more accurate indication of common weight range and body composition in relation to weight category. The body mass figures in relation to competition weight limit described in this study (2.5-6% heavier than competition weight) are also considerably lower than what many professional athletes (particularly in mixed martial arts) will sit at prior to a weight cut, and as such it would be interesting to see these trends analysed across a larger set of data.
Of particular interest in this study was the use of the NCAA minimum weight
guidelines. The calculation used to establish these numbers is:
● Fat free mass (FFM) divided by 95%.
Take a 155 pound athlete with a body fat of 6% for example. Their FFM would be
● 155 x .94 (100-6%) = 145.7lbs To calculate their safe minimum weight:
● 145.7/0.95 = 153.3lbs,
Which means their resting body weight would be only 101.1% of their safe weight
If we take another example of a 170 pound athlete with a body fat of 15%. Their FFM would be:
● 170 x .85 = 144.5.
Their safe competing weight would be:
● 144.5/.95 = 152.1
Therefore, their current resting bodyweight would be 170/152.1 = 111.7% over their safe competing weight. Whilst 6% is extremely lean for a combat sport athlete, it is not out of the realm of possibility, and this example illustrates the massive difference in what may be considered a safe competition weight. While this NCAA may provide a useful guide in terms of a safe amount of body weight to lose over a longer period of time, it is likely not an appropriate formula when it comes to the dehydration techniques used in acute weight cuts. Leaner athletes arguably have a greater capacity for acute changes in hydration
levels due to the fluid storage capacity of skeletal muscle. I believe these guidelines should be updated and amended with this secondary and very different purpose in mind. Also, as evident by the results of this current study, body fat percentage in wrestling athletes is likely higher than that of other combat athletes, in particular strikers, and for the sake of specificity these guidelines should be sport-specific
This current study sets a good standard for similar studies to contribute to an overall body of literature. As mentioned above, further stratification according to anthropometrics and ethnicity will further increase our understanding of the topic and ability to individualise an athlete’s competition path and preparation.
An understanding of body composition and ideal weight in relation to competition weight limit can help coaches and athletes ensure competition in the correct weight division, therefore increasing their likelihood of success. The current study contributes well to the first point, however much more work needs to be done in terms of determining safe and optimal acute weight-cutting.
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