Ideal Body Fat Percentage For Hockey Players

In any physically demanding sport body composition becomes extremely important to both reaching your potential and being an asset to yourself and to your team.

In order to perform like an athlete you need to look like one. Meaning, if my first thought when I look at you is “I’ve seen bigger legs on an ostrich” or if you resemble a sumo wrestler; we probably need to work on your body composition.

The definition of body composition is simple; how much muscle mass you have in relation to body fat.

For maximal performance in hockey it should come as no surprise that you need to have an optimal amount of lean muscle tissue (I say optimal because you do not want to become bodybuilder like — there is definitely a point of diminishing returns) while carrying around the least amount of fat.

So the million dollar question is, what’s the ideal body fat percentage for hockey players?

Answer: No higher than 12% for males, and 18% for females.

Ideally for males, you should be anywhere from 8-10% body fat. Up to 12% is acceptable though – Any higher than this is likely a performance trade-off.

There is ZERO reason to go above these body fat guidelines if you’re an athlete. Fatty tissue doesn’t make you stronger, it doesn’t make you tougher, and it doesn’t help your body temperature on the ice. However it is going to make you slower, less agile, and less conditioned.

Think about carrying around a 25-pound (or more?) plate around with you on the ice, fat is no different. It’s useless excess weight that won’t contribute to the game of hockey.

Here are three things you need to know about why hockey players should be lean:

1. Being lean increases testosterone.

Studies have been very clear that the leaner you are, the more testosterone your body is effectively producing and utilizing — and the less estrogen the will have. The reverse is also true. The more body fat you carry, the lower your testosterone levels will be and the higher your estrogen levels will be. Keep in mind that when I discuss these sex hormone ratios, I am not just talking to males; this applies to you females out there too.

These hormonal imbalances are not good.

As hockey athletes we need to be focused on things such as recovery, energy levels, anabolism, motivation, protein synthesis, and competitive drive — your testosterone to estrogen ratio plays a role in all of these qualities.

We use our hormonal system to function optimally from a health standpoint, but we definitely need it functioning optimally from an athletic stand point. This goes out the window with a poor body composition, no matter what your exercise routine is like. You can’t out train a bad diet, and a bad diet will lead to hormonal imbalances.

body-composition-testosterone

The red line is your testosterone levels, the leaner you become (with a diminishing return endpoint at around 8% for males, 15% for females) the higher it will be.

2. Being lean increases insulin sensitivity.

Carbohydrates are extremely important to:

• Drive muscle growth
• Keep energy levels high during training and games
• Maintain your muscle mass while simultaneously trying decreasing body fat
• Recover the muscular and nervous systems from intense physical activity
• Perform at an elite level since hockey is a glycolytic sport

Here’s what you need to know, if we are making sure carbohydrates do all of these lovely things you need to first support the transport of the carbohydrates to the muscle cell, and you also need to support the cell receptor to open up and properly absorb the carbohydrate.

These are two very different processes. You need a driver, and then you need the key to get in.

Many factors that go beyond the scope of this article play in to supporting the proper transport and receptor cell activity, but one of the most important factors is your body composition.

The leaner you are, the more effective you are going to be at properly utilizing carbohydrates. Period.

What happens when you’re over weight is you become more and more “insulin resistant”. What this means is that although insulin can deliver the carbohydrates to your muscle cell, the cell receptor is resistant to its effects so the carbohydrates never actually get inside. Basically, you have a “driver” but no “key” to get in.

Another way to think about it is like a bouncer at a club. Insulin drove the carbohydrates all the way to the club in his car but the bouncer (muscle cell receptor) denied him entry. This bouncer denies you entry far more often than not when you’re carrying too much body fat (which is why being overweight is its own independent risk factor for Type ll diabetes).

On the other hand, if you’re lean you will walk right into the club (hence the term “insulin sensitivity“, your muscle cell is sensitive to the effects of insulin so it accepts the carbohydrates). Carbohydrates effectively get absorbed into the muscle cell and it provides all the above benefits that I mentioned.

glucose-insulin-sensitivity

Here’s an example of insulin sensitivity vs. insulin resistance. The left shows normal absorption, but over on the right you see the resistance of absorption which eventually leads to circulating blood sugars causing inflammation rather than being used as fuel. 

Want to know another cool benefit of becoming insulin sensitive?

Once you’re lean, it’s easier to stay lean.

Why?

Because now you have both a higher testosterone level and a greater level of insulin sensitivity.

Essentially, if you have a better functioning machine it’s a lot easier to stay lean, unless you really screw things up.

Hockey players need carbohydrates, but to use carbohydrates to their potential you need to be lean, and to be lean you need to be at or below 12% body fat for males and 18% for females. Let’s also not forget insulin drives that same car to the club for amino acids, protein, creatine, and other nutrients as well. So having an overall higher level of insulin sensitivity will improve many faucets of performance and health — not just glucose control.

3. Low body fat % positively effects all aspects of hockey performance.

Think about it, with the above two benefits driving extreme internal performance we already have reason enough to get lean.

But how about external performance?

There are no negatives there either!

When you become lean you immediately become a faster skater solely because of the fact that you just dropped body fat. So even if you don’t change your training or anything else at all from here to 12%, you will still get faster!

Although if you’re training properly you should get stronger in this time as well which will complement your speed and conditioning even more.

Beyond this, getting lean will have you not just skating in a straight line faster — but it will also automatically bring positive benefits to your agility because you are of equal or greater strength and are carrying less weight. This leads to quicker high velocity direction change and faster stop/start times due to an enhanced relative strength.

In addition to the above benefits on speed and agility, you will also improve your conditioning. Without carrying around that extra weight (think about carrying a weight plate around), you simply aren’t carrying an additional load that you’re body has to deal with that isn’t contributing to the movements you’re doing out on the ice.

When you’re lean, it is all functional muscle mass working as a unit. This may be the greatest effect you see, athletes of mine who spend a summer getting lean find tremendous conditioning improvements come try-out time. Your recovery time in between sets at the gym and shifts on the ice will improve drastically, although this is also dependent on how far away from 12% you were to begin with.

In any case, getting leaner is a way to make you faster, more conditioned, and more agile — all without even touching your program design, that’s some powerful stuff.

When it comes to strength levels, for some reason people think if you’re fatter you’re stronger. This doesn’t make sense, and sounds more like a justification rather than a logical argument. You can’t contract fat like a muscle contracts. Fat does not contract. In no way shape or form is a fat guy stronger than a leaner man with equal muscle tissue. It doesn’t work like that.

In most cases overweight guys think they are muscular until the first time they do a lean down, then reality hits them and they realize just how light they are really going to be without that extra tissue hanging around. In the beginning most people think “i’ll be shredded if I drop ten pounds” — but then once they lose ten pounds, they realize they still have a long ways to go. But in the end, they are a better hockey player for it.

To wrap this section up, the reverse of all of these points are also true.

If you remain overweight; You will have slower direction change, slower stop/start times, equal strength as your lighter peers, and poor conditioning. Some from here also argue the fact that if you weigh more you’re harder to knock off the puck, and this is true.

But I believe muscle weight is much more effective here than body fat weight. Sure you can say a man with higher body fat is harder to knock down, but since he is moving that much slower, there is also that many more opportunities to knock him off the puck.

Not to mention, being hard to knock off the puck doesn’t matter much if you never have it.

In the end there is no benefit to habitually being over 12% body fat for hockey players. The sport is too physically demanding and the positives outweigh the negatives by a long shot. Something important of note here as well is that getting lean is entirely a nutrition game.

The calorie burning effects of exercise will not outwork a bad diet. It never has, it never will. Getting lean always begins with good nutrition, which good hockey players should be already serious about anyways.

To wrap things up, here are some take home points:

• Males should be anywhere from 8-12% body fat on a regular basis.
• Females need only be around 18% on a regular basis.
• Getting lean always begins with good nutrition, without this it won’t happen. Yes everybody has a friend who eats whatever he wants and stays lean, he’s the exception, not the rule. If you are not this man you need better nutrition.
• There are zero benefits both internally or externally to being outside of these body fat recommendations
• Being lean increases testosterone levels and decreases estrogen levels
• Being lean increases insulin sensitivity and blood glucose control

About the author

Dan Garner

Dan (or Coach Garner) is the head strength and conditioning coach and nutritional specialist at HockeyTraining.com. He holds 12 of the top certifications in both training and nutrition, as well as a formal education in both functional medicine and health science. Dan specializes in hockey performance, having worked with hundreds of athletes from the youth leagues, right up to juniors, AHL, KHL, and NHL.

3 Comments

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  • Hello Dan,

    I am a Division 1 hockey player and I workout rigorously in the gym. I pay extremely close attention to my diet, and I rarely eat a cheat meal (once every 2-3 weeks i may have something small). My training consists of lifting, as well as cardio circuits closer to the season. We also do a lot of track work and short sprints at the gym. I have been doing this for years and I can’t get below 13.5% BF. What do you suggest I do?

    • This is an incredibly open ended question due to the fact that plateaued rate of decrease in body fat percentage can range in everything from training, nutrition, supplementation, genetics, sleep, recovery, and what your lab work looks like.

      It sounds like your training enough hours to reach lower levels of body fat. Getting closer to the season you should be doing a minimum of 6 sessions a week of various lifting / speed / conditioning work. If fat loss is your goal and your workouts aren’t designed for that, then this needs to change.

      Having said that, fat loss is almost always a nutrition problem. Something I want to point out to you is that calories are calories. Meaning, “cheating” only once every 2-3 weeks still doesn’t mean you aren’t eating too much to get to your desired body fat. You can get fat on chicken / rice / avocado in the same way you can with less “clean” foods. The body only see’s energy and when you take in more than you burn per day the result will be an increase in body fat.

      I would suggest you hire a well-respected nutrition specialist to dial in your diet to meet your exact demands and goals if you haven’t yet. Many people underestimate nutritional coaching until they finally do it and never look back. If you’ve never had a coach before, hire one. I know this seems like a somewhat vague answer but in order for me to properly answer you I would need to know everything about you, your training and your current state of health; which is something your nutrition coach can and should do.

    • Just wamted to mention that being larger would make you somewhat stronger (assuming two men with the same muscel mass but one being “fatter” )due to physics , specifically : Momentum .
      You cant contract the fat tissue this is true , but once your muscles send that mass into motion (assuming they can )it will be proportionaly harder to slow down (generating more total force) . Love the article though.