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 here, 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 the optimal amount of lean muscle tissue (I say optimal because you do not want to become bodybuilder like) 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 15% for females.
Ideally for males, you should be anywhere from 8-10% body fat. Up to 12% is acceptable though – Any higher is not.
There is ZERO reason to go above 12% body fat if you’re an athlete. It 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 will bring you to fatigue quicker.
Think about carrying around a 25lbs (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 quite 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.
This isn’t good. As athletes we need to be focused on things such as recovery, energy levels, anabolism, motivation, protein synthesis and competitive drive among many other things testosterone does for us. We need it 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 and the natural test booster you think might make a difference won’t.
The red line is your testosterone levels, the leaner you become (with a diminishing return endpoint at around 8% for males, 12% for females) the higher it will be.
2. Being lean increases insulin sensitivity.
Carbohydrates are extremely important to:
• Driving muscle growth
• Keeping energy levels high during training and games
• Maintaining muscle mass when decreasing body fat
• Recovery for the muscular and nervous systems
• Performing at an elite level
The thing is, to make 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.
Many factors that go beyond the scope of this article (due to the necessary lab testing and a conversation that only people as geeky as me would enjoy) play in to supporting the proper transport and receptor cell activity but one of the most important factors is simply body composition.
The leaner you are, the more effective you are going to be at properly utilizing carbohydrates. 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.
You can think about it like a bouncer at a club. Insulin drove the carbohydrates all the way to the club in his car but the bouncer (muscle cell) denied him entry. This bouncer denies you entry when you’re carrying too much body fat.
On the other hand if you’re lean, you walk right into the club (hence 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.
Here’s an example of insulin sensitivity vs resistance. The left shows normal absorption but over on the right you see resistance of absorption which leads to circulating blood sugars. This is bad. You don’t want sugars floating around the bloodstream for many reasons including both health and performance.
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 greater insulin sensitivity.
Hockey players need carbohydrates, to use carbohydrates to their potential you need to be lean, to be lean you need to be at or below 12% body fat for males and 15% 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.
3. Low body fat % positively effects all aspects of performance.
Think about it, with the above two benefits driving extreme internal performance we have a big check mark there.
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 considering the fact that you don’t gain any muscle 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 even more.
Just 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 if you’re training) or greater strength and are carrying less weight. This leads to quicker high velocity direction change and faster stop/start times.
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.
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 dependant on how far away from 12% you were to begin with.
When it comes to strength, for some reason people think if you’re fatter you’re stronger. 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 and they realize just how light they are really going to be without that extra tissue hanging around.
To wrap this point up, the reverse of all of these points are also true. 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.
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 everybody.
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 getting 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 at 15% 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 good nutrition.
• There are zero benefits both internally or externally to being over 12% body fat
• Being lean increases testosterone levels and decreases estrogen levels
• Being lean increases insulin sensitivity. This is important to care about as insulin is the most anabolic hormone in the human body.