Picture: Nathan McKinnon measuring 7.6% body fat at the NHL 2013 Combine (Nathan Denette,The Canadian Press)
Hockey players undeniably come in all shapes and sizes.
From the boyish frame of Mitch Marner, who’s gained recent in recent years to his current playing weight of 170lb, to bigger players like Dustin Byfuglien, who is currently listed at 260, but is rumored to have broken the 300lb mark in past off-seasons. Players with a wide variety of body types have found the pinnacle of success.
Despite this, there is one anthropometric measure that is looked down upon by hockey coaches and trainers, and that’s excess body fat.
While I’ve had players justify carrying a “spare tire” in the past by suggesting it doesn’t effect their on-ice performance, this article is going to explore how that might not be the case and critically examine the current research related to body fat and the effect on hockey performance and the optimal body fat for hockey players.
Current Research: The Average Body Fat of Professional Hockey Players
While coaches, and players, might have different opinions on the ideal level of body for hockey players, current research has been consistent with the average body fat of professional hockey players with most studies finding players with ~9.5% body fat.
The most interesting research came from a longitudinal study of the Montreal Canadiens, which found that players from 1988-2003 were 17kg (37lbs) heavier and 10cm (4in) taller than players from the 1920s and 30s (Montgomery, 2006).
While players have gotten significant larger over the last century, body fat levels have remained stable. The average body fat of ~9.5% has been found in multiple studies involving both NHL players, European professionals, and NCAA division 1 players.
The most recent studying investigating body measurements of professional hockey players definitively suggested that: 1) that it is beneficial to ice hockey players to have lower body fat; and 2) excess fat would prevent a hockey player to perform at the highest level and meet the specific challenges of the game (Kutac & Sigmund, 2015).
How Body Fat Impacts Hockey Performance
So, while there’s been significance put on body fat levels in hockey levels, it’s important to consider why.
Let’s theorize this with an example: A 200 lbs hockey player with the professional average of ~9.5% is carrying around 19lbs of body fat. In contrast if this same player, at 200 lbs, was around 17% (the upper end I’ll typically see junior guys returning for the off-season) is carrying 34lbs of body fat.
Unlike adding muscle, which is productive weight that contributes to some elements of performance, excess body fat is unproductive weight that fails to contribute positively to strength/power/etc.
This means that this 200lbs player is essentially wearing a 15lbs weight vest for every shift, every race, every puck battle. Undeniably counterproductive to elite on-ice performance.
While there’s limited academic research on the exact relationship of excess body fat on performance in athletes (other than that it’s detrimental), it’s a common topic in horse racing. Both academic researchers and horse trainers have found that even as little as a 10lbs body fat gain (on a 1300lbs animal!) can cause enough of a negative effect on the horse’s speed to lose a race.
What this means for Hockey Players:
So, while the average NHL players may be sub 10% body fat, there’s obviously players above and below that – creating the questions: What is the optimal body fat ranges for hockey players?
In my opinion, elite hockey players should aim to keep their body fat between 8-12.5% for male players, and 12-20% for female hockey players.
It’s important to recognize that the body carries an “essential level of fat” to maintain healthy function, which the American Council on Exercise has suggested is 2-5% for men and 10-13% for women.
So, while we’ve explored the potentially detrimental effects of body fat on performance, it’s important to recognize that body fat is essential – and only in excess becomes an issue.
In conclusion, while there may be higher prioritized development facets (strength, conditioning, on-ice abilities) to increase on-ice performance – hopefully this article eliminates the arguments that a player’s “spare tire” doesn’t impact their performance.
Hockey players, unlike racehorses or arthrometric-dominate sports such as gymnastics or wrestling, have the luxury that they don’t have to obsess about “making-weight” or having to look a certain way; however, should still be mindful of the potential effect their body fat has on their performance and adjust their diet accordingly.
Kyle is a Hockey Performance Specialist who’s worked with hundreds of hockey players from Peewee to Pro. A former elite hockey player, Kyle earned his degree in Kinesiology before becoming a Strength Coach that specializes in hockey performance. Today, he runs Relentless Hockey where he works with players across the world, including pros in over 20+ leagues including the NHL, KHL, and OHL.