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Original Research

Comparison of Body Composition Variables Across a Large Sample of National Collegiate Athletic Association Women Athletes From 6 Competitive Sports

Fields, Jennifer B.1; Metoyer, Casey J.2,3; Casey, Jason C.4; Esco, Michael R.2; Jagim, Andrew R.5; Jones, Margaret T.1,6

Author Information
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: September 2018 - Volume 32 - Issue 9 - p 2452-2457
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002234
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Generally, high ratios of fat-free mass (FFM) to fat mass (FM) and low body fat percentages (BF%) are favorable for athletes. The presence of insufficient or excess BF can result in performance detriments and possible deleterious effects on health. Body composition (BC) has been used as an important parameter of physical fitness for monitoring sport performance in athletes (3,8,15,20,27,29). For instance, BF% and FFM have been related to fundamental physical activities of sport performance, such as vertical jump, sprint time, relative power, and maximal strength (20). A more recent study reported a negative relationship between BF% and muscular performance test scores (1 repetition maximum [1RM] press, 1RM pull, and 1RM squat) in elite level athletes (12). In addition, BC can play a key role in athlete health. Unhealthy BC is related to low bone density (6), menstrual dysfunction (6), disordered eating habits (6,24), or conversely, the onset of cardiovascular disease risk factors. Findings such as these demonstrate the importance of obtaining a level of BC that is not only considered healthy but is also within an appropriate range for optimal sport performance, especially among women athletes.

However, the BC range that is considered “ideal” is poorly understood within this underserved population. Although several published studies exist in which BC was measured in women athletes, most of the research involved relatively small samples of subjects with varying methods of measurement (3,4,7,8,19,23,25,34,35). Only 1 existing study provides descriptive BC data for collegiate women athletes competing at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I collegiate and club sport levels (10). The sports that were studied were crew, distance runners, field hockey, gymnastics, soccer, softball, and 4 additional sports that were grouped as “other.” Although the entire sample was large (n = 132), when analyzing each sport the subsamples were relatively small because the sizes ranged from an n of 10–34 (10). Therefore, additional research is needed to expand on previous findings involving larger sample sizes for entire groups and within each of the specific sports. Further examining the differences in BF% and body mass (BM) in women athletes across sports can aid in the establishment of sex- and sport-specific descriptive values for use in subsequent goal setting and training.

Physical demands placed on athletes can vary by sport and position; therefore, BC recommendations for specific athletes may differ. For example, although both volleyball and basketball may require large degrees of upper- and lower-body muscular strength and power, body size may differ between these 2 sports (8,20). Basketball involves a high volume of sprinting and agility movement (23); therefore, successful basketball athletes may have lower BF% and FM than volleyball players. In addition, although gymnastics requires high levels of strength and power (36), successful gymnasts likely have minimal BM and BF% because of the constant challenges of body mass displacement and varying biomechanical loads involved in the sport (13).

Research to determine whether BC variables differ in a large sample of collegiate women athletes from a variety of sports is warranted. Although published research has shown that BC generally affects sport performance and that BC varies across sports, most such studies have focused primarily on collegiate men athletes (15,17,25,26,29–31,39,40) or with a small sample size of women. A lack of descriptive data exists in regard to a large sample of collegiate women athletes from a variety of NCAA sports. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to establish descriptive data and compare BC measures in a large sample of NCAA women athletes from 6 competitive sports to assist coaches and strength practitioners in goal setting and exercise prescription for their athletes. We hypothesize that BC will vary among sport depending on the physiological nature that each sport demands.


Experimental Approach to the Problem

Because of the lack of descriptive BC data in NCAA women athletes, we assessed various BC measures through air displacement plethysmography (Bod Pod) in a large group of athletes from 6 competitive sports. To comprehensively evaluate BC parameters among athletes, body height (BH), BM, BF%, FM, and FFM were evaluated at 1-time point per athlete per sport within their given institution. We obtained and reported these measures across 7 years (2008–2015) from 2 different NCAA Division I institutions to create a catalog of descriptive data that has a greater degree of generalizability across multiple sports. Furthermore, in the discussion of results, we compared the data from this study with those of previously published body size and BC values in an attempt to ascertain emerging trends within this population.


The participants in this study were all trained collegiate athletes from 6 NCAA sports, who were following sport-specific training regimens and were involved in regular sport training activities with definite neuromuscular demands. All athletes had access to a designated strength and conditioning coach and sports nutrition practitioner. A total of 524 women athletes, aged 18–22, participated from the following sports: basketball (BB; n = 95), gymnastics (GYM; n = 42), lacrosse (LAX; n = 81), rowing (ROW; n = 57), soccer (SOC; n = 188), and volleyball (VB; n = 61). Data were collected from 2008 to 2015 and examined from the University of Alabama (NCAA D-I, Southeastern Conference; n = 138) and George Mason University (NCAA D-I, Atlantic 10 Conference; n = 386). Data for each participant were collected within 1 visit at each of the Universities' laboratories. All subjects were medically cleared for intercollegiate athletic participation, had the risks and benefits explained to them beforehand, signed an institutionally approved consent form to participate, and completed a medical history form. The University of Alabama and George Mason University Institutional Review Boards for Human Subjects approved all procedures.


At a minimum, athletes were instructed to refrain from exercise, eating, and drinking for at least 2 hours before testing. However, most testing was conducted in the early morning after an overnight fast. On arrival to the laboratory, height and body mass were recorded to the nearest 0.01 cm and 0.02 kg, respectively, using a stadiometer (Detecto, Webb City, MO, USA) and digital scale (Bod Pod; Cosmed, Chicago, IL, USA) calibrated according to manufacturer guidelines with subjects' bare foot. Body composition was then assessed using air displacement plethysmography (Bod Pod body-composition system, model 2000A; Life Measurement Instruments, Concord, CA, USA), which has been validated and highly correlated with hydrostatic weighing (5). Fat and FFM values were determined based on the body densities obtained from the Bod Pod. Before each testing session, calibration procedures were completed according to the manufacturer guidelines using an empty chamber and a calibrating cylinder of a standard volume (49.55 L). Once all tests passed, researchers proceeded with testing. Participants were instructed to wear a formfitting sports bra, spandex shorts, and swim cap, and remove all jewelry, in accordance with standard operating procedures, to reduce air displacement. A trained technician performed Bod Pod testing. Participants were instructed to enter the Bod Pod and sit in an erect position with their hands folded in their laps to obtain body volume. All Bod Pod instructions were followed for the assessments. Two tests were performed to ensure reliability of the assessment. If the tests results were not within 150 ml of each other, 2 more tests were executed to achieve reliable data. Test to test reliability of performing this BC assessment in our laboratory has yielded high reliability for body mass (r = 1.0), BF% (0.997), and FFM (1.0). Previous studies indicate air displacement plethysmography to be an accurate and reliable means to assess changes in BC (11,22).

Statistical Analyses

Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS version 24; IBM Corp., Somers, NY, USA) was used to analyze the data. Tests for significant differences across sports were performed using 1-way analysis of variance. Least squares difference post hoc analyses were performed when a significant finding (p ≤ 0.05) was identified. Dependent variables of interest included BH, BM, FFM, FM, and BF%.


Table 1 provides the mean ± SD for each BC metric (i.e., BM, BH, BF%, FM, and FFM). Ranges for the aforementioned BC metrics are included in parentheses below.

Table 1.:
Body composition measures for 6 NCAA women's sports.*†‡§‖¶#

Body Mass

The BM for GYM was significantly different from the other 5 sports (p ≤ 0.05). GYM had the lowest BM (53.6–64.2 kg), followed by SOC (55.3–69.1 kg), LAX (57.1–71.3 kg), VB (61.0–78.8 kg), ROW (60.6–83.4 kg), and BB (61.7–85.5 kg), whereas LAX and SOC were lower than BB, ROW, and VB (p ≤ 0.05).

Body Height

GYM athletes had the lowest BH among the 6 sports tested (156.60–160.86 cm). The BH did not differ between LAX (160.14–173.18 cm) and SOC (161.91–172.14 cm), but ROW was taller than GYM, LAX, and SOC (167.32–179.16 cm). Although not different from each other, BB (170.37–185.47 cm) and VB (169.42–183.36 cm) were significantly taller than all other sports (p ≤ 0.05).

Body Fat Percentage

GYM (15.7–23.7%) and BB (14.9–28.3%) displayed the lowest BF% across all 6 sports (p ≤ 0.05). There were no significant differences between SOC (18.0–28.4%), LAX (19.2–29.4%), and VB (19.5–30.3%). The ROW displayed the highest BF% across the 6 sports (p ≤ 0.05) (23.8–36.0%).

Fat Mass

GYM had the lowest FM across the 6 sports (9.0–16.5 kg) (p ≤ 0.05), followed by SOC (10.3–14.6 kg). There were no significant differences observed between LAX (11.1–20.1 kg) and BB (9.2–23.8 kg). VB (12.4–22.8 kg) was significantly higher than GYM, SOC, LAX, and BB. ROW exhibited the greatest FM of all sports (14.5–29.1 kg).

Fat-Free Mass

There were no significant differences observed in FFM for GYM (42.4–52.2 kg), SOC (43.0–52.2 kg), and LAX (43.8–53.4 kg). The FFM values for GYM, SOC, and LAX were significantly lower than BB (51.1–63.3 kg), VB (46.6–57.8 kg), and ROW (44.6–55.60 kg) (p ≤ 0.05). Furthermore, ROW had less FFM then VB or BB, and BB had the highest FFM of all sports.


A lack of descriptive BC data exists in collegiate women athletes. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to establish descriptive data and compare BC in a large sample of NCAA women athletes from 6 competitive sports to assist coaches and strength practitioners in goal setting and exercise prescription for their athletes. We hypothesized that BC would vary among sport depending on the physiological nature that each sport demands. This study can add to the available data and provide a foundation for the establishment of women- and sport-specific descriptive data for BH, BM, FM, FFM, and BF%.

Significant differences were found among all BC parameters for women athletes from GYM, SOC, VB, BB, LAX, and ROW. GYM displayed the lowest numbers across the 5 BC variables: BH, BM, BF%, FM, and FFM. Gymnastics is a sport that favors low BM and BF% because of the esthetic nature of the sport and the biomechanical loads incurred with the complex movements associated with tumbling and acrobatics (9,13). In fact, mean BM for GYM was reported at 51.09 ± 7.08 kg in 1972 (32). Results from this study are in support of previously reported unpublished thesis data on BM, BF%, FM, and FFM in athletes from GYM (n = 17), SOC (n = 15), VB (n = 13), and BB (n = 12), which reported GYM to have the lowest values across all measures (14). Furthermore, recent published data (14,35) from collegiate gymnasts (n = 15) reported comparable BH (157.9 cm vs. 158.7 cm), lower BM (56.7 kg vs. 58.9 kg), and higher BF (23.2% vs. 19.7%) to the 42 GYM athletes in this study (Table 2). In summary, GYM athletes are of smaller stature and lower BC when compared with other sports, but there appears to be a general upward trend in BM of collegiate women GYM from previously published data (32).

Table 2.:
Summary of body composition research in NCAA women athletes.*

In this study, ROW displayed the highest BM, BF%, and FM of the 6 sports. Furthermore, the FFM value for ROW was significantly lower than VB and BB. It is likely more common for ROW athletes to be larger with more BF% because of the fundamental nature and physical demands of the sport (3). Larger body stature is essential to propel the boat forward and provide the force needed to overcome the resistance through the water (3,18). In fact, Yoshiga and Higuchi (40) suggested that ROW with a larger body size possess an advantage for a 2,000 m row, thus indicating that ROW may benefit from a larger BM and BF%, with little change in regard to BH (Table 2). Data from a 1991 study with a small sample of collegiate women ROW (n = 9) reported mean BM as 60.1 ± 1.3 kg and BF% as 20.2 ± 1.0% (33). Furthermore, in 1999, the mean BM and BF% in 22 collegiate women ROW was reported as 69.0 ± 7.9 kg and 21.9 ± 2.3%, respectively (10). In 2007, assessed anthropometric values in 90 NCAA Division I women ROW were reported as follows: BM (74.6 ± 8.5 kg), BF% (22.4 ± 2.5%), FM (16.8 ± 3.2 kg), and FFM (57.8 ± 5.9 kg) (3). Our results of greater BF% and FM values in 57 ROW athletes compared with previous studies may be indicative of an upward trend in BC variables in ROW athletes.

Although the sports of VB and BB may appear similar because of the nature of jumping, the physiological demands are different. Both VB and BB require high degrees of upper- and lower-body muscular strength and power and exhibit short bursts of high-intensity activity (i.e., jumping) (20,23). However, BB requires its athletes to sprint up and down the court with minimal breaks for rest, whereas VB involves minimal running. It has been reported that BB players, on average, spend 34.1% of the time running/jumping, 56.8% walking, and 9.0% standing (23). BB athletes with higher BF% may have difficulty maintaining a fast running pace compared with leaner, lighter players. In a review of several studies of women VB athletes, Lidor and Ziv (20) reported higher skill level volleyball players were heavier with better vertical jumps than lower level players. Results from this study did not differ between BB and VB for BM; however, BB had significantly lower BF% and FM, and higher FFM than VB, indicating BB athletes were leaner. Unpublished thesis data reported similar BF% values in a small sample of BB (n = 12) and VB (n = 13) athletes (14). When compared with previous research in collegiate women BB athletes (4,14,19,23,25,34), this study indicates that women are taller and larger, but BF% has remained constant while FFM has increased. Therefore, although BB athletes may now be bigger, the increase in BM may be attributed to increased FFM rather than FM, indicating increases in muscular strength. Although this does not appear true for collegiate women VB athletes, both BM and BF% values remained similar from published research in 1995 (8) to 2014 (34). However, the 61 VB athletes in this study had a greater mean FM than what has been reported in previous studies (8,34), which is not beneficial to sport performance or athlete health.

Previous research has indicated that LAX athletes have similar fitness levels to SOC athletes (7), and both sports involve similar energy systems (2,28). In this study, the 188 SOC and 81 LAX athletes displayed no differences in BH, BM, BF%, and FFM. However, SOC had significantly lower FM than LAX. The physical demands of these 2 sports are similar, such that athletes must be able to perform repeated high-intensity sprints, up and down a large field, interspersed with bouts of walking and jogging (7,37). The lack of differences observed in FFM may be attributed to the similar power and anaerobic demands of sprinting, jumping, and tackling/blocking that is evident in both sports (2,7). There remains limited BC data available on NCAA women SOC (14,34) and LAX athletes (7). The LAX athletes in this study displayed a slightly higher BF% from what was previously reported in 24 LAX athletes in 2008 (7), whereas SOC was comparable with a previously published study (14,34) (Table 2).

This study assessed BC through air displacement plethysmography (Bod Pod), which has been previously validated as a reliable testing method for collegiate women athletes (1,5,21). Previously published research has suggested that the Bod Pod may underestimate BF% and FM when compared with dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry in overweight men and women (38). Caution is warranted when comparing studies that use different methods of assessment because BC data may vary based on population sampled and measurement technique. The data presented in this study are from a large sample size of NCAA Division I women athletes, and the ranges provided should be interpreted and applied with discretion.

In summary, this study provides descriptive BC data for a large sample of women athletes from 6 NCAA sports. When comparing across sport, significant differences were observed in BH, BM, BF%, FM, and FFM. Although some similarities were evident, it is likely that differences in dietary practices, body type preferences, and physiological demands of the sport, serve to explain the discrepancy in BC among the different athletes. Furthermore, athletes in this study were following sport-specific training regimens and involved in regular sport activities with different neuromuscular demands. Thus, results may vary in athletes from other competitive levels or different sports. Future research is needed to examine the relationship of body size and BC to competitive level and sport position.

Practical Applications

For practitioners involved in coaching and training, this study presented a large population (n = 524) of NCAA women athletes across 6 competitive sports. The results of this study may provide descriptive data for comparison with current team values or target standards for training purposes. The data presented may be used as benchmark values for practitioners from the fields of strength and conditioning, athletic training, and nutrition to use for comparative purposes, exercise prescription, and goal setting with recruiting, training programs, and roster evaluations.

However, it is important to note that these results are not sport position specific and do not account for the potential relative physiological demands and variations within each sport team. Therefore, it is recommended that the application of these values to individuals on a given sports team should be performed generally and with discretion.


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%body fat; basketball; gymnastics; lacrosse; rowing; soccer; volleyball

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