#39 The Science Behind Shape and Human Performance

#39 The Science Behind Shape and Human Performance

In everyday life, it’s common to look at someone and say, “they’re tall, they would probably be good at sports like basketball or volleyball.” Now this may sound presumptive, and maybe we shouldn’t be making conclusions about someone based on their body shape and size, but we have to ask ourselves, “Do anthropometrics (things like limb length and body composition) actually help to determine athletic success?”

To answer this question we must first define anthropometry (an-thro-pom-e-try). Anthropometry is defined as, “the measurement of the size and proportions of the human body.” This would be things like height, weight, body composition, limb length, and the list goes on and on. And believe it or not, these genetic and physical variables actually help to determine which sports someone would be successful at.

Anthropometric measurements are one thing that talent identifiers look at when projecting success in sport. Talent identification and development is something that is common throughout the world which helps young athletes determine which sport(s) they should participate in to achieve the greatest amount of potential success.

For those of us that are past being a “young athlete”, it’s actually not too late. Some amateur athletes that grew up playing competitively in a single sport have made a transition later in their career based on their anthropometrics and other physiological characteristics and went on to win Olympic medals. So there’s tangible proof to anthropometrics actually determining athletic success.

However, should this deter us from playing sports we love because of our shape and size? Probably not. Unless we just want to try to win an Olympic medal and don’t care about the community, relationships, and joy that comes with playing the sport of our youth. Most of us just want to play to have an outlet for our competitive nature and to have fun and build relationships. We should play sports and activities that we truly enjoy. But if you are curious which anthropometric measurements you might be able to change to improve your game, keep reading (fun fact: you probably aren’t going to be able to change your limb length).

Performance Comes in All Shapes and Sizes

Every sport has a different average body composition measurement. This makes sense because there’s no reason for a baseball player to be as lean as a marathon runner or vice versa. And really, too much or too little body fat may actually impair performance in certain sports.

Now if you’re curious where you fall in the overarching category of body fat for the general population let’s take a look. Athletic males fall in the 5-10% body fat category while athletic females have 8-15%. In the good category, males have 11-14% and females 16-23%. In the acceptable category, males have 15-20% and females 24-30%. Anything above this and we fall into the category of overweight or obese.

Does this mean that in order to compete in athletics that we should have a body fat percentage in the “athletic” category? No, it’s dependent upon our sport.

Those that participate in endurance sports like running and rowing, or bodyweight sports like gymnastics, typically have lower body fat percentages. For instance, male triathletes and male gymnasts have an average of 5-12% body fat while females have about 10-16% body fat. This places these athletes in the athletic category. However, female sprinters may have up to 22% and male baseball players up to 18% body fat which puts them in the good category, bordering the acceptable category.

Lower fat mass is indicative of enhanced endurance running performance. So think of all the sports that require lots of running like soccer, basketball, marathon running, etc.

Less Fat = Run Faster

Mainly because with less fat mass we will weigh less also, and for those of us that are bigger and weigh more, we know the struggle is real when it comes to distance running. A recent study has demonstrated the ability to actually predict a decrease in running speed with an increase in fat mass. Meaning, the more fat mass we have the slower our pace becomes.

We’ve talked a lot about body fat, but with body composition, it is necessary to also discuss lean mass or muscle mass. In rugby players, lower limb lean mass is important for athletic performance. Especially since over the course of a season, rugby players lose lower limb strength and power. Having greater lean mass helps to maintain or prevent those losses over the course of a season. Flipping the script from lower body to upper body lean mass...in cross-country skiers, we find that greater upper body lean mass is important for improved poling performance.

So, it’s more than just physiological variables that determine athleteic performance, we also have to consider anthropometric measurements.

Performance Anatomy

Now limb length is something that we cannot change. We were all born to be a certain height and our arms and legs designed to be a certain length. But, we cannot ignore the fact that our anatomy influences athletic performance.

The greatest example of this phenomenon is Michael Phelps. Michael Phelps is arguably one of the greatest swimmers of all time. Like, he’s really good. Michael Phelps was designed to swim. He’s tall, hovering at 6’4, has a wingspan of 6’7 (which usually your wingspan is your height), has the torso of someone who is 6’8, the lower body of someone 5’10, and has size 14 feet. All of these variables make him perfectly designed to be a great swimmer. His anatomy minimizes drag in the water and enhances the power and velocity behind every stroke allowing him to be speedy in the water.

This is backed by science, those with a longer body have greater streamline effects and less drag. Also, by increasing stroke length (possibly with longer arms) we see an increase in the speed or velocity of the person swimming allowing for a faster time.

We find that longer lower limbs also play an essential role in running performance. It is well known that an athlete with a high running economy will perform well. A greater running economy means that energy is being conserved and the athlete can perform at a high intensity without feeling fatigued too quickly. Those with longer lower limbs have a greater running economy.

Longer lower limbs may also be beneficial for sports that require jumping like basketball or ballet. Longer lower limbs are associated with greater vertical jump in ballet dancers, however, with longer lower limbs comes less range of motion at those joints. It’s not just tight hamstrings that prevent tall people from touching their toes.

PowerDot to Shape Performance

As we’ve already discussed, changing your limb length is going to be quite challenging, and we think everyone is already built perfectly. But something we can change is our body composition. We can always work to improve our lean muscle mass and decrease our body fat. If not for improving sport performance, for just general health and longevity in life.

Now we’re not saying that you can hook-up your PowerDot, sit on the couch, and magically get the body of your dreams. However, adding PowerDot to all things life related may help to enhance muscle mass and decrease fat.

Do you want your waist and midline to look and feel firmer and more toned? Then look no further! Using Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES; aka. PowerDot), people have decreased their abdominal and waist girth while also feeling more firm in their midsection. We have an abdominal program uniquely created for this purpose and all you have to do is hit the “start” button and you’re one step closer to those firm, toned abs.

How is this possible?

When you use your PowerDot, your muscles are contracting which has been shown to increase your metabolic rate, ie. burn calories. So even just sitting with your PowerDot on you are burning more calories and giving yourself that extra advantage.

This may enhance our Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT). NEAT is energy expended from everything we do that is not sleeping, eating, or planned exercise. Think of things like fidgeting or walking further to get to the store from your parking spot. These things increase NEAT. And over the course of a day or week, these calories begin to add up. By putting more things, like using your PowerDot Smart Muscle Stimulator, into your day that increases NEAT, you can increase caloric expenditure without even thinking about it. Add your PowerDot into your everyday life to ultimately enhance life to the fullest.



Joshua D. Dexheimer, PhD, CSCS, USAW, PES

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