The physical attributes of humans have been of interest to artists and scientists for centuries. Although the human form has been measured and described extensively, interest in manipulating its components through diet and exercise has increased within the last hundred years. There has been significant interest in describing the optimal morphology and/or composition of athletes for peak performance in specific sports, while accurately measuring changes in physique characteristics influenced by genetics, growth, training and nutrition.
For a substantial part of the twentieth century, body fat was a major focus of dietary interventions to enhance sports performance. This was attributed to the technology available (underwater weighing, skinfold calipers) and the nutrition focus at the time (Drinkwater & Ross 1980). In the early part of the twentieth century, anthropologist Jindřich Matiegka described a methodology for fractionating the body into three compartments (Matiegka 1921), which was added to many years later (Drinkwater & Ross 1980). Newer technologies allow reliable measurement of individual compartments of body composition. It is now less common for sports science and nutrition professionals to solely focus on fat mass (FM) when measuring and discussing body composition and sports performance. Sports dietitians need to be aware of new techniques and understand how various components of body composition can be influenced by nutrition interventions.
A relationship between sports performance and specific physique traits has been demonstrated in many sports over time (Novak et al. 1968; Sprynarova & Parizkova 1971; Raven et al. 1976; Fleck 1983; Farmosi et al. 1984; Olds 2001), including swimming (Siders et al. 1993; Carter & Ackland 1994; Anderson et al. 2008), track and field (Kyriazis et al. 2010; Watts et al. 2012; Black et al. 2020; Legaz & Eston 2005), rowing (Cosgrove et al. 1999; Slater et al. 2005; Kerr et al. 2007), sprint canoe and kayak (Ackland et al. 2003), track cycling (McLean & Parker 1989), and aesthetically judged and skill-based sports (Douda et al. 2008). Physique characteristics known to influence performance include stretch stature; body mass; absolute and relative measures of muscle, fat and bone; as well as other characteristics such as limb lengths, circumferences, bone breadths and composition of various regions (Kumagai et al. 2000; Legaz & Eston 2005). As outlined by Kerr and Ackland (2010), the assessment of physique in sports science has four fundamental applications:
to identify and understand physique characteristics critical to performance
to assess and monitor growth, especially in athletes on talent trajectories
to monitor the effectiveness of training programs and nutrition interventions
to determine safe and achievable body compositions for weight-category sports.
Physique attributes important for sports performance