For any athlete to maximise their performance, they need to be in the right shape for their sport and position.
Rugby encapsulates this perfectly.
Firstly, they need a high power to weight ratio to accelerate harder, reach a higher top speed, and be super agile whilst reducing the energy cost of running.
Secondly, they need to have a high momentum profile. Simply put, this is your weight multiplied by your speed. The heavier you are and faster you run, the harder you are to stop as you can break through tackles easier.
Thirdly, rugby players need high amounts of muscle to become robust and withstand an 80 minute rugby game.
In the perfect world, a rugby player needs to have high amounts of muscle mass and low(er) amounts of body fat to achieve all three points above.
In a 2020 review paper by Geeson-Brown and colleagues, they found that as you move from sub-elite to elite, or junior elite to senior elite, the most significant difference between players is how much muscle they have.
On a whole, the differences in body fat percentage and fat mass was relatively small in comparison – although there’s a trend for senior elite players to be leaner.
The differences in muscle could be due to maturation (junior to senior), time available to train (sub-elite to elite) or superior genetics.
Therefore, if you are a rugby player and want to kick-on in your career and progress faster than your team mates and opposition, perhaps it’s wise to focus on building muscle?
By all means, many (and I mean many) rugby players will be more effective with lower amounts of body fat, but the amount of muscle you have appears to be the more important component to develop for overall career progression.
So, should you forget about your body fat? No, not at all.
This is why we have Individual Development Plans (IDP) to define what is most important for the individual player as opposed to throwing a general recommendation of ‘you need to build more muscle’.
Even though this new research provides a nice general recommendation that it’s most likely true for the majority, it is not true for everybody.
Some players are too stacked, where some players are carrying too much unwanted body fat to maximise their performance.
Specificity to the individual is always key.