We recently published a paper in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (Bisch et al., 2020) on body composition measures in 90 NCAA Division I collegiate female volleyball athletes. The main objective of this study was to measure positional differences in total and regional body composition among female NCAA Division I collegiate volleyball players using dual X-ray absorptiometry (DXA). A second objective was to examine normative age curves for fat mass and lean muscle mass.

Body composition measures of female collegiate volleyball athletes (Table 1).
Due to the large sample size, we were able to provide position-specific total and regional body composition measures for our female collegiate volleyball players. We divided our female collegiate volleyball athletes into libero (n=18), middle blocker (n=31), outside hitter (n=32), and setter (n=9). Given the unique demands of each position, it is not too surprising that we found differences in body composition between the different positions. As expected height was significantly different across all positions with front row players (i.e., middle blockers and outside hitters) were taller compared with non-front players (i.e., libero, setter). Total body mass followed a similar trend to height with middle blockers and outside hitters weighing more than libero while middle blockers weighed more than setters.  

So let’s look at the body composition data. First of all, there was no difference in percent body fat across the different positions. These results are different than what we found in collegiate female basketball players where there were significant differences in percent body fat by position. Our female volleyball players had a percent body fat that was similar to a collegiate female basketball shooting guard (23.5+4.8%), but less than a center (28.1+8.6%) (Raymond-Pope et al., 2020). Given there is no difference in percent body fat, but a significant difference in height it is not surprising that total lean muscle mass was greater in middle blockers and outside hitters compared with libero and setters. However, if we adjust for the difference in height we find that there was no difference in lean skeletal mass between libero, middle blockers, outside hitters, and setters. Demonstrating that lean muscle mass is comparable for all positions if you correct for height.

If we examine total fat mass we see that it was significantly greater in middle blockers compared to libero.  Even after adjusting for height this difference in total fat mass between middle blockers and libero remained significant. On average, front row players had greater total fat mass compared with non-front row players. It should be noted that even though there were differences in total fat mass visceral adipose tissue was not different across positions

One of the interesting differences in body composition that we observed was the positional differences in bone mineral density. Even when adjusting for the differences in total body mass, bone mineral density was greater in middle blockers and outside hitters than libero. These observed positional differences in bone mineral density may be a byproduct of front row players’ repeated impacts from jumping during the attacking and blocking actions.  

The other specific aim of this paper was to examine normative age curves for fat mass and lean muscle mass. To examine normative age curves we calculated a Lean Muscle Mass Index (LMI) and Fat Mass Index (FMI) by dividing total lean muscle mass and total fat mass in kilograms by height in meters-squared.  What we observed was minimal change in the normative age curve for LMI while there was significant fluctuation FMI across multiple ages. 


What does it all mean?
One of the main things to take away from this research is that body composition varies across positions in volleyball, specifically between the front row and back row positions. Coaches and performance staff can expect front row players to have greater total and regional lean muscle mass and bone mineral density compared with non-front row players, and greater total fat mass. However, even with these differences in total lean muscle mass, the percent body fat across positions was similar.

The other point to take away from this article is that there were fluctuations in fat mass over an athlete’s collegiate career, however there were little changes in lean muscle mass. Although coaches and performance staff may want to build more lean mass in athletes during their collegiate career in reality little change will be made in lean mass.  Finally, coaches and training staff can expect changes in fat mass, especially during that first year. Like a lot of college students’ freshman athletes tend to add fat mass.

Bisch KL, Bosch TA, Carbuhn A, Stanforth PR, Oliver JM, Bach CW, Dengel DR: Positional Body composition of female division I collegiate volleyball players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 34(11):3055-3061, 2020.

Raymond-Pope CJ, Solfest AL, Carbuhn A, Stanforth PR, Oliver J, Bach CW, Bosch T, Dengel DR: Total and regional body composition of NCAA division I collegiate basketball athletes. International Journal of Sports Medicine 41(4):242-247, 2020.

About the Author
Donald Dengel, Ph.D., is a Professor in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota and is a co-founder of Dexalytics. He serves as the Director of the Laboratory of Integrative Human Physiology, which provides clinical vascular, metabolic, exercise and body composition testing for researchers across the University of Minnesota.

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