Soccer players are finely tuned athletes, with bodies that have been crafted through hard work, training, and the perfect diet. To make it in MLS, or indeed any major national soccer league takes a lot of hard work. Even if our domestic game is still catching up around with others around the world, it still demands a level of fitness like never before.
You see players such as Christian Pulisic or Lionel Messi remove their shirts after scoring, and they look like they’ve been sculpted by Michelangelo; such is their physique.
However, not all soccer players are the same, and players’ weights are on the increase. A study showed the average weight of players at the 2018 World Cup, which did not feature the USMNT, was heavier than at any competition previous this century. Why is this? Are some players just overweight? Are others able to blame science and progression for their weight?
We examine some of the key issues around players’ weight here.
Over the years, there have been some players who simply always look overweight, and in the past, they probably were. These players are often described as burly or well-built, and despite the fitness regime, training, and diet, their physique never really changed. They’re few and far between these days, but players such as Jan Molby, Matt Le Tissier, and Neil Ruddock were once commonplace – robust players who could perform at the highest level but never seemed at peak physical fitness.
One thing many of these so-called fat players had in common was the era in which they played – the late eighties and early nineties. There’s no doubt there was a drinking culture back in those days, especially around Europe, and some players simply were overweight. It was only around 1995 that major European leagues started paying close attention to weight and diets.
Changing Set Point Weights
Much of that has changed thanks to sports science, but that doesn’t account for today’s heavier players. Of modern players, nine out of ten soccer players have a BMI that falls within the normal range. However, some players are still naturally bigger than others. Panama star Roman Torres, at the time playing in MLS for Seattle, was the heaviest player at the 2018 World Cup, but he didn’t look heavy.
It turns out that it could be down to something called set point weight. This is the theory that every person has a certain weight that their body works hard to maintain. It’s believed to be why certain people hit a target weight, and then cannot get any lower because of it – their body works harder to maintain a certain fat content, irrespective of their height, background, and other defining features.
Is this why Torres, an elite soccer player currently playing indoor soccer with Dallas, was the heaviest at the World Cup in 2018? Possibly so. It doesn’t explain why players have seemingly got heavier, but it is an important factor. Set point weight is also believed to change with hard work and a prolonged spell of retuning your body. Perhaps the set point weight of a majority of players has risen, due to modern training techniques.
Whilst there is variation between players, and lifestyle choices have seen weights vary, it’s interesting to note that weights still seem to be going up. One explanation for this could be that set point weights are increasing; players now are not fatter, but they do have more muscle. For instance, the accepted average weight for a larger soccer player is around 180 lbs, but Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, once of LA Galaxy, is around 210lbs.
Is he fat? No, far from it, but at 6ft 5in, he is a significant size. With a sharp training routine, one built on building muscle to make him stronger in the tackle and able to get more power behind the ball, he is likely to weigh more, even if his physical fitness is still way in advance of the likes of Molby and Ruddock, who we mentioned earlier.
Indeed, physical strength is something of an attribute now, especially for a striker. Up until recently, an English soccer player called Adebayo Akinfenwa weighed 240lbs and was considered one of the best players at his particular level, one below the Premier League. Is it the case that, over decades, the set point weight of players is increasing? It’s highly possible, given the long-term changes in diet and conditioning within the game.
The underlying fact here is that a player’s weight is not an indication of whether he is overweight or not. Muscle mass adds to weight, and today’s soccer players are muscly and more focused on strength than ever before. Just because weights are going up doesn’t mean the focus has shifted from fitness, far from it.