Ben Parker is Gold Coast Sports Nutritionist. He started as a chef & nutritionist with the AIS and Australian swim team.

Highlights from the episode:

  • Muscle mass and body composition for AFL athletes
  • How to educate athletes to gain muscle mass gradually
  • His take on clubs that has not done skin folds as performance metric
  • Mistakes he noticed in athletes about body composition

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Interview Transcript

Jack: We now have Ben Parker, presenting on what is the ideal body composition for Australian rules footballers. Thanks for jumping on, Ben. 

Ben: Thanks for having me again, Jack. Good to see you. See, I’m unwrapping the PLP T-shirt.

Jack: It’s looking sharp, mate. I need to get back into the gym, I think. You’re showing me up. You’re wearing it way better than me.

Ben: Thanks, mate.

Jack: We’ll get straight into what everyone wants to know. Well, not everyone, but I can imagine a lot of athletes and I know a few that I spoke to just leaving the gym this afternoon. What is the best way to gain muscle mass?

Ben: Obviously, that’s a pretty complicated topic and there’s a lot in it. Actually, first of all, if you don’t mind, I would like to touch on why you’d want to gain muscle mass in the first place.

Jack: Absolutely.

Ben: When speaking about body composition for AFL… Actually, I’ve got a question for you, Jack. What is the ideal body composition for an AFL athlete? 

Jack: Well, I would say it would be specific to their position. It would be a fair factor to take into account. So, your key position guys need to be strong in the contest, so they need to have a bit more muscle mass, particularly the rucks, key forwards, key backs.

And then you’ve got your wingers outside, mids that probably need to be on the leaner side. Any excess weight for them would be a huge focus. Making sure they’re quite efficient, so they can cover the ground for those high intensity efforts. Similar with a small forwards. The way the game’s moving now, it’s quite dynamic. So, the repeat high-intensity efforts is pretty important.

And then you’ve got your inside ballers that need a lot of body armor to be able to handle the collisions. A little bit more like a rugby-based physique for those guys. And then you’ll have your aerial players that need to look like a basketballer, so they can jump nice and high.

So, I guess, specific to the position they play and then everyone’s got different genetics as well. So, making sure that we’re really sharpening their weapon from a genetic point of view, so they’re at a good way that suits their body from a subjective point of view. They feel good when they play. How is that? Have I answered your question?

Ben: Absolutely. Perfect answer, as expected. So, as you said correctly, it’s a massive mixed bag. There’s different positions and each position also needs to have the flexibility to move into other roles as well. So, the short answer is there is no one ideal physique for an AFL athlete.

Which is actually in contrast to a lot of other sports. If you think about basketballers, it’s pretty homogenous, really. You’re talking about tall guys with long arms spans. If you’re talking about track sprinters, a hundred meter sprint, you’re talking about generally pretty muscular, especially in the legs. If you’re talking about marathon runners across the board, elite marathon runners are going to be small, energy-efficient, very light, very slim.

And as you’ve alluded to, AFL demands all those things from a single athlete. So, to be the best and to be an ideal AFL athlete, you’ve really got to be a jack-of-all-trades, don’t you?

Jack: Absolutely.

Ben: There’s a lot of demands in AFL in terms of body composition and there’s a lot of advantages that you can get for your physical traits. And you’ve pretty much outlined all of them perfectly, which physical traits would be advantageous for each position.

In general, because we’re asking them to run such far distance, even the players who run the least, they’re still going to cover 8, 9, 10 kilometers over the course of a game generally. It’s usually advantageous to be leaner rather than carrying excess body fat in most cases. Excess body fat does give you that additional body armor, as you put it, and a bit more weight to throw around. Unfortunately, you have to also carry that across the field for the entire duration of the game and that costs additional energy.

And so, in a sport where we need energy efficiency, in general you’re going to be more energy-efficient if you’re leaner. So, what we want to really do is get functional mass onto the athletes. By adding lean mass too to person’s physique, you’re actually generating more force with that muscle and generating more power. And it’s not just dead weight that you’re carrying around. 

Jack: It’s functional to the athleticism. 

Ben: Yeah. And so, I think that all leads into your first question of why you want to gain more lean mass and generally reduce fat mass within a certain range. And that’s going to be individualized for each person based on what their genetics are, what their starting point is, what their specific role is. And so, when we talk about body composition with athletes, I think it’s really important to consider all those factors and also consider the impact of changing their body composition on their game and how it’s going to affect the game.

So, we measure body composition. There’s lots of different ways we can do it. We can look at DEXA scans. We can look at Bod Pods. We can look at skinfolds. We can just be looking in the mirror and seeing what your physique looks like. Just daily body weights, simple things like that. And then there’s other methods that we don’t really use, like our biological impedance, underwater weighing, and even Bod Pod, generally we don’t have access to that. It’s difficult, but it can be good. So, where was I going with that?

Jack: And then for the young boys, let’s say, the first year boys that are in the professional system, from a philosophy perspective, how do you go about educating them that we don’t want to put on all that muscle or that quickly? Like you mentioned, it needs to be gradual for it to be functional and to prevent injuries or to lose their running game. What are some good ways or some good milestones to set in for those young players? You know they’re growing into their body, they’re not at the AFL level yet in terms of their size, for men and women, so you don’t want to do it overnight. 

Ben: Absolutely. And every individual is different. And the rate that every individuals will gain muscle mass at varies greatly. So again, you have to take it on a case by case basis with each athlete and set realistic goals for that athlete based on their progress.

The other thing I like to do with body composition is body composition in and of itself. Like we do skinfolds and DEXA, for example, it’s really important to remember that it’s not a performance measurement. We use it to track changes and look at whether or not our interventions are effective or not, and whether or not that muscle mass is increasing or the body fat is decreasing. But we want to look at it in the context of the rest of the athletes preparation.

I like to talk about, ‘Well, your skinfolds are down this month, but how’s your running? How are you feeling out on the field? How are you going in the gym? What numbers are you putting up? And do we have quantifiable metrics in all those areas that we can tie into the whole picture and make an informed decision on whether or not we’re doing the right things and we’re moving in the right direction in terms of body composition?’

I know that didn’t really answer your question that well. Essentially, the long and the short of it is it’s very individualized and we have to do it on a case by case basis. 

Jack: And it’s footballers specifically who are thinking about the game and what’s going to help them play the game, opposed to, like you’ve mentioned, the skinfolds being the measure. Which, no doubt, is quite an invasive, especially if you’re new to the club, quite an intimidating experience to do it. And you’re heavily judged.

So, you can imagine, if you didn’t get the result or the target, how that can, like you said, influence everything, even though they’re training really well, they are hitting their base in the gym, they’re feeling really good. And then they do their skinfolds and it’s like all that’s forgotten about. So, you raised a good point. 

Some clubs, from rumors, I don’t know if it’s whispers or not, but apparently have not done skinfolds before. What’s your take on skinfolds? 

Ben: I believe the issue of late, and Pip’s actually in a better position to talk about this than I am, but at the combine we’ve stopped doing skinfolds as a one-off measure. And that’s because, as I said, it’s not a performance measure. It’s actually a tool to track change over time. So, a single measurement at one time isn’t really relevant. You can take skinfolds of a hundred people. Some people have got just thicker skin, you know what I mean? So it’s not really correct to compare one individual to another at a single time point, if that makes sense.

I’m not sure about how other clubs are using it on a day-to-day. We use it as a tool to track change over time within an individual. And it’s important to educate the players around that. As you said, it can be very confronting and uncomfortable and it’s important for them to know that we’re doing this to see if our intervention is having the desired effect and to then inform our future interventions. It’s not a contest to see who in the list has the lowest skinfolds, there’s no prizes for that. It’s a constant battle, we’re trying to educate boys around that and some of the stuff as well. 

Jack: And on that note, what are some common mistakes you’ve found working with athletes, when it comes to body composition being the focus?

Ben: Obviously, the primary mistakes were what I just said. People competing with each other and trying to get the lowest possible skinfolds, when that’s not necessarily what they need for their game and for their performance at that point in time.

In terms of mistakes around dieting, there’s thousands. But obviously the biggest one is your guys undereating calories and trying to starve themselves to get the skinfolds down or worse. What we want to do to get the skinfolds down is to eat a good quality, nutrient-rich diet that’s got all the micronutrients that we need and all the protein and everything to support us. And the carbohydrates around training, so that you’re not impacting your training, trying to drop your skinfolds. Because that’s a self-defeating task. What’s the point of dropping the skinfolds if you can’t train as hard. You completely miss the forest for the trees there.

So, if we are looking to reduce skinfolds, we never ever pull back energy around training sessions. We’ll use off days and low days to have less calorie-dense meals and more nutrient-dense meals. So, more fruit and vegetables and large volumes of food with lower calorie intakes. But still, making sure we’re fueling for training properly and never compromising on that.

Jack: I love that. Good advice for any age athletes, because I definitely know some senior players that have starved themselves to just get a result, that’s for sure. And Lucas has written another question. Any tips on maintaining weight? He said he’s at 78 kilos and wants to stay there, while still getting stronger and fitter.

Ben: Sure. So, if you’ve struggled to maintain weight, it sounds like he loses weight easily, some good tips around that is I’ll actually do liquid calories and things like smoothies and stuff like that. Because generally those liquid calories go in as an extra and you still maintain your normal eating patterns around them. So, that can be good ways to boost up your energy intake. Looking at more energy-dense meals and maybe increasing your protein intake as well a little bit.

Jack: Awesome.

Ben: That’s not very specific, but without having a conversation with you and finding out what your exact issue is, it’s difficult to pinpoint it.

Jack: Well, if Lucas wants to find out more information or if anyone else does, Ben, where’s the best place to get in contact with yourself? 

Ben: So, probably through my Instagram. I’m pretty active. Anything specific comes through that. And if you really want to see me, get drafted to the Suns.

Jack: Well, there you go. Awesome, mate. Thanks for jumping on and sharing your knowledge and practical tips for this as well, mate. 

Ben: My pleasure. Thanks, Jack. 

Jack: Thank you for listening to the ‘Prepare Like A Pro’ podcast. If you liked this episode, it’d be a massive help, if you could like, follow, rate, give a review or even share with your mates. The show is recorded in Melbourne, Australia. Be sure to follow our Instagram page for all updates on our latest and greatest.

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