Why do athletes look the way they do?

We’ve all seen athletes and thought “Damn, they’re sexy” or “What a beast”. Yet, at the same time, athletes can look very different, depending on their sports or events. So what is it about each sport that forges their bodies, and what is it about their bodies that makes them good at their competition?

Photos courtesy of William Warby
Sprinters have well-muscled lower bodies, shoulders and cores, but are often average height.

Perhaps the prototypical athlete is the sprinter. Their form embodies power and speed. The standout muscles on sprinters are attached to their thighs, dominated by powerful quads and their glutes. Both groups of muscles are there to deliver up to 5x the runner’s bodyweight in force, while defined deltoids on the shoulders aid in the swing of arms. Aside from that, they’re generally average height, with some elites (like the 6’5″ Usain Bolt) skewing the numbers slightly taller.

Men- 6’0″/183cm ; 175lbs/80kg
Women- 5’6″/168cm  ; 123lbs/56kg

Photos by US Army and walknboston
Distance runners don’t have much limb mass and are generally below-average height.

Endurance runners are all about trimming weight. The more weight away from your center of mass, the more inhibited your running is, so these athletes have very slender builds, with proportionately longer legs to boost stride distance. Being shorter is also an advantage for shedding weight, but there are outliers, as well.

Men- 5’8″/173cm ; 130lbs/59kg
Women- 5’4″/162.5cm ; 105lbs/48kg

Photo by Jamie Jamieson
While their musculature is similar to sprinters (depending on weight class), lifters have shorter limbs.

Olympic lifters perform the snatch and clean & jerk, which utilize basically muscle from the calves to shoulders. This leads to an overall “dense” look, with especially defined trapezius muscles.

Powerlifters perform the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Since two-thirds of their score focuses on lower-body muscles, they have short legs that gives them a smaller range of motion (ie. They don’t have to move the weight as far). Longer arms also help on the deadlift, but hurt them on the bench press. This leads to a “poverty bench” (their bench is not as impressive as their other lifts). At heavier weights, and endomorphic build can help with balance and drive.

Mass obviously varies by weight class, but lifters are proportionately short for their weight. In the strongest “pound for pound” lifters, their heights are as follows.
Men: 5’3″/160cm
Women: 5’1″/155cm

Photo by Rogue Fitness
Crossfitters look most similar to bodybuilders, being average height and stocky.

Crossfitters have body shapes somewhere between weightlifters and bodybuilders. Shoulders are well-developed and the sets/reps they typically train with result in muscular hypertrophy and “V” torsos. Since the events are focused on strength and speed, they have sprinter-like builds, just with more muscle. They are short-to-average height.

Men- 5’9″/175cm ; 195lbs/88kg
Women- 5’3″/160cm ; 138lbs/63kg

Photos by SD Dirk and Guillaume Baviere
Jumpers and middle distance runners have long limbs with a fair amount of muscle, but are also taller than average.

Jumpers are kind of like a combination of sprinters and distance runners. They’re required to be powerful, but longer limbs can aid in leverage in gaining height and covering stride distance, so jumpers (as well as mid-distance runners) are usually a little taller than sprinters and only slightly heavier.


Other athletes can vary a lot more. Gymnasts are similar to sprinters in that they have to generate enormous force, but are much shorter to save on weight, like distance runners. Their most noticeable feature is often their latissimus dorsi, though. Then you have football players, futbol players, basketball players, and other teams, which can vary significantly, based on position played.


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