The ability of bioelectrical impedance analysis and anthropometry to predict fat mass and fat-free mass was compared in a sample of 82 male athletes from a wide variety of sports, using dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) as the reference method. The percent fat measured by DXA was 10.9+/-4.9% (mean +/- s), and fat mass was predicted with a standard error of the estimate of 1.7 kg for skinfolds and 2.8 kg for bioelectrical impedance analysis (P < 0.001). Fat-free mass was predicted with a standard error of the estimate of 1.7 kg for anthropometry and 2.6 kg for bioelectrical impedance analysis (P < 0.001). Regression of various individual skinfolds and summed skinfolds, to examine the effect of skinfold selection combinations by stepwise regression, produced an optimal fat mass prediction using the thigh and abdominal skinfold sites, and an optimal fat-free mass prediction using the thigh, abdominal and supra-ilium sites. These results suggest that anthropometry offers a better way of assessing body composition in athletes than bioelectrical impedance analysis. Applying the derived equations to a separate sample of 24 athletes predicted fat and fat-free mass with a total error of 2.3 kg (2.9%) and 2.2 kg (2.7%), respectively. Combining the samples introduced more heterogeneity into the sample (n = 106), and the optimal prediction of fat mass used six skinfolds in producing a similar standard error of the estimate (1.7 kg), although this explained a further 4% of the variation in DXA-derived fat. Fat-free mass was predicted best from four skinfolds, although the standard error of the estimate and coefficient of determination were unchanged.