Skeletal muscle mass in human athletes: What is the upper limit?

Am J Hum Biol. 2018 May;30(3):e23102. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.23102. Epub 2018 Jan 22.


Objectives: To examine the amount of absolute and relative skeletal muscle mass (SM) in large sized athletes to investigate the potential upper limit of whole body muscle mass accumulation in the human body.

Methods: Ninety-five large-sized male athletes and 48 recreationally active males (control) had muscle thickness measured by ultrasound at nine sites on the anterior and posterior aspects of the body. SM was estimated from an ultrasound-derived prediction equation. Body density was estimated by hydrostatic weighing technique, and then body fat percentage and fat-free mass (FFM) were calculated. We used the SM index and FFM index to adjust for the influence of standing height (ie, divided by height squared).

Results: Ten of the athletes had more than 100 kg of FFM, including the largest who had 120.2 kg, while seven of the athletes had more than 50 kg of SM, including the largest who had 59.3 kg. FFM index and SM index were higher in athletes compared to controls and the percentage differences between the two groups were 44% and 56%, respectively. The FFM index increased linearly up to 90 kg of body mass, and then the values leveled off in those of increasing body mass. Similarly, the SM index increased in a parabolic fashion reaching a plateau (approximately 17 kg/m2 ) beyond 120 kg body mass.

Conclusions: SM index may be a valuable indicator for determining skeletal muscle mass in athletes. A SM index of approximately 17 kg/m2 may serve as the potential upper limit in humans.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Athletes / statistics & numerical data*
  • Body Composition / physiology*
  • Body Size*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Ultrasonography
  • United States
  • Young Adult