For weight category athletes, making weight is one of the key concerns in pre-fight preparation. In many cases it could be argued that fighters and coaches vastly misunderstand how to effectively bring about controlled weight reduction. Hopefully this guide will clear up some of these misconceptions.
The key concept to understand is that in order to lose weight you must consume less energy from food and drink per day than your body burns up. In simplified terms, weight loss will occur if:
Energy intake IS LESS THAN Energy expenditure
Therefore, in order to lose weight you must decrease energy intake and/or increase energy expenditure. In most cases it is optimal to attack it from both angles. Energy expenditure is not just about the exercise we perform, it also includes the energy the body uses to perform all the functions that just keep the body alive. To use the colloquial term, we’ll just call this ‘metabolism.’ What is interesting to note is that the choices you make in what you eat and how you eat it can actually dramatically affect the ‘energy expenditure’ part of this equation through changes in metabolism.
The first part of this weight loss equation, then, is how much food or how many calories do you need to eat every day in order to lose some weight. Firstly, using the following equations, you need to calculate the level of calorie intake that will allow you to maintain your bodyweight:
From this maintenance level of calories you have to subtract the calories that will allow you to lose weight. In order to lose approximately 1kg (2.2lbs) per week you need to subtract 1000kcal per day from this maintenance level of calorie intake (and 500kcal for 0.5kg etc.). These figures are just start point guides and everyone’s bodies will respond slightly differently. Keep detailed notes of bodyweight changes at various calorie intakes and activity levels as this will be a useful reference for the future and will permit the necessary fine tuning to take place.
It is suggested that a weight loss of around 1kg (2.2lbs) per week is the maximum rate of weight loss any athlete should be aiming for. In fact I would suggest a figure of around half of this. To many in the strength sport world these may seem like conservative figures compared with the magnitudes of the weight reductions they may have observed during pre competition cutting periods. The facts are that weight losses of any more than 1kg per week will result in a far greater percentage of the loss coming from lean muscle tissue; clearly not what we want. Furthermore, excessive weight drops are generally accounted for largely by reductions in water storage which may potentially lead to dehydration. Lastly, the body does not like change and the greater the magnitude of change, the more it will resist it. Efforts to bring about dramatic weight losses will result in a reduction in ‘metabolism’ which will reduce performance in training and actually make it more difficult to reduce weight in the long run. The key points are to think about body fat reduction as opposed to simply weight reduction and to use the time between contest preparation periods to work on reducing weight to competition levels or even below, not to indulge! This will permit the lifter to optimise food consumption levels during the pre-fight training period, where training intensities are highest. In a 2008 interview with Kurt Angle, wrestling Olympic gold medallist in 1996, he talked about how he always maintained his off season weight significantly below his fighting weight. Whereas other wrestlers were dieting heavily, engaging in unnecessary and non-specific cardiovascular exercise and sweating water out in saunas, Kurt was consuming more calories at the time his body needed it the most. He observed that “a lot of guys in wrestling had to cut a lot of weight and when they’re cutting weight they’re not training because they don’t have any energy. They’re wrestling half assed, they’re conditioning half assed, they’re lifting half assed. They’re not eating, they’re not drinking enough fluids. So their training suffers and when your training suffers your wrestling suffers. I didn’t believe in cutting weight.” Kurt not only won an Olympic gold but has also gone on to have a highly successful professional wrestling career into his forties. The concept of dieting up to a weight would be totally alien to most in the strength sport world but it actually makes far more sense when you think about it. The problem, of course, is that this requires commitment and dedication between contests. At the most, no lifter should allow their weight to exceed six pounds above contest weight.
Whilst calorie/energy balance plays the key role in determining weight status, as previously observed, there are other factors at work which actually affect the energy expenditure part of the equation.
Reduce consumption of fats and make what you do eat, ‘good’ fat
· Per gram, fat has more than twice the calories of carbohydrate and protein.
· When an individual eats fat, their body stores 97% of the calories from that fat, only using 3% of the energy to digest it. With carbohydrate or protein, as much as 15% of the energy contained within it is burned in digestion.
· The amount of fat ‘burnt’ by the body is basically constant throughout the day. However, when excess carbohydrate or protein is consumed, the body ‘turns up the burners’ and, to a point, simply metabolises more.
· You should ensure that only 20-25% of your daily energy allowance comes from fats. As a simple rule, comprise your diet mainly of foods which contain less than 2.5g of fat per 100kcal. Food labels do not list this specifically so you will have to employ your maths skills and do the calculation.
· Good fats are found in many foods including nuts, seeds, oily fish etc. Indeed, having some essential fats (you may have heard of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats) in your diet may actually help you drop body fat and as such it may be prudent to include a couple of meals rich in these fats in your diet each week.
· There is a big debate surrounding whether or not saturated fats, such as those from animal sources, are really as bad as they have been painted to be for many years. There is, in fact, a strong argument that they may be the safest oils to cook in.
· Avoid hydrogenated, trans-fats at all costs.
Eat regularly throughout the day and don’t skip meals
· When a person goes for a long period without eating the body’s survival mechanisms kick in and the metabolism is slowed down. The burners are turned down so to speak. As such the body burns fewer calories all the time.
· The key, then, is not to skip meals. Breakfast is vital as it is the first meal following the long fast during sleep.
· Eat breakfast and then eat sensibly sized meals every two and a half to three hours. As such you should be looking to eat perhaps five or, ideally, six times a day.
Moderate alcohol intake
· Alcohol, per gram, is high in calories with only slightly fewer than fat and not far off double that of carbohydrate. Plus alcohol calories are not an efficient energy source.
· Thus, the best advice if you’re trying to lose weight is simply to consume as little alcohol as you possibly can.
Try and get your carbohydrate from ‘good’ sources and ensure adequate fibre intake
· Stick with low glycaemic index carbohydrate sources. These are the foods which only raise blood sugar levels slowly and by smaller amounts. It is worth having a read around the web or picking up a book on glycaemic index and glycaemic load.
Making weight should not be seen as the focus of the week or two before a competition, or even in the pre-competition training cycle. Maintaining contest weight must be a year round objective. To me, making weight for a fight should only be an issue of tinkering with a pound here and there, no more.