Let’s be honest, losing weight is simple! I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m saying it’s simple. What’s difficult is maintaining performance, not lose muscle mass, minimising fatigue, and not walking around hangry the whole time, all at the same time you’re losing weight.
So let's dive into a bit more detail on how this is achieved, shall we?
Stay close to the target
During the off-season, when no competitions are coming up, it's important to stay somewhat close to competition weight. If the weight is kept in the realm of 2kg within your weight class there is no need for losing weight, but rather cutting weight. Now, this is a very important point and one that needs to be understood correctly before moving forward. Losing weight is the process to lower one's body weight in a permanent fashion, where cutting weight is more of a temporary process. For the best results, one should stay close to competition weight during the off-season. This is for a couple of reasons, one is familiarity. Being familiar with your body weight gives a good level of predictability for everyday changes, both physically and psychologically. A second reason is strength development. When trying to increase or maintain strength caloric intake is tremendously important and staying at a caloric maintenance or a caloric surplus during the off-season will ensure there is no loss of strength, that’s if your training is on point of course. The third reason being a shorter time needed to make weight. If you're 2 kg above your competition weight, all you really need to do is a water cut, really.
Far off target and don't know what to do?
In case of an emergency and you've decided to sign up for a competition in 7 days and you’re 6kg above weight you've got two options. The first option is calling the organiser of the event and ask them to move you a weight class up, or, the second option, you cancel the event. Reducing your weight a significant amount within a short period has its' complications. It heavily impairs performance, causes mental and physical fatigue, and gives you a bad experience on the platform. So I'd highly recommended against it. If you're going to lose more than 4kg nutritional changes are your best option for success.
Recommended strategies for weight loss
There are loads of different ways of losing weight for competition. Some better than others, yet, all with the same goal in mind; losing weight. Before going into it, it's important to know what the purpose of the weight loss is. Giving that this is a weightlifting blog I'll assume that the goal is to lose fat, maintain muscle mass, maintain performance, and minimise fatigue. For this to be possible, one has to be a bit mindful of what strategy is used.
For fat loss to take place only one thing needs to be accomplished; caloric deficit. Without it, you will never lose an ounce of fat. #Simple as that! You achieve a caloric deficit by consuming fewer calories than you're expending. For the average 25-year-old, 180cm, 80 kg male training 4 - 5 times per week to maintain his weight his caloric intake has to be 2.644Kcal. Consuming anything below that amount will cause weight loss. However, a healthy recommendation for weight loss is approximately 0.5kg per week. To achieve a weight loss of 0.5kg per week a daily caloric deficit of 500kcal is required. We know this because studies have found that 3.500kcal accommodates for approximately 1 pound (0.45kg). Take that number, divide it by 7 (days in the week) and you have 500Kcal #quickmaths. Now, only losing weight isn't good enough. We have to know what that weight consists of, preferably fat. So let's get into the macros.
Fat loss and muscle maintenance
For muscle mass to be maintained and fat to be lost three things need to be in order; carbohydrate, protein, and fat intake. Although the sum of the calories from the macros will be in a caloric deficit, the ratio of those macros plays an important role in tissue composition.
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy, fuelling all your activities. An important note: your brain ONLY runs on carbohydrates! Take it out of your diet and you'll fatigue rather quickly and the body will use other sources for energy, namely proteins and fats... Other than straight-up being an energy source, carbohydrates have an abundance of different roles within the body. Like preserving muscle by fuelling the glycogen storages, promotes digestive health.
The amount of carbohydrates optimal for athletes varies a great deal from athlete to athlete. This is mainly due to the energy expenditure of the sport practised. A triathlon athlete will need much higher quantities of carbohydrates than a weightlifter. On one hand, a triathlon athlete training 2 - 3 hours, 5 - 6 times weekly will require somewhere in the area of 5 - 8 g/kg/d. That is a massive amount of carbohydrates. The weightlifter, on the other hand, will only need somewhere around 0.5 - 1.5 g/kg/d.
Proteins; the powerhouse of the body. They are the fundamental building block for all the cells in the body, including muscle cells. When in a caloric deficit the body will have a harder time maintaining muscle. Many studies have looked into the amount of protein optimal for maintaining a sufficient protein balance and to minimise muscle loss during a period of a caloric deficit. Although the majority of the literature found different results, most range from 1.4 - 2.0 g/kg/d. However, there is evidence to suggest that protein intake should be as high as 2.3 - 3.1 g/kg/d to maintain muscle mass during periods of hypo-caloric intake.
The most important role of fat, in regards to maintaining muscle mass, is its function in protein synthesis. For the proteins to have their effect in building/maintaining muscle mass, protein synthesis has to work efficiently. Without any fats in your diet it doesn't matter how much protein you're consuming. Evidence suggests that the amount of fat required for optimal function is between 0.5 - 1 g/kg/d. Besides, fats highly influence the hormonal balance. And with uncontrollable hormones people seem to, how do I put this lightly, be bloody annoying to be around. So, do everyone a favour and stay on top of your hormonal game.
Some quick maths, #skrraaa
With the numbers mentioned above, let's see where it takes us. Let's use the same example as we did earlier, with the 25-year-old male, weighing 80kg, is 180cm tall, and trains weightlifting 4 - 5 times per week. This leaves us with a calorie intake of 2.644Kcal per day to maintain his current weight of 80kg. For this fella to lose 0.45kg per week he needs to go into a 500kcal deficit, leaving him at 2.144Kcal. For an easy understanding, we'll use the higher end of the recommendation from the literature. Carbohydrates: 80 x 1.5 = 120g. Protein: 80 x 3.1 = 248g. Fat: 80 x 1 = 80g. Knowing that carbohydrates and proteins contain 4Kcal per gram we can calculate the number of calories by adding the grams and multiplying them by 4. 120 + 248 = 368g, 368 x 4 = 1.472Kcal. Fats are 9Kcal per gram, therefore: 80 x 9 = 720Kcal. Adding the calories from the carbohydrates and proteins with the calories from the fats, 1.472+720, we get 2.192Kcal. This equates to a calorie deficit of 452Kcal, perfect for healthy fat loss.
I do want to say, that an intake of 248g of proteins might be a struggle. So, if you’re going to lower the protein intake make sure to increase the carbohydrate intake with a ratio of 1:1. Meaning, per gram of protein decreased there will be a gram of carbohydrate increased. However, make sure to stay within the protein recommendations mentioned above.
There are quite a few factors that come into play when trying to maximise performance and lose weight at the same time. Most are non-nutrition based, like volume and intensity periodisation. However, there are a few factors surrounding nutrition that you might like.
First of all, fluids. Fluid loss of 5% or more of body weight during physical activities may decrease the capacity for work by as much as 30% and increases the risk of a heatstroke significantly. In addition to fluid dehydration affecting the capacity for work, losses of perspiration (sweating) greater than 2% of body weight will increase the risk of nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting and gastrointestinal problems. Just saying! That being said, the optimal level of fluid intake is based on fluid loss. Average sweat loss is between 0.5 - 2 L/hour during exercise. Again, like with the carbohydrates, this varies from sport to sport. For weightlifters, because it's not as exhausting as, let's say, Crossfit, it's probably on the lower end of that scale, at 0.5L/hour. But we also lose fluid when not exercising. The average fluid loss by diffusion through the skin is about 0.3 to 0.4 L/day, and an approximately equal amount is lost through the respiratory tract. That combined is a total of 0.6 - 0.8 L/day. Add on top of that 1 L/hour trained (2-hour session) and you're getting close to 3L of fluid loss daily. These numbers are just averages, so if you're a big strong lad/lady you might want to adjust those numbers slightly. Having said all this, it's not good enough just to down 3L of water in the morning and then everything is hunky-dory for the rest of the day. Strategically timing when you consume fluids does make a considerable difference to performance. Making sure to drink water in the morning after waking up, before, during, and after training, and lastly before going to bed. If that wasn't enough, there are still ways to optimise fluid levels even further. For the body to retain this amount of water daily you also need to ensure that you are on top of the electrolyte game. Without the consumption of electrolytes the water you're drinking will just flush straight through the system. Electrolytes are minerals in food, more specifically sodium, calcium, potassium, chloride, phosphate, and magnesium. If your food intake includes different types of fruit and a variety of vegetables you'll get most of your electrolytes. But in case you're still low on electrolytes sports drinks like Lucozade sport, Gatorade, and other drinks alike are being specifically for athletes to ensure they're getting enough electrolytes, well, that and making a sh*t ton of money. With enough electrolytes in your system the body will be able to retain more of the water you’re drinking and therefor putting it to good use.
Eat with volume in mind
Volume eating is not a new diet, but a logical way of reducing hunger while in a caloric deficit. The idea is based on the premise of increasing the volume of low-calorie baed food, reducing the amount of calorie-dense foods, therefore increasing the food/calorie ratio, resulting in an increase in the total amount of food consumed.
Here's an explanation. When you look at the energy content of broccoli versus chicken, broccoli contains 34kcal in 100g compared to 240kcal per 100g in chicken. When you then compare them calories-wise you need 80g of chicken to consume 100 calories compared to 300g of broccoli to consume 100 calories.
When you eat more food, we experience a sense of satiety or fullness. Using the strategy of volume eating to your advantage means that you'll be able to eat more food, yet the same, or even fewer calories, never feel hungry, and still lose weight. Without restricting any specific food categories, like potatoes, rice, carbohydrates as a whole, or restricting fat-based food just because they're calorie-dense, you can eat the same types of food that you normally do (obviously being sensible and 'healthy'), just in lower quantities and add a whole lot more of low-calorie foods, mainly vegetables.
The biggest cause for weight loss fatigue is a calorie deficit too great to handle. Being in a 1.000 - 1.500Kcal deficit will not only decrease your performance, but it will drain every ounce of energy in your system. You'll feel tired most of the day, needing constant caffeine refills to be able to function, being generally demotivated, and have difficulty focusing. These are all symptoms of fatigue and should be taken seriously. In case you are familiar with these symptoms, other than contacting your doctor to get a check-up, making sure that you're getting enough food and fluid should be the first point of call. This is the reasoning behind the premise of not being in a calorie deficit greater than 500kcal per day by the way.
The water cut
The question of whether or not a water cut is necessary for competition is still lingering around the weightlifting community. However, there is a solid reason for why it's still relevant, although you'll have to compete only two hours after weigh-ins. There is a strong correlation between body weight and strength. As you gain weight your strength is likely to follow. Yes, this is mainly due to a change in tissue composition more so than water. However, as mentioned earlier, lower fluid levels decrease performance output. So if you can "dehydrate" for the weigh-in, and rehydrate for the following two hours you're winning on both fronts. You'll be lighter to make the weight necessary, while you'll perform to your fullest on the platform due to good rehydration following the weigh-in.
But how does one even do a water cut? It's fairly straight forward. The week leading up to the competition you'll over hydrate, drinking 5 - 7L of pure water daily. Yes, this will make you go to the toilet incredibly often. When you've done that for 5 days and your body has gotten "used" to it you'll drop down drastically for the last 48h before weigh-in. On the sixth day drink 1L, and the last day before competition only sip water when necessary, essentially when your mouth is all dried up. In the following morning weigh yourself, and based on your weight you'll drink accordingly. If you're under your required weight drink a bit to close the gap, leaving a bit of a buffer, or if you're above the required weight don't drink anything and try going to the toilet to reduce it even further. Losing weight in saunas or layering up on plastic bags and going for a run is an ABSOLUTE last resort, and to be fair, if you're at that stage wouldn't it be just as smart to cancel the competition anyway? #Foodforthought
Rehydration, following the weigh-in, getting hydration levels back to normal is EXTREMELY important. Have fast-acting electrolytes the second you step off the scales. By that, I mean through fluids and not food. Having a Lucozade or having your water with an electrolyte tablet. Make sure to drink loads of water, at least 0.5 - 1L!
Fat percentage vs. Athletic performance
When reducing body fat, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Fat percentage is not only used to quantify how ripped you are but can also determine your level of performance. And to be clear, those two don't overlap. Being ripped to shreds like Helmut Streb, the shredded c*nt in the picture above, does not equal optimal athletic performance.
Evidence suggests that different levels of fat percentages result in different levels of athletic performance. And for weightlifting, performance should be prioritised over looks. With that being said, what is the recommended fat percentage for optimal performance?
7% body fat has been established by many medical authorities as the safe, minimal per cent body fat in the athletic population. However, that doesn't mean optimal performance is achieved at 7% body fat, but rather the fact that anything below 7% body fat might result in an increase in health-related issues. Because everyone is different there isn't a set percentage that equals to optimal performance, but rather a range. Evidence suggests that men in the range of 8 - 18% body fat perform better than athletes with a body fat percentage either lower or higher than that. For women, this range is considerably higher due to their gender-related fat depots and health risks regarding their menstruation cycle. It's been suggested that women shouldn't go below a fat percentage of 15%, and stay below 25% for optimal performance. However, this can vary largely between women due to genetic variation concerning those fat depots.
Normative data on fat percentages in weightlifting shows that men range between 9 - 16% and women between 14 - 20%. So for you guys who are trying to lose some weight for your next competition, try not to go crazy and lose too much, but stay within a healthy range. Maybe take notes on what percentage you perform the best and use that as your goal for your next competition.