It is inevitable in any sport such as Weightlifting that separates competitors into bodyweight categories that the participant will be faced with the proposition of manipulating their normal bodyweight up or down for a competitive advantage. More often, the proposition involves the athlete in weight loss and ‘making weight’ to compete in a lighter category than their normal bodyweight would allow. The weight loss will in some measure require the athlete to alter their normal diet over a period of days/weeks and/or implement various dehydration strategies during the last 24 hours before the weigh-in. Ideally, the athlete is able to reduce to the required bodyweight by obtaining, and observing in a disciplined manner, qualified nutritional advice so as to minimise detriment to performance. However, apart from the difficulty in obtaining qualified advice, efforts to reduce bodyweight do not easily achieve success for a variety of reasons. These reasons include a lack of support or understanding in the athlete’s home or work environment, insufficient athlete knowledge or motivation, dealing with emotional consequences of everyday life, the need for socialisation and difficulty measuring bodyweight accurately and timely. Moreover, attempts by an athlete to change their body mass meet with the body’s own regulatory mechanisms that alter metabolism to resist bodyweight loss (O’Connor and Caterson, 2010).
Dietary approaches for weight loss
Dietary approaches for weight loss must take a number of factors into consideration. These factors include effect on performance, risks to health and normal body functioning, effect on muscle mass, adequacy of micronutrients, and diet simplicity to ensure compliance. In general, dietary approaches to weight loss rely firstly on the maintenance of a diet that is hypocaloric (deficient in energy), secondly a manipulation of the ratio of macro nutrients (carbohydrate, fat and protein) and thirdly an alteration of food sources within the macro nutrient groups.
In regard to the maintenance of a hypocaloric diet for weight reduction, an energy deficit of the order of 500Kcal/day can be attained with relatively simple measures that involve preferencing foods with a lower fat content and by avoiding high energy-density foods (O’Connor & Caterson, 2010). Strategies for reducing dietary fat content can be found with relative ease via an online search. If a government site is deemed more trustworthy, insert URL:gov into your search term. As an example, Better Health (Victoria State Government) provides strategies for reducing fat intake including:
- Eat plenty of fresh vegetables and legumes.
- Opt for low-fat snacks such as fresh fruit instead of cakes, biscuits and pastries which are generally high in fat.
- Avoid frying and opt for steaming, baking, grilling, braising, boiling or microwaving
- Switch to low-fat products e.g. low-fat cheese or yoghurt, skimmed milk
- Reduce intake of meat fats and trim visible fat from red meats, remove chicken skin
- Limit fatty processed meats such as sausages and salami
- Eat takeaway foods only occasionally (perhaps never)
The energy density of the daily diet can also be reduced by replacing carbohydrate (CHO) foods with high glycaemic index (GI) with CHO that is lower in GI. The manipulation of the diet in manner is not associated with negative health consequences (O’Connor and Caterson, 2010). However, although a reduction of high GI foods may worth considering, there is ample evidence that in a hypocaloric diet, the proportion of CHO intake must be maintained at the expense of fat. Therefore, as a consequence, it is necessary to be cautious in reducing high GI CHO unless the individual is prepared to eat larger quantities of lower GI CHO. In effect, it is unwise to maintain a hypocaloric diet by reducing the total energy value provided by CHO.
Readers are encouraged to research online databases and web pages that provide glycaemic index values for common high GI foods such as bread, spaghetti, potatoes, cornflakes and rice. The following are examples of helpful online resources:
- Harvard Health Publications: Glycemic index and glycemic load for 100+ foods
- The University of Sydney: The International Glycemic Index (GI) Database
A significant issue in maintaining a hypocaloric diet is that it may have negative consequences on performance as a result of significant losses in lean mass, strength and an increased susceptibility to illness (Kreider et al., 2010). However, studies have provided evidence that muscle mass loss can be reduced by (i) increasing the ratio of protein to CHO intake and/or (ii) amino acid supplementation. A study by Layman et al (2005) was able to show that a change in the normal CHO:Protein ratio from 3.5:1.0 to 1.5:1.0 reduced lean muscle mass loss. Another study by Dudgeon, Kelley and Scheett (2016) showed that subjects who took a Branched Chain Amino Acid (BCAA) supplement while performing resistance training on a hypocaloric diet maintained muscle mass while subjects who did not take BCAA lost muscle mass.
Furthermore, a study by Mettler, Mitchell and Tipton (2010) examined the affects of a 14 day hypocaloric diet on athletes. In this investigation, CHO was maintained at 50% of total energy intake for both the experimental and the control groups. However, in the experimental group, dietary protein intake was 36% as compared to 14% in the control group at the expense of fat. The effect of this manipulation was that on average, the decrease in lean body mass of the high-protein group was less than 20% of the control group. There is also evidence that a diet high in dairy products has a useful effect on weight loss as a result of the calcium component stimulating the breakdown of lipids and inhibiting the conversion of carbohydrates into lipids for storage (Zemel et al, 2004).
Low CHO diets may be effective for average individuals but for athletes low CHO is problematic causing fatigue, delayed recovery, reduction in lean mass and impaired immune function (O’Connor and Caterson, 2010). If the proportion of CHO falls to very low levels, as in the Atkins diet, ketosis will be induced with a range of risks to health such as an increase of fatty molecules in the blood stream (hyperlipidemia) (Wilkinson, J. 2010), osteoporosis and impaired neutrophil function, an immune response to invading microbes (Cardiff University School Of Medicine)
The negative aspects of weight loss
The negative aspects of weight loss as a result of dietary restriction cover a wide range including performance decrement, loss of muscle mass, amenorrhea, impairment of immune systems, changes in mood states and the likelihood of rebound effect when dietary restriction is ceased. In regard to performance decrement, there is a lack of published work that specifically analyses the effect of gradual or rapid weight loss on performance of Weightlifters. However, in studies in relation to anaerobic performance more generally, negative effects have been found (McMurray, 1991; Maffulli, 1992). In the McMurray study, subjects on a 7-day calorie restricted diet were divided into two groups – high CHO and normal CHO. The high CHO group were able to maintain performance on a Wingate Anaerobic Test whereas the normal CHO group showed a significant reduction in total and mean power output. In the Maffulli study, which was on wrestlers, anaerobic capacity measured by uphill running and strength endurance decreased although maximum isometric strength was maintained. In conclusion, Maffulli stated that the rate of weight loss is probably important and that if the rate is too high lean tissue is unnecessarily lost with deleterious effects on performance. In regard to rapid weight loss, as in making weight, the extent of negative effect may depend on the duration and extent of hydration and ingestion of carbohydrate (McMurray, 1991). Nevertheless, there are reasonable grounds to suggest that even after 1-3 hours of hyperhydration, muscle function is not completely restored (Torranin, 1979).
Practical guidelines to ensure safe and effective weight loss
When time permits, weight loss should be slow and involve a moderate reduction in the daily energy intake of the order of 10-20%. A reasonable ceiling for energy deficit is 500Kcal/day. This will produce around 0.5Kg per week of bodyweight loss. This level of energy deficit is afforded by preferencing low fat foods, and avoiding food with high-glycaemic index i.e. sugar content. If an athlete is desiring to lose 5Kg, in say 3 months, then average weight loss per week needs to be 384g/week. Under these circumstances, the athlete should aim nearer a 10% reduction in energy intake rather than 20%.
Generally, weight loss results in a decrease in muscle mass as well as fat mass. To minimise, muscle mass loss, the diet should be manipulated by increasing the proportion of protein. This will entail a small reduction of dietary fat and carbohydrate. However, the athlete should know and understand that very low levels of dietary fat and carbohydrate may affect health and well-being. Protein rich foods that will assist the athlete to increase protein while diminishing fat intake include lean meat, fish, low fat dairy products, legumes, wholegrain, oats (Tipton, 2009). Some consideration should also be given to ingestion of BCAA (Leucine) as it stimulates protein synthesis signalling pathways in muscle cells (Tipton, 2009).
In circumstances where the weight loss task is more substantial and difficult, for example if desired weight loss needs to be greater than 0.5Kg per week, then the athlete is well advised to seek the counsel of a nutritionist for a dietary plan. Under no circumstances should athletes take diuretics to make bodyweight. Apart from the health risks, diuretics are a banned substance by WADA.
Hypothetical Case – Protocol for Making Weight
A 19-yr old male weightlifter has a national competition coming up in 7 days, at which he hopes to compete in the 69Kg category and qualify for the Commonwealth Games team. He is currently 2.0Kg over the weight limit for his category. Let’s also assume that the official weigh-in will take place at 10:00am on the day of the competition start. Time available is critical!
A broad overview of the making-weight strategy is that involves:
- 6 days of energy deficit of 500Kcal/day to lose 400g of bodyweight in total
- 24 hours restriction of fluids intake to reduce bodyweight by the remainder of 1.6Kg required.
6-day energy deficit
The first assumption is that the athlete, or the coach, or the person giving nutrition advice has a reasonable understanding of the average daily energy intake of the athlete. The second assumption is that the athlete’s bodyweight is consistently 2.0Kg over weight class limit and not some temporary aberration. In such a circumstance, this could cause wrong advice to be given. The third assumption is that the athlete has been checking the bodyweight first thing in the morning. The fourth assumption is that the athlete has access to accurate scales at all times and this can be a major problem.
There is a risk that the athlete, faced with a need to lose 2.0Kg, will overshoot and this risk will be magnified if extensive travelling is involved. Experience, is the greatest asset in weight reduction.
It is very important to gain information about the athlete’s present diet and to look for opportunities to make minor adjustments in energy intake that might amount to 500Kcal/day. These opportunities might include avoidance of foods with high-glycaemic index, e.g. sugar, cakes, confectionery, biscuits, soft drinks. Other opportunities to lower energy intake might include a switch to low fat foods, or a general reduction in foods containing fat.
However, it is necessary to be cautious in giving nutritional advice that will not result in the athlete going into an energy deficit of more than 500Kcals/day. It is likely that the athlete will experience a higher resting metabolic rate (RMR) due to pre-competition stress/anxiety. As a result the athlete’s bodyweight may fall even without a change from normal diet.
Further questions should be asked about the athlete’s protein intake. While there is some diminution of total energy intake, the athlete should be counselled to continue to eat high quality lean protein to mitigate loss of muscle mass.
The athlete should check (on accurate scales) and record their bodyweight first thing in the morning each day after voiding urine, and relay this information back to their advisors.
The objective of the 6 day energy restriction is to reduce bodyweight by 400g and reach 70.6Kg at the start of the day prior to competition day.
The athlete should begin the prior day by checking bodyweight on accurate scales immediately after rising and voiding urine. The task of how much bodyweight needs to be removed now needs to be exactly known. Rankin (2010) provides a caution that athletes should not attempt to lose more than 2% of bodyweight by dehydration. The remaining 1.6Kg bodyweight loss for a Weightlifter weighing 70.6Kg by using dehydration is just slightly more than this safety guideline at 2.3%.
At this stage, it would be reasonable to proceed with dehydration as the strategy to remove the remaining bodyweight.
There are many assumptions in providing the following protocol and there is plenty of room for error. The accuracy of weight drop through urine production, insensible fluid loss from skin and lungs, sweating and not to mention bowel emptying is vital aspect. The following protocol is based on a number of key parameters: daily loss of water through lungs – 28g/m3 of expired air (Cox, 1987), daily loss of water through skin (not sweating) -250g/m2 (Lamke et al, 1977), a lower level of urine output of 1 litre/day due to hypohydration (Sawka, Cheuvront & Carter, 2005), and a sweat rate of 500ml per day assuming the athlete will be resting in moderate temperatures of 24°C the day before competition. Some of these calculations involving computing the surface are of the body, and there are various formulae available. However there are online calculators to assist and a good example can be found at http://www.calculator.net/body-surface-area-calculator.html
Furthermore the following protocol is based on the athlete not attempting to reduce fully down the night before but utilising the hours of sleep for weight loss. US Rowing (2016) has provided a view that coming down the morning of weigh-in is more effective than coming down the night before and attempting to stay down.
|Example protocol for weight loss by hypohydration in last 24 hours before weigh-in|
|Food/fluid intake||Target Weight|
Rise and Bodyweight check after voiding urine
|8:00 am||Breakfast, small amount of quality protein, complex CHO and water||400g|
|9:00 am||Bodyweight check after bowel emptying (0.25Kg loss)||70.59|
|11:00 am||Bodyweight check||70.40|
|12:30 pm||Lunch, small amount of quality protein, complex CHO and water||500g|
|1:00 pm||Bodyweight check after lunch||70.71|
|3:00 pm||Bodyweight check||70.53|
|5:00 pm||Bodyweight check||70.34|
|6:30 pm||Evening meal, small amount of quality protein, complex CHO and water||500g|
|7:00 pm||Bodyweight check after evening meal||70.65|
|10:00 pm||Bodyweight check before bed||70.37|
|6:00 am||Rise and Bodyweight check after voiding urine (overnight loss = 0.75kg)||69.62|
|6:00-8:00 am||Bowel emptying (0.25Kg loss)|
|8:00 am||Bodyweight check||69.18|
|9:30 am||Last bodyweight check||69.04|
|10:15 am||Water + electrolyte based drinks immediately after stepping off the scale|
Note: Athletes may see fit to not check their bodyweight every 2 hours or may be involved in activities that do not permit. Nonetheless, it is useful to estimate where the athlete should be in bodyweight at various time of the day.
Recovery after Weigh-in
Following weigh-in, the athlete should set about restoring hydration level and energy balance and optimise muscle glycogen as soon after the weigh-in as possible. In regard to restoring hydration level, the optimal strategy would involve the consumption of 150% of the fluid volume lost (Shirreffs and Maughan, 2000). The 50% extra amount of fluid needed compensates for the amount that will be voided in urine. There should not be a reliance on thirst sensation but forced drinking may well be necessary to compensate for water deficiency (Pettersson and Berg, 2014). This level of water consumption is often referred to as aggressive rehydration (Shirreffs and Maughan, 2000; Slater et al., 2005). However, rather than ingest merely plain water, the athlete would be well advised to consume fluid containing electrolytes or take a sodium tablet (Nose et al, 1988). Plain water ingestion dilutes dilutes blood plasma osmolality and this may exacerbate the issue and result in increased urine production and decreased thirst (Nose, Mack, Shi, Nadel, 1988). There are numerous sports drinks on the market that provide electrolytes in an appropriate concentration that will minimise adverse changes to plasma osmolality.
In addition to restoring hydration level, the athlete should be consuming high carbohydrate food sources (Rankin, 2010). There is little time for digestion and this is exacerbated by anxiety and therefore foods need to be quick and easy such as liquid meal replacements, fruit, yoghurt, flavoured milks and cereal bars (Sport Dieticians Australia). The Australian Institute of Sport provides a fact sheet title Liquid Meal Supplements which is well worth reading (see References for URL).
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