Losing body fat is often an issue for athletes and there are various and sundry (yes, sundry) reasons that they either want or need to do this. Clearly for the physique sports (bodybuilding, fitness, figure), it’s an issue of appearance. For performance sports (everything else), losing fat or weight can often improve performance. Either the athlete can get into a lower weight class (if their sport has such) or they can improve their strength or power to weight ratio, improving performance.
I’d note, and this would be a topic for an entirely separate article, that leaner is not always better. Most sports end up having an ideal level of leanness where higher and lower levels aren’t consistent with optimal performance. Many athletes will over train or lose muscle mass and performance in the quest to get as lean as possible and this often does more harm than good.
Unfortunately, athletes often approach the goal of fat loss in an absolutely awful way. It’s altogether too often assumed that they should simply do what the bodybuilders do since bodybuilders are, at least for one day per year, the leanest folks of them all.
The problem with this mentality is that, fundamentally, the physique sports aren’t performance oriented (fitness competitions are sort of an exception since the fitness round does require quite a bit of performance oriented training).
But bodybuilders and figure girls aren’t usually interested in performance per se, it’s all about looking good on stage. What happens in the gym or in training is only a means to an end in this regards. So some of the dietary and training approaches that bodybuilders would follow might not be appropriate for a performance-oriented athlete.
At the same time, there are clearly some good ideas that have come out of the physique sports; to say that individuals in those activities are competitive dieters isn’t far off and they have figured out a lot of good things (much of which modern research has subsequently validated). You simply can’t apply them wholly uncritically to every sport. I’d also note that some performance sports (women’s gymnastics and figure skating jump to mind) also have an aesthetic aspect to them; little girls are being judged on appearance and body in addition to how well they can fling themselves through the air.
In this article, I want to talk about how athletes of different sorts can go about best losing body fat without sacrificing (too-much) performance. The parentheses may seem odd but it’s not always possible to completely avoid performance (strength, power, etc.) loss while dieting down. As long as the reduction in fat or total weight is greater than the performance loss, the strength/power to weight ratio still usually goes up.
The Sports Continuum
To avoid talking about every sport known to god and man, I’m going to subdivide sports into one of three rough categories (I’d note that I used the same three in my protein book and usually apply this scheme in some fashion in all of my fat loss books) which are
Pure Strength/Power Athletes
Think Powerlifting, Olympic lifting, throwing events, etc. These are athletes who do the bulk of their training as strength/power training of some sort and their sports don’t require endurance or metabolic conditioning outside of work capacity considerations to handle their massive training loads. The competition itself usually involves very little endurance component (unless you consider sitting on your ass for 3 hours between squat and bench while you eat sandwiches to require endurance).
Pure Endurance Athletes
This includes cycling, running, swimming, cross country skiing and anything of that sort. Any sport where the majority of training is pretty much pure endurance style training (lower intensity, long durations) goes in this category. And yes, trust me I realize that many of these athletes also do stuff in the weight room and higher intensity interval work is done.
I’m talking about the majority of training that they do. In competition, the events can actually vary pretty significantly in terms of duration and intensity. An hour criterium race for a cyclist is a very different event than a 5 hour stage race; same for a 5k vs. marathon in running. Regardless, the majority of training done in these sports is of the long-duration endurance type.
And then there’s mostly everything else, sports that end up having to cover all of the bases with both a good bit of strength/power work (in the weight room or on the track sprinting) and metabolic conditioning (which can take on a variety of forms, I’ll talk about this a bit below). Football, basketball, hockey, mixed martial arts, boxing, wrestling, etc. all belong here. These are athletes that need high levels of strength/power (varying with the sport) and high levels of metabolic conditioning (which also varies with sport). Competitions usually require these athletes to express strength/power over and over and over again.
Of course, I’m sure there are going to be sports (Curling? Archery? Extreme Frisbee?) that don’t fit neatly into any of the above categories. Since I doubt they have the same requirements (outside of technical stuff) of the main three categories, I’m not too worried about them.
The 5 Components of Fat Loss for Athletes
Simplistically, when I look at fat loss, I take 5 components into consideration in their rough order of importance. I’ll look at each below.
- Total calories and the rate of fat loss
- Protein intake
- Fat intake
- Carbohydrate intake
- Training and how it can or should be changed when fat loss is the goal.
Yeah, I know. Cutting edge shit there. I’m only spelling it out so that I can look at each within the context of each of the types of sports I discussed above. I’d note that frankly components 1-4 (and especially 1) are the more important aspects when fat loss is the goal. All of the training in the world won’t overcome a diet that sucks. Ok, maybe ALL of the training in the world but you pedantic assholes know what I mean.
Total Calories and the Rate of Fat Loss
As mentioned above, this is the single most important aspect of fat loss as far as I’m concerned. It’s usually pretty trivial to out-eat the calories burned from training and if you don’t control calories you’re not going to lose fat no matter what you do. And all of the weird macronutrient manipulations still don’t make a shit’s worth of difference if calories aren’t controlled so you can stop worrying about food combining, or not eating carbs after 6pm or whatever. With no exception all of those strategies only work to hide caloric restriction in the guise of something else. It’s still calories at the end of the day.
So the next question comes in terms of where to set calories. A typically generic recommendation used by bodybuilders is 10-12 cal/lb starting weight depending on metabolism (higher value for higher, lower value for lower) and this isn’t bad for someone doing fairly moderate amounts of training (e.g. an hour or so daily). But for athletes with very high caloric requirements this will be too low.
Many endurance athletes can have energy requirements up near 20 cal/lb, occasionally higher. Athletes who have to do a lot of metabolic work will have elevated requirements as well. Strength/power athletes can vary massively; Ol’ers have been reported to have fairly high caloric requirements but when you train 4-6 hours/day, even with low reps, this isn’t shocking.
Arguably a better way to adjust calories is to first determine maintenance calories (the number that will maintain your current weight) and then reduce it by 10-20% as a starting point (I’d note that fatter athletes can usually sustain a larger deficit than leaner). This should then be adjusted based on real world changes in fat loss and performance changes.
A reasonable goal for fat loss might be 1-1.5 lbs fat loss/week with no major reduction in performance. If an athlete is losing less than that, a further reduction in calories (or increase in activity, discussed below) may be needed. If an athlete is losing more than 2 pounds per week or performance is crashing, calories would be adjusted upwards by 10%. Eventually that sweet spot will be found. Note that as folks get lighter and caloric requirements go down, calories will eventually have to be adjusted down even further to keep fat loss going.
Finally I’d note that lighter athletes (women, lighter males in weight class sports) may have to be happy with half of that fat loss, 0.5-0.75 pounds per week. Yeah, I know, that’s only 2 pounds per month. Tough titty, don’t get fat next time.
Dietary Protein Intake
After calories have been set, the single next most important aspect of a fat loss diet is protein intake as consuming sufficient protein is perhaps the single key to limiting (or eliminating) muscle and performance loss. It’s also where a lot of athletes not of the strength/power type fuck up.
Endurance athletes tend to overemphasize carbs as it is, they often get sufficient protein only by dint of eating so much food; when calories are restricted protein goes down and problems start. Females often seem to fear fat and protein altogether, living on starch. Performance craters.
Getting large amounts of dietary protein is one place that bodybuilders and other strength athletes have long been ahead of the curve, especially while dieting. As modern research has found that higher protein intakes have numerous fat loss benefits (including but not limited to sparing muscle loss, maintaining blood glucose at stable levels, blunting hunger, limiting drops in metabolic rate), bodybuilders can just give a hearty “We told you so” to the labcoats who said they were full of shit for so many years.
Of more interest, and seemingly ignored by most mainstream dietitians, protein requirements go UP when calories go down, yet most diets seem to reduce protein. Research proved that fact 30 years ago, why the RD’s haven’t caught on is anybody’s guess.
As outlined in detail (and with full references) in The Protein Book, I recommend that pure strength/power athlete consume at least 1.4-1.5 g/lb protein. In some cases (usually athletes seeking extreme leanness) 2 g/lb may be required. I see no reason for more than this. Since, as you’ll see, strength/power athletes don’t generally have the high carbohydrate requirements of other athletes (although this depends on the specifics of the sport), they can ‘get away’ with more protein and less carbohydrates without hurting their training.
Endurance athletes, who could normally get by with perhaps 0.7-0.9 g/lb under maintenance conditions, should increase their protein intake to at least 1.2-1.4 g/lb while dieting. Given the often absurd caloric requirements for endurance athletes, this more than allows for sufficient intakes of other macronutrients to support training and recovery.
Mixed sport athletes have to ‘cover’ the requirements for both their strength/power and metabolic training and should use the high end of recommendations at 1.5 g/lb. Again, this can potentially go higher if extreme levels of leanness need to be reached. The problem, as I’ll discuss below, is that these athletes often need more carbohydrate in their diet and consuming too much protein tends to limit carb intake. This can hurt performance. So it becomes a greater balancing act. These athletes need to eat enough protein to spare muscle loss, while still allowing sufficient carbohydrate to maintain training.
Dietary Fat Intake
You might be surprised that I put fat intake before carbohydrate intake but outside of setting up ketogenic (very-low-carbohydrate) diets, this is how I do things. The reason is this: very low fat diets tend to do negative things to hormones, on top of making the diet bland and tasteless. More often than not very low-fat diets leave the dieter exceptionally hungry which makes it harder to control calories. So before folk worry about carbohydrate, they need to take care of dietary fat.
Now, while I don’t generally like diets set up by percentages, fat intake is where I do exactly that. 20-25% total calories from fat is usually about right for most situations. Sometimes it may be a bit higher, it’d be a rare situation indeed where I’d take it much lower. I’ve sometimes used a rough intake of 0.45 g/lb and that’s a good starting point but issues of total caloric intake become a problem here and that can’t always be adhered to.
Of the total fat intake, the only requirement are fish oils. A minimum of 6X1 grams standard capsules (180 mg EPA/120 mg DHA) should be taken daily. This can be increased to 10 capsules per day for athletes who are either larger, simply want to, or have the calories to do it.
Beyond that, I don’t get overly hung up on fat intake. Research shows that both MCT’s and di-glycerides (in the form of Enova oil) can slightly increase fat loss during a diet but the impact is not massive, maybe a few tenths of a pound a week if that. Both fats do seem to help control appetite which might be one reason to include them in a diet.
So all that’s left is carbohydrate and this is generally where my diets will vary the most. As discussed in How Many Carbohydrates Do You Need, the simplest comment I can make is that carbohydrate requirements can vary….a lot.
It’s also one place where following the lead of bodybuilders can get athletes into trouble. Recall from above that, for the most part, bodybuilding is not a performance sport, it’s an aesthetic one. Maintaining performance in the gym is purely secondary to coming in ripped. So carbohydrates are often removed completely from the diet to achieve this. Depending on the type of sport you’re talking about, this can either be workable or about the single worst thing that an athlete can do.
A pure strength/power athlete who’s dieting and doing repeat triples in the weight room or what have you may not need many (or any) carbs in their diet. As mentioned, bodybuilders often cut carbs down or nearly out to get to the pinnacle of leanness.
Those athletes can often get away with a carb intake of perhaps 1 g/lb or even lower. Carb cycling approaches tend to be popular, common and successful, carbs can be higher on training days and cut down on non-training days to facilitate a larger caloric deficit and greater fat loss.
Endurance athletes typically have the highest carbohydrate requirements although even that depends on the type of training they’re doing. An hour spin on the bike doesn’t require that many carbs, a 6 hour ride may deplete glycogen almost completely. Carb intake here can vary massively. Maintenance carb recommendations for these athletes often approach 10-12 g/kg (4.5-5.5 g/lb or so) but this has to be cut back while dieting to some degree. If volume is high enough, an intake of 2-3 g/lb might work, a lot of it will depend on where calories are set.
Mixed sports athletes are generally going to have carb requirements somewhere in the middle. It’ll probably end up being higher than 1 g/lb on heavy training days but unlikely to reach the higher levels of endurance athletes. So you might see 1.5-2 g/lb as a rough average.
Putting it Together
At the end of the day, much of the above discussion is moot. Once you’ve set calories, set protein and set fat, carbs will simply be what’s left. So that makes more sense, let me set up a sample diet for a 200 lb strength/power athlete with 15% bodyfat (170 lbs lean body mass) and with an estimated maintenance calorie intake of 16 cal/lb on training days. So his maintenance requirement is 3200 calories/day.
- Set calories: 20% deficit. 3200 * 0.20 = 640 calories. 3200 – 640 = 2560 cal/day
- Set protein: 1.5 g/lb lean body mass = 255 grams protein * 4 cal/g = 1020 cal/day
- Set fat: 25% of total calories. 2560 * 0.25 = 640 calories / 9 cal/g = 71 grams
- Set carbs: 2560 calories – 1020 calories from protein – 640 calories from fat = 900 calories / 4 cal/g = 225 grams. Just slightly over 1 g/lb.
Now, if his calories had to be lowered for some reason, he’d make the reduction from carbohydrate. So if he needed to take another 200 calories per day out of his diet, he’d reduce his carbs by 50 grams more to 175 grams. Hopefully you get the idea.
Those calories would be roughly spread across however many meals the athlete will be eating during the diet. Of course, there’s no reason that they have to be spread completely evenly, many people like to put more of their carbs earlier in the day or around training and slightly more fat and less carbs in the evening. It’s all fine.
On the timing issue, I strongly feel that at least some proportion of every athlete’s daily carbs and protein should come around heavy training sessions. A lot of athletes try to cut out those calories but I think it’s a mistake. It is usually done out of some misguided idea about GH release or fat loss; female athletes do it because they think they are ‘saving’ calories but all they are doing is hurting themselves in the long run.
Total fat loss will be mostly determined by the caloric deficit, insufficient calories around heavy training only hurts performance and recovery which is never a good thing on a diet. Carb cuts should therefore come mainly from meals not around training. Fat intake at those meals can be slightly increased as well.
Which isn’t to say that the same amount of pre/during/post workout nutrients would be consumed on a diet as when mass gains or performance improvements are the goal. Just that something should still be consumed around most workouts (low-intensity metabolic stuff being the major exception). If you eat too many calories around training, you don’t end up with enough at the other meals to stay full.
Training for Fat Loss
The final issue I want to discuss regarding fat loss for athletes is how training can or should be modified while dieting. Again, this is a place where a lot of people make mistakes and where (especially given the role of anabolics in bodybuilding preparation since about the 80’s) following bodybuilders can be problematic. I’ll come back to this below.
Once again, I’m going to address the three different general categories of athletes that I described above. Additionally, I’m going to look at training in terms of both weight room work (of any sort) and metabolic work (this includes both standard aerobic training along with intervals).
Weight training can, of course, be subdivided into several different categories. From very heavy, low-repetition strength or power work (5’s or less) to more bodybuilding oriented hypertrophy work (generally 6-15 reps) to higher rep, metabolic-style depletion work (15-20 reps or more, usually with short rest periods), weight training covers a lot of ground.
Is one best for fat loss? Of course not, they each have their pros and cons. One approach that is all too commonplace in the weight room (and this is an idea that came out of bodybuilding in the 80’s) is that heavy weights should be replaced by higher reps for cuts. While this certainly works when anabolics are present to protect muscle mass, it’s absolutely the worst thing that a natural athlete can do to maintain muscle mass.
Tension builds muscle, removing heavy tension overload causes muscle and strength to go away; not what most athletes want when they diet. Simply, if an athlete can only do one type of weight training while dieting, it should be a lowered volume (see comments below) of heavy work to maintain muscle. The caloric deficit and any metabolic work can take care of fat loss.
However, that doesn’t mean that higher rep/metabolic style weight training of various sorts (think barbell complexes, KB circuits, sled dragging might even fit here, and stuff like that) can’t have a use as well. Between the hormonal response, glycogen depletion (which increases whole body fat usage), and a somewhat larger calorie burn, these types of training can certainly enhance fat loss. But they should only be done in conjunction with a maintenance volume of heavy work. I’ll come back to this below.
In terms of other types of metabolic training (e.g. steady state cardio and intervals), the world seems to have subdivided itself into two distinct camps of late. As the idea that interval training is not only the best way to lose fat but (seemingly) the only way, the idea that low intensity steady state cardio can have any use for fat loss has more or less disappeared.
Some are even claiming (wrongly I’d add) that steady state cardio can make dieters fatter. Apparently the four decades of bodybuilders who got contest lean doing nothing but low-intensity steady state didn’t realize that all of that cardio was detrimental. You can read more about this in the extended series of articles on The Protein Book here on the site.
Frankly, addressing this topic in detail is beyond the scope of this article. Within the context of the room I have here, I will only say that both intervals and steady state cardio can have their role depending on the specifics. The simple fact is that athletes can’t do high intensity training daily and most athletes will be training daily for fat loss. If every workout is high intensity, especially when calories are reduced, only bad things can happen.
Volume and Frequency of Training for Fat Loss
Another idea that appears to have come out of 80’s era (read: steroid fueled) bodybuilding dieting is that volume and frequency of training should go UP while dieting. This is, of course, completely ass-backwards.
Recovery is always hampered when calories are restricted, trying to increase the frequency of high-intensity training (e.g. weight training or intervals) is a recipe for disaster. If anything, the frequency (and especially the volume) of high-intensity work should be reduced somewhat when calories are restricted to avoid over training in the long-run.
The grand majority of training done by strength/power athletes is, of course, strength power training. Yes, some type of general prep/work capacity work is often done (sled dragging for powerlifters, extensive tempo running for sprinters, etc) but anybody who doesn’t have their head up their ass knows that long-duration endurance training is about the worst choice for these types of athletes because it stimulates adaptations in the muscle that are not conducive to maximal performance.
Put a bit differently, you show me a powerlifter or shotputter that runs and I’ll show you a guy who is not performing optimally. Show me one of those athletes who decides to start running for fat loss and I’ll show you one who just destroyed his performance.
Training for these athletes, therefore, must revolve around the same types of training that they are doing for their sport. As noted above, at least some volume of heavy training should be done while dieting to maintain current strength and muscle mass levels. However, research clearly shows that the volume and frequency of training can be cut back rather significantly.
Reductions in both of up to 2/3rds (so total sets and/or days of training can be reduced) are fine but ONLY if the intensity (weight on the bar) is maintained. So an athlete who was doing 6 sets of 3 in the back squat could conceivably cut back to 2 sets of 3 as long as he keeps the weight on the bar the same. If the intensity is cut back, strength and muscle mass will suffer. Again, some volume of heavy work must be kept in.
To that, other types of work to facilitate fat loss can be added. Barbell complexes or KB circuits could be used in the weight room to increase caloric expenditure, etc. (the complexes would replace the volume of heavy work that had been reduced) for example. Other types of GPP, sled dragging (with lighter weights and shorter rest intervals) and such would be another way of increasing caloric expenditure to hasten fat loss as well.
As mentioned above, strength/power athletes wouldn’t generally want to add a bunch of steady state endurance training as this will tend to harm leg strength. About the only exception to this is steady state ‘cardio’ that is so low intensity that it won’t cut into strength. I’m talking about things like brisk walking here, just very low intensity activity to burn a few calories. Big guys can burn a few hundred calories with nothing but that level of work which will add up over time without cutting into leg strength or recovery.
Interval training is a possibility here although I’d strongly suggest that a non-impact exercise method be used. Three hundred pound athletes plus sprinting equal joint injuries. As well, interval workouts of this type should be counted as a high-intensity leg workout. Trying to add a day or two of heavy lower body intervals to a weekly training schedule that already includes a significant amount of lower body weight room work is another recipe for disaster. Something has to give.
As noted above, weight training frequency can realistically be cut much further back than most think, one heavy leg workout per week will maintain leg strength for quite some time (athletes shouldn’t generally have to diet that long in the first place), allowing other lower body work to be done. Frankly, metabolic weight work of the barbell complex/KB/etc. kind may be a better fit for pure strength/power athletes.
In modern endurance sports training, there is not a massive amount of weight training done for the most part (although this can depend on the sport). However, for those endurance athletes who are lifting, the same suggestions as above apply. At least some volume of heavy work should be maintained but the volume and frequency should be reduced. This could conceivably be replaced by complexes, etc. but, in general, this probably isn’t hugely necessary as I’ll explain below.
As expected, the majority of training of pure endurance athletes is of the endurance type. And this actually gives them a fairly big advantage for fat loss. A trained endurance athlete can usually burn a significant number of calories without working very hard.
Simply adding an extra 30 minutes of easy training per day can burn a significant number of calories without heavily cutting into recovery; this also allows the reduction in food intake to be less (e.g. burn 300 extra calories with low intensity activity and reduce food intake by a couple hundred to get about a pound of fat loss per week). Used properly, these types of easy aerobic workouts can have an active recovery effect as well.
As far as interval training goes, most endurance athletes do intervals at some time during the season. How much can be added to that when calories are restricted is pretty debatable. I’d expect most endurance athletes to be focusing on fat loss during a general preparation phase (when interval training is usually pretty low) and adding a bunch of high intensity training when the goal is lots of low-intensity volume is backwards. As noted above, simply adding a bit of volume daily with a slight reduction in calories should do most of the work for a typical endurance athlete.
Mixed Sport Athletes
And finally we come again to the mixed sports, the athletes whose training invariably has to cover all of the bases in terms of both a fairly large amount of strength/power work along with a good bit of metabolic work.
In the same way that strength/power athletes can and should reduce their heavy training, mixed sports athletes looking for fat loss should do the same. Total volume and/or frequency of heavy work can be reduced significantly. This can be replaced by some metabolic type stuff of the barbell complex, KB, GPP variety.
Metabolic work for these athletes can vary massively but, depending on where they are in their season, some type of interval training or slightly increased volume of low-intensity work could reasonably be done to increase caloric expenditure. Like endurance athletes above, the likelihood of adding yet more interval training to an already heavy training load are pretty slim. Rather, adding slightly to the volume of work already being done may be the best approach.
When Should Athletes Lose Fat?
Although I didn’t list this topic in the original list in Part 1 of this series, a final issue of importance for athletes is when to lose body fat during the year. Bodybuilders and physique athletes have it somewhat simpler in this regards since they aren’t so performance oriented. And most don’t use any type of periodization in the first place. The simply focus on gaining muscle until a contest is chosen and then move into dieting at that time.
Athletes usually have an annual plan of some sort and may have specific competitions that they need to be prepared for. This means that fat loss and dieting periods can’t be chosen at random as it could potentially hurt their ability train or peak effectively.
In general, I think that losing fat should be the focus of any type of general physical preparation (GPP) phase. Yes, I know that they have gone the way of the dodo in modern sports training but most athletes still do some period of training when the volume is relatively higher and the intensity lower. Since maximum performance isn’t the goal, a small reduction in calories with a slight shift in training to facilitate fat loss is possible during this time.
- Size of Deficit and Muscle Loss
- Protein Intake While Dieting – Q&A
- Muscle Loss While Dieting to Single Digit Body Fat Levels – Q&A
- Weight Training for Fat Loss Part 2
- High-fat or High-Protein Ketogenic Diet?