We train athletes for multiple weight class sports. All that this means is these athletes are in the business of having to hit a certain weight when it comes time to compete. Some cut weight, some need to gain weight, and some are lucky enough to stay just where they’re at. I want to focus on those that have to lose weight because this can be a bit more of a complicated problem to solve. We are in the business trying to get athletes to perform at their best so how do we do this when someone is cutting weight?
Let’s take a look at strength first. For starters, it is important to note that you do not have to gain huge amounts of muscle mass to get stronger. Look at some of the best light weight class Powerlifters in the world if you don’t believe me. They have little to moderate amounts of muscle mass and are putting up huge numbers. This is because, muscle mass only increases your strength up to a certain point. The rest of your strength gains will come from your own unique individual levers (bone length), attachment sites of your muscle on these bones, other unique physiological influences, and practice. Since we can’t change the first three, we are only left with practice. “What, practice?” Yes, you can practice strength. Let me explain. To practice strength, you simply practice your ability to lift under heavier loads. The more practice, the heavier the loads your body is able to lift. The scientific description of this is that your nervous system gets more efficient at recruiting motor units to create more force. This comes by way of recruiting more motor units and the rate at which they are fired. You increase this efficiency by practicing creating larger amounts of force, aka, practicing lifting heavy weights.
As strength and conditioning coaches, I think we have to realize that human performance is influenced by multiple factors and that increasing amount lifted on the bar does not always mean an increase in performance, unless we are only measuring performance by weight lifted on a specific exercise, and I would say this is a lousy measurement of performance. In my experience, increasing an athlete’s strength in the weight room and giving them more adaptability in their movement typically results in an increased performance in their sport. My guess this would be physical and psychosocial factors. Usually if an athlete is getting stronger in the weight room they will have a lot more confidence in their ability to perform in their sport. As coaches, I don’t think we can ever underestimate how an athlete’s perceptions will influence behavior and therefore performance.
So, it is possible to lose weight while gaining strength because as mentioned above, you don’t have to add muscle to gain strength. However, it is still possible to gain muscle mass and lose weight depending on the fat composition of the athlete. This is where assessing and consulting with an athlete is important, and may be the time where nutrition needs to be dialed in. Nutrition can be important to not only help an athlete lose fat, but also help them retain the muscle mass that they do have. I will not go deep into the nutrition realm as that is not my expertise, but I will make a generalized statement that most athletes typically need to eat way more protein than they currently are.
If working with an already lean athlete, and their losing weight actually means losing some muscle mass, this may not be a problem. Obviously, you never want an athlete to make an unhealthy drop in weight, but some people’s bodies just naturally perform better at lighter weights, and an increase in muscle mass can potentially actually slow them down. This is no problem because you can still help this athlete in the weight room. When working with this type of athlete it is important to keep training volume and load at reasonable doses. Since they are cutting weight their body is not going to be able to keep up with the demands of a higher volume training approach. To keep training volume at reasonable doses it is important to assess them on each training day to see how they are performing. I find this can be done very subjectively. It is easy to see if an athlete is starting to perform like crap in the weight room. This is when an athlete’s nutrition, sleep, hydration, and training volume need to be managed smartly. If all else is equal, and performance is diminishing, training volume should be lowered to keep the athlete in a position to adapt to the demands of life and training.
Losing weight doesn’t have to mean a drop in strength or a drop in performance. As coaches, this is when we have the opportunity to adapt our approach. We can get an athlete stronger without increasing muscle mass. We can increase their adaptability in movement. We can structure their training in way where the demands aren’t exceeding the demands of losing weight. Humans are very adaptable to the stressors on demand in their life. This can mean that too much stress can result in negative adaptations or adaptations on the wrong system. For example, when you’re sick there is excess demand on the immune system. Your body is increasing the energy demand on the immune system and therefore has to suck some out of other systems, which is why you are consistently tired and have no desire to train when you are sick. There is always a give and take and as coaches we have to constantly take this into account when training athletes, especially when they are cutting weight. Life isn’t only happening at the gym. Our goal should be to take a comprehensive approach so we can keep an athlete always moving forward.