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All too often, powerlifters trying to make weight sacrifice their strength by dieting away hard-earned muscle along with body fat.
It’s no wonder, considering all the fad diets and cardio programs that somehow make their way into the weight loss programs of elite athletes who depend on strength and power.
My first experience with this phenomenon happened in the early 1990's, when I was training offensive and defensive linemen for the University of Oregon football team, along with professional heavyweight boxer Joe Hipp. These athletes have a nasty habit of packing on extra, unwanted pounds in the offseason, which then slow them down on the field or in the ring. Invariably, their coach would tell them to drop weight—and fast—or stay home.
And this is where the problem begins.
Not knowing much about nutrition, these athletes typically adopt some drastic calorie-cutting diet overheard from some pencil neck personal trainer at their fitness club. Next thing you know, they’re listening to somebody's idea that a bodybuilding diet consist of only 2 or 3 meals a day, something like a can of tuna and some rice cakes. Or they begin some long distance muscle burning cardio routine and voilÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â , they get so weak and tired they’re getting knocked around all over the place.
That's where I come in: to fix the damage and fix it quick!
The first question athletes ask me is "How many calories do I eat?”
The answer to that is different for every individual, since we all come in different shapes and sizes with different basal metabolic rates and workloads. But the frequency and types of foods that feed muscles are the same, so once that is implemented we can then adjust the quantities to achieve the desired GRADUAL fat loss without burning up valuable muscle.
In order to properly feed the muscles, they need to be fed frequently throughout the day. Ideally, the diet should begin with six daily meals, spaced about three hours apart.
Your muscles need high quality proteins that the body won’t burn through in 30 minutes and leave your muscles wanting. This is why each of my meals always includes lean red meat, such as top sirloin with the fat cut off. In addition to being an excellent protein source, red meat contains creatine and is high in Iron and B Vitamins. It also digests slowly, which provides your muscles with a constant source of protein. Eggs, milk and protein powders are good quality proteins, but they burn up too quickly.
The next question I'm asked is “Which should I cut out to drop fat: fats or carbs?”
The answer to this is NEITHER.
Strength and power athletes need nutrients from both of these sources to maximize performance. I never “cut out” carbs or fats. Nor do I drastically reduce them!
Besides, in honestly assessing the foods many powerlifters consume versus the diet I suggest, some telling facts come to light. I’ve seen athletes consume foods where over 50% of the total calories and carbohydrates come from undesirable foods (or soft drinks) loaded with sugars. Or they’re eating white flour foods, like pancakes. White flour affects insulin levels and can lead to excessive fat storage.
What I like to do is initially shoot for 40/30/30 distribution of proteins, fats and carbs then adjust this ratio based on body type, workload and results.
I would start a 250-pound athlete on 5,000 calories a day. A good gauge for protein is 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. In a 40/30/30 split, this 250-pound person would take in 500 grams of protein, which is 2,000 calories and would make up this 40% of the total caloric intake. Fats would make up 30%, or 1,500 calories (approximately 150 grams of fats). Carbs would make up the other 30%, or 1,500 calories. This equates to 375 grams of carbs.
Proteins mostly come from lean red meats but can also include chicken and fish, though not exclusively. Fats are already present in the meats and don’t need to be added. Carbohydrate examples are rice, potatoes and oatmeal. These foods are complex carb sources.
The first thing athletes discover is that the diets I recommend are A LOT of food. It’s more food but fewer calories because the new diet contain less fat than what they were previously consuming. Fats have over twice as many calories as proteins and carbs. My diets consist of clean, high quality food so muscles get fed while starving out the fat. Athletes will slowly lose body fat without losing strength.
Many athletes assume that going for a jog helps them lose weight. While that has some truth to it, the main thing they will lose is muscle! I never incorporate long jogs or aggressive treadmill work in a strength athlete’s program. These are simply contrary to what this athlete is trying to achieve.
Distance runners jog, powerlifters lift—it's that simple!
The best trainers in the country are starting to recognize that explosive strength athletes do not benefit from lengthy cardio sessions. Instead, these trainers now incorporate HIIT (high intensity interval training) into their programs for optimal results. Football, sprinting, powerlifting and many other sports are a series of brief explosive power movements, not 2 mile jogs.
I remember training two collegiate sprinters and football players who went on to play pro football. One even ran in the Olympics. The first thing I told them is that they need to add muscle if they wanted to get faster. And I was saying this about 15 years ago. So imagine the feedback I got from their coaches when they heard I wanted to make their sprinters bigger! Speed is a by-product of strength—explosive strength, power and speed are important to complete a lift.
I told two collegiate track athletes to NOT jog 2 miles with the team for warm ups because this was making them smaller and weaker. One of their coaches actually chastised an athlete in front of the whole team calling him selfish and accusing him of letting down the track team to focus on football. But we held firm and instead only trained with sport-specific explosive movements and multi-joint strength exercises.
Long story short, the coach made a public apology when three months later this athlete—packing 15 extra pounds of muscle—ran a personal best 100-meter dash and took second in the PAC-10 Championships. He went on to set records for most yards and most touchdowns that fall as running back for the football team.
Oh yeah, and that team went to the Rose Bowl that year.
I hope I'm getting my point across.
Don't let anyone start you on some lengthy cardio program. Those with significant body fat to lose can slowly walk on the treadmill 30 minutes daily but they need to keep their heart rate low. It’s preferable to use your sport-specific training and diet to shed fat and keep your muscle—even incorporating additional training sessions involving band work and speed training to increase calorie consumption in lieu of cardio.
So, now you know what to eat and how to train in order to lose fat weight without losing muscle weight. You CAN make that weight class and still put up some big numbers. Remember to start well in advance of the competition and lose the fat slowly, so as not to get behind on your goal. Then you’ll resort to excessively reducing calories or jumping on the treadmill and ultimately burn up muscle. It’s better to stay in the heavier weight class and lift bigger weights than to diet wrong or diet fast and lift those little teeny weights.
~Reprinted with permission from Power Magazine, November 2009
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