When discussing weight management in sport, it is important to discuss not only the physical importance of weight changes but also the mental effects they have on athletes. Weight loss is used in sport usually to qualify for a competitive weight category or to enhance performance. In order to lose body fat, the athlete needs to be expending more calories than are being consumed. This works best through a combination of diet and exercise as opposed to one or the other, and over a gradual period of time as opposed to through a quick crash diet. If we give the body time to adapt to the weight loss then there is a better chance that we will be able to maintain the weight loss, as opposed to if the weight loss is sudden, which can create secondary health issues.
While a certain amount of body fat is important in order to survive, most sports require a loss of body fat in order to enhance performance. Carrying around an excess of fat can slow an athlete down (such as in explosive sports that require the athlete to move their body weight or a loaded bar quickly, as mechanical efficiency and power are reduced), it can affect their endurance (as an increase in fat can increase fatigue) and strength. One of the only sports where an increase in weight (typically body fat) is considered advantageous, is Sumo wrestling. While in most sports where being of a larger size allows for an increase in the momentum required for throwing an object or knocking an opponent over, Sumo wrestling is the only sport where the weight increase is generally fat as opposed to lean tissue; Strongman competitors, for example, are usually heavier but this is typically muscle mass as opposed to fat.
There are 2 types of fat: essential fat and storage fat. Essential fat makes up around 3% of our body weight and is present around our organs to protect against damage, our brain tissue, cell membranes, nerve sheaths and bone marrow. Women have an additional sex-specific fat which makes up a further 5%-9% (usually around the hips and breasts) and aids with oestrogen production. As soon as a woman’s body fat starts to fall below 15%-20% there can be an impact on menstrual function. This is especially important to take into consideration with sports such as bodybuilding, where there is a requirement to have extremely low body fat percentage and hydration levels in order for the muscle bulk and fibres to be more visible. Storage fat is used as an energy reserve and is usually located subcutaneously (under the skin) and intra-abdominally (around the organs). Fat loss can occur from any area of the body and it is not possible to target one specific area for the fat to decrease as our fat utilisation patterns are based on our genetic make-up and our hormonal balance. Exercising (especially weight training) can help with increasing the muscle mass of that area but it will not affect the fat storage in that area as muscle and fat are two separate types of tissue and are non-interchangeable.
Bodybuilding is a good example of weight gain and weight loss in sport, as there are 2 phases that the athlete goes through in order to prepare for a competition: there is the bulking phase (also known as off-season) which lasts a couple of months (although there is no set timeframe) and then there is the cutting phase that usually happens in the months leading up to a competition where the aim is to lose body fat without jeopardising the muscle gains too much. During the bulking phase, the emphasis is on increasing the calorific intake (normally from an increase in lean meat, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats) versus expenditure so that the athlete puts weight on and more specifically muscle mass (as opposed to fat). This is the time where the athlete makes 95% of their improvements in their physique and therefore the right nutrition is required for this. While protein is usually used to build and maintain muscle mass, carbohydrates are especially important post-training as they increase the insulin levels and help the muscle to absorb the glycogen. Fats are also essential in building muscle, reducing cortisol, providing energy and increasing testosterone levels (the higher the testosterone levels, the more muscle mass; the more muscle mass, the higher the testosterone levels).
The bulking phase can be a mentally difficult phase for the athlete as the emphasis is on putting muscle mass on but it is impossible to do this without putting on body fat also. This can sometimes cause the athlete to start questioning themselves and adapting their nutrition to not include as much fat or as many carbohydrates as are required to build muscle, given the visible increase in fat. If the athlete cuts too soon, they risk losing the muscle mass they have worked hard to put on. It then becomes a question of whether the athlete can cope mentally with their larger appearance whilst they wait for the cutting phase.
During the cutting phase the emphasis is on reducing the body fat percentage while losing as little muscle mass as possible. While some muscle mass loss is expected, the diet is changed to decrease the carbohydrate intake and increase the protein intake (in order to save muscle mass) but having a carbohydrate-depleted diet can create a lack of energy which can also be mentally draining for the athlete who is trying to still exercise at the same level of intensity but with nowhere near the same amount of nutritional support. The cutting phase is also equally mentally challenging for the athlete, as while they look at their strongest because their muscle bulk and fibres are becoming more visible, they are actually at their weakest because their bodies are depleted of nutrition and their body fat is approaching dangerously low levels the closer they get to competition time.
This type of lifestyle can be rewarding for a short space of time after all the hard work, however, there are also health risks, both physical and mental. Constant yoyo dieting can increase heart disease, because when the athlete’s nutrition starts to normalise, the fat is usually re-deposited intra-abdominally (and therefore closer to the liver), rather than peripherally (the hips, thighs and arms); yoyo dieting can also cause a loss in lean organ tissue, which can damage the heart muscle. So while bodybuilders need to ensure that they are as lean as possible for their chosen sport, it can come with risks. It is, however, not only physical risks that can be associated with bodybuilding, but also emotional and mental issues, as the constant yoyo dieting and changing in body size can cause the athlete to start changing the way that they view themselves. This is known as body dysmorphic disorder and can be suffered by both men and women, where they are unable to see the true image of what they look like. They are not satisfied by their physical appearance and are in most cases unable to see the muscle bulk increase or body fat loss that the people around them can see. This causes them to keep pushing the boundaries and in some instances either develop an eating disorder or consider taking performance enhancing supplements to reach the next level; except that they will never reach the next level because of this disorder.
Any competitive sport is difficult to train for and excel in, as it is a combination of training periodization and the right nutrition that will give the athlete the tools to be able to prepare their body for competition day. Weight management plays a huge role in whether the athlete will make the necessary weight category, whether they will have enough strength to overpower their opponent, or whether their muscles will be more defined and symmetrical than the next competitor. The right nutrition can give an athlete the edge that is needed to reach the next level, however, yoyo dieting may not necessarily be the key to optimum health, given the mental and physical risks associated with it. It is therefore always preferable to manage weight in a more steady manner that allows the body to acclimatise to it and maintain the changes.