“A leaner athlete is a better athlete.”
Do you agree with this statement? From a biomechanical perspective it’s true: The less mass an athlete has to move, the less force required to move it at a given speed. Extra fat makes athletes slower.
However, athletic performance is a combination of strength, power, endurance, energy stores, skill, mental ability, and countless other interrelated factors. Leaner is not always better, especially if muscle mass is lost in the process of reducing fat.
To get lean and train for performance, use an approach that includes the following components:
• Assess body composition individually based on sport, performance goals, and training phase.
• Modify diet and training in a strategic fashion to focus on fat loss and/or muscle building during the off-season rather than during the competitive season.
• Increasing protein intake and adding heavy strength training are go-to methods for athletes to get lean. Sprint training can significantly enhance fat loss because it raises metabolic rate in the recovery period, while improving conditioning.
• Moderate energy restriction will generally produce better results than severe restriction. Low-carb, high-protein diets can be effective for athletes to improve body composition because they maintain muscle mass. Two recent studies provide models for how to use these strategies to become a leaner, better athlete.
#1: Use A Moderate Energy Deficit For Gradual Fat Loss & Train To Maintain Muscle
A recent study compared gradual fat loss using a moderate energy deficit with rapid fat loss using a severe energy deficit in elite athletes. The athletes were men and women on the Norwegian national team, competing in soccer, volleyball, cross-country, skiing, martial arts, cycling, track and field, gymnastics, ice dancing, ice hockey, biathlon, and ski jumping. The participants were put into two groups as follows:
• A Moderate calorie restriction group provided a 19 percent reduction (about 450 fewer calories a day) so as to lose 5 percent body weight in less than 9 weeks.
• A Severe calorie restriction group provided a 30 percent reduction (about 900 fewer calories a day) so as to lose 5 percent body weight in 5 weeks.
Both groups aimed for a diet of 1.2 to 1.8 g/kg protein, 4 to 6 g/kg carbohydrate, and about 20 percent of the calories from fat. No athlete ate less than 1,500 calories a day.
Both groups continued regular training for their sport and did 2 to 3 hypertrophy or strength-type weight training sessions using compound lifts such as power cleans, squat, hack squat, deadlift, presses, and rows.
The results were profound:
The Moderate-500 calorie group averaged 0.7 percent weekly body weight loss, decreased total body fat by 31 percent, and gained 2.1 percent lean muscle mass. Final body weight was 5.6 percent lower than at baseline.
The Severe-1,000 calorie group averaged 1 percent weekly body weight loss, lost a total of 21 percent fat, and had no gain in lean mass. Final body weight was 5.5 percent lower than at baseline.
Not only did the Moderate-500 calorie group lose significantly more fat, they built muscle, finishing with a superior body composition compared to the Severe-1,000 calorie group. It paid off in terms of performance enhancement as well: the Moderate-500 calorie group gained more strength and power than the Severe-1,000 calorie group.
The Moderate-500 calorie improved vertical jump height by 7 percent, and increased squat and bench press 1RM by 11.9 percent and 13.6 percent, respectively. The Severe-1,000 calorie group had no increase in vertical jump, but did improve squat and bench press 1RM by 8.9 percent and 6.3 percent, respectively.
Of interest, women in the study tended to gain muscle regardless of which group they were in, whereas the men had much more favorable results in the Moderate-500 calorie group, averaging a 1.7 percent increase in muscle compared to a 2 percent loss of lean mass in the Severe-1,000 calorie Group.
Take Away: If you choose to lose fat by reducing energy intake, aim for a moderate body fat loss of about 0.7 percent per week. There is a tendency among athletes and coaches to try to lose fat as fast as possible, but this study suggests that greater energy reduction will produce a significant loss of muscle and lead to poorer athletic performance.
Don’t shy away from intense strength training during fat loss phases because as long as adequate energy is consumed, training will maintain strength and muscle mass. Other studies show that reducing calories without additional strength training will cause a catabolic state and significant muscle loss, especially if endurance exercise is performed as well.
#2: Try A High-Protein, Low-Carb Diet To Lose Fat Faster
A second method for fat loss without muscle loss is to modify macronutrient intake by restricting carbs and increasing protein and fat. There is a lack of clinical research into the high-protein, low-carb method, and it is not ideal for all athletes. However, if extra body fat is an ongoing problem, going low-carb and modifying macronutrient content could get you where you need to be so that you can move on and train for performance.
A study of elite male gymnasts from the Italian national team tested what would happen on a one-month very low-carb diet of 54.8 percent fat, 40.7 percent protein, and 4.5 percent carbohydrate (carbs totaled no more than 28 grams, strictly from green vegetable sources).
The study included a 1-month “control” segment that was conducted three months after the low-carb trial. The three months served as a “washout period” in which the same gymnasts ate their regular diet for a month (composed of 46.8 percent carbs, 38.5 percent fat, and 14.7 percent protein). Strength, power, and body composition measurements were taken after both studies.
The high-protein, low-carb diet was primarily meat, green vegetables, eggs, seasoned cheese, olive oil, water, and coffee. The gymnasts avoided alcohol, bread, pasta, rice, milk, and yogurt. During the low-carb phase the gymnasts were given supplemental fiber, protein, electrolytes, and an herbal blend. The purpose of the herbal blend was to help avoid side effects from the low-carb diet since the study was using national team athletes with a lot on the line.
The regular “control” diet allowed the gymnasts to eat their regular diets that included many of the restricted carb foods such as bread, pasta, fruit, and alcohol. One drawback to this study is that the “control” diet was not as controlled as it could have been since it didn’t include the herbal supplement.
Results showed the following changes:
At the end of the low-carb trial, the gymnasts lost an average of 1.9 kg of fat (going from 5.3 kg body fat to 3.4 kg), decreased body weight by 1.6 kg, and gained a tiny but significant 0.3 kg muscle mass. They lost a total 2.6 percent body fat, ending the low-cab diet at 5 percent body fat. The small increase in lean mass and the large reduction in body fat in already extremely lean athletes is rather amazing, particularly since performance was not compromised.
The gymnasts did a series of strength and power tests (squat jump, vertical jump, reverse grip chin-ups, push-ups, and parallel bar dips), performing equally well before and after both the low-carb and “control” diets.
At the end of the “control” trial, the gymnasts lost 0.2 kg fat (going from 5.1 kg body fat to 4.9 kg), had no change in body weight, and gained 0.2 kg muscle mass. They lost 0.3 percent body fat, ending the control trial at 7.7 percent body fat.
The research group suggests that a low-carb, high-protein diet is effective and safe for athletes who need to improve body composition because it forces the body to rely on ketones for metabolic needs, which spares muscle protein. The ketones are a fat-based source of fuel, and burning them allows athletes to avoid a catabolic nutritional state. Instead of pulling amino acids from the muscle to use as energy, the body pulls fat and uses the ketones.
Insulin stays very low on such diets, meaning that it is hard to put on muscle mass because insulin triggers protein synthesis pathways. Therefore, the maintenance of muscle mass and strength ability in this study is noteworthy.
Take Away: If you choose to lose fat with a low-carb, high-protein diet, be sure to get a “threshold” dose of protein. Previous studies suggest a threshold ranging from 1.7 to 3.3 g/kg/day is ideal. This is a large range that represents the diversity of athletes and body types. The gymnasts ate about 2.8 g/kg/bw a day on the high-protein diet.
In addition, opt for healthy fat sources such as omega-3 fats, olive oil, avocado, and coconut oil. Carb intake will be dictated by energy needs, however to produce ketones, you generally need to restrict carbs to less than 50 grams a day, primarily from vegetable sources.
It took a week for the athletes to feel “normal" on the low-carb diet—over the first seven days they did not feel as strong or as powerful and found training difficult. After a week they recovered previous strength, power, and stamina, and reported no other problems with the diet.
#3: Additional Key Points For Best Fat Loss Results
A few things should be noted about the studies mentioned that should be considered in planning your own fat loss program:
First, neither study used a randomized control trial. That doesn’t mean the results aren’t valid, but they should be taken in the context of what they were: initial research looking at different fat loss models in real elite athletes who are competing to win.
A drawback of such studies is that they don’t compare equivalent models. For example, the gymnast study provided an herbal supplement during the low-carb phase that wasn’t used during the control diet. It included a mixture of mint, black radish, burdock, saw palmetto, white bean, equiseum, dandelion, ginseng, mura puama, and guarana.
Effects of these herbs range from promoting detoxification to being stimulants in the case of guarana and ginseng, which could have impacted the beneficial results during the low-carb phase.
In the Norwegian study, some athletes achieved the energy deficit by reducing calories whereas others had to increase training in order to achieve the calorie deficit. Again, this would affect performance and body composition outcomes, but the researchers noted that they were dealing with unique athletes and because of the “intent to treat” ethic, they had to include all athletes who wanted to participate.
Second, it will be interesting as other studies emerge to see how modifying energy intake and macronutrient content influences body composition and performance. For example, would there have been better results if the energy restriction had been even more moderate, but had been low-carb, high-fat, and high-protein?
Lastly, anecdotal reports of athletes competing on the Paleo diet suggest it is a highly effective model for performance and leanness. Consider that ancestral humans ate 30 percent protein daily, corresponding to about 3 g/kg/bw a day, and you see that the protein “threshold” is an intelligent approach.