Weight Cut Methods for Same Day Weigh-Ins: Ketosis

Photo credit: The Doppleganger

Photo credit: The Doppleganger

DISCLAIMER: What follows is research and reflections from my own experience cutting weight personally, and with a limited pool of clients and athletes. Nothing below is intended to count as medical advice, nor does it replace the advice of a physician. Nutrition and health are hugely personal and if you require a medical consultation or wish to try any methods below, consult your physician first. These are NOT recommendations.

Same day weigh-in success is a hugely contested, and a poorly understood topic.  It is a subject that deserves quite a bit of attention though, as the popularity of sports that practice this type of weigh-ins are growing massively in popularity: from jiu jitsu to weightlifting competitions, there is a definite growing need for us to better understand and take the same day weigh-in seriously.

If you're still waiting until 10 days out and proceed to starve yourself and drink distilled water, you're probably doing more harm than good. You can be tough and do it- sure- many have. Why not be tough and smart though? That's the stuff "double-gold" dreams are made of.

The "safe" popular advice is often to stay near your weight, so the "cut" involved is not difficult at all. The other advice you hear is to not cut weight for same-day weigh-ins at all, as there is too much risk involved. In other words: fight "up."

I won't even bury the lede here:

If you're purely looking to engage recreationally in jiu jitsu or any sport that requires same-day weigh-ins and have no interest in optimization or maximizing your potential, then the latter advice is perfectly valid (ie: don't cut weight). If you're perfectly happy with your body composition and are one of the rare individuals who fall right on a weight class at any point during the year: weight cutting may not be for you. Chances are, you may not be used to performance enhancing diets. There's a learning curve and some days of discomfort.

However, if you're training for a tournament or fight of any note, the chances are that you want to win. After all, you put in quite a bit of effort to prepare, train, and even more sacrifice into your diet, sleep schedule, etc. If you're a professional or aspiring professional, you need to optimize your performance. You need to do this with care and a plan.

Chris Weidman making weight before a UFC event. He's famously known for his large weight cuts. Photo: Peter Gordon, 

Chris Weidman making weight before a UFC event. He's famously known for his large weight cuts. Photo: Peter Gordon

If you fall into this camp, you may be 10 lbs or more away from your target weight class. It's just life: training, diets, stressors in life and lifestyle habits all influence and fluctuate your weight. Even those with the "luxury" (and I use that word VERY lightly) of 24-hour prior weigh-ins will tell you: staying at your fighting weight all year-round is not usually practical.

That's why today, in what will be a series looking at different methods to cut weight for any sport that requires same-day weigh-ins (jiu jitsu, submission wrestling, powerlifting competitors, Olympic style lifting competitors, etc), I want to share with you my research findings, first-hand experience, and experience of athletes and experts using a ketogenic diet as a means to make weight for competition. 

What is Ketosis?

Ketosis is the state the body finds itself in when it's using ketone bodies or fat as its primary source of energy. Most people who are not in ketosis are in a state of glycolysis, where energy is derived from glucose in the blood, or blood sugar. Ketosis, is the opposite. (1)

To get your body into a ketogenic state, you need to consume as little as 30g of carbohydrates per day, and can go as high as 100g in some individuals. To put it in perspective, two slices of Ezekiel bread would put you at 30g roughly, and a single large banana will bring you close as well.  This variation in how many carbohydrates you can consume to start ketosis, in my view, is usually due to the size of the athlete or individual and how much glycogen they have stored (or can store).  Thus, the exact number it takes to get you ketogenic is hard to quantify, but is often very low (my own number was 50g of carbohydrates or less per day, starting at a weight of 157 lbs).

The other limiting factor in ketosis, and this is key for anyone who wants to better understand their carbohydrate intake, is that it can take multiple days to burn through your glycogen stores, even while in a ketogenic state. When beginning a ketogenic diet, it may take up to 5 days to burn off your circulating blood glucose and glycogen stores to the point where the body preferentially (or out of necessity) turns to ketone bodies. 

This is important to point out too for the non-keto crowd, because there is a misconception among athletes that they need to hit "x" amount of carbohydrates per day, no matter what. Even if you're on a ketogenic diet, nothing could be further from the truth. The day's activities, training and sport demands drastically change the body's energy requirements. You'd be surprised how little glycogen you're actually burning off in a single workout (sounds like heresy I know, but I'm speaking from experience). Therefore, a professional or high level athlete should contact a knowledgable individual, nutritionist or dietician to help them work out the nuances of their daily carbohydrate consumption. The truth is, it should change frequently.

Your body isn't a total stranger to ketosis though: depending on your daily level of carbohydrate intake, you likely switch to this state while you sleep. You "snap out of it" once you consume enough carbohydrates the next day. 

Practical Application

My own goal during my most recent cut was to stay under 50g carbohydrate per day. With the exception of re-feed days, I was always under this amount. A true ketogenic diet, much like the one Tim Ferriss shared once, and many describe, is a ratio of approximately 15% Protein from Calories, 80% Fat and 5% carbohydrates from fruit mostly. My own diet was closer to 25% protein, 70% fat and 5% carbohydrates. You can debate the merits of that as truly ketogenic or not. 

Ketosis Friendly Foods: Healthy, fatty salmon and bok choy.

Ketosis Friendly Foods: Healthy, fatty salmon and bok choy.

Regardless, I was completely gluten and grain free during this time as well. I ate no rice or potatoes during the cut, not even on re-feed days. This was a rather extreme version for some, but most ketogenic diets have no room for these foods either.

While on the diet, it's important to understand there is a need for "re-feed" days. This means you have one or two days per week where you go over the maximum carbohydrate intake parameters in an effort to refuel glycogen. Every 3rd or 4th day is a good practice for this. Personally, because I was in a total experimentation mode, and have a penchant for deprivation and pushing my limits, I did not necessarily follow a strict guideline of "3 to 4 days" but rather, would be very mindful of how my body felt and "re-fed" accordingly. Coincidentally enough, this was usually every 3.5 days. So I would say this recommendation holds in my experience. I haven't seen a ketogenic diet that advocates skipping a re-feed day for athletes, even if the scheduling of these days is different (like Dr Mauro Di Pasquale's Anabolic Diet for instance)

Re-feed meals are best done after a particularly glycogen-depleting workout, like heavy weight training, high intensity intervals, short duration, alactic-type workouts or bouts of exercise. This is when you'll feel it (and want it) most, but it's also when your body is most ready to "accept" carbohydrates for the sole purpose of replenishing glycogen.

Benefits

My firsthand experience with a ketogenic diet was largely positive. I did it for 5.5 weeks prior to the IBJJF New York Open at No-Gi to make featherweight. I dropped from 157 lbs to 147lbs, weighing in officially with my gear on at 146.6 lbs. That meant I could eat a small breakfast that morning, drink reasonably to keep my body hydrated and even scored a few handfuls of an omega-3 nut mix before my match.

The real benefit to the ketogenic diet for the athlete is the body being physically and mentally ready to perform with what seems like small amounts of food or even in a relatively fasted state. By the time you're at competition day or fight day, you're used to 5+ weeks of food that is small in portion and dense in fuel-giving calories. You're also very familiar with the body using ketones and fat as energy. Thus, if you're right on weight and don't have much to eat the day of the competition, this probably won't affect your performance nearly as much as the person who lives on a steady stream of blood glucose from a diet that calls for more carbohydrates and lower fat.

Anecdotally speaking: the athletes I've worked with who possess the best endurance are good fat metabolizers, and tend to be some of the best at training in these relatively "deprived" states. The science on this is that they've effectively lowered their insulin resistance and through training and fueling with moderate to high fat diets, have been able to stabilize their blood sugar and have "re-trained" their bodies to begin burning fat and ketones as fuel during exercise. (2)  

Drawbacks

In my experience, though some will report differently, when you come off a short-term ketogenic diet, you tend to gain the weight back that you lost pretty quickly. This may seem like common sense, but upon getting off the diet, I shot up to 155 lbs in roughly 10 days. After eating a large "celebration meal," I was at 152 lbs the next day.

For that reason, I believe it's an effective "athlete's diet," but maybe not so great at making long term body composition change, unless you plan to keep up the lifestyle. There is much debate about how long-term you can keep up a ketogenic diet safely however. There are some dissenters though, like Dr Peter Attia, who claims to have been on one for over 10 years. 

There are also many factors that influence your body's readiness to take on a diet like this. Some people genetically have a polymorphism that makes them inefficient fat metabolizers and could actually do a great deal of harm and suffer from weight gain if they go on a high-fat diet. Dr Rhonda Patrick described this on the Joe Rogan Experience #672 if you'd like to learn more about that.

Things You Should Know

You will get the "low carb flu." After about two days in my experience, you'll start to feel sluggish, cravings will arise and it will be difficult. These can last for as few as two days, and as long as a week (in my experience). There are many reasons for this, some debated, some more accepted:

  • Your body is adjusting to using fat as its primary source of energy.
  • There's a "die off" effect going on internally (note: this effect is best noted and studied with antibiotic administration, not dietary or probiotic changes necessarily, but it's often been hypothesized as a reason for discomfort).

If you're under 8% body fat (and possibly even as high as 10% in males), you may not find this as an effective means to cut weight for competition, as you have very little "useless" weight to lose. You would still likely benefit from adopting many of the principles, as ketogenic diets would arm you to feel more satiated on less food before competition, you'd lower your insulin resistance, and in turn, retain or build more lean muscle. Chances are though, if you're a healthy 6-10% BF male, you likely possess many of these qualities already.

Addressing Misconceptions

Ketogenic Diets will make you "bonk," hurting performance and induce sluggishness.

This is a really loaded assumption because it's true: if you do it wrong.

I did it wrong at first: once my body got past the "low carb flu," I initially neglected to respect the power of the "re-feed" days in fear that it would "retain too much water" for me to make weight. In my final 2.5 weeks of prep, I adjusted this notion and never looked back. Do it right and you'll never feel sluggish.

You will lose muscle and lean tissue as your body needs it for fuel.

I have never found this to be true in my experience at all. The body, through gluconeogenesis, is able to metabolize protein and lean tissue for fuel, but this just does not seem to happen in a significant enough number to be a concern. In fact, most people report gaining muscle: I did myself while on this diet: increasing my muscle mass >2% in 5 weeks. You are quite literally consuming your body fat to put on lean tissue. 

A loose, but appropriate comparison here is to intermittent fasting. Many of the disciples of intermittent fasting herald it for its body recomposition and lean tissue building properties. Ketogenic diets lend themselves well to pairing with intermittent fasting

You risk dangerously elevated cholesterol levels, obesity and possibly diabetes from a diet so high in fat.

This is only true if you were to eat a high fat diet, but also kept up a high carbohydrate intake. Dr Rhonda Patrick very succinctly explained this on a recent appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast. Essentially, chronic inflammation from a poor diet high in carbohydrates, mixed with high fat foods is an equation that equals cell damage.  Cell damage often ends in illness or disease.

Bottom Line

If healthy and able to do so, using a ketogenic diet for a weight cut is very effective, as you will likely lose weight if you have weight to lose (if you're above 15% body fat as a male, you will likely be very successful). It is a "weight cut" for competition in the truest sense of the word: once you break the ketogenic nutrition program, you do tend to gain weight on the scale. This can be mitigated through a proper transitional diet, but it's important to remember that this is probably not a state you should be staying in long term. It makes sense to bring yourself  out of it. Always do this under the supervision of a professional or physician if in doubt with regards to its safety to your health.

If you're looking to cut weight for an important competition or event, I invite you to check out my Weight Cut Coaching services, or to contact me if you ever have any questions. 

 

Other useful links not already linked in this blog:

Ketosis and Athletic Performance: More Than Fat Loss (Four Hour Workweek Blog)

Cyclical Ketogenic Diet: The Best Ever Bodybuilding Diet?

 

Have you ever used a diet like this to make weight for same-day weigh ins? Let me know by commenting below or sending me a message. I'd love to hear your experience.

Next time, we'll discuss Same Day Weigh-In Cuts using a different method of dieting. Check back soon!

- Mark