The Strength Program of a Top Jiu Jitsu Contender

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Some projects demand something beyond your current conception of "the best of you." In training, it's the coaching relationship between two people. You both rise to the level of each other.  There’ll be no level to rise to if you don’t actively build up your environment to meet the level of expectation and performance you set for yourself. I believe these moments define us.

I met Rehan Muttalib, jiu jitsu brown belt and multiple title holder at all belt levels, through jiu-jitsu: Rehan and I attended the same academy in NYC while he lived there. From the moment our mutual friends introduced us, we clicked. I later found out, it’s because we had both done our homework on one another: he had read some of my articles, followed my social media, and heard some things about my training methods from others. And I knew he was a stud athlete and intelligent competitor who was simultaneously attending medical school while adding medals to his resume in jiu jitsu. 

In a general sense, I am very interested in high level performers and people who do multiple things well. I often loved the ideal of the “renaissance man” as a kid, and aspired to live my life in a way that was both interesting to me, and gave me the room to explore anything I found myself engaged with. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the era of Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson.  

A person who has a multi-faceted approach to life where they perform highly in many areas, is a special person to me. It’s those clients who I am happy to lend my services to. I learn an equal amount from them. Maybe more. But shhh, don’t tell them that… 

The Foundation

One point both Rehan and I bonded on and the one that ultimately solidified our relationship, was that we both saw value in traditional, results based strength and conditioning. Rehan had been around weight rooms in multiple sports, particularly football, and saw the power a strength coach can have with a good program. At the highest levels of the sport, strength matters.

It’s funny I even have to say that, because an outsider would think— “strength training and sports seems like peanut butter and jelly.” However in jiu jitsu, there are a lot of strange ideas that persist about strength training that are very dated and antiquated. One such idea is that you don’t need strength training.  

Unfortunately, I believe jiu jitsu, and grappling sports more generally, are in the dark ages with strength and conditioning. There’s a few guys who get it and have been successfully through many of these rodeos (both coaches and competitors), but largely, jiu jitsu like many combat sports, is a breeding ground for charlatans and weird ideas of fitness and “sports specificity in training” to take hold. 

Sadly, it sometimes takes an ass whooping – and even worse,  brain damage - for people to realize how important strength is in these sports. I’ll address that in a future blog, but I am happy to see that there is a definite turn around lately. I credit Gordon Ryan’s amazing transformation and his subsequent domination of the jiu jitsu scene this past year for the turnaround in attitude. Athletes are proud folks and may not admit it, but he definitely got a lot of people in the gym and calling/texting me about training sessions. (Thanks Gordon!)

Establish Priority

The first place you would naturally start any strength and conditioning program with is establishing a priority. As one of my teachers and mentors, Charles Poliquin would say, PRIORITY MEANS ONE!

I had Rehan for two major tournaments, Pan Ams and Worlds, and we had a priority established for the first, and a priority for the ultimately longer camp to Worlds. So we had two, but we never tried to work on both at the same time. 

Pan Am Priority (approximately 4 weeks to complete): establish better strength and movement through the scapular region.

Worlds Priority (3-4 months): Leg strength in the posterior chain to enhance the crown of his game: his world famous guard play.

On Scheduling

Rehan and I talked at length early on about the ultimate goal being Worlds in June 2018, but since we started training together in February, we knew we’d have Pans, a handful of IBJJF Opens and a few other opportunities that would pop up along the way on the competition circuit.

It’s really important that grappling competitors understand that you only get 1, and at most 2 peaks in performance per year. Meaning, you can only train your way to perform physiologically at your VERY best twice per year. You’ll maintain that peaking performance for a little while, but the window closes relatively quickly. If you push as hard as you did to get there continuously  you will burn out. I can’t predict your consequences, but it won’t be good. 

This comes from years of research and cross analysis in many sports for decades (by scientists all over the world).  This doesn’t mean you can’t compete and compete often— but you should know which tournaments you want to be at your very best for. A classic jiu jitsu example of a dual peak would be Worlds and ADCC (on the years a top athlete qualifies for both and both are happening). 

With this in mind, we chose to peak Rehan for Worlds. All I programmed for him, his training and his entire life, was based around getting him to peak on June 2, 2018. This was mapped out carefully, and we used classic concepts of periodization to do it.

 

The Monkey Wrench, or One Logistical Difficulty….

There’s just one thing: Rehan relocated mid-camp to Los Angeles. I’m in NYC. 

We did over half of our work together remotely, with me checking in on him every day, and me averaging a visit to the west coast every other week for April and May to check up on him, train him and tweak his program in person. While this was a big change, it is something I chose not to dwell on. We made it work.  Nothing needs to stop progress if you’re committed to making it work. I can tell you between our daily conversations and his training logs, he didn’t ever miss a step and he made every performance in the gym as effective as I could have ever hoped it to be.

 

The Training

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"Before 30, you train with your balls. After 30, you train with your brain."

- Ben Pakulski, IFBB Pro and Bodybuilding Hero

You have two age factors to account for when training anyone: chronological age, and training age. Rehan and I felt that the paradigm was different for an athlete who had been to the rodeo many times. The high level athlete who knows their body and has been using it for a long time, and who is very familiar with their sport, needs to treat their training differently than a young 20-something who is still working toward their prime.  Rehan at the time of writing this is 31 years old and with at least 15 years of hard multi-sport training (and 8 in jiu jitsu) on his odometer. 

Thus, we had a manifesto: Training smarter to train harder. There would be no blindly hard, bruising sessions without purpose just for the sake of saying we “trained hard.” There would be no extra time spent in the gym that didn’t need to be done just to say we were there. Everything had a purpose. Recovery and down time would be treated with the same seriousness and care as training.

High level athletes, particularly those who have been competing, training and involved everyday  for many years (around a decade), have what I call a high training age.

Rehan had a very high training age: being a former Division I NCAA football player (defensive lineman), playing football growing up, and already a decorated champion in jiu jitsu at all levels, he came with experience.

It’s always important to choose your priority, but I always have to know the training age of the athlete first. The reason for this is you can reasonably assess how much strength they have to gain in what we might call the indicator lifts, or just more generally, the big lifts we hope to add strength to. These correlate with better performance on the mats (they do NOT predict it, but there is a high correlation). 

In a nutshell: the lower your training age, the more rapid room for growth you have. The higher your training age, the more you have to carefully program to bring about more modest gains than someone in their first 3 years of strength training.

Rehan came to me with some appreciable numbers in the main lifts for a grappler, and had a history and knowledge of body building. In other words, he had a good degree of gym literacy. This made me program for him in the weight room at an intermediate-to-advanced level (more below on that).

You also must know the reality of the sport you’re dealing with: 

For Rehan’s first mini program before Pan Ams, I chose to get his scapular retraction working a bit better and we used some mobility techniques that I learned from my years working with Steve Maxwell. You can find most of these in his mobility videos, but my favorites, which ultimately comprised Rehan’s daily rituals were the Single Joint Mobility Movements.

One technique I like quite a bit is the Farmer’s Carry with a Kettlebell in the Rack Position. It can stimulate the lats and trapezius muscles, depress the shoulders (taking you out of the shoulders-hiked and small-neck jiu jitsu posture), and then forces you to keep that posture while you get in some back handed GPP (General Physical Preparedness) with the farmer’s carry. You also learn to maintain that position when you have to. It really did the trick. 

We’d also progress to things like Dead Hangs on a Pull Up Bar and Scapular Pull Ups to get the body warm and things working in the proper order. 

A sample of his program for a day on the strength training of the upper body would look like this:

  • A1) Overhead Press (Neutral Grips DB)
  • A2) Pull Ups (Weighted progressively)
  • A3) Trap 3-Raise or Rotator Cuff Work

Classic, good pairing of exercises in an antagonistic co-contraction organization. It’s simply the most effective way to pair these types of exercises.  The prime mover of the last exercise rests while the formerly antagonist muscle group works on the second exercise. This organization is something I learned from Poliquin and has been built on and replicated by many great coaches.

Traditional strength programming would dictate you would want to work strength first, and then, hypertrophy if that was a desired outcome. Jiu jitsu is a weight class sport, and while I wanted to strengthen the posterior chain and work his legs in cycles of higher reps to facilitate this, you must be cognizant of putting weight on (or taking it away) from a top contender at his weight class. If he missed weight because I made him look like Dorian Yates, then I am severely out of touch as a strength coach.

 However, Rehan and I took what we knew to be a little bit of a risk. In retrospect, this wasn’t much of a risk at all.

Rehan is what I’d call a volume responder: he does well with high volume training. Intensity should be used relatively conservatively with him, and only to switch things up. With that in mind, we could lean on higher volumes of work in the weight room. The aforementioned risk I mentioned, was him putting on too much size (and going over his weight limit): being so responsive to volume.

 A shot from the beginning of 2018. 

A shot from the beginning of 2018. 

 A shot 3 days out from Worlds from Rehan's Instagram (May/June 2018). 

A shot 3 days out from Worlds from Rehan's Instagram (May/June 2018). 

We chose to have a little bit of a body recomposition go on in the course of the 4 months. Here is where the risk comes into play: already being around 10% body fat and frequently on weight throughout the year, he didn’t have to lose anything, but we could make him weigh the same 175-178lbs that he already did, but much, much leaner and more muscular. So that’s what we did. We built a bigger, better engine. 

Between working out with me, and the many hours of jiu jitsu training per day, his energy expenditure bought us some wiggle room. The other thing that we did was never hang out too much or for too long in hypertrophy rep ranges (8-12). We did a lot there, but they were carefully accounted for.

His lower body program became low-key viral and a joke around some jiu jitsu circles, as he’d often post on Instagram that he was doing my “leg day” with all kinds of painful emojis. It became a thing of mild legend. What was he up to on those days?

Well…

6-8 reps, training a functional hypertrophy base. We’d go down in reps in intensity phases, and up in accumulation phases. That was the crux. 

The Front Squat is my grappler staple squat. Few exercises are able to increase relevant strength for grapplers in a way that doesn’t over-train them. 

You always have to remember that jiu jitsu sparring rounds are almost like mini strength sessions that a high level athlete will basically be completing every day. Over-training is a very real risk in strength training these athletes, because they are often teetering on over-training just from their sport alone. Quite simply: their jiu jitsu class can be like a workout on its own.

The highest ROI came on the Step-Up. It addressed everything that needed to be addressed in his program and areas for growth. Without going too much in the weeds, Step Ups are severely underrated as a tool for calf, ankle and foot strength, but also ultimately for balance and proprioception. All things that are important for a guard player.

 I lean heavily on unilateral work for athletes. Split Squats and Lunges (Walking, Drop, Stationary, etc), all find their way into my programs very often depending on need and what that week calls for.

Deadlifts are a popular choice for grapplers and I used the deadlift once per week in 3 week bursts, and would de-load or ditch the deadlift all together depending on many factors in the 4th week of a cycle (sometimes every third week). I notice that volume responders, particularly jiu jitsu athletes, burn out quick if you lean on the deadlift too much. As the competition drew near, the deadlift happened every other week.

Did I just give away the recipe? 

The Results

  Before (Left), February 2018, and after (Right) May 30, 2018.

Before (Left), February 2018, and after (Right) May 30, 2018.

  • The body recomposition
  • Bringing up his strength and objectively measuring it in the indicator lifts and reported performance increase on the mats
  • Upgrading and enhancing his recovery practices to fuel him into the next day.

Looking at the body composition results in the images above, you can see Rehan had extraordinary results. The rough numbers tell a better story: he successfully "recomp'd," as he weighed in at roughly 175lbs in both photos (at the time of taking the second photo, he was actually closer to 173lbs). Meaning, we were remarkably successful at building muscle and keeping him squarely in his weight class. Rehan deserves a lot of credit for this, as he dialed in his diet to a point most athletes aspire to. For those who always ask what is more important in body recomposition: diet or exercise-- I say both and you have to have congruent practices in both when your goal is to change your body composition. Rehan's results only reinforced this to me.

I did not speak at length here about the importance of recovery methods: we did some of our best work here. I'd like to devote future articles to this, but I'd be remiss and misrepresenting this project to you all if I didn't drive home the importance of the work Rehan spent in the other ~20 hours of his day "working in" as Paul Chek would say.

I would like to say in closing that strength and conditioning for jiu jitsu is not so different from the well-established practices of S&C in other major sports. You simply have to identify what the important muscles are, if the athlete needs more strength or more power, body recomp, and ultimately how to get them there. We make this process overly complicated, but it needn’t be.

One of my personal missions is to communicate to the world that that jiu jitsu athletes are their own class of athlete and need their own individualization in strength and conditioning. They are not wrestlers. They are not judo players. They are not MMA fighters. While there are parallels, their strength and conditioning must be different by virtue of the fact that modern sport jiu jitsu takes place on the ground, as opposed to the other grappling arts I just mentioned. It was important to me that not only was Rehan’s program carefully individualized, but was not overly inspired by popular grappling programs in other sports.

Flash forward to now, a few days out from Worlds as I write this, and I am very satisfied with the progress Rehan made during this whole camp. From a strength and conditioning perspective, it’s been an absolute dream: full compliance, great communication, and excellent results.

Working with Rehan has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. I am very fortunate to have a great roster of clients who all are devoted, thoughtful and committed to bettering themselves, and Rehan is no different. 

As you can see from the photos above, he’s had quite the transformation. I couldn’t be more satisfied with the results and the physical preparation for him that went into this camp for Worlds. We did everything we possibly could to set up the best environment for success.

 

Be well, be strong,

Mark

 

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The Stan Lee Principle

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The Stan Lee Principle:

Every comic book is someone's first issue. 

Every max effort workout is someone's first.

Whether it's Spider-Man, which is thousands of issues deep, or some brand new hero/heroine, Stan Lee and Marvel Comics always started the comic with a quick sentence or two that describes the story and who the hero is. Because even if millions people knew who Spider-Man was, someone out there did not. 

Context is everything.

Your workouts should be no different. You need to understand why it is that you're moving the way you are moving in order for them to be effective. 

The Russians had a word for it, as I learned recently from Mark Bell, called the "Principle of Awareness." If they didn't know why they were working the muscle, or the movement, it hindered their ability to make the mind muscle connection. Most importantly, it makes us all students.

It also contributed to higher morale if you knew why you were doing something, which increases compliance. When you have athletes or trainees who don't comply with a program, you have the biggest problem in a training program's effectiveness... 

Thus, I train by what I call the Stan Lee Principle and always explain in just a few short sentences to people why they're doing the exercise they are doing. You don't need to be a know-it-all or condescending (also- use normal words, not kinesiology text book jargon). When you do that, you build better clients and athletes because they are also being educated. They'll start asking better questions and use better training practices on their own. 

Results will improve. 

Be well,

Mark DiSalvo

How Do You Know if You're Over-Training?

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Overtraining is a funny topic, because it’s so profoundly misunderstood. It’s misunderstood at levels that get people feeling like they’re lazy if they don’t train that day; or on the other end of the spectrum: feeling like their workout allows them to sit the rest of the week out in hopes that they "hit it hard enough already."  Neither are correct. That's more neurosis than simple objective feedback from your body.

I sometimes even hesitate to dwell on this topic in any sensationalist way because, while it's incredibly important, I never want to come off as the "told ya-so" disciplinarian parent, nor do I want to coddle and excuse what could simply be a lack of effort and discipline on the part of the trainee. Both outcomes are negative and lead to the athlete simply tuning out to what could be good advice.  So for the athletes and coaches reading this alike, I encourage you to be very aware of how to deal with overtraining in athletes and the signs of it, but trust that you have the knowledge, education and intuition when the problem arises. Don't stress; the stress is much worse.

Overtraining quite simply is the state you find yourself in after chronically overreaching in your training effort. Much can be mitigated by recovery efforts, but even the best laid recovery practices can’t outrun a body that can’t recover, adapt, and come back stronger.

I made mention a few weeks ago in my article on The Athlete of Over 30 Best Practices, that you should alter your training plans for the day if you’re feeling over-trained. But how do you know if you’re overtrained? Let’s discuss…

 

Did you over-reach in the past 2 days?

 

Overreaching in strength and conditioning circles refers to the temporary over-exertion of yourself to reach a certain short-term goal. Maybe it was you going the extra round in jiu jitsu (past your normal capacity), or having multiple consecutive two-a-days.

In the gym, it may mean that you went for your PR in a squat or deadlift in the past 48 hours. Maybe you had a two-a-day: sprints in the morning, strength training in the evening. The actual practice of this isn't "bad," but the chronic repeating of it can get you in trouble (why do you think so many programs have "de-load" weeks and times where you alter your volume and intensity?)

You can conceivably overreach for a number of sessions in a row to produce a desired training effect, but you’ll be in slippery territory if you do this unsupervised or chronically. Sometimes, high level athletes will overreach to achieve a certain goal. 

Whatever the case, you've dealt a slightly larger than normal blow to your nervous system that your body is recovering from and adapting to in order to come back stronger.  While this is happening, you’d be wise to move, but somewhere in the 60-70% total exertion/effort range max for the immediate 48-72 hours after. This could include longer duration cardio/running/biking, practicing your technique for your lifts by doing higher volume and low weight sets, drilling in jiu jitsu, etc.

To be clear, you are not overtrained at this point. However, if you chronically trained in this fashion, you’d probably be pushing into over-training territory. Precisely how much is a personal approximation and number, and is in part, measured by some of the small giveaways listed below. To figure it out first though, you must take an inventory of your body.

 

reflect, but don't get too "heady"

There are many reasons a mental malaise and brain fog can onset that are not a result of physical fatigue. Stress, distractions from work, life, family or otherwise, and simply not being present can easily disrupt your focus, and have physical manifestations. You’ll feel tired, cranky, or just physically drained.  Should you train on those days? That depends…

It’s hard to distinguish between this “attitude fatigue” and actual physical over-training.  A quick way to tell which is which is by thinking to your last 4 training sessions. Are you usually happy and enthusiastic to go and knock it out of the park? Then you may be actually in need of that extra rest day if you're feeling sludgy. Conversely, if you’re always hemming and hawing the whole way to the gym and don’t really get focused until your first set, then you’re probably simply psyching yourself out… in the bad way. In this case, training would probably be a good idea.

It simply comes down to being disciplined. You won’t always feel like training, but you should. Compliance and how much you show up and complete what’s outlined is what’s most important.

So if you’re certain it’s not an attitude fatigue incident, let’s explore these four clues:

 

Find a “benchmark exercise”

Everyone has an exercise they’re good at and simply have a higher aptitude in relation to other exercises. My personal one is the Farmer’s Walk. Besides simply being a strength and strength capacity building exercise, the Farmer’s Walk gives me a good indication to my balance that day, basic coordination, and how tense or tight I am feeling.  On most days, if I pick up a heavy kettle bell, dumbbell, or any thick-gripped implement, I feel ready to move with it. However, there’s some days where I am simply off and even grabbing a 16kg or 20kg kettle bell to do a simple warm-up is asking a lot. Moving is tough, coordination of my legs while walking is off (more on that below), and everything just feels heavier than it should.

Simply put, if an exercise is hard that you know should be easy, you may want to reconsider training that day. Take a longer warm-up, get into some harder working sets to see what happens, but don’t be surprised if you need to alter your workouts.

The same goes for combat sports, particularly grappling. If you’re feeling really sluggish and a lack of sharpness after 10-15 minutes of warming up and a few times through your favorite pass or sweep, you may want to stick to drilling that day.

Check your breathing

If you are sore, tight, stressed, or simply not having a good day, the chances that you are dysfunctionally breathing are quite high. You're probably breathing through your mouth, and/or possibly infrequently, and sighing and grunting a lot. If that's you, simply take a few deep diaphragmatic breaths and see what happens. I wager you'll find a lot more calm.

On the bright side of this practice, you'll have focused and altered your state in a very positive way for your training session. The relaxed demeanor and increased mobility of your tissue will allow you to fully utilize everything you have for the training session.

On the other side of the coin, if this still reveals some fatigue, you'll have taken the first step to putting your body in a "healing" state by blunting your sympathetic nervous system, and moving yourself into the parasympathetic realm, allowing your body to start healing better.

Grip strength

I notice amongst athletes and avid gym-goers alike, that grip strength is one of the first things to go as they approach overtraining and chronic overreaching territory. This observation is only valid of course, if people have a standard warm-up or some exercise that they’re used to using a heavy gripping effort for that we can compare it to session-to-session.  

We usually notice this at the beginning of a workout when someone is going to pick up a dumbbell or kettle bell they’re used to handling for warm-up purposes, or if they go to hang from a bar. Invariably, when they’re a little overly fatigued, it feels heavier to them than it should.  This has a lot to do with your nervous system readiness, that is, how quickly your body and brain are communicating to execute what you’re asking of it. The physical therapists I work with often equate grip strength issues to core issues as well; so if you're overly sore and damaged through the torso, and your grip isn't up to snuff, then we may have a reduced training load on our hands.

I particularly like to do a shoulder warm-up series with kettle bells to warmup before workouts. On the days in which I am a little over-trained, I find myself a little slower to process the grip of the thick handles, and it simply feels more difficult than it should to work with 12 or 16kg. 

Balance

Tripping on the mats? Doing a farmers walk and having issues staying under center? Not unlike grip strength feeling weak, your balance and all the systems that dictate it (vestibular, etc) can be the first to go when your body is shuttling its resources elsewhere. Often times, it takes a set or two to get your body and balance in sync, but if it’s going past the initial warm-up, you’d benefit from scaling back that day.

 

PROGRESSION AND PERIODIZATION ARE REAL THINGS

I find there’s two ends of this spectrum: people who very obviously have a lot on their training plate and are feeling burned out, and people who train much less frequently, but still feel burned out.  Both individuals are making mistakes of programming and periodization.

Don’t get discouraged if you’re feeling a bit over-trained and it’s coming from just a few workouts per week. You should already be logging your exercise (if you take it seriously), so go back and see what your total number of workouts was in 1 month. Increase that number by roughly 10-15% the next month to help build your capacity. Secondly, heed the next bullet point (more on that below. Spoiler alert: improve your recovery habits).

However, maybe you’re the opposite; maybe you’re burning out and it’s because you’re training TOO much. Remember, give yourself 48 hours if necessary between strength training bouts, and don’t expect to be king of the ring/mats the day after a hard strength training session either.

 

Identify Your Recovery Errors

The best laid plans can be easily laid to waste if your recovery efforts are tainted. The tried and true advice of proper sleep, diet and stress management go a long way. If you feel like you do everything perfect, but are chronically stressed and subsequently, under-slept, you WILL suffer. There is no way around this and I see it ALL the time. Stress management can derail all your training efforts and increase your chance for injury, blunt your progress, and make you retain unwanted weight. This is not an exaggeration and it's something I deal with almost weekly with clients and athletes (I live and train in NYC, after all...).

 

don't worry...

The worst thing you can do is worry. Remember, all these markers and symptoms are objective feedback from your body that something is off. They aren't a statement of judgement about you as an athlete.

Start becoming more mindful of everything above and you'll give yourself a much deeper window into your recovery habits. If you are indeed overtrained, you will be able to diagnose and appropriately respond to keep yourself healthy. It bears repeating that the majority of people reading this article may not need this advice now, but being mindful of these things can actually enhance and help you train harder and smarter later, as you can proceed full speed ahead if you are covering the spread and having no ill effects. We didn't cover everything, because that could be a book in itself, but I hope this got you all thinking about the topic.

Be well,

Mark

 

ps- If you have any rituals or signs you notice in recognizing overtraining, leave a comment below.

 

A Best Practices Guide for the Masters Athlete

 IBJJF World Masters 3 Absolute Runner Up Jay Marist.  photo credit:  Jay Marist

IBJJF World Masters 3 Absolute Runner Up Jay Marist.  photo credit: Jay Marist

Competition and logging long hours in the gym do not stop when you turn 30. There’s no better proof of that than the mats at your jiu jitsu school, CrossFit box, or obstacle races like Spartan. It’s why the over 30 crowd is increasingly well represented in the physical pursuits of many individual athletes.

The Masters athlete may be the fastest growing category of athlete and fitness enthusiast. Those reading this familiar with the term already know what I am referring to, but for the uninitiated:

The Masters divisions in many sports refers to the athlete who is generally over the age of 30, and wishes to compete at either an amateur or pro level of sport. Many sports like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, CrossFit or Powerlifting will further break this up into “Masters 1, Masters 2,” etc, based on further age brackets over 30.

Because of the increased popularity of sports and competitions in Brazilian jiu jitsu and CrossFit, and the age range running a wide spectrum, this phenomenon is really no surprise at all: people of all ages want to be healthy and compete to test their abilities. 

What concerns me though, is that all too often, we take the published advice of what’s advocated for professional athletes in their early-20’s and apply to the athlete over 30. Worse yet, is the master’s athlete trying to keep up with a 23-year old prospect banging out two-a-days at the gym.  The world is (sadly) not created equal for all, and in order to live out maximum glory on the mats or the floor of the box, we need to acknowledge where we are at in life, figure out where we can over-perform, where we currently underperform, and maximize our health.  

By no means am I recommending you use your age as an excuse. We need to get that out of the way right now: you are not to ever use your age as an excuse (or anything as an excuse really, who wants to hear excuses?). You simply need to acknowledge the reality of the hand you’re currently dealt and play the heck out of that hand. Crude analogies aside, let’s explore what I mean.

 

CONSIDER YOUR TRAINING AGE

One of the first assessments I make with all new clients, especially athletes, is their “training age.” By training age, I mean the amount of years they’ve been actively exerting their body physically in the gym and/or in sport. Depending on their “age,” the training recommendations for these individuals changes.

The younger your training age, the less overall work I need to do per session with you, as you stand to benefit a lot from less stimuli as it’s all new to you.  We strive for the least effective minimum dosage of training stimulus, in other words. Why?

 

  1. I want you to be fresh to practice and enjoy your sport. Your strength and conditioning should enhance that; it shouldn’t get in the way.
  2. Newcomers to strength and conditioning at any age also need to train a bit longer in basic movements before they possess the necessary technique to really push themselves maximally. Thus, newcomers often can train more frequently as they aren’t able to really hit or exert maximal effort yet. Newcomers train more often, but usually in the domain of technique, all while benefiting from adaptation because the threshold is so low.  

 

PHYSICALLY DEMANDING SPORTS HAVE A LONG ADAPTATION PERIOD TO increase 'WORK CAPACITY'

Are you trying to be a two-a-day champ at the jiu jitsu academy in your first three months? I would advise you don’t do that until your body becomes very familiar with the demands of the sport, how to recover from it, and until your body very realistically “hardens”. 

Your work capacity is something that needs to be built. This means that if you are a newcomer to the rigors of training that could be considered "all out" (or maximal): many master's age athletes need to give their bodies a minimum of 6 months just to adjust to a sustainable 2-3x per week sports training schedule.  You read that correctly: if you’re new, your max effort classes should be at 2-3 times per week if you’re a master’s athlete. 

The exception to this is if you’re used to 2-a-days from high school, college, and a well rounded fitness regimen. Other examples include athletes who don't work full time, can take the day to recover, relax, and practice other good recovery rituals.  If this describes you, then you will probably adjust just fine to doing hard physical activity every day, and eventually twice per day a few times per week pretty quickly. Your capacity is there, but you’ll want to work on your recovery.

For some who compete at the highest levels of the masters divisions, and are recent carry-overs from the Adult (under 30) divisions, then it’s more or less business as usual into your mid 30’s.  But what if you started jiu jitsu at 39, or older? What if your CrossFit regimen was the first real hard training in your life and didn’t really start until 44? You have to treat your body much, much differently, starting with the advice above.

 

RECOVERY IS A SKILL

Recovery is as much of a skill as strength and your sport. The body adapts physiologically to stress. Give the body time to recover, and it adapts to be that much more ready to take the rigor of what you previously asked of it. 

It’s a simple concept that goes astray too often, and I don’t necessarily blame the misunderstanding and straying. It’s poorly understood what it means to be truly recovered.  

From a strength and conditioning perspective for the masters athlete: keep in mind that two maximal workouts per 7 day period is sufficient for most to see progress, and consequently, enough to fatigue you at the deepest neurological level. This is especially true of the amateur athlete who has to work full time, has a few nights per week of compromised sleep, commitments with family, etc.  

This doesn’t mean you can’t train jiu jitsu, or hit the gym more than 2 days per week, it simply means you need to periodize, or scale, your training on a weekly basis: 2 hard days of rolling and 2 skill & technique based days, for instance. 

What’s a simple way to know if you’re recovered? You should use your ability to move through the ranges of what’s planned that day as your first indicator. Is soreness keeping you from achieving a perfect hinge? If so, then you may need to re-arrange your workout days. After a few minutes of warm-up, is that guard pass feeling really shaky? Consider resting or reorganizing your sport training that day. 

 

RECOVERY IS AS IMPORTANT AS TRAINING

It just needs to be prioritized. Reduce stress, sleep better, and eat well 85%-90% of the time, and you will largely take care of the recovery spread. It also is immensely important that you make time for yourself. Schedule 30 minutes as frequently in a week as you can to simply be alone. If this includes your own meditation, breathing or mindfulness practice, you'll be bringing yourself to an even better place in your recovery efforts.  I've written much on this topic and will continue to, so keep an eye out for that.  Consider also adding "me time" and meditation time through things like Morning and Evening Rituals.

 

Periodization of your training and strength/conditioning program is a must.

Periodization refers to the planning and mapping involved in creating an effective workout program. Programming for athletes, especially master’s athletes, is much different than creating workouts for the average gym goer. If you practice your sport and pair that with the same routine you’ve been using for years in the gym, then you need a drastic change. Without doing so, you may be affecting your durability and performance.

You need to carefully and progressively increase your workload without overdoing it for too long and too often. Hitting it 100% every day is simply not going to cut it.

Program design is one area of fitness and strength training that is simply too personal and complex to ever write a one size fits all solution to. As such, the best solution is to seek out a skilled strength coach or trainer who understands periodization and programming for athletes. Together, you can work on a program and work together over a period of time to maximize results. The art and science of programming is where great coaches shine, as they’ve spent years and degree-worthy amounts of study on learning how to maximize performance. This is exactly the crux of my Online Training program, as this is exactly what we do with that service: periodized training programs. Check it out the services page to see if it’d be right for you.

 

Movement quality and Motor Control is equally important as training

 

For ease of discussion, I’ll break this into two camps:

If you have a long history of being involved with the sport you find yourself pursuing in your Master’s life, then you’d be wise to spend at least half your time on your strength and conditioning, body maintenance, and wellness habits.  Why? You already have a great many hours logged, reps performed, and the brain-body patterning that are required to be great at what you do. Your time is better spent making sure you’re still able to do it indefinitely. The athlete I’m describing here is often highest risk for overtraining on the mats, or kicking it in high gear too often.

If you’re very new to the sport you find yourself in (ie: under 4 years in), and already over the age of 35, then your time needs to be spent doing that sport, perfecting your movement and technique, and on your recovery habits. Don’t get confused though, you absolutely must keep up some schedule of strength and conditioning, but it should be on something that keeps you feeling fresh, loose and prepared to get back sports. Don't embark on a new program to increase your 1RM the same month you start jiu jitsu. Give it a few months to all come together and build up to it.

Moreover, strive for movement and technical fluidity and control over the ability to quickly get through something, or literally "surviving" class and/or a workout.

 

IF YOU DROP THAT WEIGHT FOR COMPETITION, YOU MAY NEVER GET IT BACK

At the risk of sounding sensationalist, I do think it’s important to point out that weight management becomes an issue for men and women as they get older. I’m not referring to eating too much or too little, but rather, bone density issues for menopausal women and the lean muscle maintenance of men over 40 that can be a real issue. 

The athlete over 40 who wishes to cut extreme amounts of weight does so inevitably at the expense of lean tissue. Estimates by reputable sources like the NSCA report that anything over 1% of total body mass loss per week is going to be more than just fat loss: it's also muscle and water. That can be consequential for a man over 40, or the woman who has a lot of lean muscle from years of training.  

The exception to this of course, is if you’re overweight or obese and you have fat to lose. If you have difficulty gaining muscle, or find yourself experiencing muscle loss, then a drastic weight cut is not your friend. Add to the fact that most people do this process rather crudely, without professional help. Be advised, drastic weight loss can affect an individual’s body at hormonal levels that can start to wreak havoc longer term if mismanaged or done too aggressively and frequently.

I’ll often hear from people who have a longer history in their sport say something to the effect of “I don’t understand, I used to be able to cut to this weight just fine.” The unsexy truth is that it’s different to manipulate your weight when you’re at a certain age, and we are always changing physically. Things change, and your practices need to also.

 

CONCLUSION

This all could apply to any athlete at any age, but it becomes especially important when you're on the other side of 30. Much of what I discussed above is geared at the grappler/martial artist, and the masters athlete who competes at weight class sports. Much of this also can be applied to the competitive CrossFit athlete too, because they are often interested in multiple physical pursuits outside the box, and finding time for it all is a task. Regardless, the point still stands that you must acknowledge that the life of an athlete has a progression, as all things do in life, and to not acknowledge that comes at your own detriment. For some, these truths may be hard to swallow, but they are recommendations meant to keep you pursuing the sports for as long as you desire, and never being forced off the mats.  Long story short: take your time, and train smart to train hard.

There Are Two Ways to Lose Weight

I would characterize a lot of what I do as weight management.

Weight loss goals can vary. For some of my clients, the goal of losing weight is to better their life and health, whereas I have others who do so for sport. I even have people who want to gain weight, usually because they want to be stronger or for aesthetic purposes.

For those who are looking to lose weight for their health, or who may just be looking for a big change in their fitness, there is an important distinction one must understand:

There’s a difference between dieting and losing weight as a lifestyle change, and dieting and losing weight aggressively for a goal. The time tables vary greatly, as do the speed of results, but both are equally valid approaches. I say this upfront because you must go into your weight loss with the right expectations.

Lifestyle Changes

The "weight loss as a lifestyle change” idea gets thrown around all too often without proper context. I do believe we should always aspire to be doing better in our everyday life and it should be reflected in our actions. But to lose weight progressively as a result of a lifestyle change is much different than planning a short term weight loss where the goal is purely changing the number on the scale.

With this approach, I won’t be asking you to very strictly measure your food. Instead, I’ll give you strategies to help you become mindful of your portions, we’ll keep a food diary (at first), but I won’t necessarily recommend calorie/macronutrient counting, or even weighing all of your food. I want you to learn bigger concepts, and to learn to read how your body feels. This takes time and longer term, you will become a better person for it. In the short term, however, it’s important to have your expectations aligned with the reality of dieting this way.

These are realities to losing weight this way:

·  It sometimes means slower weight loss for those already at a healthy weight. Those who are overweight will lose weight quickly at first, but it will eventually be a bit more measured.

·  You will inevitably hit plateaus, and they may last a while. You will have to do work to figure out how to overcome these plateaus.

·  You have very low risk of ever rebounding to your old weight.

·  You will create new healthy lifestyle habits, improving not only your overall physical health, but also your mental health and quality of life.

 

Aggressive Plans

You’ll always move more quickly with shorter term weight loss plans (or “diets”) simply because the parameters of the plan are a bit more aggressive in nature. They mean to accomplish a very clearly defined goal that is tied to numbers or some measurable performance marker.  

They are profoundly effective. I am of course speaking only to safe, responsible programs here, and nothing that is drug induced or depriving in a dangerous way.

What are some of the reasons you’d lose weight like this? You’d be trying to do any of the following on a shorter timeline:

·  You’re trying to “reset” your body and clean the palate. Some would call it a “cleanse,” but it’s really just a fresh start.

·  You’re trying to lose a stubborn amount of weight.

·  You’re trying to “transform” your physical appearance quickly.

·  You’re trying to lose weight for performance reasons.

·  You find that you just do well with a disciplined, strict approach.

When losing weight this way, you’ll have to measure what you take in, be it portions, calories, macronutrients. Whatever the metric is, it must be measured. This isn’t always the case for “lifestyle changes,” and it’s the reason why aggressively dieting works the way it does.

 

It’s important to know that this is not always meant to be permanent. The idea of permanence is flawed anyway, but the real key is that these plans get you to where you want to be and from there, you can manage. I don’t think most people would care to spend their life measuring everything on a food scale or traveling with measuring cups. That’s why these plans should not be something you do “forever.” Most people WILL burn out eventually. It’s the reason people "yo-yo" when going off a temporary weight loss plan or “diet”: they may have pushed themselves too hard and tried to maintain an impossible standard.

Here are some realities to losing weight this way:

·  You’ll move much more quickly in the direction of your goals.

·  There will be more sacrifice.

·  You’ll learn a tremendous amount about yourself and grow mentally.


Overall, neither one of these plans is inherently more difficult than the other as it ends up being very personal. I would wager that lifestyle changes are a little more difficult to make depending on your level of malleability, but they exponentially increase in ease and happiness as you go through your everyday life.

The main reason I took time to write this is because I want to make sure everyone understands what they're getting into whenever they choose the path that they do to lose weight. Like I said, there's nothing wrong with either one, but they all present unique challenges. 

If you have any experiences to share, I encourage you to comment below or send me a message sometime. I always like hearing the journey of others. 

Be well,

Mark

Weight Cutting for Jiu Jitsu: Alex Ecklin's EBI7 Weight Cut

Weight cuts, especially for jiu jitsu competitions, are a weird thing. Many (though this is changing in some competitions) have same day weigh-ins, often minutes before you start your fight. As you could imagine, this has helped to eliminate the extreme cuts you see in most MMA organizations, who weigh in days before. For same-day competitions I strongly advise people to think of the process as an aggressive “weight loss” rather than a “cut,” because in reality, you’re not doing a true "cut" in weight the week of.  

If you’re more strategic, you can maintain a weight very close to the actual division all year-round. This was the case for Alex Ecklin, a Vitor Shaolin black belt and co-owner of the school Masterskya Brooklyn. Alex fought and competed in the Eddie Bravo Invitational 7 (EBI7), as well as EBI 1. He asked me to handle his nutrition for his EBI7 fight against Baret Yoshida. No strength and conditioning, just nutrition coaching. 

Alex's Profile

Alex's diet overall consisted of quality food in a good quantity. He’d always look to eat lunch at a place like Whole Foods, or lean towards home-cooked meals when possible. This was good. The two things we had to address were:

  • What exactly to eat (and how to combine it)

  • When to eat it

The mistake most athletes make is that they either eat too much or way too little. Combat athletes tend to be more measured, or lean toward eating too little, mostly due to years of habitually eating light to make weight. Alex’s intake was close to where I would have wanted it to be anyway.

The tournament was for featherweights (145lbs), but Alex has a history of competing at even lower weight classes (135lbs).  His "walking around weight" was very close to 145lbs (plus or minus 5-6lbs on any given day). On top of that, EBI weighs in the day before the tournament, so we had a lot of wiggle room. As we only had to lose about 5-6lbs, which in truth is quite easy, we didn't have to worry so much about losing significant weight and could instead maximize his performance through the right nutrition. So for him, this wasn’t really a cut, but more of a “nutritional upgrade:” He wanted to feel better while training and in everyday life and fix what he felt was a randomness in his eating habits and nutrition. So that’s where we started, and what we accomplished.  

THE PLAN

Alex is an impressive athlete and the quintessential martial artist. The thing about working with the highest levels of athletes is that their attention to detail and drive is unmatched. When I gave Alex his plan, he snapped right to it, and understood and took to heart everything I shared with him from our initial conversation.

The highlights of our plan:

  • No “bad combinations” of food that were digestively burdensome, aka: Eat Simple

  • No eating too late

  • Adopting a schedule of eating around his teaching and training schedule


What do each mean?

Eat Simple

Eating simple is profoundly important. You need to make things easy for your body - and generally the more simple the meal, the easier it’ll be to digest. Without going into too much depth (because the topic deserves volumes), any effective nutrition and health system that I’ve encountered has echoed the idea that your plate at any given meal should not be complicated. Generally if there are over 3-4 different types of food, it’s too much.

Alex had a pretty good handle on this to start, but we brought some mindfulness to it so his meals made sense: one centered around protein, another around something more starchy and dense for energy, and another of just fruit. We didn't mix, and we didn't snack (that will happen sometimes, but we managed them).

No Eating Late

Whether you’re on an intermittent fasting diet or any weight loss plan, you shouldn’t be eating too close to bedtime, and especially not things that are too energy dense (ie: carbohydrates). In Alex’s case, we didn’t eat too late and had a cut off of at least 2 hours before bedtime. It’s a pretty simple rule that we didn't have too many issues with, but late night classes sometimes created problems. In this event, we tried to have him eat before the later trainings or classes, but afterwards was acceptable sometimes- we just let the scale and his overall feeling/performance be the guide. 

Scheduling

It was as simple as it sounded; if we could get Alex eating a few hours before bed, not too soon before training, the right mix of nutrients post-training and eliminate snacking, we'd be successful. 

That's the key here, you have to be in tune with your body and you have to talk to each other... a lot. For this, we had to let "feeling" be a guide, and this is the core of a good coaching relationship: the athlete has to feel comfortable sharing everything, but the coach has to create that environment in the first place. Then, and only then, can the coach be the coach. At that point, my job is to interpret what they're saying and know the right call to make. Scheduling when to eat in this sense, becomes more of an art.

It's important to me to empower the person I'm working with: you need to teach them how to care for themselves, be self-reliant, and to trust what they're feeling. Both Alex and I made that our mission, and in truth, because he was such a fast learner, I had to do very little. He immediately learned to trust what he was feeling and went with it. Sometimes all we need is positive affirmation in that direction, and we're off to the races. 

In Conclusion

 

Alex was on weight at least a week before the weigh-ins, so the last part of his journey to EBI from a nutritional standpoint was just maintenance. We stayed the course, with some minor alterations throughout his travels out to LA, and stayed light in the days before the official weigh-in, which he hit with ease.

If I could sum it up in one sentence: less was more, simple was better. Everything we did was simple. We literally and figuratively, cut the fat. There's a lot of advice on supplements and strange foods out there, but that stuff only is relevant if you have a good baseline. 

I hope this gave you all some idea and some positive support in handling your weight cuts responsibly and treating it like a pro. Again, I can't reiterate enough how encouraged I was to see a professional athlete shy away from barbaric methods and cuts of old and really take an optimized and measured approach. 

If you ever want to discuss weight cuts, nutrition plans for your performance optimization, feel free to check this page out or contact me!

Be well,

Mark

How I Got Stronger & Healthier with Less: Minimalism in Training (A Primer)

I can never blame anyone for being confused about training, strength and conditioning, or just simply “working out.” It’s a maze of information, misinformation, well-meaning advice, sensationalism, sales pitches, and smoke screens. Like all things, it’s a spectrum, though. It’s why a personal mission of mine has been to really get to the core of what really constitutes effective training. I’ve gone back and looked at the earliest forms of modern physical culture, asked some of the best minds I know, and I’m beginning to see a trend: minimalism.

Minimalism in training is nothing new, nor a stone previously unturned. Mastery of your own body and the practice of calisthenics has probably existed as long as people have been interested in maintaining and maximizing their physical health. However, outside some niche circles, it’s seldom used or advocated much as modality all of it’s own; with trainers usually opting to use it as little more than a warm-up or throw-in.

What got me here?

Since I was around 12 years old, I’ve spent long hours in gyms and used everything from the Nautilus & Hammer Strength machines to traditional barbell power lifts, cable pulleys, and every trend to boom and bust in the 15 years since. While all of these different methods of training certainly had their benefits, there was something always glaringly lacking with each. It wasn’t that I wasn’t getting a benefit from them: I certainly had periods where I had gained muscle, lost weight, got stronger, or any other desirable results you'd hope to achieve. There was always something missing though; and never was it more obvious than on a day where I’d needed to do something in my every day life that I physically could not, despite absolutely killing it that morning on the bench.

It was also funny to me that at the time, that I could be so good at using barbells, machines, and equipment of all types, but still be so poor at bodyweight movements and things like pull ups. I knew something wasn’t right, even back then. I may not have known how to fix it at 16 years old, but I certainly knew something was off.

It wasn’t until recently, with the help of Steve Maxwell’s insight and many years of meditation on the matter, that I realized what was missing for me in those days. More importantly, it became very apparent that what I was doing was getting good at Hammer Strength Machines, cable wood choppers and barbell deadlifts. The same way you get good at a submission in jiu jitsu, a throw in judo, or a jump shot on the court, was the same thing I was doing with all these movements and equipment.

SKILL VS STRENGTH - WHICH ARE YOU TRAINING?

All workout modalities, training systems, and pieces of equipment are always in danger of is becoming a skill all in themselves. It ends up resembling recreation more than it does a health system. Now, there’s nothing inherently evil there, nor is it always “one or the other,” but being mindful of this is probably what will save you from plateaus and stagnation (in an upcoming blog, I may expand on this idea).

So what is the best way to make sure you don’t master your equipment and turn your workouts into a skill session? Ditch the equipment!

Minimalism

There aren’t many circumstances or sports in which a mastery of your body, your awareness of space, and a maximization of mobility aren’t applicable. By maximizing control, strength, and mobility of your body, you give yourself the best chance to excel in anything you do physically.

There’s also a tremendous benefit in minimalism in training, as many methods of bodyweight mastery are less destructive to connective tissue, joints, etc (with some exceptions of course). Ask any kettlebell veteran to tell you about their shoulders, and many will tell you they wish they gave up the KB Snatch years ago. 

Understanding how to utilize your limbs while maintaining complete stabilization of the core, having the ability to change your level & assuming a new position from that level change, and just being more nimble and strong: that translates to... everything.

How to Train Minimally

I've found through recent experiences, that the most effective way to re-build and rapidly improve everything we've discussed thus far could be broken down to these three points: 

1. Work on Your Mobility

The best advice I can give is to give yourself requisite mobility.

The most important distinction here is to understand the difference between mobility and flexibility:

Flexibility is merely the range of motion available to you. Mobility is your ability to move yourself through the range available to you. By extension, you can use a solid mobility practice to expand and strengthen yourself through new ranges of motion. 

If you’re a completely new to this and the concept of mobility, I suggest you check out my YouTube channel and any posts I’ve written on mobility via my Instagram, as these practices can be combined to make up a nice little mobility routine for you each day. I'll also plug my email list/newsletter, as I send out different mobility videos, tips and workouts frequently, and they're only available to the subscribers. 

2. Strength Training with Isometric Exercise

 Steve Maxwell demonstrating a hip bridge isometric holding exercise in his latest video download.

Steve Maxwell demonstrating a hip bridge isometric holding exercise in his latest video download.

From there, I’d encourage you to look into isometrics. Steve Maxwell recently put out a tremendous collection of isometric exercises for the whole body in a concise, excellent video download. This would be a great starting resource.

If you've never been exposed to isometrics or static holds, it simply is the practice of assuming and holding positions until muscular failure or a predetermined time interval.  It's a great practice for those with compromised joints or other lingering injuries, especially those often attributed to "aging." The trauma is low, and results in a more economic shock to the body in the form of strength training. 

"Time under tension" is often most attributed in studies, anecdotes and gyms around the world as a great tool to build muscle (hypertrophy), and also is a way to train a solid baseline level of strength (or maintaining current levels). Learning where you're weak, especially in these positions, will tell you a lot about where you should work and focus your training, and also is a very low tech and minimalist form of strength training that can literally be done anywhere. 

3. Supplemental Strength Training (with the bare bones of "equipment")

Minimalism, particularly relying on solely bodyweight calisthenics with no equipment, leaves much to be desired in the vertical and horizontal pulling movements. For that, I would suggest acquiring a suspension device (like the TRX, or any homemade system). A good friend of mine, Scott Burr, recently wrote a great eBook on how to use perhaps the most efficient low-tech tool of all time. It's available via Amazon/Kindle.

While the suspension device may be the most portable, one of the most effective "pulling modalities" to build up to is the "pull up bar." I've never found a movement in the vertical pulling department that will teach you as much about your body, breathing, and strength as the old fashioned, pronated pull-up. 

The other beauty in the pull up, is that you don't even need a bar in the traditional sense. You need only something above your head that you're (SAFELY) able to make a grip on. In fact, as you progress and become proficient at the pull up, you may even want to add a little chaos of something a bit harder to grip.

Minimalism Training Philosophy in a Few Words...

It's only appropriate to end this "primer" as no frills as the training I'm musing on:

Make your body mobile and strong, with your body.

 

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