How To Cut Weight For Women | Diet & Nutrition Tips For Olympic Weightlifting
Having to make weight for sporting events is always accompanied by anxiety and a sprinkle of stress. Power based athletes that train for sports like powerlifting, wrestling and olympic weightlifting know the feeling. The athletes’ coaches need to be able to assist, offer sage advice and create a plan for cuts, maintenance and all the finer cuisine choices of micronutrients that get digested.
We noticed that coaches sometimes struggle dealing with their female athletes competing in power based, weight class sports. Female athletes don’t deserve to be shortchanged because the coach is not intune with how the athletes’ bodies work and are not intune with how the athletes’ bodies adapt to weight loss over a long period of time. Oftentimes coaches look at women as little men and give them a meal plan, not factoring in any of the hormonal changes that take place during the menstrual cycle.
It is extremely important that all coaches dealing with female athletes who have to make a specific weight class understand and comprehend the key factors behind cutting weight. They need to know how to do it properly and, more importantly, how to do it properly over a long period of time.
Let’s take a look at how to cut weight effectively as a female!
Menstrual Cycle: Remedial Intro. 101
To understand how to cut weight properly with female athletes we have to understand the menstrual cycle. The ‘typical’ menstrual cycle lasts 28 days. That isn’t always the case, but is a ballpark figure and is what is considered, quote unquote, normal. Here at Garage Strength we have had women athletes range from 21-33 days of a cycle. Menstrual cycles are going to vary quite a bit. But understanding that normal cycle gives coaches an in for a discussion to help best plan, prep and prepare for the cut and nutritional tips.
Coaches can engage with the women in conversation to question what goes on with the athletes’ cycles. This allows the coach to plan to optimize their performance. Based off the ‘normal’ cycle, the first 1-5 days are going to be menses. This is when women are bleeding as they shed the uterine lining. Following the 1-5 days, the follicular phase. The follicular phase also includes menses and is from day 1 until day 14. The second half of the menstrual cycle is the luteal phase.
As a strength and conditioning coach who trains power based athletes competing in weight class specific sports, it is important to have a basic understanding of female athletes’ menstrual cycles to gain a better understanding of what is going on from a hormonal perspective because hormones play a huge role in how women eat during these time frames.
Think of the follicular phase. During this time the athlete will have estrogen gradually increase during the 14 days, reaching its peak at ovulation right around this time. Knowing that estrogen is a hormone that is very anabolic, helping women recover intraset, day to day and give them quite a bit of energy. Now progesterone is the hormone that stays low during the follicular phase, beginning to rise around ovulation, peaking right around the late luteal phase and then dropping off as the athlete heads into the end of the cycle (estrogen drops at the end of the cycle as well). What ends up occurring with progesterone, during the luteal phase, since it is the hormone responsible for rise in body temperature, women having more cravings and research has shown that women tend to eat 300 extra calories a day during the luteal phase--this is a very, very important aspect to understand as a coach.
But what does this have to do with cutting weight?
If we know that cravings tend to happen later in the cycle, the coach and athlete can plan the nutrition based on how the cycle affects the athlete at various times, what foods play a factor, acknowledge the hormonal impact, and note and notice any differences in training. All of this will play a factor in how to cut weight effectively for females, with all these things varying person to person.
So, dear reader, now that you have a rudimentary understanding of the menstrual cycle, let’s jump into the four aspects of how to cut weight effectively as a female.
4. Cut Weight Gradually
Female athletes in power sports, like Olympic weightlifting, need to be in peak condition when it is time to perform in competition. Typically, cutting weight, when done improperly, leads to a quick deterioration in the all important gains as a demonstration of strength. However, with proper planning and a long term vision, females can cut the necessary weight needed for the weight class and still smash the competition floor.
To do this, start the weight cut about 12 weeks out from competition. This provides a glimpse into how the female athlete is handling foods at various points in their menstrual cycle. As the coach and athlete begin to figure that out, they can start to see at what point the athlete handles carbs better, while when at another point in the cycle, the athlete may feel better eating fats before training. This helps the coach and the athlete figure out how best to train throughout the entire period of the cut.
Most importantly, the gradual cut allows the athlete’s body to adapt a lot easier. It is important that men and women coaches understand amenorrhea, the absence of a period, is a real problem. A lot of women who cut weight too quickly end up losing their period. That can be a problem with their health long term.
It is extremely important to cut weight gradually to optimize sport performance.
3. Understand Macro Interaction
Say there is this hypothetical female athlete who, during the follicular phase, cuts her daily caloric intake by 300-400 calories, but increases her carbohydrate intake. This hypothetical athlete feels strong from the increase in carbohydrates during training. But as this hypothetical athlete progresses through her cycle, later on in her cycle, she craves things that have a little bit more fat on them, like coconut oil.
So as a coach and athlete, later on in the luteal phase, when female athletes have higher cravings, they can have a little bit more fat. Fat has a nice flavor and can make things taste better. Fat can then be used more effectively in the luteal phase based on the macro interaction, while earlier, in the follicular phase, using carbohydrates to keep training energized.
2. Refeed Days
Refeed days are extremely effective with female athletes.
What is a refeed day? Think of it this way. Right inside the menstrual cycle, maybe we have a woman consuming 1700 calories a day during the follicular phase, going two to three weeks at this number; now, at the end of that third week, the athlete picks two days to refeed, upping their caloric intake to 2100 calories for two straight days.
The body feels good. The mind feels good. The body adapts. The cravings are satiated. And best of all, the athlete adhered to the diet. And then, as they start to menstruate and go into menses, back into the follicular phase, they can go back into the cut and hold steadfast at that 1700 calorie meal plan.
It is important to figure out where the refeeds factor in the menstrual cycle. Almost always, we say to factor the refeeds during the middle or late luteal phase to help the female deal with the fact that the progesterone is higher as the body is preparing for pregnancy, wanting to eat more. It is important to understand what is going on with hormones and how to use them to the coach and athlete’s advantage when dealing with nutritional aspects.
1. When Is The Competition?
The coach and athlete MUST know when the competition falls in relationship to the menstrual cycle of the individual person.
What does that mean?
One of the biggest things strength coaches and sports performance coaches need to do is track the menstrual cycle. Why? It can have an impact on how much volume to be programmed. It can have an impact on nutrition, and it can have an impact on what to do with nutrition heading into the competition.
The competition can fall on various stages of the menstrual cycle. The athlete can be at their absolute peak of ovulation. The competition can fall when the athlete is in the mid-luteal phase and feel bloated. The athlete can have competitions when they are menstruating. It varies from time to time, but if this is being tracked, the coach and athlete can sit back and understand what is happening with the athlete’s hormones, having a big impact on the nutritional intake, allowing the coach and athlete to know what foods best work for not only the cut, but for the best performance.
Understanding the menstrual cycle is important as a strength and conditioning coach who works with female athletes. It allows the coach to optimize programming and helps tremendously with understanding how to approach nutrition for a gradual weight cut that needs to begin 12 weeks out from the targeted competition. During the weight cut, the coach needs to grasp the macro interactions--knowing when to bias towards carbs and when to bias towards fats, based on the athlete’s menstrual cycle; the coach needs to plan refeeds in relation to the athlete’s menstrual cycle as well. Refeeds typically take place in the mid to late luteal phase. Finally, it is imperative that the coach and athlete know the competition date and where it falls upon the athlete’s menstrual cycle.
Do this and not only will the cut be successful, but the performance in the competition will be grand.
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.