Carbohydrates and Fat: What You Need To Know About Cutting Weight Fight Week

By Joe Mullings

It seems that there are about as many ways to lose weight as there are fighters. Add to that the various organizations and their weigh-in schedules and the challenges of making weight can be mind-numbing. For instance, you have to weigh-in just before you step on the mat for IBJJF matches, the evening before for NAGA and other tournaments and even two days before for some professional events. Each requires their own strategy, however the issue of carbohydrates, glycogen storage, fat loss and water retention remain constant.

Carbohydrates are an athlete’s primary source of energy. Carbs are broken down in the body and glucose is the end product. Glucose is the stuff that fuels the body at a cellular level, especially in the anaerobic state (when you are training intensely), which is where an MMA or BJJ athlete spend most of their training and fighting time.

As discussed in previous JiuJitsuMania articles, all carbs are not the same, nor do they act the same. There are simple carbs and complex carbs.

Simple carbs are most useful right after a hard workout as they cause a rapid rise in blood glucose (also called blood sugar) precisely at the time when muscle cells are sucking up all the sugar they can, as fast as they can to replenish. This “post-workout window of opportunity” is short lived, but is critical not to miss to maximize recovery. Arguably the only time simple carbs have high value are in post workout recovery phase.

Complex carbs are broken down more slowly acting as a “time released” method to gradually increase blood sugar levels without the spike in insulin (which shuts down fat metabolism). These are considered the “healthier” carbs in that they support more stable blood sugar levels, don’t interfere with fat metabolism as much and also support better sustained energy levels.

Glycogen: Energy Storage Depot

Immediately after eating a high carbohydrate meal, the body releases the hormone insulin from the pancreas. The basic function of the insulin is to transport glucose and amino acids across the cell membranes throughout the body. Once the body tissues (especially muscle tissue) takes in its requirement of glucose, the liver will take in the balance of the glucose it needs and store it as glycogen. It is about a two-thirds muscle, one-third liver ratio in terms of the body’s total glycogen storage. Think of the liver as a storage of the excess glycogen that it will use at a later date as the brain and other organs need it when their supply runs low. The muscles store their glycogen for use in exercise.

It should be noted that it is critical for muscle to have an adequate amount of stored glycogen to be used as an energy source during exercise. If not, the body will be forced to use amino acids (often taken from muscle proteins) to convert them to glucose. This is a “catabolic” process where training can actually break down “or eat up” its own muscle tissue to satisfy its energy requirements.

It should be noted that it is critical for muscle to have an adequate amount of stored glycogen to be used as an energy source during exercise.

When the body stores glycogen, it stores 1 gram of carbohydrate to about 3 grams of water (2.7 to be more precise). When you exercise intensely (anaerobically), the stored glycogen is broken down into glucose and that glucose supplies the muscle with the energy / fuel it needs. This occurs because glycogen / glucose converts very quickly for fuel in these instances. However, the body burns through carbs pretty quickly, but they do provide the required turbo boost. The more glycogen the muscle has stored, the longer the high energy activity can be sustained. So a high intake of complex carb diet is preferred for anaerobic based activities (like BJJ or MMA). On the flip side, when you have low to moderate exercise (aerobic), the body will turn to fat for its primary energy source.

Glycogen And Water Retention

OK, now for a little math. Glycogen requires water to be stored along with it. We know that 1 gram of a carbohydrate attracts roughly 3 grams of water (2.7 grams to be more precise). That equals 4 grams total. 454 grams make up roughly a pound. By that reasoning, 110 grams of carbs, along with the water bound with it, equals roughly 1 pound. So when a fighter is 7 to 10 days out from a fight, they typically will start to reduce their caloric intake (and especially their carb intake) in the hope of shedding the required weight. In the initial stages of this caloric reduction, the body will start to draw on its glycogen stores as the athlete continues to burn fuel and draw down on stored glycogen (and water) to shed pounds. If the extra carbs are not taken in to rebuild reserves, the “water weight” does not go back on. The athlete may even experience a catabolic reaction (eating muscle) due to the lack of carbs in their body and so the body looks for something to feed itself due to the deficit. This is where it is important to feed the body enough carbs as to not have the athlete go too catabolic. After all, he just spent an entire camp building up that hard earned muscle. But if you are going to shy on one side or the other, I don’t mind the athlete going a little catabolic in order to shed the extra pounds, as it wont be that bad since their carb starve will only be a few days. After the carb restriction and the weigh in is made, “carbing back up” is critical to regaining energy reserves and rehydrating the body for maximal performance. Too many fighters have worked so hard during a 10 week camp only to deplete themselves and cripple their performance due to improper weight loss just before the fight.

If the extra carbs are not taken in to rebuild reserves, the “water weight” does not go back on.

Pre-Fight Calculations

So for an example, lets look at a 155 pound fighter. It isn’t a problem to have them run thru camp in the 172 to 176 pound range and then with the correct diet and the correct balance and types of of carbs have them shed 8 to 10 pounds of water 4 to 6 days before weigh-ins. This can be accomplished without anything drastic like saunas or diuretics (which can be dangerous). Obviously, the larger the fighter, the larger the muscle mass and the larger the reservoir of stored glycogen in the athlete that can be effectively squeezed in a healthy way come weigh-in week. Keep in mind, muscle stores more water than fat does. So it is easier to squeeze more water out of muscle than fat.

You will hear sometimes when a fighter goes “dry” as he is trying to cut weight the last day of weigh-ins. That same 155-pound fighter lost the first 10 pounds or so of water pretty easily, but then the weight-loss stopped. This is because they have already tapped the stored glycogen reserves in the muscle and in the liver and there is very little to squeeze out. At this point it is down to the myofiber of the muscle and the fat storage which is a heck of a lot more difficult to burn away and takes quite a bit of time which the fighter does not have. Managing fat loss in the long term is therefore more important to BJJ fighters going into IBJJF tournaments as weigh-ins are immediately before the fight.

A pound of fat stores approximately 3500 calories and requires about a pound of water for storage.

Why? Because we have already established that a roughly 4,500 calories of carbs equals 10 pounds of stored glycogen (the carb plus water complex). The relations of the calories and carbs that are required to squeeze those glycogen out of the muscle / liver stores is a matter of reducing (starving) the carb intake. Now on the fat side, it’s very different. A pound of fat stores approximately 3500 calories and requires about a pound of water for storage. So in order to lose that additional 2 pounds of weight, you almost have to create the same caloric deficit that got you the 10 pounds of water off when you went after the water heavy carbs in the muscle.


Some Things To Consider:

The fighter and the camp need to have realistic expectations of the weight cut that the fighter can realize in those last 5 to 8 days before a fight.

Long Slow Distance Training (LSD) is aerobic and will help burn off excess fat the fighter may be carrying in the last few weeks before the fight. This is not cardio training, but instead a weight management effort. Biking, jogging, swimming are all possibilities.

Aggressive lactic threshold training will increase the volume of the muscle due to development of additional sarcoplasm. The majority of this volume increase is to accommodate increases energy reserves – much of which includes water. This increases the volume of water in the muscle, which in turn allows for further constructive weight loss during the cutting process in the well-trained athlete.

You want to create a carbohydrate deficit and calorie deficit in the fighter. Do your math with the fighter. 1 carb and the water that gets attached to it equals 4 grams. A negative deficit of 454 grams will equal 1 pound. As each fighter responds slightly differently, it is wise to do a few test runs during the training camp so that you can better predict your results when it really counts.


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