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Cutting Weight, Protein Fasting, and... Bodybuilding?
To achieve you must pay, but not all who pay achieve.
Consequences. How can you know the truth if you’ve never gone too far? Many people foreclose too soon and too early on the achievements they’re capable of. They sell themselves short and justify the sale with dissonant lies of “needing to live a little.” As a result they live a little, then die; rather than dying a little and living greatly.
Last month I was awarded my black belt in BJJ. The season was ripe to explore new territory. The lightweight, no-gi division of IBJJF is 162 lbs. I haven’t competed in that division, or for IBJJF, since I was a white belt.
With that said, I began the process of the first weight cut I’ve had to make in a long time. I wanted to find the limit. I wanted to know what I was capable of, or rather, what was required to get where I wanted to be and then decide if it was worth it.
I began taking an intentional interest in my diet in the late 2000’s. As you might imagine, scholastic wrestling had built quite the repertoire of bad habits to “cut weight.”
My first formal foray into combat sports was in 2010; and soon after, the dawn of my recognition that “since we all have to eat, we might as well try to do it intelligently.”
Let’s pause for a moment and recognize how ubiquitous technology and information have become in the last 15 years. In the days of the picture above, bodybuilding.com — helpful, relevant, or not — was a common stomping ground as things like “the paleo diet” and “CrossFit” were just starting to gain traction.
Even then though, I never understood and certainly didn’t respect a purely aesthetic goal (i.e. bodybuildling). I was performance driven to the core and, still largely today, viewed aesthetics as a (favorable) side effect but not an end pursuit on it’s own.
Recently though, I was talking to another black belt about my weight cut and we commiserated with the hypothetical bodybuilder that “a weight cut is still a weight cut.” One might think it’s harder to (A) punch down to 7% body fat and maintain the prowess to fight another human than (B) get a spray tan and eat enough sugar to get a pump and walk across a stage at 5% body fat.
While the difference between 7% and 5% is 2% in the absolute (seven minus five), relatively it’s a difference of 28% (a reduction of 2 is 28% of 7).
There is no question of the proliferation of useless “bro science” on the internet. However, even in those 2010 days, suggestions of 50% protein “cutting” diets weren’t uncommon.
Yet, here we are in 2023 and the plateau breaker for me was recurring “protein fasting.” This isn’t quite as low-calorie as a verbatim protein sparing modified fast (PSMF), but it was at or above 50% protein on those select days (see template below).
The Process, Part Deux:
Like most new forays, I had to do some finagling before settling into an effective plan. I described some of that in an earlier post. There are, however, a few things that I needed to correct or areas I went astray in the early weeks.
Problem 1: Not enough protein.
I did ultimately come back to Shawn Baker’s / Rob Goodwin’s / Kevin Stock’s recommendation of “protein fasting.” However, very similar to people who are brand new to Keto / Carnivore, I underestimated my protein need under those condition.
Commonly, this looks like cutting carbs, but they end up being a higher percentage of your diet than you thought. So, when you cut them out you reduced your total calories by 50% instead of 30%.
A common general recommendation is to eat 1g of protein / lb of bodyweight. However, on these “protein fasting” days (think tuna, egg whites, whey, and only 1 lb. extra lean beef) I was well above 1.5g / lb and closer to 2g / lb of bodyweight.
In practice I did this protocol about every third day for the last two weeks, then for the last three days straight before my final weigh-in.
Problem No. 2: Keto wasn’t the answer (for me).
In the last review I wrote, I was relying heavily on information from Keto Gains because I had cut too aggressively too soon with the protein fasting — not enough calories, not enough protein — too many bottoms fell out at once.
I can’t really say that a high fat (70%) protocol was helpful. If anything, it was somewhat counter intuitive to the protein fasting days because the average macro-nutrient split throughout the week ended up being about 60-fat / 40-protein anyway.
If I did it again…
Now that I have a better idea of what’s required to swim in that deep of a deep end, below is a template to consider if I were to repeat this process; using my prior intakes as a reference point.
6 days of 3,300 calories; 40% protein
1 day of 2,500 calories, 50% protein
5 “normal” days
2 “protein fasted” days
4 normal days
3 protein fasts
3 normal days
4 protein fasts
2 normal days
5 protein fasts
1 normal day
6 (consecutive) protein fasts
To recap, in about 12 weeks I went from:
177 lbs. at 8% body fat,
eating 3,300 calories / day (30-40% protein)
164 lbs. at 5.5% body fat,
eating 2,400 calories / day (50% protein)
The short version is that while I looked absolutely fucking peeled, it wasn’t worth it. The night before the final weigh-in all I could think about was junk food.
I couldn’t wait to get off the scale and pound a tub of ice cream. That’s not where I wanted my mind to be. If I’d had to compete what would that have looked like? I was supposed to be in prime condition to break the limbs of another resisting human, not go into a sugar coma.
The consensus from my coaches and teammates was that I’m a “natural 170” and that I’d have to go to that division (77 Kg) for a prospective 2025 ADCC trials run anyway — regardless of what weight class(es) I compete in in the meantime.
My training intensity didn’t suffer too much during this weight cut, but I did feel the volume was difficult to maintain. I was relegated to a lot of walking, and definitely didn’t get as many “hard rounds” in as I usually do.
With all of that in mind, I will not be going to the lightweight division for IBJJF. Instead, I’ll stay comfortably in the 175 lb division (middleweight). If anything, I can stand to gain a little mass; staying around 105% of my competition weight year-round.
As a result, I’d also be able to eat and live:
without much counting / tracking / measuring,
train harder, more consistently,
be in a better mood, and heaven forbid…
Go out for drinks or ice cream with friends once in a while. Because, well, we only die once, but get the change to live every day.