Cutting Weight for Combat Sports: A Discussion with Nutrition Professor and Strength Coach Tony Ricci

Episode #63 with Tony Ricci, D.Sc, FISSN, CSCS, PES, CDN, CNS

In today’s episode, we discuss weight cuts with Tony Ricci.  Tony’s been working with combat athletes for over 20 years and has a unique combination of nutrition and strength experience that will help us learn how he approaches a scientific weight cut with his athletes.


Inside this Episode, we discuss:

  • Using Bodyfat, hydration, BMR to plan
  • Developing a plan of attack for making weight
  • Organizing a training schedule
  • Nutritional protocols
  • The importance of nutritional density
  • Nutrition software to help you track habits
  • Fight week strategies
  • Post weigh in hydration and fuel


Tony is an Assistant Professor of Exercise Physiology and Metabolism at LIU in Brooklyn. He is a fellow of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, serves on the Science Advisory Board for Dymatize Nutrition and the founder of Fightshape Int’l. He has trained in multidisciplinary fight sports for 38 years. Tony has been in fight performance coaching and nutrition for 21 years. He has worked with scores of professional fighters in his career including 9 top 10 ranked and 6 World Title holders in the UFC, Bellator, WBO, WSOF and PKA.

Follow Tony on Instagram @fightshape_ricci

Tune into his podcast on the FIGHTCAVE CHANNEL available on Itunes.


Full Transcription of Our Podcast with Tony Ricci

Interview with Nutrition Professor and Strength Coach Tony Ricci talking about Cutting Weight for Combat Sports

Corey Beasley [00:00:01]: Hey guys, is Corey Beasley with fight camp conditioning and I’m on the phone with Tony Ricci. Tony, how you doing?

Tony Ricci [00:00:08]:Very well. Good to talk with you and be back again.

Corey Beasley [00:00:11]: Yeah, absolutely. Guys, Tony is an assistant professor at exercise physiology and biochemistry out there in New York and he’s been in the fight performance game for over 20 years. He’s worked with six world champs or belt holders and you guys can find his podcast on the fight cave channel on iTunes. But we’re super excited to have Tony out today the topic of our conversation is going to be all about weight cuts. So I know a lot of you guys are trying to make weight and figure that game out and Tony is going to help clarify stuff for us. So Tony, how’s everything going?

Tony Ricci [00:00:46]:So fortunate to stay busy. I’m over here at the university always educating the kids and trying to make some future sports and exercise scientists. I think we’ve got a talented pool and a good future there and have the fortunate still keeping the hands in the fight game and working with a lot of people out this way, long Island has a nice crop at the collegiate wrestling level, MMA level, and we’ve make little noise in the boxing realm. So I’ve been very fortunate and blessed to be able to work with a lot of neat athletes and great coaches out of your recording.

Corey Beasley [00:01:20]: It sounds like you’re doing a lot of good stuff. So Tony, you’ve been in the game for a long time, probably longer than most of the people I’ve talked to, but I mean, you’ve had your hands from the education side of things as well as, like you said, boxing and wrestling and now MMA. And I specifically talking about weight cuts. I’m sure you’ve seen things change a lot over the years.

Tony Ricci [00:01:51]:Yeah, I think we’re making some good progress, obviously Corey, because here’s a couple of things over the last 20 years, we’ve learned a lot about training protocols. We’ve learned a lot about reductions in body fat, how to maximize that, what is the hormonal influence on the human body, particularly during either caloric restriction or when we’re training at high training intensity. So what’s happened over the last 20 years is we’ve really gathered more information on human physiology and not only human physiology under optimal conditions, but human physiology under conditions in which one is training under super high intensities and even caloric restriction. So I think that we’ve been very fortunate to have science help here. Unfortunately we’ve got a little bit of delay as you well know, and getting some of the good information. We have two athletes at all levels. I think we’re making some, some good in way now at the collegiate wrestling level. Obviously the NCAA has pushed hard over the last 10, 15 years on having their hand in weight cuts and the MMA, UFC obviously is now to make some changes in how they’re approaching this and looking at the science of rehydration and stuff along those lines. So I think we’re getting there. We’re starting to be able to take some science that has worked in the lab and may not be as effective outside of the lab, but the very least we’re starting to marry it to the practitioners and I’m a bit of both and get it out there and be able to apply it to our athletes. So all and all quite positive we’re in the right direction. We moved slow in everything we do, but I think we’re improving.

Corey Beasley [00:03:33]: It’s good thing. I mean, back in the day, 20 years ago when I was wrestling, I mean it was just a matter of throwing a chew in my mouth and starving myself for a few days, make weight and do your thing and everybody was just telling not to make it work. So it’s definitely making headway. Tony I know a lot of this stuff can get pretty complex but if we think about it like putting the big rocks in the jar first and then slowly add in smaller row rocks and pebbles and then the sand and then the water. A lot of people have the tendency to focus on the small rocks or the lesson pieces of the puzzles. So from your perspective, what is the number one thing that people can do to improve their weight cut and have a more successful weight cut and a better performance?

Tony Ricci [00:04:25]: That’s great question. Now obviously we’ll, I guess we’ll refer it more to the professional sports because we know that’s very different than wrestling and the same day way in. But the number one thing that comes to mind that we’re all aware of is as coaches and we’ve shared together I think is keeping the athlete in obviously reasonable off-season condition. And it’s regarding weight exactly what that is. I don’t know. We’re not entirely sure, but what I try to do, number one is emphasized to my athletes. The following I think a tremendous impediment is as follows that, during weight cut and caloric restriction in high training intensities for many athletes, the body is likely to be relatively effective at putting weight back on subsequent to that, there’s a lot to the adaptive thermogenesis. So I think we have to make the fighter aware of the following after the hard work, after the weight cut, Hey we want you to have a little fun, we want you to take a little break, but we’re going to have to put a percentage, an estimated percentage on your skill weight that we’re going to allow to come back. And exactly what that is. I think its fighter dependent, but I think if I can say to my fighter, look, once we hit over 12% increase on what you are on the scale, we’ve got it back this down a little bit. So the obvious one is the fighters are not aware as we are as performance coaches or nutritionists that as soon as that way code is done, their body’s probably not saying, I should put some weight back on their bodies probably saying, I should put some weight back on and get very good at it. So I think they’re not cognizant of the fact that they’re going to be highly susceptible after a really hard camp 10, 12 weeks and keeping an eye on food and the last several weeks cutting it, they’re going to be highly susceptible to weight gain and come week five or six after the fight, I see these guys kind of max out, I redo body fat and if they’re not careful, there a substantial amount of weight above that scale. When I start seeing guys go approximately and I don’t have the data that’s exact, but 15, 20% above their scale weight, that’s a problem because now we got to start all over again.

Corey Beasley [00:06:37]: So you just talk them by mainly just about the rebound after a competition. Just guys just going crazy.

Tony Ricci [00:06:45]:I think that’s primary regarding that because if we start off in the hole that just going to make the camp harder or it takes time to get these guys back into condition again. So essentially what we doing is trying to rebuild a metabolism under some circumstances. I think this is particularly true if the athlete is older, if they’re 33 years of age and they’ve been weight cutting since junior high school at some given point, there is probably an adaptive effect independent of the fact that they train, they keep lean muscle tissue so they become even particularly more susceptible to weight gain. I think post fight and becomes more difficult for them to start pulling that weight off. I think it is particularly important as that fighter ages that they keep a little bit of an eye on rebound and do some smart reverse dieting and better words have a week of fun but then start bringing food back in it about 20%, 30% maybe above the caloric ranges they were during the last two weeks of weight cuts. So that is definitely an impediment because the fighter is not going to be in the mood to train, not going to be in a very high mood to skilled train again, if they’ve put on a quick 25, 30 pounds, it really doesn’t help the fighter. It doesn’t help keep them at an optimal skill level and they need a break, but they don’t need that much of a break. So I think that’s the obvious impediment regarding what the fighters do. And then if you want to elaborate, we can discuss. I think what one of the major problems I see that we run into as coaches. So I think a lot of times what we’ll see and I’ve met a lot of good people from Facebook on your site and through Instagram and there’s just some talented coaches out there and I love to listen to and learn from. And I don’t think they make this mistake nearly as much, but there is such an arbitrary nature to weight cut. What I mean there is, 12 weeks out from the fight and people are like, all right, you’re 207 and you’re a middleweight, you have to make 185. And the point is how? What are we doing, how are we getting there? So I think that it is very important. And I use the body metrics a system by Intel metrics and I run it up against my DEXA here at the lab and my Air Displacement, my Bod Pod, and it’s always within a half a percent and some research shows this, but this is a little portable unit. When I’ll do 10 to 12 weeks out is I’m going to get total body fat percentage. I’m going to try to average total body water in better words, what is their percentage when they’re optimally hydrated? Is it 65% is it 68% and then I want to look at their total pounds in fat. And by having this information, at least I can have a regional projection to our camp as to how I’m going to arrive from 207 to 185, if fight 15% body fat and they can fight a 10 well I know that I’m going to probably get seven eight nine pounds off in fat. And if they’re fully hydrated, I’ll have a temporary water 3, 4% maybe more to make the scale. It’s not optimal, but that’s what these guys are doing that’s going to equate to eight nine pounds you’ll probably lose a couple of pounds of muscle. So my point is knowing how you’re going to get your fighter to the scale is very important because we want to keep what we need and get rid of what we don’t. And I think a lot of fighters do the opposite. They keep what they don’t need and get rid of what they do.

Corey Beasley [00:10:29]: Absolutely. So basically all we’re doing here as you’re kind of getting some baseline metrics is you’re getting a ballpark of where these guys are at, you’re doing real simple, basic goal setting. So, okay, he’s at 207 need to be 185. It’s simple, but you’re actually taking the time to the slow things down and get some numbers that you can work on, right?

Tony Ricci [00:10:56]:Absolutely. They’re not perfect, but where all the numbers perfect outside of a lab and but their guideline, they definitely are. What happens is when you work with fighters with some consistency, you get to know, when this fighter as well hydrated, they’re usually at 67% water. So I keep an eye on that. I can test that every other day. Generally when there are 207, they’re going to be 13.4% body fat. I think they fought a decent fight, had a good tank at approximately these a hypothetical numbers, but nine and a half last time. So we’re going to shoot for that again. And now what that’s doing of course, is once we have that data, it’s not perfect, but it’s a really good guideline. We can start matching what is the training intensity and what type of an effect is this going to have on that information. And then trying to match nutritional protocols with their current level of body fat, their current level of lean tissue their BMR, and then their activity levels accordingly. So it’s not a perfect match, but at least we have some pieces that we can align up next to each other and say, we’ve got to start around here and if we lose too quickly, we’ll up this. If we we’re not losing at all, we’ll decrease that. And those numbers there are very helpful, I think in the initial phases.

Corey Beasley [00:12:16]: So you kind of have a baseline goal. You got a timeline, you have numbers that you need to hit, we’re talking just about the current weight and that stuff. You’ve measured body fat percentage as well as hydration levels. And then from there you just start in the nutritional protocols, what do you kind of start with guys there? Because everybody’s idea of healthy is a huge gray area. There’s so many different diets and stuff that are out there. So where do you kind of start with guys?

Tony Ricci [00:12:50]:That’s great question. And I think there’s a lot of art to this despite the fact that people I’ve said this and they’ll send me 77 studies that are arguing against what I’m suggesting, not even dictating. But the point I think is that there is some variation from fighter to fighter. And what I mean there is obviously how you manipulate the total calories in new macro nutrients may be slight, may have to be adjusted slightly to the fighters’ objective throughout that camp. So in better words, if I have Bantam, let’s go to Bantam and feathers. And even lightweights. Very often those guys genetically are designed differently than obviously when we start moving up the scale with middle weight they’re usually a little leaner. Their total body water is usually higher. Their body fat percentages are a bit lower generally speaking. Sure, there are exceptions to that, but if you look at them, you will see some of them are 5.11 and they’re scaling 155 or even 145 so obviously that’s conducive to a leaner type of athlete that has a lower level of body fat. So I think would have to be looked at is, okay, we’ve got approximately 10 weeks. How many calories based upon the assessment and the tools and devices I’m using to measure BMR, body fat and water. What is the BMR level? All right, we have an estimate. Is it perfect? No, assuming its 19.50 then we come with an estimated activity multiplier on top of that. So the first thing we try to do is say, okay, let’s get my fighter according. I need their camp schedule in better words, if I don’t have their camp schedule, then I really can’t make any wise nutrition suggestions because if I don’t know when their training or how many times a day they’re training, then I’m blindly throwing food at them. Now granted, these schedules change. Granted these schedules on delayed if somebody doesn’t show up for sparring. But with that said, the nutrition, the macronutrient, really distribution can be slightly altered according to how much weight my fighter has to lose. So if you want to talk about what’s the right protocol, what’s the best dietary approach fighters need carbohydrates. There is no sense sitting here arguing about really restricting them. I don’t get now the point, I love Keto diet. I honestly do. I’ve done them. But they’re not good for athletic performance in my opinion, but they’re wonderful to sit around and feel good with, at least from my metabolism. But my point to that is I have to look at my fighter. How much weight do we have to lose? What is their highest intensity training day? And accordingly I may go, let’s say they need 3,200 calories. Well, on that particular day, my carbohydrate intake obviously might be a bit higher on lower volume days. I might bring the macronutrient distribution down as regarding the carbohydrates even still with the same caloric range because I want the capacity for full nutrient density and recovering. And then on days off I may do the same where I may take the protein even higher and pull it back. This is if that fighter needs to lose weight. So essentially the nutritional protocol is based on several things. What the likely metabolism of the fighter is? In better words, there were some people going to need all the carbohydrates in the world and they’re not gaining fat. That’s a fact. There are other people that are even throughout the high intensity of camp, they don’t lose weight at a comparable rate. So I might have to adjust that fighters carbohydrate intake a little bit lower if they’re a middle weight or they’re a light heavyweight to maybe 50%, 45% add more protein and fat, where that Benton weight is 55, 60% called carbohydrate The point is you start off with a framework and then you monitor closely. You keep an eye on the scale, you measure lean body mass and body fat and you measure hydration. And then the nutritional protocols are adjusted accordingly to say that this diet is better than that diet would be like saying, well, exclusively do you overhand right is the best punch in MMA. It’s somewhat circumstantial and it’s a wonderful bunch. But that’s the same thing with diet. There’s no real time to fight over what’s optimal for everyone. It’s what may work best for that athlete at that time.

Corey Beasley [00:17:27]: So basically if you throw a blanket over it, these athletes need everything, they need protein, they need fat, they need carbohydrates some good sources. I mean, quality sources are always going to win the game. Eating Snickers bars versus you’re eating fresh fruit, it’s a little bit different, so as long as everybody understands that part and then we’ll manipulate and fine tune things along the way to make things work. Is that safe to say?

Tony Ricci [00:17:57]:Yeah, that’s really it. So exactly you try to find out an estimated amount of calories that the, that the fighter need daily, and then you can start with a 40, 30, 30 if they’re a little bit heavier athlete. And see how the body responds. Again, like for example, if they have to pull off 25, 30 pounds, that just came back, well then their diet is going to be a bit different. Now obviously week 12 would be different than week four because as the training intensity increases, as training volume increases, as drilling increases, skill training increases, sparring increases, carbohydrate intake should go up commensurately with that. So it’s not like week 12 may look exactly like week four. That is why in both strength and conditioning and nutritional practice, if you don’t have the schedule, then you really don’t know if where you’re putting your strength protocol and fits best or your nutritional protocol. So if you have scheduling, you can at least make somewhat of an effort to say, 25 grams of protein here along with a banana or this meal I need, you’re trying to get this in. And then your final meal of the day, for example after your last skill session will be this. So really having a grasp on the fighters plan schedule is very helpful. And that’s what helps you plan because it is a moving target. It’s a very much a moving target. And you said it better, the fighter needs everything and people can go, well, what’s the difference with the Snickers bar versus something that is calorically comparable. The difference is nutritional density. You just don’t get anything out of the Snickers bar. If I can have 200 calories of vitamins and nutrients for recovery energy metabolism, well that’s the difference. And that’s why food substrate matters, it really does or food as a substrate well matter if you can’t cut corners. You need such an overwhelming volume of nutrients to recover fully.

Corey Beasley [00:20:02]: Yeah, absolutely. So let me ask you that as you kind of goal set, you’ve kind of laid some ideas down, like we’re at this weight, we need to get to this weight kind of identify some of the nutritional protocols as far as caloric intake intense days versus not kind of fine tuning it. It’s kind of ever evolving beast. Now for a lot of kids or the athletes that are doing this stuff, let’s say that you have a 3,200 calorie day and you say, I want this percentage of protein, fats, carbohydrates, that next step as far as them implementing that plan what are some of the tools or things that you use to take that number and then transfer that into food on the plate for those athletes?

Tony Ricci [00:20:58]:Very good. Obviously the old saying it’s better to shoot high and miss than aim low and hit some guys or girls they’re going to do it verbatim, they’re going to recite you verbatim and they’re going to practice exactly what you’ve dictated, whether it be through paper or not. But I personally use a neutral base or nutritionist pro software and I kind of write the meals out because of that lays it out for them. If someone doesn’t have that, there are so many nice apps that really are helpful. They’re not perfect. I mean using my fitness power or something but they’re good because a lot of these apps now have meals that are dictated at 40, 30, 30 or 50, 25, 25 about 2,500 calories. And for the athlete that does a younger athlete doesn’t have a coach that doesn’t have the ability to get that specificity and diet. That’s a nice start. There’ll be some meals laid out for them. There’ll be sampled days where they’ll have, it’ll tell them, okay, this much for breakfast, a couple of eggs, some oatmeal, you have snack here, some cashews and an orange hypothetically, Turkey sandwich salad for lunch. So in today’s day in age, if you don’t have the access is a world champion athletes to a nutritionist, story performance coach that takes care of all of this. There are plenty of mediums through which you can go to get a really good idea about this as far as what I’ll do is I have a software system and I put all the data in, I get the estimates, I write out a host of different meal options and I hope they stick to be completely honest with you. You could lay it out. They’ll a lot of times I’ll work with the local energy food eat clean, grow and check out their website and say, okay, can you send four or five of these in over a day? And the athlete will do that and have it prepared. What you find is always if they don’t have the meal essentially pre-prepared. Put right there for them. They don’t do to the nutritional practice as closely as I’d like. Even the world champs in most cases.

Corey Beasley [00:23:16]: Yeah. Well to be really honest, I mean, we can go back and forth about, like you said earlier, the strength and conditioning. We can argue about this, that and the other. And same with nutrition. We can go back and forth about this diet or that diet and what’s optimal. But, and tell me if I’m wrong, if we just have some sort of game plan, we’re ahead of the curve. And we’re trying to move and get better it just some kind of a framework where there’s some organization to their week, they’re at least somewhat conscious of what they’re putting in their mouth as far as food stuff goes. And I mean, that’s an improvement for so many athletes just being conscious?

Tony Ricci [00:24:07]:You hit it perfectly. That’s what I definitely mean by shoot high and miss. It’s better than aiming low and hitting, you got it.

Corey Beasley [00:24:16]: So people can get access to a lot of these apps and stuff that’s out there and get some kind of an idea of what 2,500 calories looks like and then they could fine tune along the way after gaining weight or not losing the weight. They can adjust accordingly and make those slight changes, but at least it’s simple enough, it’s not the overly complicated here.

Tony Ricci [00:24:41]:
Your principles are correct. Get a little protein and carbs in between each training session. Get a little protein at night. Make sure you eat systematically. That’s all don’t go seven hours without food. A fighter doesn’t have that option during camp that you just hit. Get in a couple of good meals. Don’t go four hours without food. Don’t wrestle in the morning and then not eat till three hours later right before you’re doing Peds or and working with your Tie coach. That’s exactly what we’re looking at. Had a little bit of a system add some decent timing food signals through the body. It changes human physiology for the positive. When you put good things in, you got it. Need not be perfect, need not be down to the milligram, but a general framework and what’s your eating something after each session and you know what approximately what the best amount of food total will be. And you’re really off to a great start.

Corey Beasley [00:25:37]: So Tony, as we’re getting a little further along in camp, those last let’s say two to four weeks when we were talking about a little earlier, we’ll just, maybe the intensity goes up a bit. What, from a nutritional standpoint or a weight cut standpoint, those last few weeks can get pretty intense. There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of noise. So what do you typically do you change anything those last few weeks?

Tony Ricci [00:26:08]:That’s a great question. Now I have the fortune regarding doing mostly fighting is my strength and conditioning or performance coaching. Because that’s what I love and it’s what I’ve done most of my life. So, my point to that is I’m very much around because I love it and so there’s subjective information in which you watch their speed. You could obviously you know, through skin target is the fighter hydrated you talk to the skill coach or what’s their learning curve? Is their attention span down? So you have some subjective things, are they losing power on their punch? You watch these things and you’re like okay man, just fighter maybe tired or a little over trained and of course I have a host of different things to measure that, but that’s a separate conversation. But I think that you continue to monitor hydration level. Are they staying hydrated? Their body fat percentage went down obviously from week 12 to week four. What does that mean? Total body water is probably going to go out slightly as a percentage of total body. So you keep an eye on that. Of course they’re probably losing some lean tissue because it’s hard as you try. It happens in a camp when you’re watching weight or cutting, maybe not by week four but subsequent. So my point is that is I’ll take all the same measurements, I’ll talk to the fighter, I’ll try to get a report from them. Have you been eating? What’s yo