For many gymnasts, the post-COVID return to gym will bring about fears and body anxiety. Little girls and young teens don’t understand growth and development, and it didn’t really matter as much back in the day when social media didn’t exist. You didn’t used to see half-naked young women all over the internet, flexing their muscles, showing off their abs, and popping their booties.
Ten years ago, to see that kind of leanness you’d have to pick up a copy of Oxygen or In Shape Magazine.
The sad reality is that our young athletes have NO idea the kind of restrictive dieting and over-exercising that many of these “fitfluencers” go through to attain such a look. And as such, their young minds equate beauty, success, and worth with looking like their favorite Instagram accounts.
Performance Over Aesthetic
Our focus has shifted from performance to aesthetic, and it’s time to reclaim that focus.
Just the other day I had a parent email me, concerned that her 15 year old gymnast had stepped on the scale for the first time in 1-2 months and it was up 3-5 pounds. They were both worried about muscle loss and fat gain, and how that would impact this high level athlete’s performance.
Here’s what I told them:
“Well, first off the scale can fluctuate 2-5 lbs in a given day, so it’s for sure impossible to say if the number she say on the scale was “real” weight gain or not. Given she’s still growing I’d like to see her growth charts as this could be normal growth that her body has been able to catch up on during this break from intense training. Other factors, like where she is in her menstrual cycle, etc will all effect body weight fluid shifts that don’t represent fat gain nor muscle loss.”
For all of the athletes worried right now about “weight gain” while they’ve not been practicing 20+ hours a week, here’s the deal:
Bodies change. Your weight fluctuations not only day to day, but throughout the months. A “weight range” is best in terms of monitoring as weight is just not static.
Weighing yourself once a week or once a month can be problematic due to all the various factors that can cause fluctuations in the number. Let’s say you decide to weigh yourself every Friday, but this Thursday you had Chinese take-out which is generally higher sodium that most meals you’d normally make at home. When you step on the scale Friday morning, the numbers up! You panic, thinking you’ve “gotten so fat” when what you’re seeing is likely fluid retention due to the higher sodium meal. You don’t need to do anything special, just drink some water and get on about your day. Your body is really good at balancing out your fluid shifts, just give it time.
If I’m working with a client who just can’t let go of the scale, which I totally get, I’d rather them weigh most day of the week and take a running average to compare week to week. Using the running average is a better way of assessing weight trends, but again this is problematic at times with the fluctuations of a female’s cycle AND for the growing athlete.
Normal Growth and Development for the Gymnast
Under 18 years old, it is NORMAL to continue growing, developing, and gaining weight. And for some, this could continue into the early twenties. For the 17 year old gymnast who’s gained 4-6 pounds during this break could very well have needed that weight gain as part of healthy, normal growth and development. I wouldn’t be especially worried.
On average, female 9-12 years old gain 5-7 lbs a year and from 13-17 years old they can gain about 15 pounds as part of puberty.
For the gymnast, this growth timeline is often delayed due to inadequate energy availability, i.e. not matching caloric expenditure from training, etc with intake. A lot of our gymnasts still look like they’re 10-12 years old when they are 14-16 due to stunted growth and delayed puberty as a consequence of under fueling. This it not a good thing as inadequate energy availability will lead to stress fractures, increased risk of injury, etc.
Weight versus Body Composition
Of the many shortcomings of the scale, one very prominent is the inability of a “weight” to distinguish between body fat, muscle tissue, bone density, etc. For the performance athlete, body composition especially in reference to lean muscle is WAY more important than the number on the scale. A body would weigh the exact same but look VASTLY different at different body fat percentages.
For the athlete, we’re going for performance and not a “look”. If you want to get completely shredded to unsustainable levels of leanness like in bodybuilding, you will not be able to perform. Females are thought to need at least 12% bodyfat as essential fat and most female physique or bodybuilding competitors are on the stage around 8-10%. They lose their menstrual cycles, are cold all the time, have difficulty sleeping/recovering from workouts, they lose strength in the gym, and more all to get to these low levels of bodyfat. What the Instagram pictures of these shredded women don’t tell you is how much suffering they are going through to get that lean and the disordered eating behaviors that stick around long after their show is over. And, most of these women end up gaining MORE bodyfat post-show than they started out with. Their bodies are primed and ready for weight gain due to the months of starvation; this is normal, evolutionary response of the body just trying to protect itself and fight starvation.
Weight gain during time off injury
So, what about weight gain during time out of the gym due to injury or extended break like COVID-19? Well, it’s hard to say. For many young gymnasts, the weight gain they might experience could very well be a normal part of growth and development. You have to look at weight gain differently for an adolescent as compared to an adult because they are still growing. And, for the gymnast, they usually have some catching up to due in relation to suppressed growth from years of overtraining/under fueling.
Some athletes will have put on some extra bodyfat during this extended break, and that’s OK. This is understandable give the jump from 25-30 hours a week of exercise to maybe 5-8 hours during COVID-19 with Zoom workouts, etc. I still stand by that if athletes are fueling properly to begin with, then we wouldn’t see much weight gain as during times of rest they’d be able to scale back their nutrition appropriately. But, the problem is most athletes are already trying to restrict, under eat, and certainly aren’t “fueling for the work required”.
Instead of 3 meals and 1-2 snacks a day to support basic metabolic needs, daily activity, AND THEN on top of that performance nutrition (pre-workout/intra-workout/recovery), most athletes are barley eating 3 meals a day and maybe some snacks later on in the evening.
Being able to “peel back” the performance nutrition during times of rest or injury is what’s called “periodized nutrition” which gymnastics as a whole is not good at. Most gyms are constantly training hard year round and there’s little difference in volume between off-season and competition season with no break in between. This is a topic for another day, but most sports have a more distinct in-season/off-season where nutrition can be altered to make the “work required” for each distinct season and training volume. This helps to mitigate unwanted weight gain or inadequate fueling for muscular development and adaptation.
Necessary weight gain for health/performance
For some athletes, the weight they’ve gained during the COVID-19 break was normal and necessary. I’m not going to say that coming back into the gym with a slightly different body than you left in March will be easy, but for a lot of these athletes this is just a normal part of development that was going to happen at some point. Many gymnasts get to collegiate gymnastics still very pre-pubescent and then gain a lot of weight between summer after senior year and freshman year of college. This often comes from a decrease in training volume from JO compared to NCAA coupled with the athlete now being on their own in terms of nutrition without parents controlling what food enters the home, etc. In my opinion, it’s better to develop into a woman before collegiate gymnastics as then you have once less change to deal with. Right now, everyone will be starting from scratch getting back into the gyms after COVID-19 so having to deal with some linear growth and weight gain isn’t a huge deal as there is time to adjust to the new body.
If some gymnasts have gotten periods back over the COVID-19 break that have been absent for months, this is a good thing and a sign that they’ve likely not been fueling their bodies adequately when training volume is back to the normal 20+ hours a week. It is not normal to experience amenorrhea. Birth control won’t fix the issue either (see this post).
Excessive weight gain due to dietary patterns- Awareness without dieting
So what if you or your athlete has gained some real weight over this COVID-19 break or any other time of injury? Well, more than likely it will come back off as your resume normal training. Again, this is the whole reason why “fueling to perform” is so important. Starving or crash dieting to get the 5 lbs you gained off in a week will only result in dehydration, disordered behaviors, and poor performance in the gym. If the athlete gained weight because of overeating, emotional eating, etc while out of the gym, then this is a whole separate issue that would need the help of a registered dietitian and possibly therapist. Often athletes will end up gaining weight from over-restricting which then leads to binging, eating in secret, and lots of guilt/shame which only drive you to eat more since you “blew it”.
Also, coaches, telling an athlete they are “fat” or have “gained weight” is never helpful. I have so many stories of gymnasts being singled out during practice, told they’re fat and need to lose weight, etc without any sort of recommendation or referral to a professional that can actually help them safely lose the bodyfat they might need to. This generally results in the athlete starving themselves as that’s about the only way they know how to “lose weight” which is then a slippery slope into a full-blown eating disorder. And, who’s to say they “actually” need to lose some bodyfat…
I understand that gymnastics is an aesthetic sport, but if the athlete is performing well, recovering well, etc then I’m not sure how much the actual number on the scale or bodyfat percentage matters.
In summary, it’s hard to say by one number on the scale if you’ve actually “gained weight” or you’re just seeing fluid shifts, etc. For the young athlete, weight gain is a normal and expected party of healthy growth and development, so it would be abnormal for a gymnast to weigh the same at 18 that they weighed at 12.
Measures taken to lose weight at a young age can easily be turned into an eating disorder, so great caution needs to be taken within the context of a proper assessment if an athlete truly does need to lower their bodyfat. Many a gymnastics career has been ruined by “just trying to lose 5 lbs” which spiraled into an eating disorder that let to multiple injuries, anxiety/depression, and the athlete quitting the sport they once loved.
If you’re unsure about yourself or your athlete, please contact me so we can together develop a fueling plan for your athlete that will leave them feeling and performing their best while having a healthy relationship with food and their body.