One of the most frequent questions I get...
How much should a gymnast weigh? Don’t worry, I “googled” this too as a teen gymnast.
As a society, we are very image focused. And, some of us (especially gymnasts, former gymnasts, coaches, judges) are very numbers and data driven. There’s nothing wrong with this, but tracking weight and calories can easily get out of hand and turn into a raging eating disorder.
In the adolescent’s mind, it’s easy to associate “If Gymnast A looks like X, then I’ll perform like Gymnast A if I look like her”. This thought has sparked many an eating disorder. It happened to me, and it’s likely happened to you or your gymnast to some degree.
I believe that the body has a “weight range” or set point where it likes to be. When we overeat, use food to cope with emotions, or maintain an erratic meal pattern, it’s easy for the body to be at a higher weight than may be comfortable for you. Trying to diet, starve, or over-restrict can also backfire and lead to undesired weight gain. When we under eat, the body will do everything it can to fight back to it’s comfortable “settling point”.
The thing about the “set point” theory is that it’s not as applicable to adolescent gymnasts as they are still growing. Their “set point” is a moving target until their early 20s.
Many gymnasts begin the sport at a very young age where it is unclear what their genetic height potential and body type will end up like post-puberty. Gymnastics has always been known as a “thin to win” sport, but times are changing. The last several Olympic quads have demonstrated that the “acceptable body type” for gymnastics is no longer just small, light, and thin. Gymnasts of all body types are excelling, and a lot of this has to do with the rigor of the code which requires incredible strength and power. It’s about time.
What about BMI?
In the clinical world, we use BMI (body mass index) as a metric of “health”. For children and adolescents, if your BMI (weight divided by height-squared) is over the 85%tile we categorize this as “overweight” and over the 95%tile is “obese”. There is no basis for these metrics, and they fall short in many ways. BMI was developed as a proxy for bodyfat, but it is a flawed measurement for the athlete who has much more muscle mass (which contributes to scale weight) than the average person. Oftentimes athlete’s BMI’s will be much higher than you’d expect and cannot be used as a measure of health.
For children and adolescents, what matters most is how they’ve been tracking along THEIR growth curve. You or your athlete may be on the thinner, lighter side and their weight has always been along the 10-25%tile. This may be normal for them. Likewise, your athlete may have a more muscular build and their weight tracks along the 80-90%tile. This is also likely normal for them. Deviations away from these curves (called isopleth’s) can give cause for concern, especially if they start to cross what are called “Z-scores”.
Most importantly, children and adolescents are still growing and gaining weight as part of normal development. A 9-13 year old will gain 5-7 pounds per year and a 14-18 will gain 15-30+ pounds during the final years of puberty. The pre-pubertal girl holds onto abdominal fat as part of the body’s preparation for puberty. This abdominal fat will redistribute to the breasts and hips as they continue to mature, which is normal.
You or your athlete should not weigh at 18 what you weighed at 12. If you do, it’s likely your growth has been stunted by inadequate energy availability. More on that in a minute.
Weight Loss vs Fat Loss
If an athlete needs to “lose weight”, it’s “fat loss” not “weight loss” we want. Scale weight can only tell us the sum of fat mass, muscle mass, bone, fluid, and intestinal contents, etc. Body composition defines the fat mass vs muscle mass vs bone.
There is an essential amount of fat the body needs to function. Too little body fat and hormones will not be produced adequately which relate to thyroid function, reproduction/menstruation, and body temperature regulation. The female must have at least 12% bodyfat to be “healthy”, but this is arbirtary given the poor reliability and accuracy of most body composition testing methods.
No parent or coach should weigh their gymnasts. Weight is only one data point, and parents and coaches are ill-equiped to safely and productively manage such information. I’ve worked with high level gymnasts that have been told to “lose weight” by their coaches yet not actually be given any tangible, practical information…nor a referral to a qualified registered dietitian nutritionist experienced with aesthetic sports. That is unfair.
Can a gymnast ever lose weight, safely?
In short, yes. There is a safe, sustainable way to lose weight (technically, aim for bodyfat), but this takes careful planning and vigilance. And, this is likely going to be in response to normalizing behaviors that had been keeping the body weight inflated (like binging, erratic meal patterns, etc). But, there are VERY few adolescent gymnasts who need to lose weight. Why? Because aiming for weight loss while there is still growth potential is likely inappropriate, especially if they have not started menstruating. The body will fight back very hard as it wants to continue growing and developing to it’s genetic potential.
I ruined my gymnastics career by trying to look like a gymnast whose body type was SO different from mine. It didn’t matter how much weight I lost, I would never look like her because of genetics. Sadly, there wasn’t anyone to tell me that was OK.
Gymnastics is an aesthetic sport that has high rates of eating disorders. There is a lot of pressure from coaches, (some) judges, and society for gymnasts to have a certain “look”. Going for a “look” will always leave you disappointed. And, most weight loss methods will leave you with a heap of food guilt, bad body image, and an unlikely chance to sustain the weight loss.
When I’ve worked with high level gymnasts who were put on diets around 14-16 as their bodies started to change with puberty, they are later able to realize that diets just aren’t a sustainable long-term solution. They may produce 5-10 pounds of weight loss (which is probably not needed), yet that weight can so quickly come back with a vengeance as soon as the body and mind have had “enough”. This and my own experience as a gymnast who struggled with an eating disorder has shifted the way I practice.
When I first became a registered dietitian nutritionist, I would have given you a carefully calculated meal plan to follow to a “T” if you came to me wanting to lose weight. I figured if you couldn’t do it, you just “weren’t trying hard enough”. Very much a gymnast-perfectionist, mentality that was unhelpful and often backfires. If were being honest, this was rooted in disordered eating, fatphobia, and diet culture.
I do not practice like this anymore. Diets only work temporarily, and weight loss for the gymnast does not equal improved performance. In fact, often times the gymnast who sets out to lost 5, 10, 20 pounds ends up developing an eating disorder and quitting the sport.
When an athlete comes to me having been told they need to lose weight, the issue is almost always a fueling issue. Either they’re underfueling while trying to lose weight (that they don’t need to lose, but comments were made) and that’s making them exhausted, slow, and “heavy” feeling.
If an athlete is TRULY gaining bodyfat while training 20+ hours a week, there are many factors that can be addressed before weighing/measuring the athlete and just telling them to ‘lose weight’. It is likely they are eating too much in the form of trying to starve/restrict and then binge, etc and this is a vicious cycle that isn’t going to fix itself by just telling them to “lose weight”. If anything, that comment will drive more disordered behaviors, over-exercising, etc.
So what do you do for an athlete who wants to lose weight?
If an athlete comes to me wanting to lose weight, we’ll first look at growth history, genetic height potential, and body structure to determine is they are fueling adequately.
I would previously have given them a “weight range” to where their body might like to be while performing optimally, but I no longer do this. Why? Because I can’t truly know where their body wants to settle out. Weight is so volatile, can fluctuate 2-5 pounds in a given day, and gymnasts are almost always 5-15 lbs more than they “look” due to lean mass.
If a gymnast has had abnormal weight gain, more than likely this is a symptom of a distorted relationship with food. They could have been underfueled for years (intentional or unintentional) and their body finally got a chance to catch up. Or, there is something deeper going on (binge eating disorder, etc). Fix the behaviors, and their weight will likely naturally settle to where it should be. This is harder than it sounds, but it’s the sustainable approach to life-long change. Given the fact that 95% of who diet and lose weight gain it all back plus some, I’m not about to put you on a diet of “clean foods” all to have you spiral out of control “when the diet’s over”.
If you’re really struggling with some extra weight, it could be a nutrition education issue. You may be consuming more energy (calories) than you think with frequent fast food stops, large soda, etc. Or, you may have learned to cope with food (join the club!) at a young age and tend to eat when you’re experiencing discomforting emotions. If this is the case, I’m a big proponent of therapy as changing your mindset and learning to cope with negative emotions is a huge step in improving your relationship with food and your body. It is not wrong to emotionally eat from time to time, but if it’s a chronic pattern then this speaks to deeper issues. It’s never about the food.
I can’t tell a gymnast you what they should weigh, it’s up to your body. We can get a good idea, a range, based on past growth trends and family history. But again, it’s more about body composition (lean vs fat tissue) than a number on the scale. A person will know when they are at a good place with their body. You’ll be able to eat without guilt, without feeling like you “gained a million pounds” after a meal, and not feel out of control/obsessed with food. This kind of freedom is WAY more important than a silly number on the scale which never seems “good enough”.
From a performance standpoint, if a gymnast is gaining strength, improving in the gym, and is relatively injury-free, their body is likely in a pretty good place. If they care more about a “look” than performance, go be a bodybuilder. And, then they will have another mess on their hands after dieting down 20+ pounds to an unphysiologically sustainable level of leanness.
Getting into bodybuilding is literally the worst idea ever, especially for gymnasts, because dieting down for a show will get them to an abnormal level of leanness that is not sustainable. Even though many body builders know that this leanness is temporary, it provides great fuel for further body dysmorphia. I’m so thankful I never went through with actually trying to compete (did a short bodybuilding stint after retiring from gymnastics while I was trying to figure out my new athletic identity). A lot of former athletes transition into bodybuilding as a way to try and maintain their identity. The reality is that bodies change and you are not going to look like you did when you practiced 20+ hours a week. Your body will change when you retire and that’s normal.
It’s bad enough that I remember the abnormal level of leanness I attained during the depths of my eating disorder. The thing about dieting and eating disorders is that you can’t un-remember that level of leanness, though we do tend to forget or minimize the side effects which were horrific (cold all the time, overly emotional all the time, no period, food obsessed, hungry all the time, weak, fatigued, hair falling out, etc).
To sum it all up, I’m not going to weigh an athlete unless I have to (like needing blinded weights during eating disorder recovery), because this can start a tumultuous relationship with themselves and the scale for the rest of their lives. I’m not going to have them count calories, I can monitor things from dietary recalls, etc but again, this is another behavior that can easily spiral out of control for the perfectionist gymnast. I’d like to think that we could all objectively look at the scale as “just a number” and count calories “as a tool”, but the truth is we can’t. Some of us, especially the pre-disposed aesthetic sport athletes like gymnasts are just inches from an eating disorder if the right trigger is present (parental/coaches food/body comments, the first diet, calorie counting, weighing, etc).
What about the athlete who wants to lose weight but isn't getting their period, has frequent injuries, etc?
The body is really smart and when energy availability (calories available to the body to exist, cover daily activities, and exercise) drops too low, the brain will signal to the reproductive system that the body’s environment is unsafe/inadequate for a baby and thus menses will stop. This is a bad sign, as all women will go through puberty as this is a normal, healthy part of growth and development. I work with a lot of female athletes who have delayed puberty (haven’t gotten period by 15 years of age) or finally got their periods but then they stopped.
Frequent injuries, especially non-healing injuries, can also be a sign that you’re not giving your body enough nutrition. This is not the time to lose weight as you’re already in a malnourished state.
You likely have a skewed body image if you aren’t getting your period yet still think you need to lose weight. Not every female with period issues is “underweight”, there are other health conditions like PCOS that cause irregular or absent menses and isn’t related to undereating/overtraining.
It’s really hard to maintain a healthy body image as female these days, but especially for gymnasts. There are so many “fitfluencers” on social media that portray their six-pack abs and thigh gap, yet are very disordered and mentally ill but this isn’t the picture they paint for you. Because of this, gymnasts see these influencers’ bodies and think if they workout/eat like them, they’ll look like them. This is untrue and SO harmful.
Or, more appropriate, it’s the underweight gymnast who gets praise from the coaches and even though she’s really unhealthy, everyone is made to feel like they should look like her. And, coaches can be abusive in that they’ll just stop paying attention to you, spotting you, etc if they don’t like your body type/weight.
Watch for another post on RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport syndrome) and missing periods, etc.
Weight is highly individual and body composition is more important for the sport of gymnastics.
A lot of gymnasts are made to believe they are “fat” due to the media and unrealistic beauty standards that no one but very few individuals can attain (due to genetics).
It’s very unlikely that you as a gymnast actually need to lose weight, but let’s talk if you feel that way as I understand and can help. If you really do need to lose some weight from a performance standpoint, we can work together to slowly and safely get you to a better body composition without you starving or feeling deprived.
I know you probably have questions about your own specific body composition, weight, nutrition, etc but obviously I had to keep things brief in this general blog.
I hope you don’t start counting calories. I hope you don’t start stepping on the scale. These are two things I wish I could take back and I promise you that you can have a performance-oriented body composition, elite performance, and food freedom without those two things!
If any of this blog post rings a bell, please reach out for help before it’s too late. Connect with me if your gymnast is struggling or you have questions.