Sep 21, 2016Down the Line
Bigger might be better for college football linemen in the trenches, but packing on the pounds after graduation can cause future health issues. To get its senior linemen focused on lifelong wellness, Dartmouth College holds an annual post-season weight loss competition.
This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of Training & Conditioning.
It’s no secret that college football linemen have gotten heavier over the years. Numerous studies have detailed their dramatic growth since the sport’s early days, and it’s now rare to find a lineman under 275 pounds at the NCAA Division I level.
But it’s also no secret that the lifelong health effects of carrying excess weight can be devastating, even deadly. So what happens to college football linemen once their playing days are over? What are they supposed to do with the mass they’ve gained to help their teams win?
In the Dartmouth College football program, our answer to the latter question is: “Lose it.” For the past two years, we’ve held a “Dartmouth Football Biggest Loser Competition” with our graduating offensive and defensive linemen. By educating them on new nutrition strategies and reworking their fitness programs, we help them drop the weight they worked to gain and maintain in college, setting them up for a safer, healthier life away from the gridiron.
RULES AND REGULATIONS
The concept of the Biggest Loser Competition originated with Dartmouth Head Football Coach Buddy Teevens. At a football staff meeting during the 2014 season, we were talking about ways to help the graduating linemen who had been critical to the success of our program. Although their size ensured they were big, strong, and powerful on the football field, we all understood the physical and psychological health risks that could come with a lifetime of being overweight. Coach Teevens suggested a weight loss competition, and we ran with the idea.
The next day, Coach Teevens and I got together to plan who would be eligible to partake, what we could offer to participants, start and finish dates, and a prize for the winner. After the season ended, we e-mailed our senior linemen to explain the competition and emphasize that it was completely voluntary.
Despite the daunting task of losing weight, we have had several takers both years. The competition begins once the season ends in November. First, we measure the participants’ bodyweights to use as their starting points. We then weigh them every week, and we measure their body fat using calipers once a month. The last week of spring practice marks the end of the contest.
The winner is determined by who loses the largest percentage of their initial weight. He is announced during our spring game at the beginning of May. For his prize, he gets to pick a suit from the J.Crew store here in Hanover, N.H. Not only is the suit a great motivator and a nice way to show off the winner’s physical transformation, but it also ensures he is dressed for success in future career endeavors.
CHANGE OF PLANS
When our linemen choose to take part in the Biggest Loser Competition, they understand that changing their diet and training plays a vital role in obtaining optimal results. For nutrition specifically, their new fueling plans are a stark contrast to the way they’ve been eating for years.
Most linemen come into the Dartmouth program as freshmen needing to develop physically, so they work hard to put on weight with our nutritionist and follow a dedicated strength regimen. Then, their bodyweights are monitored constantly throughout their careers to make sure they are gaining or maintaining as needed.
During the Biggest Loser Competition, however, everything gets scaled back nutrition-wise. We reduce the amount of condiments players use (items like ranch dressing and barbeque sauce that add unnecessary calories), encourage them to drink a lot of water, and decrease their portion sizes.
To increase their intake of nutrient-dense foods, our nutritionist separates food choices into “championship,” “winning,” and “average” categories in our dining hall. We recommend players competing in our weight loss challenge stick to the championship options. These include green leafy vegetables, beans, high-quality baked or grilled meat sources, eggs, and low fat dairy. Winning items should be eaten sparingly, and average choices should be avoided whenever possible.
We ask the linemen to cut back on what they eat, but we don’t give them a specific daily calorie total to shoot for. In fact, we don’t measure calories at all. There are so many factors involved in counting calories that can throw players’ calculations off. Plus, it is more important for them to know how they feel when they eat. They should never be stuffed, but quality food choices should make them feel satisfied.
Regarding players’ new training programs, we create two different options: a resistance training protocol or a cardio or fitness training protocol. Each lineman’s preference and time commitment dictates how much he follows each one. However, many players switch programs throughout the year to try something different or to better fit their schedule.
The resistance training protocol is based on building lean mass to improve body composition. It generally includes three or four total-body workouts per week or body-part training four to six days a week. All of the resistance training programs are paired with cardio on off days or between total-body lifts. We’ve found that body-part training is more popular than total body workouts because it only fatigues a certain area and allows for more cardio opportunities, which the players enjoy.
Although we have a basic template for the resistance training protocols, we’re happy to customize them. For instance, some linemen want to lift heavy, some do not want to squat, and others want to incorporate a lot of Olympic lifting.
The cardio or fitness training protocol offers varying intensities, durations, and impacts. Some of the physical activities players pursue with this option are swimming, biking, running, cardio machines, recreational sports, and interval training. This protocol typically entails four days of at least one hour of intense training a week, with one or more rest days.
Our strength staff and nutritionist may help the linemen set up these new nutrition and training programs, but follow through is totally up to the players. Unlike team fueling and strength and conditioning work, participating in the Biggest Loser Competition requires individual responsibility. There is no one watching their every meal selection or rep, and each competitor must take ownership of their plan, which empowers them to understand how their body functions and reacts to stimuli.
Weight loss guidance is the most important facet to the Biggest Loser Competition. Players typically lose about two percent of their bodyweight per month (around six to eight pounds), but the exact percentage can fluctuate.
Our regular weigh-ins and body fat measurements ensure the safety of the participants. These steps also allow us to discuss how athletes’ workouts are going and consider any questions they have or modifications we may need to make.
In addition, we use the regular weigh-ins to reinforce that weight loss is a process with ups and downs. Some weeks will be better than others, but players can’t judge their success or failure based on one weigh-in or body fat test, as these can fluctuate. Rather, we remind them that bodyweight and body fat should be considered over a longer period of time. A long-term approach will prevent increased stress levels, which could lead to a gain in bodyweight or increased body fat.
At some point during the competition, each player’s weight loss typically plateaus. When this happens, we ask them about sleep habits, diet, schoolwork, home life, and training to pinpoint what areas we could change to get better results. Usually, a subtle alteration to their training, nutrition, or both will jumpstart their progression again.
For example, we once had a player who was stuck at a certain weight for a month, and he became frustrated. After asking him a few questions, we discovered his weekly cheat meal had actually turned into a cheat day. Once we cut that out, he began to see results on the scale again.
In each of the past two years, the Biggest Loser Competition has come down to the last weigh-in. We keep the standings secret until the end so players continue working, and no one tries to cut weight at the last minute.
Both winners were offensive lineman and very motivated to get the weight off after having great careers. They each lost close to 20 percent of their bodyweight from the end of their final season to the start of spring ball.
One lesson we learned from the contest is that players don’t always base success simply on numbers. If an athlete feels better throughout the day and during activity and can see the physical changes his body is making, that can count as a win. For example, in 2016, we had a player stop losing weight midway through the contest because he was happy with his new weight and didn’t want to drop anymore. It cost him the competition, but he was satisfied with his results and the changes he had made.
From the beginning, the Biggest Loser Competition has been about creating a life-changing experience for our linemen. What we do as coaches and the effect it has on game day is important, but it is even more rewarding to give players tools they can use for the rest of their lives.
Here are some insights from the offensive guard who won the 2016 Dartmouth College Football Biggest Loser Competition.
How much weight did you lose?
What percentage of your bodyweight was that?
How did you change your diet to assist you in this weight loss?
It was through weekly manageable changes. My teammates were equally as deserving to win the suit, but I just lost a bigger percentage.
What kind of training plan did you use to assist in this weight loss?
I followed a six-day-per-week bodybuilding program. I had trouble losing weight all winter, so I befriended a Marine who worked with me to do the program. His support helped me get through some of the most grueling times.