Flexible Dieting: Beginners Guide

Here’s the problem. Rugby players or performance athletes need to add muscle, get leaner and still improve their performance at the same time in some cases. How is this possible? How can you possibly eat fewer calories than your body needs to function, add muscle mass and still perform at a high level?

Well… soldiers have been doing this for CENTURIES. They aren’t given enough food to fuel a day of work, they work hard all day and still manage to improve performance and build a strong physique to withstand the intensity of war/camp.

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Well I can tell you, this process can be replicated and it’s called flexible dieting guide or “If It Fits Your Macros”. If it fits your macros is explained in detail in this article, read on.

The Rugby Way

Trying to lose fat isn’t a statement you usually hear when it comes to getting fit for rugby. It’s usually the standard get bigger and bigger until the desired weight is reached. It came as quite a shock to me after speaking to many professional players and coaches that they actually put players into “fat camps”. These entail the player doing extra cardio sessions with other members of “fat camp” to get to their desired body fat levels. This is quite extreme in practice, it’s probably more to do with diet than adding cardio. Players spend most of the week weights training, rugby training and then playing games. This article focuses on the fat loss process and how you can utilise it for better performance and energy levels.

Getting to single digit body fat doesn’t happen overnight, it never has or will be able to. It’s a long term process that does require a LOT of will power. The change in lifestyle to get to a lower body fat level is tough, you will find it hard but it shouldn’t be something that has to be difficult for the sake of it. You see many “dieters” moan about their diet and how hard it is, then they binge. They binge hard and go back to step 1. It doesn’t have to be this way and I don’t advocate yo-yo dieting.

You might be wondering:

Rugby players have nutritionists, conditioning coaches and other support so why do some players get out of shape so much? How is this possible with everything at their disposal? You can give someone a diet all their life and they may never follow it. Why should they? Following a structure that cannot be broken 24/7 7 days a week is never going to happen long term. Giving someone a diet that has less structure but educating them is fundamental to what I advocate. Flexible dieting has been gaining momentum in the fitness industry. Why? People are realising they can enjoy life AND get to or below 10% body fat levels without following a standard “bro” diet that entails only fish, chicken, rice and maybe oats if you’re lucky! Tell someone 5 years ago that you can eat whatever you want as long as it’s below your daily caloric maintenance level and still lose weight and they will think you’re insane. People may still even give you that response today, I’ve certainly had my fair share of debates on trying to educate these non believers. Let’s take a look at the 3 key reasons why rugby players in general don’t stay at a low body fat year round.

Putting on bad weight

I cannot emphasize enough how bad this problem is.

Here’s the crazy part:

I’ve seen fantastic players get dropped, yes dropped from a squad because they didn’t reach the desired weight the team coach wanted them to be at. How ridiculous. That player may have been leaner than the others who hit their target weight, a better player (many cases they are) and didn’t need to add on additional pounds. This in turns causes the problem of weight gain amongst players. They know how important it is and coaches give them unrealistic goals. I’ve heard of a player needing to put on 2 stone in 12 weeks. This can only be done by either:

  1. Eat a load of junk to pile on the pounds
  2. Anabolic Steroids

The mind-set players have now is that weight is good, that’s until the coach demands them to be at a lower body fat percentage (but didn’t they just want players to put on more weight?). It’s true they do evaluate players on a player by player basis but sometimes it is as cold as “put more weight on” into “get to a certain % by *date*. Players need to concentrate on putting on quality mass not weight. Muscle mass over fat mass. It is a longer process but it will enable players to stay leaner and be more athletic. So the major problem is at the bulking phase, putting on a lot of fat which in turn is hard to lose when it comes to trying to cut down and the decrease in their metabolic rate due to it. Fat burners UK are often used when it comes to this stage, it doesn’t need to get to the point of using fat strippers to be lean enough to play optimally.

eating donuts for weight gain
Many players may turn to frequent junk food nights to gain weight..

The focus on weight loss over fat loss in dangerous

Here’s the deal:

I’ve seen players try “water dropping” techniques to try and get their body fat percentage readings lower. Again, focusing on just weight over fat loss. Fat loss also has a very low metabolic activity rate compared to muscle. You’ve probably heard, the more muscle you have the more calories you burn. This is true as muscle demands more than body fat from the body, hence the increase in metabolism. This ties nicely with point one, build muscle not fat and you will be on the right path.

They try and lose fat too quickly.

It gets worse:

Losing fat quick can be done, there are hundreds of books written on the topic by great researchers. Are they long term? Absolutely not. As a rugby player you need to focus on long term. What tends to happen is players will drop their calories so rapidly they will see a huge reduction in weight (water and glycogen due to less carbohydrates) and maintain this state for weeks or even months. This will drastically decrease performance and fat loss will quickly come to a halt. There are ways of re-igniting the fat loss furnace by implementing strategic carbohydrate loading days (NOT junk food days) to then get the body burning fat again. I recommend reading “Lyle Mcdonald Ultimate Diet 2.0” if you’re after a short term, maximal fat loss diet. 6 weeks of hell with rapid results but certainly not optimal for performance athletes like rugby players. Implementing flexible dieting is essential for performance athletes. You need to make sure your lifestyle either:

  1. Helps you lose body fat and maintain/increase performance
  2. Help you maintain body fat levels and optimise energy/performance levels
if it fits your macros
Your standard meal plan in a picture…

When you enter a fat loss state you have less calories than the body needs to maintain the weight you are currently sitting on. This means there is a deficit so when it comes to training you may find your strength and stamina decrease. What flexible diet does is make it possible to maintain energy levels around training and in many cases optimise them whilst losing fat. Many diets stay away from carbohydrates, this is not what we want. We need carbohydrates to drive our workouts, rugby sessions and rugby games.

The Flexible Dieting Approach

When it comes to flexible dieting it’s vital you track your calories. Download “MyFitnessPal” for your smartphone and start scanning everything you eat. The app has a huge database of foods and was recently bought by Under Armour. The reason we need to track calories is that flexible diet in theory allows you to eat whatever you want as long as it doesn’t go over your maintenance caloric levels or your target calories per day. You can find many calculators online for giving you a rough estimate of your caloric maintenance. I’ll be using 2500 calories as the example caloric maintenance figure. My favourite caloric maintenance calculator can be found here. I find it the most accurate.
[clickToTweet tweet=””IIFYM prevents eating disorders and is better for general living provided you are eating enough fiber”- Layne Norton” quote=” IIFYM prevents eating disorders and is better for general living provided you are eating enough fiber – Layne Norton PhD”]

Macro-nutrients below are examples, adjust to your own weight.

Player weight: 180lbs (12 stone 8lbs)
Caloric Maintenance: 2500 calories
Calories per gram of protein: 4 calories
Calories per gram of carbohydrate: 4 calories
Calories per gram of fat: 9 calories

If we went with the standard 40/40/20 approach (protein/carbs/fat) our diet would look like this in terms of how many grams of macro-nutrients to consume a day to maintain our weight.

Protein per day: 250g
Carbs per day: 250g
Fat per day: 55g

For a rugby player the carbs tend to be on the lower side when adopting the 40/40/20 diet. Protein is also quite high, there is no need for 250g per day but if you’re struggling to hit your protein requirements for the day you should invest in a good whey protein supplement, such as MyProtein Whey Protein. A modified version would be as follows:

Protein per day: 180g
Carbs per day:  320g
Fat per day: 55g

Protein requirements tend to be overestimated within the fitness and rugby industry. Some people will consume over 300g per day! A basic rule is to go for 1 pound per pound of body weight. For a 180lbs male that would be 180 grams at least. Remember, we want to lose weight here but maintain performance so adopting a higher carbohydrate diet is not only better for will power but also for performance.

if it fits your macros
Don’t be one of these guys… Extreme IIFYM

Now we have our macro-nutrient goals per day. This is our maintenance level and I recommend starting with it, as your activity level should put you in a deficit every day and weight loss will be occur gradually.

Here’s the best part:

Flexible dieting also named “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM) is a way of dieting that doesn’t require you to stick to a certain foods list. You can technically eat whatever you want as long as it comes on or below maintenance amount of calories you will lose weight. I don’t advocate this approach as many take it to the extreme. I recommend eating a diet using foods that are micro-nutrient dense with some room for eating chocolate, bread or whatever helps keep you sane while dieting. Make sure you stick to the macro-nutrient target and eat foods that will hit those targets. This is why tracking calories using MyFitnessPal is vital. You don’t have to eat the same diet every day, you can eat out, and you can have a junk meal. As long as it fits your macros you will be on track. Here are my 5 rules to stick to when implementing this approach:

  • Try keeping the diet “clean” aka eating nutrient dense foods such as chicken, potatoes, green vegetables, rice, oats etc.
  • Make sure to eat something you just feel like eating once a day. Don’t go overboard (and destroy 3 large dominoes pizzas) but if you want a snickers, eat it. This will help you get over the mind-set that anything labelled as junk will instantly put fat on your body.
  • Consume carbohydrates around your workouts. This helps maintain performance levels.
  • Never eat the same every day. I do this to help sanity and keep variation.
  • Never say no to eat out with friends. Why do this? Simple, your diet doesn’t need to control your life. Eating out just means making sensible decisions and putting the calories into your daily allowance and working around it.


If you’re looking for a long term way of losing weight, maintaining performance and enjoying life then the flexible dieting approach is the best approach. For more information on this lifestyle of eating check out Dr Layne Norton’s work here and Alan Aragon’s research blog here. Both amazing resources.


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