Weight Loss (and Gain) Lessons from Sumo Wrestlers

Sumo wrestlers are, hands down, the world's foremost experts at gaining weight. True, there are many other people who are obese but rarely do they gain weight on purpose. In fact, many of them are constantly trying to lose weight. Sumo wrestlers are different.

Their unique lifestyle is primarily devoted to one thing – gaining as much weight as they can. They do this because sumo wrestling has no weight divisions. So a 200-pound wrestler can compete with a 400-pounder.

The object of the game is to make some part of the opponent's body touch the floor or to push him out of the inner circle of the ring. Speed, agility and special sumo wrestling techniques contribute to winning but the heavier wrestler usually has the upper hand.

Ideally, sumo wrestlers should gain muscle mass in proportion with fat to maintain their strength while increasing fat around the abdomen and hips. This lowers their center of gravity and makes it harder to push them out of balance. The fat also serves as padding against blows they receive and it cushions their body when they fall.

However, in the sumo world, weight is weight. The heavier and fatter wrestler, no matter how clumsy and slow, usually has an edge over a more agile but lighter competitor.

If you are the type who has a hard time gaining weight, sumo wrestlers can definitely teach you a thing or two. Considering that the Japanese, as a race, are not prone to overweight, the fact that sumo wrestlers are wildly successful at their goal tells you that they've gotten the process down pat.

And if you want to lose weight, you can also learn from them what not to do. It's sort of like how your mother always holds up some black sheep relative as the role model you should not emulate unless you want to ruin your life.

So how do slim young Japanese males become 400-plus or even 500-plus pound heavyweights?

For starters, wrestling scouts look for boys who are athletic (preferably with experience in the martial arts) and stocky in build, with bodies that are big-boned and capable of putting on weight easily.

They don't take unfit and overweight youngsters because the scouts believe they don't have what it takes, physically or mentally, to endure the rigorous training and lifestyle a sumo wrestler undergoes.

Hawaiians of Polynesian or Samoan descent have found success and popularity in sumo wrestling partly because they are physically built for the sport. They have big frames, heavy bones, and they put on weight effortlessly.

It usually takes 10 years for a Japanese sumo wrestler to reach fighting weight. It takes much less for his Hawaiian counterpart.

Wrestlers weigh about 200 pounds when they start but grow to 300 to 400 pounds when they get to the top division. Konishiki, a native Hawaiian past grand champion, weighed 600 plus!

The lesson here is that genetics plays a role in how easily you lose or gain weight. You are not doomed by your genes to be fat even if you come from a family that gains weight easily but you have to accept that you will have to work hard at controlling your weight.

Unless he is competing in a tournament, a sumo wrestler's day goes something like this: He wakes up at 6 AM, trains hard for four to five hours on an empty stomach, takes a relaxing hot bath, eats his first meal of the day, takes a nap for three to four hours, does his personal errands, eats his second and final meal, and retires for the night.

In short, a sumo wrestler's lifestyle is composed of three things: training, eating and sleeping. Wrestlers live together in "stables" or training schools where their training, diet, and sleeping regimens are strictly watched and implemented.

The traditional sumo wrestling formula for gaining weight is a result of many years of experience in fattening up 165 pound (the minimum weight of aspiring sumo wrestlers who join a stable) young Japanese males into 400-pound behemoths.

No breakfast
I don't think sumo coaches of centuries ago knew that people who don't eat breakfast tend to gain more weight than people who do.

This traditional rule probably developed for the practical reason that you can't do vigorous training and exercise on a full stomach. Still, the practice suits their purposes very well. By skipping breakfast and exercising strenuously for a few hours, the wrestlers are so hungry by noontime that they are ravenous.

This is also what happens to average people who don't eat breakfast. They lose control of their appetites at lunch because their last meal was dinner the night before.

Weight loss experts say that one characteristic common to overweight people is that they seldom eat breakfast. Not only does skipping breakfast trigger overeating later in the day but it can also cause a five-percent drop in metabolism.

The lesson here is that if you want to lose weight, eat breakfast. You are not saving on any calories by skipping the first meal of the day since you will just eat double at lunch.

If you want to gain weight, I would still suggest eating a little something since research indicates that not eating breakfast negatively affects your mental performance in the morning.

Two big meals a day
To gain all that weight, you would think that sumo wrestlers would be eating all day long. Actually, they eat only twice a day but their meals are gigantic, equivalent to five to 10 meals for a regular person. There is scientific evidence to validate this practice.

Research indicates that eating one or two big meals a day makes your body more prone to hoarding fat compared to eating five or six small meals a day.

No one is born with the ability to eat that much food in one sitting so sumo wrestlers have to progressively train their stomachs to stretch and accommodate larger volumes. They even have special massages to move the intestines around to enable them to consume more food.

In other words, if you want to control your weight, stay away from those large American-size servings.

You may be shocked initially at how big they are but eventually, your eyes and your stomach will get used to them. If you are trying to gain weight and you have a small appetite, there is hope.

Slowly but surely, increase the amount of food you eat and your stomach will cooperate. Here is another lesson from sumo wrestlers – they force themselves to continue eating even when they are full. Like I said, if you are not genetically prone to gaining weight, you have to sacrifice and work at it.

The traditional sumo meal is called chanko-nabe and it consists of some type of protein (fish, seafood, chicken, pork or beef) in a fish broth stew with rice and vegetables.

The wrestlers eat the same meal twice a day, every day of the year. The only thing that changes is the type of meat or vegetables used.

The meal is actually quite healthy (unless they throw in excessive amounts of salt and MSG to make it tastier) and even low in fat. The secret is in the huge amounts that they eat.

It is quite clear from this that eating food low in fat doesn't mean you won't gain weight. Portion sizes count.

For those who want to gain weight, the lesson is that you can pack on the pounds but still eat healthy.

You don't have to overload your arteries with saturated fat or eat tons of processed refined carbohydrates like pastries and candies, which can raise your triglyceride and cholesterol levels as much as animal fat can.

Alcohol and abdominal fat
Not all sumo stables advise their wrestlers to drink alcohol with their meals, but drinking large quantities of beer is also a traditional means of putting on the weight needed to be a sumo champion.

Science reveals that alcohol makes cortisol levels rise. Cortisol is a stress hormone that directs fat to be deposited in the abdominal area thus creating the "beer belly."

Sumo wrestlers want abdominal fat because it makes them more stable in the wrestling ring. But even if this practice helps them win tournaments, it results in liver problems among retired sumo wrestlers.

If you want to lose weight, remember what alcohol does to your fat cells and drink in moderation. If you want to gain weight, stay away from this method. It wouldn't do to ruin your liver.

According to sumo wrestling experts, the three to four hour nap after lunch is very important in gaining weight. This makes sense for two reasons.

One, they want their wrestlers to conserve as much energy as possible so that most of the calories they eat will be deposited as fat.

The second reason is that sleep and rest are necessary for muscles to grow. Body builders know that it is during sleep and rest time that muscles are repaired and new protein is synthesized to add to the muscle size.

The weight loss lesson is that you want to stay as physically active as you can throughout the day to burn off calories. The weight gain lesson is the pounds won't stick to you if you are like a whirling dervish all day.

You can still gain weight in spite of vigorous exercise
In spite of their bulk, sumo wrestlers are remarkably strong and flexible. Konishiki could reportedly finish 70 pieces of sushi and 100 bottles of beer in one sitting but he could also dance the night away and so supple that he could do splits.

Sumo wrestlers might look like big obese babies in "diapers" but they train as hard as any other athlete. Their daily four to five-hour exercise regimen includes repeatedly hitting a piece of wood with their bare hands, 500-plus leg lifts, and other equally strenuous routines as well as practice spars with each other.

All that exercise burns a large amount of calories and that's why they have to eat so much. They have to be able to put on weight in spite of their grueling training program.

The lesson for weight watchers is that no amount of exercise will make you lose weight if you eat more than you burn. This is an important lesson because it is one of the top mistakes people make regarding diet and exercise.

For weight gainers, the lesson is that you can still exercise and gain strength and endurance while putting on weight. Just make sure to eat more calories than you use up in your exercise routine.

Weight-related health problems
Sumo wrestlers are treated like movie stars in Japan and can earn considerably more than the average Japanese male but there is a price to pay for their fame and glory. Their average life expectancy is 65 years, which is 10 years younger than other Japanese men.

Many sumo wrestlers lose weight when they retire (it takes them three to four years to go back to a normal weight) but by that time they have permanent joint damage to their ankles, knees and hips. Others are sidelined by joint injuries and conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, which make them bow out of the sport at the height of their careers.

The lesson for everyone is that there are a host of health problems that are directly related to being overweight and that's why it is so important to maintain a normal weight for your height and build.

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