How Much Overhead Are You Carrying?

Dresdin Archibald


Olympic Weightlifting, Strength and Conditioning

Being a financial professional and also a weightlifter with a long time interest in the body composition of athletes, I recently had a discussion with a colleague about how these two disciplines can be similar. As might be expected, there was a certain amount of skepticism before we started.


What Is Overhead?



Fitness, Win, olympic weightlifting, body fat, body compositionIn a retailing or manufacturing enterprise we have a thing called the cost of goods sold. That consists of the labor and materials and/or parts used to produce the goods the company will eventually sell. In addition to these two major items, every firm has a certain amount of overhead. These are costs that are not directly attributable to any product, but that must be made in the course of business if you are to eventually produce any goods or services. This might include your buildings or factories, the equipment in them, your vehicle fleet, the utilities you pay, interest on your debt, office expenses, or a million other little things. Since overhead does not produce anything directly, many managers see it as unnecessary. They try to eliminate all of these costs when possible since it is only seen as excess expenditure.


Although some go to extremes in attempting to eliminate overhead, most sooner or later are forced to realize that it is not an unnecessary item on the books and it is unavoidable. You can't make a widget unless you have widget-building and widget-making equipment to begin with. But it is important to realize that although overhead is necessary, there is a limit that a firm will want to spend on this category. There is indeed such a thing as excess overhead. For example, if your factory has a capacity far bigger than what you ever intend to produce, then all of the cost of that excess capacity is wasted money and therefore forgone profit.


Overhead in Weightlifting


Now, if you have remained reading this long, you may be wondering what this has to do with body composition in weightlifting, or indeed in any other sport. Well, a simple analogy here will show you there is indeed much in common. For starters, your muscles and skeleton and all your organs are necessary for you to function as a human being and certainly to function as a weightlifter. These we can think of as being equivalent to the labor and materials needed to build a widget.


Now what about overhead? What is the equivalent of overhead in the human body? The answer to that is simple. We can think of our body fat as overhead. Adipose tissue by itself cannot lift even a half-kilo plate. Only the muscles and bones can do that. Because of that, athletes try to keep their adipose tissue content as low as possible consistent with the demands of their sport.


Fitness, Win, olympic weightlifting, body fat, body compositionWhen we look into that statement a bit more and read between the lines it tells us that some adipose tissue is necessary. Even if it were possible, we would not want to get down to 0% body fat. This is because fat does serve a number of purposes in the human body. It protects the tissues, it provides some insulation against both heat and cold, and can also act as a buffer in times of sickness when weight loss occurs.


The loss of essential body fat reminds us of the performance of David Rigert of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics. After several years of having adapted to the 100kg class, he was made to lift at 90kg in Moscow. By then the effort required to remove 10% of his bodyweight, regardless of its composition, was too much. In business terms, he tried to get rid of all of his overhead and found it was impossible to produce athletic widgets like he had before.


The Percentage of Necessary Overhead


Male weightlifters try to aim for 10 to 15% body fat. For women lifters the target is somewhat higher, perhaps as high as 25%. In general, the lower weight categories aim for the lower end of the scale while the higher weight categories are at the other end. While it is possible to obtain lower body fat percentages and theoretically then have a more efficient body, perhaps one that could lift in a lighter weight category, this is not advisable for most lifters. The only way to lose that weight is to do an excessive amount of cardio-type exercise or to decrease caloric intake. Neither of these are conducive to maintaining strength. That 10 to 15% fat we can consider as the weightlifters overhead. And by overhead we mean necessary overhead. Without that margin of adipose tissue the rest of the organism would not be able to function properly especially when performing heavy lifting.


Unnecessary Overhead


Okay, so now we know that such overhead is irreducible. Now what about unnecessary overhead? As mentioned, it certainly can exist in a corporation but what about in a weightlifter’s body? By now you should be able to figure out the answer to that. The answer is very definitely yes. Unnecessary overhead for a weightlifter occurs when you go over those ideal body fat percentages. A lifter carrying too much fat is just like a company with too high overhead. Just like the corporation, your "profits" will suffer by having to expend extra energy on non-productive bodyweight. You will be an underperformer since you will probably be competing in a bodyweight category heavier than the one you should be competing in. You are spotting the opposition extra bodyweight, but they are certainly not giving you any extra muscle to compete in that higher weight category.


Fitness, Win, olympic weightlifting, body fat, body compositionWe do have a problem when it comes the unlimited weight categories, of course. There the athletes try to get as muscular as possible in order to take advantage of the increased absolute strength. However, at those high body weights gaining muscle is quite an inefficient process. It's hard to gain muscle there unless you accept that you will have to live with a little bit of extra fat. In fact, the higher you go, the more unfavorable that muscle to fat ratio is going to be. Couple this with the fact that training in general tends to increase the appetite and that appetite is often satisfied with high-protein and high-carbohydrate food, and even the superheavy will one day have to worry about being too heavy, i.e., having to put up with too much overhead.


And what are the disadvantages to too much overhead? The athlete will eventually have problems with center of gravity, flexibility, and mobility, as well as the usual problems associated with being overweight. Judging from many decades of results, it seems to me that about 300 pounds of bodyweight, give or take and depending on the athlete's height, is about the practical limit for the point where an athlete transitions from having necessary overhead to having excess overhead. There is a certain point where any advantage in increased body weight tops out and the athlete passes a point of diminishing returns. We definitely saw this with Vasily Alexeev (USR) and Andrei Chemerkin (RUS) at the end of their long and illustrious careers. Both were pushing 400 pounds bodyweight and while very strong, simply could not move like they did in their prime years. 


One could say that their excess overhead forced them into athletic bankruptcy. Any lifter, just like any businessman has to eliminate their excess overhead while at the same time realizing the need for a certain amount of essential overhead.


Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.


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