5 Effective Cognitive Behavioral Strategies for Weight Loss

Though this article was aimed at MMA fighters, the strategies are applicable to all those who are trying to lose weight. So read on …

Irrespective of whether they are training goals or weight loss targets, no one has achieved their goals based on just wishful thinking.  Having specific goals and creating an action oriented process is a must if MMA fighter want to lose their excess weight and hone their fighting skills.

Weight loss is an extremely important factor in winning MMA fights. Lighter and shorter fighters may end up in 2 or 3 higher weight classes if they have unwanted belly fat. They will then have to compete against fighters that are much taller and longer than them. Whether  it be weight cutting to make it into a certain weight class or long term weight loss for health concerns, losing weight is no easy task.

Weight-loss is a battle of the mind as much as it is of the body. It takes a consistent effort, unfaltering perseverance and unlimited motivation to push oneself to fight the flab. Multiple studies have proven that using psychological tools of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) increases the chances of losing weight dramatically.

CBT corrects dysfunctional emotions and thoughts by altering extreme reactions and self-defeating behaviors into positive and self-affirming thoughts. It is important to note that CBT on its own has minimal impact on the health or weight loss regimen. By changing the thought process, CBT leads to lifestyle changes that support the goal of weight loss and, in the process, keep anxieties, complexes and negativity at bay.

CBT techniques can be effectively harnessed by Mixed Martial Arts fighters to achieve desirable results from weight loss programs. CBT tools, if applied deftly and regularly, have the potential to amplify the results achieved by dieting and/or training. Much like MMA, every action, thought, effort and energy used in CBT techniques for the mind has a deeper meaning and connotation, and is likely to result in holistic, sustainable and organic weight loss. The following are some simple, effective and widely used weight-loss techniques of CBT:

Realistic Goal-Setting

Having a realistic and achievable goal is a critical starting point for an effective weight-loss program. Most New Year weight-loss resolutions are usually abandoned, before the first month is over, because of unrealistic expectations. Getting into shape and losing excess fat, by reducing calorie intake and increasing intensive physical activity, is a slow and laborious process which requires months or even years of commitment.

As far as fighters are concerned, weight loss and training go hand in hand. Goals have to be set in such a manner that the target body weight is attained while improving fighting skills and endurance. This means that they need to have solid goals and execution plans that are compatible with both targets. To achieve this, martial artists must first analyse and accept their current state, create a mental visual of their desired state [the goal] and then take the necessary action to get there.

Goal setting should be S.M.A.R.T. To ensure success in achieving the target, goals must be

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Action Oriented
  • Realistic
  • Timely

“I want to lose weight and beat up my competition” is too vague a goal. Be specific, “I am going to lose X Kgs so I can be healthier and have more endurance. “I am going to cardio for an hour on alternate days” is action oriented. The goal must be realistic. I will never eat bread/cookie again or I’ll do cardio for three hours daily may not be a sustainable goal in the long run.

When the end-goal is to be the best version of oneself, this needs to be accompanied by a practical timeline and a sustainable routine. Putting too much pressure to deliver results in a limited time maybe backfire. Risk of physical injury is higher as the body is stressed beyond what it is used to. The body needs to gradually adapt to training routines and higher intensities. Most people get demotivated when they don’t easily achieve what they believe they rightly should be able to.  

Overambitious expectations of visibly thinner waist-lines from the first week is a prime example of creating psychological barriers which lead to disappointment. Expecting to be drenched in sweat during after every workout session may also not be  practical expectations as everyone has their good and bad days. On some days, the training session may not go as well as expected while on other days, personal performances can exceed all expectations. But when expectations aren’t met, the psychological barriers dissuade individuals from dedicatedly sticking to their health and exercise plan.

A simple and effective way to work around this challenge is to consult a certified health trainer and chart out weight-loss targets against a reasonable timeframe. Spending some time and energy to understand the limitations of the body will go a long way to establish a holistic sense of the self and identifying the limit to which the body can be pushed.

Setting realistic expectations assumes even greater importance for MMA fighters when weight-loss is undertaken post injuries or sabbaticals. In this context, the mind might be used to achieving quick results according to earlier physical capabilities, but the body might not live up to its expectations. This can severely rattle one’s confidence and strength, resulting in severe despair and anxiety. Seeking help from professional trainers is imperative at this stage to avoid a temporary setbacks from becoming permanent ones. Martial artists recovering from injuries need to consciously fight the negativity and stagnancy that usually follows such situations.  


Keeping track of the effort taken, the journey and it’s  progress towards the goal is a an important CBT strategy. While it is only logical to record the implementation of any weight loss plan, the importance of self-monitoring cannot be emphasized enough. This is because no matter how flexibly the goals have been set, personal, social and environmental barriers are bound to come into play and derail them. MMA fighters would already be well aware of the challenges that come along in sustaining their practice sessions and training schedules.

There are two critical components in self tracking progress on a weight-loss program: objectivity and timeliness. Both can be achieved by making a journal which records what type and quantity of food has been consumed throughout the day and also notes the type and duration of workout sessions. Periodically measuring the weight, say weekly or biweekly, will help establish the connection between the effort put in and the results achieved. Another important objective of self-monitoring the progress of a weight-loss is to identify behaviors and patterns about the self: when are the motivation levels high, what the best time to work out is, why the dessert is irresistible, or how idle time was spent etc.

Oftentimes, preconceived notions about how the human body works serves as a distraction from one’s actual experiences. Understanding what works best, what doesn’t, and why that is the case, helps in recognizing real barriers and working towards correcting them. It all boils down to one word: awareness. Knowing the progress made, or the mistakes made, will help in the identifying some fundamental truths, which can be used to establish new behaviors when motivation takes a beating.

Tracking and monitoring progress also facilitates better control and coping mechanisms. It helps one identify unique challenges and provides insight on how to work around them. Just like MMA fighters spend time and relentlessly practice to master certain techniques using the correct methodology, they also need to be mindful and aware of their progress in weight-loss. As a matter of fact, MMA fighters have an advantage here of being more disciplined; they are likely to stick to their schedule, be honest about their accomplishments and setbacks, and most importantly, are willing to learn from the same.

Self Belief

Though their opponents maybe faster or fitter, overweight fighters like Fatty Fedor, the Kung Fu Panda, and James “The Grim Reaper” Roper win fights because they have skill, experience and confidence. Knowing what you’re doing is 99% of the fight and that comes with intensive training under the right guidance. But this does not mean its ok to be an overweight fighter. But striking power aside, having less fat and more muscle allows fighters to move faster using less energy. This efficiency of movement translates to more endurance, speed and agility which means the fighters will be able to evade better and attack more competently.

Any attempt to make a change is marred with doubts stemming from an individual’s personal judgment and perception of the self. When it comes to something as meticulous as losing weight, a belief that you are capable of losing weight and being healthy might seem like a logical pre-requirement, yet not many consciously work towards realizing the same. A strong sense of belief in the ability to make a change will increase the chances of successful behavioral change and prevent one from giving up early. On the other hand, if any individual believes they are incapable of working towards their goals, then they are doomed to fail sooner or later as they would have little to no incentive to actually bring about the change.  Martial artists are familiar with the concept of focusing and centering, and thus, can easily apply the same to elevate their sense of self worth. Their already honed ability to be disciplined, confident, courageous and supremely aware can come in handy to identify emotions and assumptions about their own self that serve as obstacles in their weight loss journey.

Thoughts like ‘Losing weight is tough’, ‘I am way too weak to give up tasty food’, or ‘I will hardly last a day in the gym’ are all reflective of a lack of belief in the self to actually go through with a change. They need to be recognized and converted to thoughts on the lines of ‘Losing weight might be tough, but with time and dedication, I know I can do it!’ This is important not only for succeeding in the weight-loss program, but also for a general healthy state of being. Furthermore, a belief in the self also determines the swiftness with which one recovers from failures and lapses in judgment, and if the change can be sustained beyond the attainment of weight loss goals.

While a sense of self belief and worth is intricately linked to realistic goal setting and its execution, what really matters is the attitude one has during these changes. It is a matter of getting started, that fuels the success for tomorrow, even if there is only low to moderate success on that day. for Another way to reaffirm a strong sense of belief is by being a part of communities that are facing similar challenges. Learning from the experiences of others, and finding motivation in others’ stories is a powerful enabler of self belief and confidence.


Feedback, both internal and external, is vital as a tool to stick to goals. A healthy mix of feedback from the self, and others, is crucial to balance ambition with reality. In addition to objective measurement like calorie intake, duration of exercise or weight lost, one must also record intangible things like increase of strength and stamina, improvement in breathing and digestion, and general mental well-being.

If a marked uptick is observed in any of the above mentioned categories, that becomes a reward of its own, and boosts motivation levels. This not only provides an opportunity to reflect on one’s progress and achievements, but also gives the mind undeniable positive reaffirmations. MMA fighters know this all too well, and are better aware of their strength and capacity than others. Martial artists must dedicatedly take out time to reflect on their journeys, their progress and feel the change in their bodies to get the mind used to their strengthened versions of their past self.

Seeking feedback from family and friends on appearance, mood and general fitness will do either create a sense of joy at the achievements or disappointment and frustration if the feedback is negative. Remember, the purpose of feedback sought from others is to gain an outside perspective and not to allow them to play a spoil-sport. Consult only those who are likely to provide genuine feedback.

Lastly, confide in like-minded individuals about the weight loss plans. Sharing struggles, motivators, successes, and lapses with someone who understands them provides a sense of security and and a different perspective to deal with routine challenges. Getting the feedback of trained professionals on the diet, fluid intake training regimens routine and the weight lost so far will offer timely and valuable course correction interventions.


Any amount of extra fat is  detrimental for fighters as it makes movements difficult. Such fighters find themselves. Their agility and striking speed also becomes slower. The added fat cells decreasing endurance and stamina as they require additional blood flow and energy to stay alive. Fighter mostly benefit from a reduction in body fat percentage because it increases their speed and speed can kill.

It’s  a testament to a fighter’s dedication when they have enough discipline to control their food intake. But they also need motivation to keep going n the right track. Recognition and rewards are a natural incentive for humans to keep doing what they have been doing. Incentives should not be equated with giving into temptation.  Thoughts which encourage breaking the diet on a birthday or going back to old ways once a weight-loss milestone has been achieved risk reversing the painstaking progress made.

While there is no denying that rewards are an effective tool to change behavior, they need to be understood and chosen appropriately. Internal incentives like satisfaction or a feeling of well-being are likely to provide unshakable and permanent motivation, as compared to a piece of chocolate cake when your waist goes size one down.  One must understand that external motivators like food, clothes or money are only effective incentives in the beginning of behavior change. In order for the positive change to be permanent, and of value, only innate motivations which nudge one to be physically active and mindful of food intake are successful.

When selecting an incentive, one must keep two things in mind: the incentive must be valuable and it must be measurable. For instance, every time a weight-loss goal is met, or a cream coffee is passed over for green tea, a dollar can be put aside as a reward. Over time, the progress will be evident in terms of health benefits and the savings made, until, this behavior comes first naturally.


Fighters may need to lose excess body fat in order to get to a leanless level that maximises their muscle mass at a given weight. The higher the muscle mass, the better the strength and work output becomes. This becomes relevant only if the muscles have conditioned in the right manner for the energy systems to translate into better fight performance, rather than  performing bodybuilding workouts aimed at increasing muscle size.

Successful weight loss programs impart knowledge about the self, and help in learning of new life skills. Changing the way the mind works, and modifying obstacles to make informed decisions can really complement the physical rigor one undergoes during a weight-loss regimen. Furthermore, identification, and reversal, of negative and self-deprecating behavior elevates mental health as well. Losing weight is about making better decisions regarding diet and exercise. By using CBT tools, one can be conscious of making these healthy lifestyle decisions, and choosing to be better.

Tools and strategies based in CBT are helpful in converting false and negative beliefs of the mind into positive enablers that promote a healthy lifestyle. Dieting, or exercising in isolation, without changing the perceptions associated with it, will always lead to results a few steps shy of their full potential. MMA fighters, susceptible to easy physical and mental fatigue, stand to gain the most from using CBT techniques in their weight-loss plans.

Altering the manner in which the brain perceives negative emotions associated with pain, injuries, or body image can help one in staying focused and motivated. Martial artists, with their extensive determination, focus and stamina, are likely to find integrating CBT tools and strategies with their weight-loss plans way easier than regular folks.

About Tilottama Bose 61 Articles
With a Masters in Food Science and Nutrition, Tilottama has carved a niche for herself in the Health Writing Industry. She is passionate about helping her readers make informed decisions about the food they eat. She believes in the healing power of food and in food as medicine. Tilottama is an editor and writer at Fitnesshacks.org.