Today I want to write about a practice I don’t like and don’t endorse, but that is probably here to stay: cutting weight to get into a lower weight bracket for competition. Whether you do it, want to do it, or just want to understand it, more information is better than no information, so I’m going to share some of what I know and then point you in some directions for your own research.
Method 1 – Dieting. This is the gradual reduction in weight through dieting (usually taking anywhere from 1 week to several months). Although rapid weight loss through dieting can be harmful to health if it is too severe or if you have some pre-existing medical conditions, it isn’t as dangerous as the next method…
Method 2 – Dehydration. This is the more rapid loss of weight via limiting water intake, exercising, sauna suits and saunas: here most of the weight comes off in the last 24 to 48 hours.
These two methods aren’t completely independent: they are often used together, with dehydration preceding dehydration. Furthermore even if you are only dehydrating (method 2) you still have to watch and manipulate aspects of your diet to avoid retaining water.
One critical difference, however, is that given long enough between the weigh-in and the competition you can gain back almost all the weight lost due to dehydration, albeit with possible impairment of athletic function.
The popularity of the show The Ultimate Fighter has familiarized many lay-people with the concept of cutting weight, since every second episode has some sort of drama revolving around an overweight fighter sitting in the sauna or having a colonic.
What isn’t appreciated as much is the science of re-hydration: fighters at this level dehydrate, weigh in, and then IMMEDIATELY start sipping electrolyte solutions such as pedialyte. They also often use IV solutions (yes, the bag, the tube, the needle in the arm) to re-hydrate faster and more thoroughly.
Trying to function at a high level athletically while dehydrated is basically impossible, so the bigger the weight cut the more important it becomes that re-hydration is done properly.
Weight cutting via dehydration is only really feasible when there is a long recovery time between the weigh-in and the actual competition.
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Also, competitors can cut a lot more weight if the weigh-ins are on the day before the competition (as opposed to the morning of the competition). When the rules allow (or mandate) competitors to weigh in on the day before a competition a sizeable advantage can go to the best weight cutter: weighing 180 lbs in a 170 lb division is fairly common, and some heavier fighters can gain almost 15 lbs of lost weight back in 24 hours.
In a sense I understand why Boxing and MMA shows all have weigh-ins on the day before; these promotions have spent a lot of money hyping specific fights and individual fighters, and they need to be able to deal with those fighters coming in overweight…
If Oscar De La Hoya had shown up 5 lbs over the 154 lb limit in his fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr then the promoters of the fight could have forced him to get back into the sauna suit and suffer. If, on the other hand, that weigh-in had been right before the fight then the promoters would have had a more difficult situation on their hands.
So that is part of the reason why Boxing and MMA allow 24 or more hours to re-hydrate; I think everything changes though when it comes to tournament-style formats where you don’t have pre-determined opponents.
If everyone just showed up and fought at their ‘walking-around weight’ then competition would be more about skill, technique and athleticism and less about the ability to cut weight and recover from it. I am told that Pan Am BJJ Championships now weigh you in before your match (it wasn’t like this the year I was there), and at the World Championships it has been this way a lot longer. You step onto a scale at the edge of the mat immediately before your match: if you’re too heavy then you go home and your opponent gets a win.
This may sound harsh but it really is the only way to ensure that recreational players aren’t endangering their health by cutting weight.
Finally, if you have a kidney condition or blood pressure problems don’t even consider cutting weight via dehydration. The strain can (and probably will) permanently damage your kidneys. Make sure that other people in your club know this and respect this.
Now if you stuck with me this far I’ll point you in some directions for further reading
- How dehydration (and incomplete rehydration) can damage athletic performance
- Martin Rooney, the conditioning coach for Team Renzo Gracie explains how to cut weight via dehydration
- How Brandon Slay, an Olympic gold medalist, cuts weight
- Chris Brennan’s (rather extreme) diet for cutting weight
- A cautionary article about the 3 college wrestlers who died cutting weight in one month due to cardiac arrest, heat stroke and kidney/heart failure respectively