By Kevin Masson MSc, CSCS, CPT, USAW
Weight cut is a practice among athletes where they lose weight rapidly, usually before a competition. It is done a lot of times in order to gain a sports advantage to qualify for a lesser weight class in sports where it is of advantage to weight as little as possible and bounce back into initial weight by putting as much water back into the system. Some of these cuts are pretty extreme an example of this are MMA fighters cutting 20 to 30lbs within a week.
Experts in nutrition usually advice against weight cut because of the many side effects. However, because of the sports advantage they wish to gain, many athletes go-ahead to engage in these extreme water weight cut, although these come with side effects, such as injuries, or in worst cases death.
Typically, when you try to lose weight that fasts, you are not losing body fat but water. Burning off fat from your body takes much longer than the short-term weight loss that takes place in weight cutting. What you are usually shedding is the water weight. All nutritionists agree that water is essential to the body and brain to function, so when you cut that much water a lot of problems essentially come up.
Water is probably the lifeline of athletes, especially those that are involved in extreme sports such as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters, wrestlers and boxers. Water allows their muscles to get enough blood flow, which distributes oxygen and numerous nutrients. The right amount of water is always needed for the athletes not only after the sports but perhaps, more essentially, before the exercise so as to properly normalize body temperature, loosen the joints and assist with the carriage of nutrients in the body that provide you with vital energy. It is also very important for removing waste from the muscle cells. Inadequate hydration may lead to several mild symptoms like fatigue, muscle cramps, vomiting, nausea, erratic heartbeat, dizziness, to mention but a few. It may also lead to more serious consequences like mental confusion, loss of consciousness and muscle weakness.
Certainly, weight cut leads to performance problems but, more seriously, it can lead to health problems. An athlete may just be risking their life. Uriah Hall – who had a seizure as he tried to get on this method and went on a trip to the hospital after the seizure hit – is an example of how bad the drastic weight loss can get. When Hall should have been competing in a match, he spent the entire day recovering from the near-death experience he had. Not many athletes have been lucky enough to survive. Mixed Martial Arts fighter, Leandro Souza, died after he passed out prior to the weigh-in for a fight in native Brazil in 2013. Information out of Brazil revealed that Souza had been taking diuretics to lose the necessary weight before the event. Yang Jian Bing who was removed from ONE Championship’s event in the Philippines when he could not make weight was also reported dead in 2015. Geje Eustaquio, who should have been his opponent said that Bing “was rushed to the hospital due to dehydration and possible heat stroke.
According to USA TODAY, “The top-3 problems in combat sports are PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs), concussions and weight cutting,” Jon Gelber, an orthopedic surgeon who has studied the effects of weight cutting, once said. However, “weight cutting hasn’t gotten the attention it needs.”
A study put out in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research in 2013 stated that 39% of the 40 MMA fighters it studied had “significant or serious dehydration” 22 hours after weigh-ins. It has been said that the two prevalent threats are decreased kidney functions and heat illness or stroke. They are the two most prevalent causes of death as a result of weight cutting.
The human body has been said to be made up of mostly water – up to 5 to 75 percent. Therefore, the use of diuretics and saunas as well as restricting water intake can dramatically impact an athlete’s overall weight.
Another Research published in the sports nutrition journal quantifies the degree to which dehydration affected performance and revealed that becoming dehydrated by as much as 5 percent may lead to a reduced capacity of up to 30 percent. Generally, it is believed that a reduction in performance becomes obvious when dehydration is more than 2 percent of body weight. The decline in performance becomes substantial when fluid losses are above 5 percent and that when dehydration approach 6–10 percent, there are high risks of heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Weight cutting, for an athlete, has numerous dangers, some of which are short term, while some are long-term damage.
Athletes usually believed that they have the opportunity to rehydrate over the hours after the weigh-in and enter the competition with a weight advantage, having returned to a more natural, higher weight. The goal is to have a size advantage, although according to research this notion has been proven to be false for a lot of competitors. It is estimated that at least 39 percent of MMA fighters go into the ring in a dehydrated state because they are quite unable to recover all the water previously lost in good time.
They can improve but only to some extent. When the body gets dehydrated in such manner, water cannot usually be forced back into the body at the rate of the user, it is usually done at the rate the body permits. The body and the muscles have been likened to a sponge, which when drained of water, absorbs it back only gradually, a little at a time. There are extensive methods to achieve dehydration and they vary in difficulty. You have to not take any water to lose some of the water in your body. But when your aim is dehydration, you cannot take on any liquids. You are, in fact, using for the quickest way to lose any type of fluid you have in your body in any conceivable way.
When professional athletes such as MMM fighters, powerlifters, and wrestlers enter into the competition dehydrated, they put themselves at great risk of being battered. Some of them have considered the use of intravenous fluids to enable faster rehydration. However, that method has been excluded. It is taken as a form of drug taking.
Water assists the body kidneys to filter blood and sustain the balances of potassium and sodium, both of which are needed for the proper functioning of cell functions. The kidneys are fundamentally series of membranes with blood on one side and water on the other. This is mostly how the body’s whole excretory system functions. Therefore, if the body is deprived of water, there cannot be enough gradient to filter your blood.
Long-standing kidney deficiency usually leads to damage, and if the heat does not kill you on time, the damage to your kidney can.
Evidence has also been given to show that dehydration puts you at a greater risk of concussions and other kinds of brain damage. That means that professional fighters and wrestlers who enter the ring without being properly hydrated are a lot more prone to serious brain injuries in the event they are hit in the head repeatedly. Dehydration severely decreases the size of the grey matter in our brain which may contribute to fighters being easier to knock out.
Dehydration also substantially affects the overall performance of an athlete. The athlete will have sub-optimal performance. And this is concerning in the case of powerlifters looking to max out and beat the personal records.
In professional fighting or wrestling, you do not only lose, but you also get the crap kicked out of you. Not just your finance or your reputation is at stake but also your health. And when MMA fighters and other athletes are already weakened by lack of fluids, what they are essentially doing is setting themselves up for injury, probably a lifelong one.
The importance of water, being the solvent by which biochemical reactions in the body take place, cannot be overemphasized. Water is needed to moisturize food (which function is performed through saliva); it is needed to digest food (by gastric secretions), and it is essential for the transportation of nutrients to and from cells (this function is performed by blood). These functions are very important to the performance of the athlete in the ring/ on the field and to the life of the athlete generally.
Water also helps to discard waste in the form of urine and to dissipate heat in the form of sweat. The function of heat dissipation must be noted for an athlete, especially a professional fighter. The water contained in the body absorbs heat from your body, which prevents overheating during anaerobic activities, especially when in a hot environment. Distance runners have to slow their pace by at least 2 percent for each pound of their body weight gone through dehydration. Sweat loss is life-threatening if it is more than 10 percent body weight.
Heat illness can also arise when the body is dried out and is unable to cool itself efficiently in the course of exercise. 3 stages of heat illness have been discovered, which are: Heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke. Heat cramps may include symptoms such as painful muscle spasms around the legs, stomach, arms, or back. Heat exhaustion is more severe with symptoms such as faintness, weakness, fast heartbeat, nausea, and low blood pressure.
The most severe heat illness is heatstroke. Symptoms can include very high body temperature, flushed skin, fast breathing, delirium, loss of consciousness, and seizures. Heatstroke can lead to death if not treated on time.
Water weight cut also reduces the ability of the body to distribute oxygenated blood through the body as a result of reduced volume of plasma, which has negative effects on Cardio/aerobic endurance.
As discussed above there are several dangers resulting from water weight cut on the body of an athlete and they may be short or long-term. Although athletes are totally different from one another especially in terms of what their body can manage, no matter how healthy an athlete thinks they are, weight cut can affect them and will cut short both their effectiveness in their career and the life span of the career, not to mention of course, their own life span. One of the most worrisome dangers of weight cutting is there may be no hint of danger or any cause for concern until it is too late.
Furthermore, there is a positive connection between weight cutting and eating disorders, an aspect that is very often overlooked. As has been earlier stated, more of what is lost is the body water. The result is hormonal imbalances, causing depression, mood swings and even eating disorders.
About three-quarter of wrestlers are classified as having eating disorders which, in turn, have been reported to claim 300,000 lives a year. Again, it is an abrupt end to the career of the athlete, not to mention the psychological trauma he would be exposed to.
What to do instead?
Forbid athletes to drop more than 5% of their weight coming from water, not only is has been shown to decline performance but health risk a considerably elevated.
By creating a new system of weight class to forbid rapid weight cut, having several weight-in throughout the month prior to the event will allow professional coaches and trainers to keep an eye on their athlete’s weight and allow them to compete at a weight that is more natural for them to compete in.
ONE Championship announced new ‘walking weight’ classes, and moved every weight class up by weight. The new rules were established in place of the former style adopted by UFC for weigh-in with several weight checks and gravity hydration tests, which also included removing any chance to dehydrate up to 3 hours before the fight.
Weight-in should also be done every day from weigh-in to the event this will allow controlling weight fluctuation. Any fighter who gained back 15 pounds of water weight or more between the official weigh-in and match day would be eliminated from the competition. The testing is cheap, and if the NCAA can do it for every wrestling program, the UFC and other organization can certainly do it for their fighters.
These changes combined with education for the fighters and trainers about healthy weight loss practices. The excuse “but that’s how it’s always been done” needs to end, its time to educate coaches for the safety of athletes.
If you have never witnessed what a weight cut looks like, please watch the video below showing MMA fighter Thomas Hughes.