“You’re a pound over son. Step down.”
The scariest time for a wrestler is the few brief moments on that scale as the weights rise and fall and finally settle on a number that holds your fate. Did mom’s spaghetti put me over? There’s no way that I’m over. I barely even sniffed lunch. Barely got any sleep last night because I left practice exactly on weight and I had to run to burn off that garlic bread. So there’s no way I can be over… right, the wrestling gods wouldn’t do me like that.
For every wrestler, judoka, boxer, and MMA fighter this is a nightmare that they live with each night not knowing if that scale is going to be a friend or foe. What occurs in those brief moments on that scale can derail weeks or months of hard work. Be too much over your designated weight and it’s curtains for you. It is commonplace to see athletes trying to shed those last few pounds on the day of a weight in. The tortuous look on the combatants face after they missed the first time and realizing that they have maybe an hour to redeem themselves on that scale. How could they be so irresponsible to come in over when they knew all this time what the target weight was? Sometimes it’s not a lack of professionalism or accountability that caused the failure. The human body can only do so much before it hits survival mode and turns itself against its owner. Physiologically speaking you can only strip away so much before the body says “I ain’t the one” and reverses in the other direction. Wrestlers have complained for years that they left practice at or below weight and the next day without eating anything gained weight. Coaches for years have said that they don’t want to hear the excuses and that the athlete needs to hold themselves accountable. In some cases, this is true as the athlete made mistakes along the way but in other cases, the artist just wasn’t physically able to get to that weight.
I consider myself lucky when it comes to cutting weight. When conditioning for the winter season I was only about 150 so dropping down to 130 was easy and from there it was cake because I was either going live at 125 or 130. If I’m honest I usually weighed in at about 123 so I could have gone to 119. I ran every night in enough clothes to fill a laundry hamper. My mom wasn’t happy about that. I ate more salad than a rabbit and my fiber intake was so copious that my mother contemplated buying stock in General Mills. When I did eat lunch it was rice or I splurged on taco day. I restricted my caloric intake during the season so I was never too far off my weight class. I missed weight one time during my first year and it didn’t happen again. In my junior season, I did think about dropping down to 19. I got down to 121 but my head hurt, I was tired and more irascible than usual. Another thing I noticed was that in practice I was not as explosive and fatigued quickly. During a match that I was winning by a wide margin, it felt like my heart was going to explode through my chest and I could barely stand. Why would dropping only a few extra pounds affect me to such a degree? In college, we were trying to get a club team off the ground, and with so few in numbers as long as I was in wrestling shape it didn’t matter much what I weighed since we only had practice.
Some friends and patients had to run the gauntlet to make weight. I remember the sauna suits and trash bags and spit cups. A patient one day asked me if I could wrap them in saran wrap before they put on their sweatsuit and sauna suit and taped their socks around their pants. That one took me back to my first week of conditioning and thinking wearing your pants in your socks was just the style for wrestlers. Then the patient proceeded to go to the gym. When they came back the next visit they informed me of having to do squats and ride the bike in the sauna and then the bath. I then had to explain to them the dangers of taking weight cutting to the extreme and asked did they seek out a nutritionist to help.
In the MMA world, the debate on weight cuts seems to be increasing with each event. With a recent fighter hurting themselves trying to get out of the tub and others struggling to make weight the debate is picking up steam. A heavyweight was close to missing weight and had to go back to the scales a second time because he exceeded the 265-pound limit. “Why not just fight a weight closer to your normal weight?” “Shouldn’t there be more weight classes?” “Why not just fight at a heavier weight because it isn’t bigger or better?”
Do a search on the internet on how to cut weight and get bombarded by ads for diet pills, weight-loss teas, fad diets, and sauna suits. Then there are the blog posts about how to shed 25-30 pounds in a week. So many thoughts and suggestions on how to shed pounds and sometimes not safely. It should be a simple equation: just take in fewer calories than you burn. True, that is the basic science to losing weight but it can get more complicated than that in the world of combat sports.
In school, we are taught that the safest way to lose weight and to keep it off is to shed no more than 2-4 pounds a week. More than that and invariably some of the weight especially the water weight comes back. Guys in practice would drop 5-10 pounds easily. If it was a hard practice a lot more can get burned off like putting butter in a microwave. Why then after leaving practice at weight or under the weight came flooding back by the time weight is checked that next morning.
A lot of times the excess weight loss is water weight and when the combatant hydrates the weight comes back. Back in the 90s, it felt like what weight class one wrestled was as much predicated on what their parents or coach wanted as much as science. Most dropped weight to get to a division where they felt like they would hold advantages over most of their weight class. Others dropped to avoid certain opponents. Most never heard of a hydration test and it was not uncommon to see a guy push themselves into dehydration their senior year to get that one last crack at winning a title in a much lower weight class than the one they wrestled in the year before. Shoot, even a set of calipers to determine percent body fat was unheard of for some teams. The thought process behind that being that the more senior wrestler would be more skilled and stronger than the younger wrestlers. Studies report that peak muscle performance declines when in a state or close to a state of dehydration. [1,4] Peak muscle strength may not come into play for some wrestlers with a slick style but the ability to execute quick movements including spinning around an opponent during a scramble also requires muscles to perform as best as possible. Studies have shown that attempting to drop 5% or more of body mass in a day can lead to impaired performance and make being able to cut weight again more difficult.
Hydration testing during the season has become more common over the years. At the collegiate level athletes have the test performed to see how much weight they can safely lose. In the pro ranks, they also check randomly during camp to see how far off the combatant might be from fight weight. The UFC doesn’t let a fighter be more than 10% off from the weight class about a week or so from the fight. The thing is depending on the weight say 170 the fighter can be almost 20 pounds or more off at fight week. That’s not counting the weight they lost in fight camp. You can’t tell me Yoel Romero doesn’t walk around at 220 pounds. How accurate are these tests if a person is allowed to drop that much weight?
These tests have even been tested for accuracy with most being good indicators of when an athlete is dehydrated which is important as being dehydrated starts to go against body composition. Many argue for weigh-ins the evening before because it allows the athlete proper time to euhydrate(rehydrate) One study shows that in athletes who weighed in the evening before about 42% had not reached euhydration while of the athletes who weighed in the morning of 50% had not achieved euhydration  There are many potential risks with competing while dehydrated including potential trauma to the brain. After all, when dehydrated the brain begins to lose some of the fluid surrounding it and thus losing some of its protection. This could potentially increase the likelihood of concussion. So how do we make things better?
A good start to help the athletes would be to employ a nutritionist. Someone that can help the athletes meal plan during the build-up to the competition. Someone who recognizes when and how to safely cut calories, what foods to avoid. I follow a lot of the wrestling pages on social media and some of the advice I see passed out to the athletes especially the younger ones is laughable at best and dangerous at worst. Being able to afford a nutritionist may not be practical for a lot of teams but maybe having the athlete perform more regular check-ups with their doctor could be helpful. Some insurances also pay for nutritionists and if not there is always the cash-pay option if enough of the team members can pool their resources. Paying attention to one’s body is also important. If the body keeps shutting down due to multiple difficult weight cuts maybe that lower weight is not for the athlete. Studies are documenting the mal-effects of starving and dehydrating the body have existed for years.
Going down to a lower weight class in and of itself is not a bad thing. Naturally most tend to drop excess weight during the fight camps and wrestling season. Dropping weight over a longer period appears to have no deleterious effects on performance while trying to drop the same amount of weight in a day or 2 has shown to be at times problematic (5,7) This excess weight can normally be kept off with a good diet. Trying to drop down further is also not a problem as long as it is done safely. Plenty of people cut weight without a lot of issues but there are also the stories of those that died due to a cut. Due to this, the ACSM has even taken a stance on weight cuts. 
Sometimes the measures that athletes take to drop down to another weight class can be harmful. Cocooning oneself in layers of sweats, saran wrap, and then putting on a sauna suit is a lot. Throw-in working out like a madman in the sauna while spitting into a cup takes it to another level. It doesn’t take a doctor to know that frequently rapidly dehydrating the body is not a good thing. Think about when you are sick and become dehydrated. How your body feels, the aches and pain, the mental fatigue, and then the cotton-mouth and the cramps. Imagine this on a quicker scale and this is just what it does to you on the outside imagine what happens at a cellular level. Then there’s also the use of diuretics which normally have precautions with them. This can be dangerous practice normally but in addition to the other techniques the issues expand. I will never forget after a weight in I walked into a guy sitting on the floor before a tournament. It was a guy who I wrestled before at 130 but since I was at 125 for this one we could be a little more cordial to each other. He was eating what I thought was chocolate like it was his last meal. At this point I’m starving and I had just weighed in so I’m good so I ask for a piece. He hands me one and says good luck. “Hunh?!” What was that about I so I look down at the chocolate rectangle and realize that was holding a piece of Ex-lax. No way was I going down that rabbit hole and have to go on the mat. I normally had butterflies in my stomach during the 1st period but no way was I going to compound that with the bubble guts.
As I stated earlier there’s nothing wrong with cutting weight as long as it’s done safely. It becomes a health risk with combat athletes try to drop too much weight too soon. We’ve heard stories and seen videos of fighters suffering from a bad cut. I remember one UFC weigh-in were the female fighter had to be basically carried to the scale. She won her fight but she looked off and if she had a higher ranked opponent might have had a notch added in the loss column. It’s important to understand that there’s a safe amount that a fighter can lose and if not done in the correct manner can cause lasting damage.
1 Buford, Thomas & Rossi, Stephen & Smith, Doug & O’Brien, Matthew & Pickering, Chris. (2006). The Effect of a Competitive Wrestling Season on Body Weight, Hydration, and Muscular Performance in Collegiate Wrestlers. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 20. 689-92. 10.1519/R-19955.1.
2 Bartok C, Schoeller DA, Sullivan JC, Clark RR, Landry GL. Hydration testing in collegiate wrestlers undergoing hypertonic dehydration. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2004 Mar;36(3):510-517. DOI: 10.1249/01.mss.0000117164.25986.f6.
3 Pettersson, S., & Berg, C. M. (2014). Hydration Status in Elite Wrestlers, Judokas, Boxers, and Taekwondo 520-8
Athletes on Competition Day, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 24(3), 267-275. Retrieved Nov 1, 2020, from https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/ijsnem/24/3/article-p267.xml
4Ratamess, N.A., Hoffman, J.R., Kraemer, W.J., et al. Effects of a competitive wrestling season on body composition, endocrine markers, and anaerobic exercise performance in NCAA collegiate wrestlers. Eur J Appl Physiol 113, 1157–1168 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-012-2
5. Barley, O, Chapman, D & Abbiss, C. (2019) The Current State of Weight-Cutting in Combat Sports. Sports 7(5) 123 https://www.mdpi.com/466374
6 Oppliger RA, Case HS, Horswill CA, Landry GL, Shelter AC. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Weight loss in wrestlers. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 1996 Jun;28(6):ix-xii.
7Reale, R., Slater, G., & Burke, L. M. (2017). Acute-Weight-Loss Strategies for Combat Sports and Applications to Olympic Success, International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 12(2), 142-151. Retrieved Nov 2, 2020, from https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/ijspp/12/2/article-p142.xml
Dr. Q. Jordan is the owner of Fearless Physical Therapy in Hampton VA. He has worked with wrestlers, boxers, and other combat sports athletes for many years. He is experienced in concussion management and in manipulation techniques. Fearless Physical Therapy is a mobile P.T. clinic that serves Tidewater and Richmond. Contact us today for your rehab needs.