The Science of Cutting Weight in MMA
Cutting weight has become a required skill set for every mixed martial artist, as important as anything he does inside the ring. It’s a practice that’s been common among many combat athletes who fight in weight divisions, especially boxers and wrestlers, and has been implicated in brain injury and death.
It’s a highly taxing process for men who sometimes lose and gain up to 15 pounds or more on the night before a fight, as they seek to pack a weight class.
But for some fighters it’s worth the risk. For them it gives them a massive advantage in turning up to the fight as big as possible and is a way of gaming the system to stack the odds in their favour.
Step 1: Assess your weight
The first step for anyone considering cutting weight is to figure out whether dropping a weight class will actually make you a better fighter. Often, you will be giving up speed for size which can hopelessly backfire.
To do this, a fighter needs to evaluate their body composition and determine how much weight would need to be lost to get within a realistic range of making weight in the lower division.
Since there is rarely an advantage to losing muscle mass, it must be determined that there is enough fat mass to lose to drop body weight down to the desired range. Beyond that, the fighter will have to endure a grueling weight cut which will radically alter their training and fight prep. As such, many fighters will do a “pre-cut” as a way of gauging whether the lower weight class is actually suitable.
Step 2: Begin the weight cut
Once the decision to drop a division has been made, the next step is figuring out how to do it. This drop needs to be a gradual process. An extremely low calorie diet plus a high volume of combat sports training is often a recipe for disaster.
In the first stages, the goal is to lose no more than about 0.5kg of body weight per week, so how long it will take to get down to the desired body weight should be based on that rate. The aim is to be around 10 pounds above your weight class a week before the fight. Any more will require dangerous levels of dehydration.
So if a fighter is aiming to fight at 155 pounds, he usually walks around at 185 pounds and will aim to get down to 165 pounds over the six-week period of a typical training camp up until the week before a fight.
Step 3: The fight week cut
On the first day of fight week, a fighter will begin restricting carbs. Carbs cause large amounts of water retention and those looking to lose up to 10 pounds before the fight will only consume carbs in the morning with breakfast. That’s enough sugars to fuel that day's training, which will be light and technical due to fight week preparations, without causing muscle loss.
Over the course of the week, calorie restrictions will come into effect. Some sources say the average fighter should restrict their calories to 500-700kcal a day, that’s a drastic cut considering a fighter usually gets over 3,000kcal a day during training camp.
Step 4: The last few pounds
The final stages of the process which happens the night before the weigh-in, and two nights before the fight, involves dehydration. How extreme this is depends on how much weight a fighter loses.
It’s possible to cut up to 20 pounds at this stage though some fighters typically cut over 10 pounds right up to the fight. This is something a coach like Greg Jackson advises against.
“Some fighters cut weight in ridiculous ways,” said Jackson (h/t Fight! Magazine). “When you start cutting ten or twelve pounds, I’ve noticed through trial and error that performance gets affected.”
Jackson says his fighters usually cut eight pounds the night of the weigh-ins which is usually done using sauna’s and treadmills. Many fighters at this stage will stop drinking water completely 24 hours before weigh in and will attempt to sweat out as much as they can. Some fighters will resort to consuming caffeine as well, which is a diuretic, to help speed the process.
Step 5: After the weigh-in
Once the fighter has stepped on the scale and hit the weight, they then begin the process of replenishing depleted glycogen reserves and lost water. High-sugar drinks are usually consumed as soon as they step off the scale.
With their stomachs, and whole body, now sensitive to everything they put in, it’s important not to start pigging out, but to increase calories and fluid intake gradually, but significantly. Shaun Mirjavadi of Elite FTS believes you should eat small meals, rich in carbohydrates, every half hour to an hour.
Bring back the gallon jug, because you will need to drink at least three of them in the next 24 hours, maybe even more like 4 or 5 gallons. If you’re not thirsty after the first one, drink anyway! Your blood pressure may be elevated due to the dramatic weight cut, so drink until it is lowered. Monitor your resting heart rate as well, as it should also decrease back to normal as you re-hydrate. Sometime on Saturday, if you’ve consumed enough water, you should be peeing almost clear again. Until then, DRINK!
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