Wrestlers and boxers have practiced cutting weight for decades. Robert De Niro brought this practice to the big screen in 1980 as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull as he sipped on ginger ale to make weight for his next big fight.
Most recently, with the explosion of mixed martial arts into mainstream America with the popularity of the Ultimate Fighter reality series, fight fans everywhere were witness to this masochistic process as fighters spent hours in hot saunas wearing plastic suits to shed their final few pounds.
Cutting weight is more than a practice, it is an art form that requires considerable experience and dedication to perfect. With this practice so common in MMA, why do fighters even cut weight? And more importantly, does dropping a weight class provide the fighter with an advantage in the octagon?
Nearly all bio-chemical reactions in our bodies rely on water. Water makes up more than 60 percent of the human body. It is not only vital to maintaining life, but also directly impacts physical and mental performance as well.
Even mild dehydration, one percent of our body weight or as little as one liter of water, can negatively impact athletic performance.[i]
Physiologically, dehydration reduces your body’s ability to deliver oxygenated blood throughout your body due to a reduced blood volume.
This reduction in volume inhibits a person’s aerobic endurance, muscular strength and lactate threshold.[ii] For a sport such as ultimate fighting, any impact on cardiovascular conditioning can limit a fighter’s ability in the octagon.
As a former fighter and someone who has practiced cutting weight since middle school wrestling, I am very familiar with this process.
Theoretically, a fighter who “walks around” at a heavier weight compared to their opponent should have a strength and power advantage over their competition when body weights are equal at weigh in.
Former UFC Middleweight champion Rich Franklin would cut roughly 20 – 25 pounds to make the 185 pound ceiling for his fights. I had the distinct pleasure of training with Rich prior to his weight cuts and was in awe over his physical prowess as he trained at an incredibly strong 210 pounds.
The ability to maximize your strength and power at a heavier “walking weight” should provide an advantage over an opponent who does not possess as much muscle mass. A weight cut of 20 pounds is not uncommon. So how does a fighter achieve this weight loss in such a short period of time?
There are various measures for a fighter to cut their desired weight.
The most popular practice is to exercise in hot environments. MMA competitors typically train 2 – 3hours daily. Every liter lost through sweat is equivalent to a two pound loss in body weight.
Exercise can be as simple as running and skipping rope or as complex as fight circuits including punching, kicks, takedowns, jiu jitsu rolling and sprinting.
To enhance the weight loss during exercise, most athletes will wear plastic suits and heavy clothing to increase their body temperature and promote added sweating.
In addition to exercise and elevating the body’s temperature, fluid restriction is a simple and extremely effective practice. This process requires no additional energy by the fighter and a 5 – 6 pound loss can be expected within 24 hours of beginning to dehydrate oneself.
Another popular technique utilized is to spend time in a sauna or hot bath. A dry sauna is the most powerful of these tools and will elevate a fighter’s core temperature and consequently increase fluid loss substantially.
Personally, I have spent hours in the dry sauna to help with my weight loss. I have experienced a 10 pound loss in body weight in just a few short hours in the dry sauna.
Fluid restriction causes fatigue and only so much exercise can be performed in a dehydrated state. Therefore, a fighter will reap tremendous weight loss rewards by incorporating in this technique.
The dry sauna is more “mind over body” and a dedicated focus will achieve desired results.
Another effective practice to lose excess pounds is to empty the bowels the day before the weigh in.
A human body contains 5 – 7 pounds of waste at all times passing through the stomach and intestines. Taking a gentle, natural laxative the night before the weigh in should result in an additional 5 pound loss without any negative impact on performance to the fighter.
Often combined with a laxative, diuretics will assist a fighter in losing up to 10 pounds. Diuretics signal the body to urinate constantly and an incredible amount of fluid is lost.
With that said, diuretics can be extremely dangerous and may result in an electrolyte imbalance within the system negatively impacting performance including cramping, muscle weakness and potentially heart arrhythmia or neurological symptoms.
Therefore, diuretics should be used sparingly and with caution.
The final measure to reduce body weight utilized by MMA competitors is to reduce their daily caloric intake.
A fighter must make sure that some food is consumed to maintain a level blood sugar. A reduced blood sugar, known as hypoglycemia, can cause irritability, lethargy, a lack of energy and even much worse health risks which will all negatively impact the fighter’s ability to compete or just survive.
Due to the fact that most fighters train until the day prior to their fights, calories are necessary to function. The reduction in calories needed to aid in the weight loss is an individual process. Each fighter reacts differently to a self-induced starvation process.
My recommendation is to begin to cut calories three weeks out from the date of the fight. By reducing 500 calories per day, one pound of body weight per week will be lost by a decreased caloric intake. After three weeks, a three pound deficit will be achieved.
A more drastic calorie reduction may be necessary, but should only be exercised within two days of weigh-ins. This will have no impact on a fighter’s training ability.
Calorie reduction combined with fluid restriction, increasing the core temperature through exercise or hot sauna as well as the use of a gentle laxative will provide the necessary weight loss needed to be successful on the scale.
Pay-per-view promotions including UFC and Strikeforce hold weigh-ins for the fighters the day prior to the event date. This ensures that proper hydration can be administered increasing a fighter’s body weight, strength, stamina and fighting performance.
Even with a day to administer fluids, the substantial weight cut can lead to poor performances in the octagon.
Jake Shields stated at the UFC 121 post-fight press conference that he “cut 20 pounds in a day…I don’t think it was my best performance, but this is a learning experience.”[iii] Jake’s performance against Dutch kickboxer, Martin Kampmann, was not stellar and he was fortunate to escape with a decision victory.
Unfortunately, lesser promotions typically hold weigh-ins within hours of the actual event. This practice is performed as a cost cutting measure for the promotion but does not provide the fighters ample time necessary to replenish lost fluids and electrolytes.
In short, performance is definitely impacted if a substantial weight cut has been performed without the necessary recovery time.
Believe it or not, the weight loss is the easy part. Re-hydrating and properly preparing the body for the fight is the challenging aspect and the area in which mistakes are commonly made damaging the fighter’s performance in the cage.
The body takes from 4 to 48 hours to fully recover from moderate dehydration, which means time is of the essence to ensure peak performance and health.[iv]
Again, as weight is cut, blood volume is decreased. Additionally, both heart rate and blood pressure can elevate. Electrolyte imbalance may have occurred and both psychological and physical fatigue may set in. Reversing all these contraindications is critical in establishing a solid foundation for competition.
To counteract these effects, a fighter should consume small, balanced meals at 30 minute intervals. A balance of protein, complex carbohydrates and simple sugars in the form of fruits and vegetables is imperative.
Avoid high fat, high processed sugar foods. Additionally, consuming too much food to quickly will leave the fighter bloated and feeling sick. Small meals will be absorbed and clear the system quicker. So please exercise some patience and control.
More important than replacing calories, fluid is necessary to re-establish balance within the human body.
Remember, a severe dehydration coupled with a calorie restriction has just occurred. This body is starving for nourishment. Re-hydration should occur immediately after a fighter concludes the weigh-ins.
To do this, 3 – 5 gallons of fluid may be necessary. Best fluid choices include water and an electrolyte replenishment drink, such as Pedialyte.
Soda, dairy products and high sugar drinks including Gatorade and PowerAde should be avoided. An indicator of proper re-hydration is clear urine. Consume fluids until this point is visibly present to ensure proper hydration necessary for a grueling fight in the cage.
Now that you have become familiar with the reasons behind cutting so much weight and how it is accomplished, please keep in mind the reality of this process.
Physiologically, a drastic weight cut is trauma to the human body. The body responds to this trauma by increasing fat storage to eliminate the risk of depleted calories again in the future.
In addition to storing calories as a means of self-preservation, the body will also store fluids and act as a sponge to absorb as much water as possible to prevent the chance of dehydration from occurring again.
Evidence of this physiological process is Chuck Liddell’s physique at fight time. His stomach typically looks bloated and distended. In short, he looks chubby. In reality, however, he is not out of shape. Rather, his body is physiologically responding to the weight cut he just endured.
The human body is extremely adaptive and will store calories and fluid when it believes that its survival is at risk.
Additionally, an extreme weight reduction can be damaging to the kidneys as well as other vital organs. This damage can be acute or long-term. Regardless, cutting weight has its risks and each and every fighter should exercise caution when performing this necessary component of competition.
For each pay-per-view witnessed by millions of fans, the fighters competing in the octagon have not only trained their skills to the highest level, they have most likely put their bodies through a self-imposed masochistic process to successfully compete at a lower weight class.
This drastic weight cut is performed so that the bigger, stronger fighter will have a strength and power advantage over the opponent when weigh in is equal.
Promotions such as the UFC and Strikeforce provide their fighters the necessary time to re-establish nourishment before they step foot in the octagon. However, lesser promotions typically do not extend this courtesy.
Because most fighters weigh in and fight within the same day for feeder league promotions, the body does not have the needed time to achieve balance within the system. Therefore, performance can be impaired and success in the cage may be in jeopardy.
Some elite level fighters will not perform a weight cut. Fedor Emelienenko, perhaps the greatest fighter on the planet, competes at a light 220 pounds within the heavyweight division. He refuses to cut to the necessary 205 pounds to compete in the light heavyweight division. Even though Fedor is undersized, he is tremendously explosive and has an amazing endurance capacity which benefits him tremendously against his bigger opponents.
Therefore, cutting weight does not guarantee victory. It may, however, provide an advantage for some against weaker competition. The process of depleting so many pounds within a short period of time is one that takes learning and practice. Errors during the weight cut and after weigh-ins can impede performance.
Therefore, just as a fighter would practice his stand up skills, a fighter should also practice cutting weight and the affects in one’s game.
[i] www.centralhome.com/ballroomcountry/hydration.htm, October 28, 2010.
[ii] www.bloodyelbow.com/2010/15/1311633/the-negative-health-effects-of, October 28, 2010.
[iii] www.sherdog.com, October 28, 2010.
[iv] www.grapplearts.com/Making-Weight-by-Dehydration.htm, October 28, 2010.