Weight Cutting in Combat Sports

by | Apr 8, 2022 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has developed into a professional and amateur sport since its early introduction to the world via the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993 (Buse, 2006). Initially the sport was a contest of disparate fighting ‘styles’ to determine the ‘best’, this matured over time to be a sport in of itself. To become an established sport the UFC/MMA had to undergo various rule changes to meet the standards of the various athletic governing bodies in the United States. One of those was the addition on weight classes in order to create an equal and safe environment for athletes to compete in without huge deviations in size and strength (Gregory et al, 2006).

Today both amateur and professional MMA have weigh-ins that occur 24-36 hours before competition. MMA like many other pre-existing combat sports, such as wrestling, judo and sambo, is now classified by body mass (Lakicevic et al, 2021). This has led to athletes seeking a ‘proposed’ advantage by using rapid weight loss and rapid weight gain protocols, in order to have a perceived size and strength advantage over lighter opponents.

Excessive rapid weight loss comes at a high risk. In Atlanta 1996 Judo Olympian Chung Se-hoon died due to rapid weight loss at a team weigh in. This was followed a year later by the deaths of three young American wrestlers Billy Saylor, Joseph La Rosa and Jeff Reese in the 1997 NCAA wrestling season (Lakicevic et al, 2021). Rapid weight loss also negatively affects a number of health markers including cardiovascular dysfunctions, immunosuppression, lowered bone density, impaired thermoregulation, impaired cognitive function, negative mood state, hormonal unbalance, temporary growth impairment, poor nutritional status, increased injury risk and increased risk of eating disorders (Artioli et al, 2010).

Despite the large body of evidence, the adjustments made in the NCAA wrestling weight certification protocol (Davis et al, 2002) established since the tragedies in 1996/1997 and the continually revised guidelines by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).  Competitors have not deterred from chasing a perceived competitive advantage through rapid weight loss. In 2013 Leandro Souza died cutting weight for a bout on Shooto Brazil. In 2018 a 16-year-old boy collapsed during a Taekwondo match, believed to be due to a rapid weight cutting induced heart attack, and in the same year female Muay Thai fighter Jessica Lindsay died when cutting weight for a bout the day of weigh ins (Lakicevic et al, 2021). This indicates that although health care professionals can identify the risks of extreme weight cutting competitors may not, or perhaps they are willing to take the risk for great rewards.

The Goldman dilemma, Robert Goldman proposed a Faustian bargain whereby athletes could take a drug that would guarantee Olympic gold in their chosen sport but it resulted in certain death 5 years later. Approximately 50% of athletes would take the drug according to early research by Goldman, however more recent research has proven this number to be much lower 1-12% (Connor et al, 2013). The concept remains that a number of elite athletes will prioritise winning over health and legality, therefore possible health complications from extreme weight cutting may not be a deterrent.

Despite adjustments to the NCAA weight certification process, Cutrufello & Dixon (2014) discovered that coaches were aware that their athletes are still cutting water weight via exercise induced fluid loss in order to manipulate the new weight certification process. Lingor & Olson (2010), concluded that wrestlers were still cycling bodyweight weekly by up to 4.7%, with these athletes using a combination of calorie restriction and fluid restriction to achieve their competitive weight. Clearly athletes continue to use this practice despite the dangers involved.

So, to the elite athlete the question may become: does rapid weight loss and rapid weight gain improve competition performance? Several studies have indicated that rapid weight loss can impair high intensity performance (Fogelholm, Koskinen & Laakso, 1993) (Horswill, Hickner & Scott, 1990). If athletes are allowed adequate recovery, such as 3-4 hours to replenish lost fluids and nutrition, then no negative effects were found in both judo (Artioli, Iglesias & Franchini, 2010) and wrestling (Klinzing & Karpowicz, 1986) related performance tests. Competitions with a longer interval between weigh ins and competition allow for competitors to restore many physiological changes induced by cutting weight, in particular high intensity anaerobic performance, a key determinant of combat sports performance (Artioli et al, 2010).

In mixed arts weigh ins occur over 24 hours prior to competition, typically the percentage of bodyweight lost is much higher than in combat sports with weigh in on the same day as competition, often in excess of 8% +. The increased duration between weigh in and competition allows for a proposed opportunity to replenish additional lost weight, Kirk, Evans & Morton (2020) stated that athletes compete up to two weight divisions higher than at the weigh  in. Initial research into the outcomes of bouts indicated that the amount of weight cut did not affect competitive outcomes (Kirk, Evans & Morton, 2020) and Brechney, Chia & Moreland (2019) concluded that athletes who cut more weight, lost more.

These studies go against conventional wisdom in combat sports circles, as a professional fighter myself I have noticed anecdotally that, at the elite level, many competitors are very big for their weight class. The aforementioned studies are a very small sample of the mixed martial arts community. Kirk, Evans & Morton (2020) took data from five professional mixed martial arts competitions in California and Brechney, Chia & Moreland (2019) used data from a small sample of predominantly amateur competitors. The sample size and population used for this study does not give an accurate representation of what is going on at the higher levels of competition.

The most recent and comprehensive study of competition success in mixed martial arts, published in 2021, concluded that increased rapid weight gain increased the chance of winning in competition (Faro, Lima-Junior & Machado, 2021). Analysing over 700 professional bouts, including 1400 weighs ins and 21 professional competitions in the state of California, the largest sample of a real-world scenario to date.  This study proposed that for each additional 1% of rapid weight gain, there was a 4.5% increased chance of winning. Despite the detrimental impact on fighters’ health, it appears that the potential advantage of large weight cuts may persuade the mixed martial artists to roll the dice.

The primary methods of acute weight loss are; water loss via respiration, urination and sweating, water loss via sodium manipulation, water loss via glycogen manipulation and manipulation of gut contents (Reale, Slater & Burke, 2016). 

The most effective strategy to implement for AWL whilst maintaining high performance on the day of competition is to first manipulate low fibre/low weight foods and to create a mild fluid deficit. These are particularly important for those competing on the day of competition to mitigate detriments to performance.

For those that require a steeper weight loss and have ample time to replenish (<24 hours recovery) additional glycogen depletion and harsher fluid deficits are used, including both passive and active dehydration (Reale, Slater & Burke, 2016). 

Water loading appears to be a safe and effective method for combat sports athletes to use to drive AWL (Reale et al, 2018). Contrary to what is often done in practice the magnitude of fluids to be consumed during the water load should be replicative of your weight class, in this particular study 100ml/kg was used, this equates to 6.6L for an athlete weighing 66kg at that point in time, potentially making the bantamweight limit of 61.8kg.

Heat acclimation prior to the AWL, exposes yourself to the method of passive dehydration you are planning to use for weight cut. If you are planning to use a hot bath as your primary method of passive dehydration then use such in the weeks prior to the weight cut. This has physical benefits such as improving the rate of sweating (Magalhaes et al, 2010), in addition to mentally preparing the athlete for the acute weight cut. 

The post weigh in recovery process is essential to facilitate optimal performance of fight night, depending on the methods used to reach contractual weight, the recovery process will vary. Priorities should include replenishing fluids, electrolytes and carbohydrates immediately post weigh in, followed up by a strategic nutrition plan assigned via a dietician/nutritionist working in combat sports to achieve optimal recovery.

Optimal performance is often found in the individual adjustments, best practice in sports nutrition is working with someone who can make these adjustments whilst maintaining your health and performance, this is imperative not just in the acute weight cut setting but in the overall training camps periodisation. I conclude this article with the request that all combat sports athletes who are cutting weight, please invest in a professional ideally a qualified nutritionist or dietician.


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