Cutting Weight

DISCLAIMER: Cutting weight is dangerous and detrimental to your health. Do so at your own risk!

Every few weeks I hear people discuss or read on-line about cutting weight for a tournament or fight. Cutting weight is a necessary evil of combat sports when weigh-ins are done a significant amount of time, e.g. 6-25 hours, before the event. Combat sports are a fight-game thus rules based on experience level and size that would never be considered in a self-defense fight are exploited to their utmost. That is, how can I be the biggest I can be in the weight class without losing strength, speed, and stamina.
Cutting weight must be considered weeks in advance as part of the game plan for the event. The body is a self-contained system:

Change in body weight = Caloric intake - Energy expenditure ± Hydration status

Caloric intake is the amount of calories your consume by eating and drinking while energy expenditure is the quantity of calories burned off by your basal metabolic rate plus exercise. Hydration status is how much water you have on board.
Caloric intake and energy expenditure are the longer term weight control and body composition controls, that is diet and exercise control body weight. If you eat less you will lose weight, just look at people from countries that suffer drought and famine. If you exercise more you will lose weight, just look marathon runners. If you eat more and have a sedentary lifestyle you will gain weight, one of the contributing factors to the obesity epidemic in the US. If you strategically eat and exercise more you will gain weight, the masters of this being bodybuilders.
Hydration status is short term control. If you drink a liter of water in the next five minutes you will gain weight, over the next hour this water will be absorbed by the gut and spread throughout the body. The kidneys will excrete none, some, or all of this water depending on your volume status or level of hydration. Thus for the next hour you will weigh more than you did the hour before. You can not remain dehydrate or over hydrated for too long and the more toward the extremes you get the shorter time you have at that volume status before overwhelming your body's feedback control loops and earning yourself a trip to the hospital and even possibly the morgue.
Thus when planning weight cutting for an event the first step is diet and exercise. Two useful resources for diet are "The South Beach Diet : The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss" (Arthur Agatston) and "The Paleo Diet for Athletes : A Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance" (Loren Cordain, Joe Friel). The South Beach Diet has to be slightly modified, because the carbohydrate load is a little low for a performance athlete. Other resources are certain chapters from "The Team Renzo Gracie Workout: Training for Warriors" (Martin Rooney) and The Athletic Edge is Performance Eating, Part I and Part II. The basic summary from these sources is this: unprocessed is more desirable than processed, but performance athletes need a little extra. The ideal dietary composition is
In the form of lean meats, fish, nuts, eggs, and whey protein powder. The maintenance load for protein is approximately 1 g protein/kg body weight (0.078 oz/lbs) while an anabolic load is approximately 2 g/kg (0.15 oz/lbs). Thus:
Body Weight (lbs.)Maintenance Protein (oz.)Anabolic Protein (oz.)

In the form of fish, flax, and virgin olive oils. As a round number 30% of your calories should come from fats, recall that there are 10 kcal/g (283 kcal/oz) of fat.

Fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole legumes. No processing means no sodas, juices, or breads! About 50% of your calories should come from carbohydrates, with 3.4 kcal/g (96.3 kcal/oz).
The real basic way to do this is by shopping along the edges of the grocery store and not the middle. The middle aisles typically hold all the processed stuff while the perimeter does not. For performance athletes there are essentially two ways to "diet":
  1. Cutting carbohydrate caloric load by 5%, or
  2. Increasing water intake and eating several small meals throughout the day.
In either case you reducing caloric intake while maintaining or increasing exercise load. Increased exercise load is dually beneficial as it both increases conditioning while dropping weight, as long as the caloric load is not inadvertently increased with it. Cardiovascular activities such as running or walking have the greatest "bang for your buck", and can be as simple as running, walking, or biking to school or work, taking the stairs versus the elevator, or parking in the farthest lot.

Enough of this smart way to make weight, we need desperate measures and that calls for changes in hydration status, specifically dehydration. Dehydrating yourself is by nature dangerous and detrimental, but can be advantageous if you do so reasonably and rehydrate correctly. Basically a healthy person can dehydrate themselves about 5% and still be able to rehydrate themselves safely with oral rehydration solutions (ORS) of carbohydrates, sodium, and potassium diluted in water ("Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide 6th edition" (McGraw-Hill Professional)). Yes some rare and insanely gifted athletes, like Joe "Diesel" Riggs, can cut a great deal more than this, but us mere mortals must be content with 5%. Thus:
Body Weight (lbs.)Amount of "Cuttable" Weight (lbs.)Maintenance Fluids (cc)Replacement Fluids (cc)Rehydration Rate (L/hr) over 12 hours
The table shows the 5% dehydration weight loss limits for 100, 150 and 200 pounders, the maintenance fluids or fluid volume that needs to be replaced daily due to breathing, sweating, and voiding ("Current Surgical Diagnosis & Treatment (Current Surgical Diagnosis and Treatment)" (Gerard M. Doherty)), replacement fluids or the fluid volume lost as weight by dehydration, and the rate over 12 hours that these fluids need to be replaced.
According to many weight cutting competitive athletes a period of increased hydration before holding fluids makes the dehydration process easier ("The Team Renzo Gracie Workout: Training for Warriors" (Martin Rooney)). This increased hydration causes an endocrinological change in levels of renin and anti-diuretic hormone (ADH) that makes your kidneys excrete more water, since the hormonal axis is relatively sluggish the taper and sudden decrease in water the day before the event fools your body into excreting more water leading to greater weight loss. Thus the week of your event increase your water intake and the day before taper so that you are consuming minimal to no fluids the day of weigh ins. You will still want to eat, but do so sparingly using a meal replacement bar.
The easiest way to cut weight is to sweat with minimal energy expenditure. You need a high core temperature to promote and keep sweating. You could continually exercise for hours but this would make you tired and sore for competition (I have run for an hour before to make weight, this is not fun the next day). I've found that a warm-up wearing a sweat suit and hat gets the sweat easily started. Then I usually hit the sauna until the sweat flows freely. At this point I strip down and begin using a credit card to scrape sweat from my body. This circumvents the body's ability to cool itself by perspiring and forces it to produce more sweat. Do not stay in the sauna for extended periods, you can leave and your body will continue to perspire. You can also build up a sweat and then use a jacuzzi or warm shower to keep the sweat going.If you become nauseated, dizzy, stop sweating, confused or faint stop cutting weight and seek medical attention.
After making weight ORS must be started immediately but slowly. ORS tastes like slightly bitter salt water not exactly what one craves after sweating off a lot of water. Unfortunately research has shown that sport drinks, juices, and plain water are not suitable for efficient ORS. Here are four methods of ORS:
  1. Off the shelf plain or flavored Pedialyte (comes in 1 L bottles).

  2. Home-made ORS A (schoolnurse.com):
    • 1 L boiling water
    • 1 cup orange juice
    • 8 teaspoons sugar
    • 1 teaspoon baking soda
    • 3/4 teaspoon salt
    • Mix thoroughly

  3. Home-made ORS B + eating 2 oranges or 1/2 banana:
    • 1 L boiling water
    • 8 teaspoons sugar
    • 1 teaspoon baking soda
    • 3/4 teaspoon salt
    • Mix thoroughly then hang 2 decaffeinated or herbal tea bags and let seep for 3-5 minutes

  4. Using 33.8 oz of chicken broth to make chicken soup + eating 2 oranges or 1/2 banana
I would also recommend supplementing with a multivitamin and of course resume eating a series (of which chicken soup could be one of) meals to replenish and load energy stores for the next day. Rehydration can continue up until the event, don't stop just because its a new day after weigh ins. Keep ORS by the bedside and with you the following day.
This discussion would not be complete without mentioning diuretics and laxatives. Personally as foolish as cutting weight already is the addition of diuretic and laxative medications is ludicrous. Their effectives are extremely hard to predict and regulate to one strategic portion of the day, so most likely they will be a detrimental effect on your day of competition rather than a beneficial one for cutting weight. They are potentially life threatening and effect much more sudden changes than the methods described above. For these reasons they are also illegal in most amateur competitions. I do not use them and strongly recommend anyone from doing so.

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