The Cost Of Cutting

Carla Nowicki, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS

How much is your weight cut helping you?

Weight cuts are the ugly step child of weight class sports. You find yourself asking some very important questions, usually not wanting to seem weak and involving your coach in the decision. You questions how advantageous it out be, what the correct training weight is, how quickly you can recover for the event, future training, or even future events and how quickly and how much you can bounce in and out of your weight class.

Lets lay out what a weight cut is. A weight cut is intestinal, quick body size loss through water retention, body composition, and body mass by manipulating hydration, electrolytes, and macronutrients. This isn’t weight in the typical sense that you mean it keep it off. The goal is drop weight quickly, avoid as much strength loss as possible, and reload back as quickly and most effectively as possible. There is no sugar coating this, they are not meant for health or fitness; They are meant for performance. The million dollar question is “does the benefit of a lower weight class outweigh risk and strength loss worth a cut?” 

The Strength to Weight Risk Ratio

There is no doubt about it. A weight cut inherently decreases your athletic abilities. As any athlete there are a few systems in which your body fights, lifts, or moves the boat. No matter what you are trying to do, the body and brain most effectively will utilize glucose, or carbohydrates. Your brain uses about half of all of the glucose or carbohydrates you take in. Without optimal carbohydrate intake, the brain lacks concentration and muscles lack the ability to be at optimal strength. Ironically, most weight class sports demand a high level of neural function. This lack of focus, even after refeeding may be some of the reason why injuries are a higher risk with larger cuts. Fuel supply isn’t the only thing that is lacking from the rapid weight loss. If your event has a fast turn around from weigh in to competition, dehydration and electrolyte imbalance can also play a huge factor.

Training Weight

Where your training weight sits is going to rely on a number of factors. You will not know how well your body will handle a weight cut until you go through it. How sensitive you are is one of the most important considerations to where your training weight should be. In general, you should always sit within 1-5% of your competition weight at all times. At the most extreme outreach, MAYBE 7%, but above that, the strength loss will not be worth being in the lower class. On top of the strength loss, a cut of more than 5% of your body weight has an even higher level risk of injury and health complications (franchini). Lightweight athletes should be even further concerned with common lower body fat percentage, decrease ability to handle dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, and have a lower starting point. Lighter athletes should stay closer to their weight class than heavy weights. What you choose should be based off of you Even for individuals,  Weight cuts will also be more difficult on lighter athletes and have a higher risk of health complications, especially with hydration and electrolyte balance.  In the big picture, even 5% is a substantial weight loss. For a 185lb male, that’s about 10 pounds. Now even if you are saying you can drop more, the underlying answer of you could be stronger at a higher weight class holds true. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. When you say the fight is won by training, the fight is also won by nutritionally getting to the right size in training to be the strongest possible for the fight. If you want to fight in the lower weight class, consider dropping your training weight ahead of time to be stronger for the event.

How Often can you Cut

Repeat cuts have a double edged sword. On one hand, it is suggested that those who are more practiced in weight cuts can perform better than those who are new to it. That being said, weight cuts are extremely hard on your body. Individuals who go through multiple weight classes will on average have more difficultly holding a healthy weight later on in life.  Weight cuts are incredibly hard on your body and training. When they are close together, within a month or two the strength detriment can be even higher than the first cut. Try to limit multiple rapid weight loss cycles to 3 a year to maintain proper recovery and training.

Tips for a weight cut

·       The weeks prior to a weight cut should have an aim to improve body composition and maintain muscle mass. Decreasing your fat mass and preserving muscle mass through a clean diet the weeks coming up to an event are crucial. Alcohol shouldn’t even be a question or consideration.

·       Avoid circumstances that will make it harder. Take some time for solitude if necessary or surround yourself with others who understand your “why” and your drive.

·       During a cut, use BCAAs to preserve as much muscle mass as possible. During a cut is not the time to be shy to protein powders and supplements. They are easy to measure for exact amounts. BCAAs are incredibly useful.

·       Prioritize manipulation of electrolytes over carbohydrate intake over dehydration. It is much easier for your body to absorb water quickly than carbohydrates and the symptoms of electrolyte imbalances are harder to come back from. This point is also sport, goal, and circumstance specific.

·       Get some extra sleep; like 10-12 hours a night. You need a lot more time to recover and your sleep quality will not be as high. Plan accordingly. Most likely you will be deloading at the same time. Utilize that free time for meditation and sleep.

·       You are going to eat a lot of the same foods. Get used to it. You are not eating for health, you are eating to be at the right body composition for one small moment in time. You can get back to your variety of fruits and vegetables the following week.

·       Dig deep for some mental toughness. No one said it was going to be easy, but believe in yourself. You put yourself through some hard training; see it through until the end.