Weight cutting is a controversial subject in combat sports. With the possible health risks and extreme cases where athletes die as a result of Rapid Weight Loss (RWL), event organizers and schools often take steps to prevent or discourage weight cutting. Some athletes also believe the practice is a form of cheating, as a way to get an unfair advantage. However, in large part most combat athletes engage in some form of weight cutting regularly and view it as a necessary part of their sport. Unfortunately, some even view weight cutting ability as a source of pride.
A recent article in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition reviewed over fifty studies related to weight cutting in combat sports to overview its impacts on athletes. They broke down each study into results like prevalence of weight cutting, and physiological and psychological effects. They even looked at success rates.
Although wresting is known for weight cutting, the sports of judo, jiu jitsu, and Taekwondo reported similar prevalence in weight cutting to wrestling (the range was about 57 to 89% of athletes in the sports studied). It is also about as common in women as it is in men. One potential severe issue that was uncovered is regarding age. Judo practitioners were noted as beginning weight cutting at adolescence. The younger age of starting regular weight cutting was associated with more severe health impacts later on.
When cutting weight, the most common amount was 2 to 5% of bodyweight, but 40% of all athletes had lost 5 to 10%, and some lost even more. It is important to note, however, these results were self-reported. Many athletes seem to exaggerate their weight cutting ability, at least in MMA and wrestling, where I have the most experience as a coach. It’s important for athletes to not get caught up in stories about extreme RWL, and focus on their own performance and health needs.
RWL has many noted psychological effects including “decreased short-term memory, vigor, concentration and self-esteem as well as increased confusion, rage, fatigue, depression and isolation.” Each of these could have a negative impact on performance. The negative impacts on physical performance, on the other hand, are not as well demonstrated. When there is very little or no time allowed to regain weight, anaerobic performance is stunted. With time to recover from RWL, the physical detriment is not very prominent. However, it is possible that RWL increases the risk of injury.
While many men may outright reject the idea, frequent weight loss and thinking constantly about body weight is a sign of an eating disorder. Many combat athletes think obsessively about their weight even when their body fat is already quite low, and also have a greater tendency to binge. It’s no wonder the researchers learned that combat athletes are more obese on average after ceasing participation in sport than other athletes.
Many people reading this will think, “Okay, it’s bad for me, but it will help me win.” Success is a less studied aspect of weight cutting, but in regional wrestlers it does seem to improve success. However, it’s important to note this could be due to motivation to win. An athlete with the motivation to put in skill practice, physical conditioning, and aggressive competition is also more likely to seek out some weight cutting as a method to improve chances. This would demonstrate an increased prevalence of weight cutting in successful athletes even if they are not related otherwise. An association doesn’t always mean a cause. Indeed, other studies in higher levels of competition have been mixed.
RWL is not going anywhere any time soon. Although many organizations are taking on stricter rules regarding this, many of the rules may simply increase the extremes of weight cutting behaviors. As an athlete or a coach, it’s important to focus on keeping your weight cutting under control, and maintaining a weight close to your competition weight year round. Active weight cutting is also more aggressive than passive weight cutting, which can often be just as effective in my experience as a coach. If you need to cut weight, look for a trainer that does not recommend extreme weight loss and extreme methods.
1. Emerson Franchini, et.al., “Weight loss in combat sports: physiological, psychological and performance effects,” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 9:52 (2012)
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