Sweat it All Out: Cutting Weight for Strength Sports

Several sports have weight classes where the athletes compete against other athletes of similar weights. There are two different types of sports that have weight classes; Sports that pit one athlete against another in a combative format such as boxing, mixed martial arts or wrestling, or sports that demonstrate strength or power, such as weightlifting or powerlifting. Regardless of the type of sport, weight classes exist so one athlete does not have an advantage because he is bigger than his opponent. Weight classes level the playing field; however athletes and coaches are always trying to gain an edge in competition. The first rule in a sport with weight classes is that the athlete needs to weigh-in. During a weigh-in, athletes are weighed in front of the officials who are running the competition and categorized into weight classes. Weigh-ins take place prior to the competition so that the athletes can be assigned to their proper weight class: This is where the athletes seek to find the advantage. They will try to weigh-in as light as possible in hopes of making a lighter weight class. Generally if a bigger athlete can make a lighter weight class, he would have an advantage over his opponents.

There are many ways to rapidly lose weight before a competition. Most of them involve calorie restriction and dehydration. Knowing that water makes up over fifty percent of an athlete’s body mass makes it the easiest target. They might attempt to dehydrate themselves by placing a restriction on their water intake, sweating or using diuretics. Water restriction is an obvious solution; if you are trying to lessen the amount of water in your body, do not consume more. To sweat off a few pounds, an athlete needs to sit in a sauna or they can exercise in a rubber suit to increase perspiration. However, many athletes will prefer a passive method of dehydration rather than exercising in order to save their energy (Schoffstall, J. E.,Branch, J. D., Leutholtz, B.C.& Spwain, D. P., 2001). Drugs such as diuretics can be effective in decreasing water weight, but are now banned in most sports.

Some sports have a relatively short time frame between weigh-ins and competition. For example, collegiate wrestling’s rule is that a weigh-in should be one hour or less before the competition (Bubb, R. G., 2007). Sports such as powerlifting have a longer period of time between weigh-ins and competition. This can be as much as 24-hours in some professional-level competitions and as little as two hours for many of the amateur meets (Schoffstall, J. E.,Branch, J. D., Leutholtz, B.C.& Spwain, D. P., 2001). If wrestlers decide to “cut weight” (rapidly lose weight) and become dehydrated to make it into the lighter weight class, they will not have much time to rehydrate themselves. They will need to compete in a dehydrated state. Powerlifters, on the other hand, have a longer time between weigh-ins and competition and will purposely try to rehydrate so their weight will come back to a normal or higher normal level.

One powerlifter is famous “cutting” as much as thirty five pounds in a 24 hour period and regaining all of his lost weight back in 24 hours. The athlete’s name is Matt Kroczaleski. Matt’s normal weight is between 250 and 255 pounds. In the day before weigh-ins, he will drop his body weight below 220 pounds to “make weight” for the 220-pound weight class. Matt lowers his weight past the cutoff point of two weight classes with this dramatic and rapid weight loss of 12% of his body weight. When he gains back the weight he lost, he steps on the platform thirty-plus pounds heavier than his opponents. Matt’s method for cutting weight in such a short amount of time is through passive dehydration, or by increasing his core temperature to increase fluid loss through sweating. He submerges his entire body, except for his face, in a scalding hot bath for 30 minutes. This is followed by converting the bathroom to a steam room where he will remain for another thirty minutes, finishing with a break of five minutes outside of the bathroom. He will repeat this procedure as long as it takes to make his desired weight class. Matt claims that he can lose a few pounds per hour in the beginning, but toward the end this rate falls to one pound per hour. Once he weighs-in, his weight fluctuation is still not complete. Now it is time for him to gain the weight back and he has only 24 hours to do so. In the first few hours after weighing-in, Matt drinks two to three gallons of a fifty-fifty mixture of Gatorade and water along with eating tuna and drinking protein shakes. In those first few hours, Matt typically gains back ten to fifteen pounds. Then after 12 hours, he will have gained back 20 pounds. In 24-hours, he will have gained back all, if not more, weight then he lost. In Matt’s experience, if he gains all the weight back, he will gain all of his strength back as well (EliteFTS.com., 2007).

One would be hard-pressed to find any studies that investigate a dehydration and rehydration cycle as severe as Matt Kroczaleski’s do to the risks involved. However, Schoffstall, J. E.,Branch, J. D., Leutholtz, B.C.& Spwain, D. P. (2001) investigated a less dramatic version of Matt’s hydration cycle on strength. In this study, subjects sat in a sauna and lost an average of 1.7% of their body weight. They tested the subject’s one repetition maximum (1RM) in the bench press after giving them two hours to rehydrate. They also tested them without any time to rehydrate. They found a 5.6% decrease in 1RM when the subjects did not have time to rehydrate. However, when the subjects did have time to rehydrate, their 1 RM did not suffer at all. This study supports Matt Kroczaleski’s claims of regaining his strength, but it does not investigate the same degree of severity of dehydration and rehydration.

The findings of Schoffstall, J. E.,Branch, J. D., Leutholtz, B.C.& Spwain, D. P. (2001)- a decrease in strength when their subjects were not allowed to rehydrate-does not bode well for wrestlers who do not have much time to rehydrate. However, wrestling is more of a complex sport then powerlifting. It requires dynamic, isometric anaerobic skills as well as aerobic endurance. In 2001, Schoffstall, J. E.,Branch, J. D., Leutholtz, B.C.& Spwain, D. P. found that passive dehydration did not affect isometric strength and endurance. This is good for wrestlers because much of the sport is isometric in nature. Wrestling requires a lot of dynamic aerobic endurance which decreases when dehydrated (Sawka, M., Burke, L., Eichner, E., Maughan, R., Montain, S., & Stachenfeld, N., 2007, Viitasalo, J. T., Kyrolainen, H., Bosco, C.& Alen, M.,1987).

According to a 2007 American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand, the overall effects of dehydration, exercise and fluid replacement can be harsh and even deadly. A two percent loss in body weight due to dehydration can decrease aerobic performance as well as mental and cognitive capacity. However, in their findings, dehydration levels of up to 5% loss in body mass had no effect on anaerobic capabilities or muscular strength. Dehydration increases the risks of skeletal muscle cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, acute renal failure associated with rhabdomyolysis and death (Sawka, M., Burke, L., Eichner, E., Maughan, R., Montain, S., & Stachenfeld, N., 2007).

Following the death of three collegiate wrestlers in 1997, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) created the Wrestling Weight Certification Program (WWCP) (Davis, S., Dwyer, G., Reed, K., Bopp, C., Stosic, J., & Shepanski, M., 2002). The WWCP’s established a Lowest Allowable Weight (LAW) for each wrestler. If the wrestler weighs in lower than the weight he is certified for, he is not allowed to compete. The methodology for finding an athlete’s LAW begins with a physical examination by the assessor, who is a member of the school’s athletic medical staff. The examination consists of establishing the athlete’s hydrated body weight (HBW). To obtain the HBW, the athlete must pass a specific gravity test of his urine. If the test was too high, the athlete would need to come back no earlier than 24 hours and retest. If the athlete passes, they can be weighed and their weight is considered the HBW. After the HBW is determined the next step is to measure the athlete’s fat-free weight (FFW). This would be done using a wrestling-specific skin fold equation. The equation LAW=FFW/0.95 is used to determine the LAW1; this means the LAW1 is equal to the athlete being at 5% body fat. After examination, the athlete is not allowed to lose more than 1.5% of their original body weight per week. Here, the LAW2 equation is used to determine whether the athlete is losing weight too fast is LAW2=BW – (1.5% x number of weeks till first competition x BW). Prior to the first competition, every wrestler is weighed once a week at the same time to monitor their weight. The athlete cannot weigh-in less than the greater of LAW1 and LAW2 (Bubb, R. G., 2007, Davis, S., Dwyer, G., Reed, K., Bopp, C., Stosic, J., & Shepanski, M., 2002).

It is important to note that of the sports that have weight classes and weigh-ins, the only sport that require the athletes to “make weight” on a regular or even weekly basis is wrestling. This could have long-term health effects especially with younger athletes. The weight certification that the NCAA now uses with wrestlers should help to prevent further deaths among college wrestlers trying to “make weight.” When it comes to sports such as powerlifting, athletes “cut” huge percentages of their body weight, up to 12% as demonstrated by Matt Kroczaleski but they try to replace the lost fluids as quickly as possible. If they survive the challenges of being so severely dehydrated for a short period of time, they risk hyponatremia when they rehydrate. It is vital that they consume more than just water to gain back their weight. The research states, strength can be maintained after a loss of 5% body weight, as long as the weight is gained back before competing. It will be unlikely to see research with greater loss in body weight, due to the increase health concerns.

References:

Bubb, R. G. (2007). Rule 3 Weight Certification, Classification and Weighing-In. 2008 NCAA Wrestling Rules and Interpretations (T. Smith, Ed.) (pp. 27-36). Indianapolis: The National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Davis, S., Dwyer, G., Reed, K., Bopp, C., Stosic, J., & Shepanski, M. (2002, May). Preliminary investigation: the impact of the NCAA Wrestling Weight Certification Program on weight cutting. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 16(2), 305-307.

EliteFTS.com. (2007, October 16). Matt Kroczaleski Interview Part 2. Video Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sc06N-Y2750.

Greiwe, J. S., Staffey, K. S., Melrose, D. R., Narve, M. D.& Knowlton, R. G. (1998). Effects of Dehydration on Isometric Muscular Strength and Endurance. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, 30(2), 284-288.

Sawka, M., Burke, L., Eichner, E., Maughan, R., Montain, S., & Stachenfeld, N. (2007, February). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Exercise and fluid replacement. Medicine And Science In Sports And Exercise, 39(2), 377-390.

Schoffstall, J. E.,Branch, J. D., Leutholtz, B.C.& Spwain, D. P. (2001). Effects of Dehydration and Rehydration on the One-Repetition Maximum Bench Press of Weight-Trained Males. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 15(1), 103-108.

Viitasalo, J. T., Kyrolainen, H., Bosco, C.& Alen, M. (1987). Effects of Rapid Weight Reduction on Force Production and Vertical Jumping Height. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 8(4), 281-285.

 

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