Weight cutting, the unfortunate consequence of weight-based divisions in sports, is the rapid loss of fat and water in a relatively short amount of time. There are arguments for cutting weight and most certainly arguments against cutting weight. Regardless, as long as there are weight divisions, there will be competitors gambling on the number of pounds they can lose in order to maximize their competitive advantage over their fellow competitors. For sports like jiu-jitsu, this means there will always be athletes starving, sweating, spitting, and doing everything else they know to cut the last few pounds before they step on the tournament scale.
Cutting weight is hard. The competitor battles deep primal responses developed when humans were hunter-gatherers and our bodies evolved to demand food and hoard calories during times of feast and reserve energy during times of famine. With civilization came perpetual feast and sedentary lifestyles. This forces athletes to put themselves through a kind of artificial famine in order to cut the weight they hope will give them that advantage. Over the years they’ve developed numerous methods to do this. Some are good, some are bad, and some are just plain ugly…
Realistic and Attainable Goals – It sounds like a no-brainer, but setting realistic and attainable goals is the most crucial element of a healthy weight cut. This involves considering the timing of the event, the timing of the weigh-ins, and undergoing a critical self-evaluation about yourself as an individual. Do you have a month, two weeks, or a week before the event? Will you weigh-in the day before or the same day? How many pounds can a person your size comfortably cut? How disciplined are you in eating less? How much extra time do you have to work out more? One thing is certain: you will always overestimate the amount of weight you can lose, so a conservative goal is best in order to maintain your health and your sanity while cutting.
Portion/Calorie Control – Cutting weight is simple math: burn more calories than you consume. Easy, right? Wrong. Just as we overestimate the amount of weight we can lose, we underestimate the number of calories we consume… that is unless you have OCD and a food scale. There are many resources that give caloric estimates for various foods, based on the size of the portion. This is useful, but calorie- counting becomes problematic for an athlete – especially a jiu-jitsu athlete – because 1) there is no average size of an athlete and therefore no “average” caloric requirement, 2) gender and muscle density also affect one’s metabolic needs, and 3) there is no way to accurately determine the number of calories burned during a typical jiu-jitsu training session. The best way to manage your caloric intake is simply to eat slow and stop before you’re satisfied – which is long before you feel full. When you’re cutting weight, “full” is no longer in your vocabulary.
High Nutrient Foods – We eat to provide our cells with the nutrients they need to perform the functions it takes to keep our body alive. As mentioned before, during the course of human evolution, several mechanisms developed to respond to times of famine. When we cut weight, we put ourselves into a state of semi-famine, depriving our body of the abundance of nutrients found in our environment. This causes our bodies to look to inner sources of nutrients, which include fat deposits (yay!) but also muscles (not so yay). Therefore, when cutting weight, it is absolutely crucial that the foods you are consuming are high-nutrient foods that provide your body what it needs to keep functioning at a high level without resorting to using the muscles as a source of fuel.
Strategic Activity Timing – When you’re cutting weight, your body naturally wants to conserve energy, and it
does this by slowing down your metabolism. This makes the time that you work out important in order to maximize the boost to your metabolism from physical activity. Of course, when you already have a busy schedule – work, family, etc. – you fit your training and workouts in whenever you can. However, even the busiest person can add a short morning and evening workout into his or her regime. A morning workout does two important things: it takes advantage of a time when your body is recharged from sleep (if you are getting enough sleep), and it jump-starts your metabolism before your morning meal. An evening workout takes advantage of a time when your body reaches peak protein synthesis and lung efficiency – allowing for a more intense workout, which burns more calories – and it give your metabolism another bump before bed.
Water Loading – Maintaining maximum hydration over the course of your weight cut will allow your body to work harder during intense physical activity, increase your metabolism, help you to feel full (even when you’re not “full”), and when the time comes to cut water weight, allow you to shed those last few pounds fast and without prolonged shock to your system. Studies have shown that even slight dehydration can have a significant negative impact on your physical performance. Proper hydration, on the other hand, lets you to maximize your performance and energy output, allowing you burn more calories. Studies show that proper hydration also boosts your metabolic rate by up to 30%, which helps to offset your body’s natural tendency to slow it down on a reduced calorie diet. Drinking plenty of water, especially before meals, also helps you to feel fuller. And finally, if it comes down to it, when you’ve maintained continual hydration, your body will more readily shed water during a short water fast prior to weigh-ins.
Unrealistic Goals – As mentioned, it is easy to overestimate the amount of weight you can safely cut before a tournament. Not only does this put you at risk of not making weight, when you make unrealistic weight cutting goals, you are also susceptible to high levels of stress (stressing about being able to make the cut at all), as well as to making unhealthy and unsafe weight cutting decisions. Stress is bad in general, but it is especially bad for cutting weight because increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) can result in higher insulin levels, causing your blood sugar to drop, and making you crave “comfort foods” that are high in calories and low in nutrients. Unrealistic goals will also make you resort to “ugly” weight cutting methods that can pose risks to your health in both the short and long term.
Diet Pills – Despite those clever marketing ploys, there is no magic weight loss pill. Though most are relatively harmless – and at best provide minimal short-term success mainly because they contain diuretic ingredients – they can pose problems for the weight cutting process. Psychologically you might convince yourself that your diet pill will allow you to relax on your strict diet plan which could then set your progress back and force you to resort to “ugly” weight cutting methods when you find yourself 10lbs over the day before weigh-ins. As a diuretic, diet pills can also put you at risk of dehydration, which affects not only your physical performance but also the normal functioning of your organs. Additionally, most diet pills contain high amounts of caffeine, which can make you susceptible to caffeine overdose, especially if you take them with your usual venti quadruple-shot-espresso-ccino-latte.
Starvation and Poor Timing of Meals – Cutting weight while maintaining an intense training regime is a balancing act, both physically and mentally. In cutting weight, many people put themselves on overly restrictive diets, skip meals, and fail to fuel their bodies before and after a rigorous training session, all the while forcing themselves to train harder and longer in preparation for intensity of the upcoming competition. This is detrimental both to your physical capacity, your mental focus (your brain takes up to 20% of calories you consume), and your health. While you can’t completely avoid the effects of a restricted caloric intake, you can be strategic about the kinds of calories you consume, as well as the time at which you consume them, in order to minimize those effects.
Cutting Salts and Fats – Public misconception about “dieting” has led to the demonization of salts and fats. When cutting weight, you certainly want to cut down on foods that are characterized as “fatty” or “salty”, but cutting them out completely can be even more detrimental to your weight cutting goals and your overall performance and health. For one, salts are key in maintaining healthy fluid balance, cellular metabolism, organ and neural functioning, digestion, and immunity. Particularly when you’re water- loading, you can lose too much salt, causing a condition called “hyponatremia”, essentially electrolyte imbalance, which can lead to headaches, nausea, diminished ability to think, confusion, or even seizures or coma. Likewise, fats are an important source of energy and nutrients – particularly for the brain – and are important actors in vitamin absorption and hormone regulation, all of which you want to continue performing as normally as possible when you’re preparing for a competition.
Poo – Poo is in the “ugly” category, because… well… it’s poo. The color, consistency and “floatiness” of your dookies can tell you a lot about the progress, and safety, of your weight cut. If your number two is a questionable color, sinks like a stone, flows like a number one, or is “M.I.A”, you’re likely doing it wrong… the weight cut, I mean.
Prolonged Dehydration – Especially during the last week before a competition, there’s a psychological need to see the numbers on the scale drop to the desired weight several days before the weigh-in. If you’re fully hydrated and you meet that weight, fantastic, your weight- cut has been successful. But if not, this need can drive you to cut water long before you should. Dehydration over the course of several days, especially while continuing to train, can be dangerous to your health, with a long list of medical complications. Dehydration, particularly when continuing to train hard, can cause heat cramps, exhaustion or heat stroke, electrolyte imbalance (which in severe cases can lead to loss of consciousness or seizures), cellular swelling and rupture (dangerous when it happens in brain cells), low blood volume shock, kidney failure, and in the most severe and prolonged cases, coma and death.
IV Use – Particularly for day-before-weigh-ins, rehydration via IV is an unfortunately very common practice following an extreme weight-cut. However, when you don’t have the assistance of a trained healthcare professional – which the average jiu-jitsu competitor does not – “IV-ing” can cause vein collapse, inflammation, infection (if the area or needle are not sufficiently sterilized), and even – though rare – air embolism. Additionally, when you rely on that IV, you may not be as disciplined about the rest of your weight- cutting process, which can then force you to cut far more water than is safe.
Over-cutting – The “ugliest” aspect of weight- cutting is, without a doubt, cutting to the point at which you have no energy when you finally step on the mat. How silly would it look to spend all that time and energy, only to lose miserably in the first round because you were too weak to perform?
The Final Cut
For athletes, cutting weight is a balancing act. Dropping pounds while still maintaining sufficient energy and strength for high-intensity training leading up to an event, and then being on-point for the competition itself, is not easy. However, when executed well, and safely, it can be the extra edge an athlete needs to hit the podium. When executed poorly, it can actually undermine the very purpose of the weight cut and can even endanger one’s health.
1. Make realistic and attainable goals
2. Minimize your portions, eat slow, and stop before you’re satisfied
3. Eat high nutrient foods to keep your body fueled
4. Be strategic about when you train and workout
5. Stay as hydrated as possible until the last second
6. Listen to your body and your bodily functions
1. Don’t overestimate the amount of weight you can cut
2. Don’t rely on diet pills and always be cautious about their ingredients
3. Don’t starve your body, especially before and after training
4. Don’t completely cut out salts and fats
5. Don’t dehydrate your body longer than necessary or before it is necessary
6. Don’t rely on rehydration via IV