Are MMA Fighters Waterboarding their bodies with too much weight cutting?

Since the introduction of weight classes for UFC 12, back in 1997, cutting weight has become a harsh reality for MMA athletes.  While weight cutting is prevalent among most combat sports, a recent worldwide study conducted by Edith Cowan University found that MMA athletes were, on average, losing far more than their counterparts in other combat sports.

“We found that MMA athletes reported losing an average of 9.8kg before each fight. This compares to 5.3kg for boxing, 4.2kg for Brazilian jiu jitsu and 3.8kg for judo,”

“This equates to MMA athletes losing an average of 11.5 per cent of their body weight in the lead up to a fight, compared to an average of about six per cent for the other sports.”

The reason behind this extreme weight cutting seems obvious.  If an athlete can drop sufficient weight to drop into a lower weight class, it will give the athlete a perceived advantage, or at least mean he/she doesn’t end up having to face an opponent much heavier and more powerful than themselves.  However, if everyone is doing the same thing, is weight cutting a zero-sum game?  There is an argument to be made that the athlete who can drop weight in the most sensible way and recover the best prior to fight night, will be the one with the upper hand.

When weight cuts go wrong:

While I am yet to unearth a case of an athlete dying trying to make weight, there are a startling number of even seasoned professional athletes who have come too close for comfort.  There was the case of UFC Middleweight Uriah Hall, who was hospitalized after fainting en route to a morning weigh in.  He later said during a live social media stream “I think I had a mini-seizure and a slight heart attack,” he went on to say, “It was the most traumatic experience I’ve had.”

Former lightweight champion Rafael Don Anjos suffered a first round knockout, after passing out in his hot tub trying to make the cut.

Apart from it being pretty disastrous to go through your fight camp and fail to make it to the scale, let alone the cage, there are many more dangers to the athletes’ physical and psychological well being associated with this rapid weight loss (RWL)

RWL brought about by dehydration can affect the kidneys.  The psychological affects include reduced concentration, poor memory, fatigue, rage, depression and isolation.  All of which can negatively impact the athlete both in and out of the cage.

Research has also shown that this obsessive attention to the scales can lead to eating disorders.  It is easy to see that rapid weight loss followed by rapid refueling is essentially purging and binging.  This is why is it not surprising that combat athletes are more obese, on average, than other sports people after their career has ended.

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Doing it right

As I said in part 1 of this series, the best way to conduct your weight cut is to be as close to your fighting weight as practically possible for most of the year.  Following that, increased training volume in conjunction with careful nutrition during fight camp should take you close to where you need to be.

The final week of weight cutting should only be aiming to shed the last couple of kilos.  If you are starting the week of your fight with 10kg or more to lose, you need to consider that you may not be in the right weight class.

Individual athletes will respond differently to the weight cuts.  Some fighters will have the ability to drop more weight than others without it negatively impacting their performance, so it is important to do a test cut before doing it for real.

Step 1:  Water loading and then restriction.  If your fight is on a Saturday night, with a Friday morning weigh in, start the week drinking 8-10 litres of water per day.  This will naturally lead to increased urination, as the kidneys flush water and salts from the body.

On Thursday reduce water intake to about 1 litre.  Your body will take a while to realize what is happening, so it will continue to produce urine at the increased rate, even though you are not drinking anywhere near as much.  On the morning of the weigh in just sip water or suck ice cubes as needed.

Pay particular attention to your sleep during fight week.  As frequent trips to the bathroom during the night may mean your sleep is not as restful, you may need to get to bed earlier than usual.

Step 2:  Carbohydrate restriction.  During the week of the fight restrict starchy carbs until after you have weighed in.  Your training should be tapering off at this stage, so this should not have too much of an impact on you.

The reason behind the carb restriction is to deplete glycogen stores.  On average, our lean muscle mass accounts for about 40% of our body weight.  For each kilo of muscle, the body stores 13g of glycogen.  Each gram of glycogen is stored in 3g of water.

For example, an 80kg man will have a lean muscle mass of approximately 32kg.  Therefore, his muscles will store 416g of glycogen, which will require 1,248g of water.  As glycogen stores deplete –  the body expels this water, and the fighter should find himself 1.2kg lighter.

Step 3:  Remove sodium and creatine from the diet.  Both substances are associated with water retention, so naturally removing them will help.  As I mentioned in part 2, creatine does improve performance, so there is a trade off here.  It takes several days for creatine levels to become optimal again and you will not have that sort of time frame.  This should be discussed with your coach and tested before you decide whether it is worth doing.

The use of diuretics, saunas and rubber suits should be avoided but as we know is common practice in MMA.  Consistently having to employ these methods is not safe.  Using them either alone or in combination to lose anything more than the final pound or two will absolutely have a detrimental affect on you during the fight.

After the weigh in:

Your first job after the weigh in needs to be re-hydration.  Of course, this does not mean just water. At this stage your body will be severely lacking in electrolytes which will need to be replenished to have you performing at your best.

Most isotonic sports drinks will contain these so reach for one of those straight away.  Have recovery shake mixed up and ready to go.  Aim to drink this within 30 minutes of stepping off the scales.  It should ideally include the following;

  • A scoop of protein
  • Glucose powder
  • Creatine
  • Glutamine
  • Electrolyte powder.

After your shake, continue to re-hydrate at the rate of 1l per hour, this is the rate at which healthy kidneys can process fluids.

The temperature of the water is important.  Cold water will make its way through the digestive tract and into the small intestine where it can be absorbed faster than warm water.  However, it will also make you feel full more quickly, which will inhibit your refuel ling.

A good recommendation is you drink your first litre of water cold and then switch to room temperature.  It is important that you start re-hydrating before eating, as if you are dehydrated your body will not produce the digestive enzymes needed to break down your food.

This is a good time to get to work restoring muscle glycogen, so begin taking in easily digestible, high fibre carbs such as oats.  The glycogen stored in your muscles is what fuels them during the fight.

Creatine and sea salt can be reintroduced now too.  It is a good idea to add salt to each post weigh in meal and even add it in the cooking process.  The glutamine in the shake helps both water and sodium absorption.

If you are having a hard time getting solid nutrition in (nerves can do funny things to the stomach) mix up more shakes as needed.

The future of weight cutting:

The UFC guidelines for the last two years have stated that fighters should commence fight week no more than 8% heavier than their contract weight.

In 2017, CSAC included recommendations for four new weight classes as part of the 10 Point Plan to combat extreme weight cutting.

UFC Vice President Jeff Novitzky, said

“UFC supports the offering of additional weight classes as initially outlined in CSAC’s ’10-point plan’”

The new weight classes pro-offered were;

  • 165 pounds (super lightweight)
  • 175 pounds (super welterweight)
  • 195 pounds (super middleweight)
  • 225 pounds (cruiser-weight)

Naturally an increased number of weight classes will provide athletes with more options and should go some way towards eliminating the need for extreme cuts.

However, the UFC have not yet implemented these changes, citing that they are waiting to see what happens at a regional level.  I would argue that regional MMA events are taking their cues from the big guys, so we have a chicken and egg situation.

When new weight classes are on the horizon, and when implemented, we should see even greater improvements.

Other suggestions which have been made to eliminate these potentially dangerous cuts include reducing the time between the weigh in and the fight.  In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for instance, the window is only 2 hours, practically eliminating the use of dehydration methods for making weight.

To sum up, be smart with your weight cut.  Or at least smarter than the guy you are up against.  Remember that your sport is performance based.  You don’t have the luxury that body builders have of just needing to look the part.  There is little to be gained by making weight only to be completely out performed on the night due to dehydration and fatigue.

Arwen Sheridan – Nutrition Coach

For more about Arwen follow her Health and Wellness blog here

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