Cutting Weight for Competition

Jason Li, Exercise Science BS, USAW LVL2, Catalyst Athletics LVL1, NSCA-CPT

Cutting weight for competition is something that comes with any sport that has competitive weight classes. This is nothing something particularly important for beginners that are new to the sport doing their first competitions. This is for more seasoned athletes that are aiming for specific podium spots. If you are a beginner coach or athlete that is considering doing their weight cut, read along for some important considerations and tips. This is more of an overview rather than a guide to weight cutting. A proper guide needs to be done under the guidance of a professional and be highly individualized to the athlete.

Does the athlete need to cut weight?

As the athlete becomes more qualified there will eventually be a division of high priority competitions and lower priority competitions. High priority meets are regional, national, or international competitions where an athlete has to have a certain total within a weight class to even register. The Olympics and the other International competitions used to qualify for the Olympics would all be considered a high priority. Small local competitions and others that don’t require the athlete to be in peak shape are considered lower priority. Whether they’re used as a heavy testing day, maintaining the lifter’s national ranking, returning from injury, or just to keep from getting rusty, these are lower priority competitions and don’t require a weight cut.

Both peaking and cutting for every single competition can become stressful on the body, increase the likelihood of athlete burnout, and make the body more stubborn in future weight cuts. Beginners definitely don’t need to cut weight as they are still very much learning the sport, and adding the stressor will be unnecessary. More senior competitors that have a chance at medaling in higher level competition within a certain weight class or in a lower weight class may choose to do an extensive cut but this is something that is measured and done safely.

On the topic of beginner athletes, I strongly advise against weight cuts for Youth athletes (under 17 years old specifically). Cutting weight for young athletes repeatedly can be detrimental to their health since they are still growing and developing. Young athletes will naturally increase in weight when they hit puberty and settle into a weight class. Trying to cut too much weight too frequently could actually affect their development. The focus at this stage should be to try and provide a positive competition experience to these athletes and not weight cuts.

As a general rule, athletes should aim to keep their non-functional mass (i.e. their body fat percentage) lower as well. Having too much mass that doesn’t contribute to force production only hinders movement. Some of the heavier weight classes actually have a hard time setting up their start position during the lifts because their stomach gets in their way. This would be a case where cutting down weight would allow for better technique and safer lifting. Athletes should aim to stay below 20% body fat to remain healthy. In these cases, athletes can stand to lose some weight (we will discuss water weight later on in this post).

How much weight does the athlete need to cut?

After it’s been decided whether an athlete has to cut weight, the specific amount over how long a period of time needs to be decided. The longer an athlete has to cut weight, the better, as this allows the body to slowly adjust to the new bodyweight. Keep in mind that as the athlete continues to lose weight over time their lifting technique will start to change, as well as their body leverages. The speed of the lifts may increase now that there is less body mass hindering movement, thus impacting their timing. Heavier athletes that have a lot to lose should start well before their competition and the pacing of the cut can be very aggressive since they can spare the weight without detriment to their health or performance. Lighter lifters that are already low in body weight and have a lower body fat percentage need to be careful when cutting weight as they can easily lose muscle mass or become weaker from lack of energy due to food restrictions.

I like to keep all my athletes within 3kg of their competition weight class during training. Almost all athletes feel better when they are slightly heavier most likely due to the excess calories that can be used to recover from hard training. 3kg for the middle and light weight classes seems to be heavy enough to make a difference in energy levels, but also not so far gone that dramatic measures would be needed leading into the competition. The 3kg difference wouldn’t impact the lifter’s technique as much once they drop it.

What is the proper pacing for a cut?

While you can get very aggressive with the rate at which you lose weight, it's important to note that the more rapid the pacing, the higher the risk of losing muscle mass along the way. Athletes should be losing at a maximum average rate of about 1% body weight weekly. Anything more is too aggressive and likely losing lean mass along with body fat. Anything less is too hard to detect on a weekly basis or it’s not a big enough deficit to have any real impact on the athlete’s body composition. If an athlete has a significant amount of weight to lose the cut might need to start a few months before the competition date. Cuts shouldn’t last longer than 12-16 weeks as the rate of decrease will not only slow but further loss will start to come from lean tissue. After a loss of 6-10% in body weight, having a period of maintenance is advisable to allow time for the body to adjust. Maintenance periods should be about a third of the length of the cutting phase.

I plan for my athletes to hit their competition weight somewhere between 2-4 weeks before their competition. If possible, I try and avoid water cuts since even a little dehydration can have a large impact on the athlete’s focus and performance. The 2-4 weeks allows enough time for the athlete to get acclimated to their new body weight and adjust their technique accordingly. If it is stressful for the athlete to hold the new body weight, I would generally recommend arriving at the target weight 2 weeks prior to competition or even closer to make it easier for the athlete.

What sort of dietary restrictions do you make while cutting?

Obviously when an athlete is cutting weight there has to be a caloric restriction and deficit. I’ve seen and heard many different recommendations based on what weightlifters need. My general recommendation for most strength sports is that the protein remains around 1g/lb of bodyweight. Any lower than 1g of protein won’t be enough to maintain muscle mass since the body will prioritize repair/renewing of organs and normal bodily functions. This really only leaves fat and carbs to take from during a cut. It almost doesn’t matter since long-term studies comparing weight loss between low-fat or low-carb diets show similar weight loss results and ultimately boils down to what the participants could sustain over a long period of time to maintain a consistent deficit. For performance purposes, the lower fat diets tend to be better than the lower carb counterparts since muscular effort relies on glycolysis (breakdown of glycogen) for energy being the more efficient mechanism compared to fat. Another benefit to a lower fat diet is that the reduction in fat will more easily generate a caloric deficit since fatty foods are very dense for a small amount of food (9kcals per gram). The athlete will sometimes not even perceive that there is a deficit since the volume of food they are eating daily remains relatively unchanged. From a health perspective you can cut down to as little as 0.3g/lb of fat however I would strongly recommend against going so low for athletes since they have higher demands than most of the general population. Fats are needed to maintain proper bodily functions and hormone levels. If you find yourself getting close to the 0.3g/lb ratio but still need to lose a few pounds I would advise starting to decrease carbohydrate intake to continue the weight loss. Starting to restrict carbs in the later phases of a cut should coincide nicely with the start of a taper for competition. As the overall volume is decreasing to allow for recovery the athlete will actually need less calories since the training is regressing slightly.

What to expect from a water cut?

Before going into the details of a water cut, I can’t stress enough how dangerous extreme water cuts can be and the coach/athlete needs to keep a close eye on the overall status. At the first sign of danger the coach needs to act fast and stop the cut immediately before it becomes life threatening. I would definitely advise against water cuts for youth athletes as their regulatory systems are less robust than the average adult. Cutting water should be used as a last resort or for dropping the last few pounds and not as the main strategy for making weight. If it can be avoided it should be, as a little dehydration has a profound effect on performance and health. It’s normal for athletes to overhydrate to upregulate the diuretic pathways in the body and then later reduce the water to flush out water within the body.

Here’s what a typical timeline looks like:

4-5 days out from competition

4-5 liters of water throughout the day

-DO NOT try and drink an entire liter of water in one sitting. This can easily cause electrolyte levels to drop within the bloodstream causing the body to essentially shut down. The more spread out the consumption of water is throughout the day the better.

-The body might actually gain a little bit of weight during this period as it is hyperhydrated

3 days out from competition

3 liters of water

 

2 days out from competition

2 liters of water

 

1 day out from competition

1 liter of water

 

12 hours before weigh-ins

Stop drinking water all together

-Also start to reduce salt and carb intake to help reduce the final bit of water retention.

 

I want to reemphasize how important it is that the athlete is closely monitored as manipulating hydration IS risky and can be very dangerous. Athletes should not try and cut more than 5% through this method. Athletes shouldn’t need to cut that much if they have been slowly bringing down their weight well before the competition.

How to rehydrate properly following a water cut?

If a water cut is necessary to make weight then a rehydration plan needs to be implemented effectively to quickly replenish the athlete before the competition. If salt and carbohydrates were reduced 12hrs prior to weigh-ins, then the athlete should eat something immediately after they step off the scale. Something that is relatively high in carbs, moderate protein, and low in fat is recommended. Easy to digest foods like non-fat yogurt with honey or white bread are good options as they are quickly absorbed by the body. Another advantage to having easily digested food is that it allows the athlete to start warming up right away since all weightlifting competitions start 2 hours after weigh-ins. This is probably not the best time to eat a salad since it can lead to stomach cramps or a “bloated” feeling once the athlete starts moving around. As for fluid intake an electrolyte drink like Gatorade is perfect since water generally isn’t sufficient to replenish the salt that’s been lost during the cut and prevent a condition called hyponatremia. Here’s a general recommendation for the amount of each macronutrient and water that the athlete should intake following weigh-ins:

-Minimum 1 liter of fluids per 100lbs of body weight (electrolyte drinks are recommended)

-1.2g/lb of bodyweight in carbs

-0.3g/lb of body weight in protein

-0.1g/lb of body weight in fats

Fluids should be taken in gradually around 8-12oz of water every 15mins as the gut has a limit to how much water it can absorb in one instant. Drinking too quickly will get flushed quickly through the system and end up in the bladder rather than being reabsorbed into the body. Not only does this not rehydrate the athlete but now they have to use the bathroom which can disrupt the warm up.

Closing Thoughts

I hope this overview of cutting weight is useful to the reader in understanding what to expect and how to safely do a weight cut. While I went pretty in-depth on some subjects this is by no means a comprehensive guide on how to cut weight for a competition. This is specific to weightlifting and probably not suitable to some other sports like wrestling. I want to again state how dangerous dramatic weight cuts can be and should be avoided all cost. If an athlete has a lot of weight to cut it should be done gradually to ensure not only the best performance but also the healthiest strategy. I would also advise the athlete and coach test a weight cut during a low priority competition to make specific adjustments to that athlete. This will take some of the guessing out of the process and establish a reliable routine.