MMA training: Cutting weight the right way

UFC lightweight Ben Henderson (center) had to shed his clothes to make weight at UFC 129. Photo credit:

There are tons of examples, but they often go overlooked and are forgotten.

Examples of what, you ask? Crazy, ridiculous weight-cutting. Occasionally, fighters who cut serious weight before a fight are even applauded for their commitment or their mental toughness.

Don’t get me wrong – it definitely takes quite a bit of mental toughness to cut a significant amount of weight a day or two before a fight (6% or more of body weight). I know because I’ve been there. That said, there’s nothing about this that’s worthy of praise. Why? Because an athlete who needs to cut this much water weight typically has demonstrated that he possesses one of two things:

  1. A lack of physical preparation and/or dietary planning
  2. A coaching staff that lacks knowledge of how rapid weight loss decreases performance

With this in mind, we should instead be applauding the fighter who is much closer to being on weight than the fighter who had to cut 15 lbs. the night before weigh-ins. Why?

He’s much more likely to perform at peak levels.

I know what you may be thinking….

I want to have a significant strength and size advantage in more of my fights, so I just cut more weight.

While I can see how this may make sense in a way, what you may not realize is that you’re significantly diminishing your capacity for force production2, 3, your ability to execute a game plan1, 5, your rate of perceived exertion8, 9, and your overall state of mind7.

In short – you may be a bit bigger, but by voluntarily decreasing your performance traits, you’re leveling the playing field more than you realize, rendering your size advantage useless.

Here are a few ways that rapid weight loss can decrease your performance levels, and some suggestions to combat the limited performance capacity in your next bout:

  • Dehydration. A common occurrence in athletics is the phenomenon of voluntary dehydration. This means that as athletes dehydrate themselves, either during a workout or during weight-cutting procedures, they consistently fail to rehydrate completely. This is largely due to the fact that they will no longer FEEL thirsty, and will cease the process of purposeful rehydration. Performance decrements have been observed in athletes at a level of dehydration of 1.8%9. For a 170 lb. fighter, this is less than 3 lbs.

What you can do:

By weighing yourself prior to any activity that may induce dehydration, then replacing every ounce of weight lost with water and/or a sports drink you may help diminish the effect that dehydration plays in decreasing performance levels.

  • Depleted muscle glycogen stores. Crash dieting and intense exercise for the purpose of cutting weight quickly will zap your muscle glycogen stores2, 7, thereby reducing maximal force production during competition. In other words, you won’t be able to hit as hard.

What you can do:

Avoid crash dieting. Put more of a long-term emphasis on calorie restrictions beginning weeks before a fight. This ensures you continue to get a significant amount of nutrients and you aren’t at a caloric deficit of more than 500 cals/day.

  • Reduced lean muscle mass. A popular way for fighters to cut weight is engaging in an intense workout without eating or drinking much of anything. While this will make you lose weight, your muscles need both energy and nutrients to feed recovery. As you’re not providing your body with external nutrients, the body goes into a catabolic state. Some of the internal sources your body will devour WILL be muscle stores…and what athlete wants to be weaker?

What you can do:

Follow the previous “What you can do” step to get a handle on your diet, ensuring you only need to cut 2-3% of body weight prior to weigh-ins. Cut everything in the sauna and exert as little energy as possible. Once you’ve weighed in, rehydrate immediately using the “What you can do” step in #1 as your guideline. This helps reduce your body’s need for calories, thereby discouraging reductions in lean muscle stores.

  • Increased rate of perceived exertion. Your rate of perceived exertion is how difficult you personally feel the activity you’re performing is. While you may have gone three 5-minute rounds with no problems during practice, rapid weight loss makes the same activity feel much more difficult9. It doesn’t matter how good of shape you’re in prior to competition if you don’t feel the benefits during competition.

What you can do:

In addition to following the previous three guidelines, try occasionally training for slightly longer than the durations your competition requires. This means once a week, extend your rounds by a minute or two, and reduce your rest periods by 10-15 seconds. While it’s not quite as sport-specific in terms of which energy systems you’ll actually be using, you’ll be more mentally prepared for an increased rate of perceived exertion.

  • Decreased mental performance and increased negativity. It’s quite shocking to many how much of the fight game is mental. Game planning, your interpretation of your opponent’s movements to trigger learned reflexes, the anticipation of your opponent’s reflexes and reactions, the ability to multi-task (executing movements while simultaneously listening to your corner)  – the list goes on and on. It’s no surprise that rapid weight loss can greatly decrease your brain’s capacity to perform8. However, it’s often surprising to hear how much of an effect your mood can impact the outcome of a competition. Mood has actually been shown to be an effective predictor in combat sports competition outcomes up to 92%5 of the time!

What you can do:

The obvious answer? Follow the guidelines above, and don’t adhere to the cut a bunch of weight before a fight school of thought. The less obvious answer is to start educating yourself on sports psychology techniques. Visualization, affirmations, positive self-talk – these are all powerful tools you can use to get your mind on your side.

In summary, the next time you hear somebody brag about how much weight they cut before a fight, only pretend to be impressed. Then, walk straight up to the promoter and ask for a fight with him. If you follow the guidelines listed above, I like your chances.

Works Cited:

  1. Hall CJ, Lane AM. Effects of rapid weight loss on mood and performance among amateur boxers. Br J Sports Med 35: 390-395, 2001.
  2.  Guastella P, Wygand J, Davy K, and Pizza F. The effects of rapid weight loss on aerobic power in high school wrestlers. Med Sci Sports Exerc 20: S2, 1988.
  3.  Hickner R, Horswill C, Welker J, Scott J, Roemmich JN, and Costill DL. Test development for the study of physical performance in wrestlers following weight loss. Int J Sports Med 12: 557-562, 1991.
  4.  Turner AN. Strength and Conditioning for Muay Thai Athletes. Strength Cond J 31: 78 – 92, 2009.
  5.  Terry P and Slade A. Discriminant capability of psychological state measures in predicting performance outcome in karate competition. Percept Mot Skills 1995:81: 275 – 286.
  6. Kelly J, Gorney B, Kalm K. The effects of a collegiate wrestling season on body composition, cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength and endurance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 10: 119-124, 1986
  7. Choma C, Sforzo G, and Keller H. Impact of rapid weight loss on cognitive function in collegiate wrestlers. Med Sci Sports Exerc 30: 746-749, 1998.
  8. Gopinathan PM, Pichan G, Sharma VM. Role of dehydration in heat stress-induced variations in mental performance. Arch Environ Health 43(1): 15-17, 1988.
  9. Walsh RM, Noakes TD, Hawley J, Dennis S. Impaired High-Intensity Cycling Performance Time at Low Levels of Dehydration. Int J Sports Med 15: 392-398, 1994.
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