Almost all weightlifters have done it—some to a small extent, some to a large extent. No one, however, wants to talk about it. And those who do talk about it generally downplay or lie about the extent of their behavior.
You will hear weightlifters discussing the topic privately, trying to figure out the best strategies. When it comes to publicly discussing the matter, however, the community is mute.
Run an internet search for the words “weightlifting” and “weight cutting.” There are a couple dozen anecdotal articles–weightlifters telling stories about what worked for them. However, there are few guidelines established by medical professionals and little organizational guidance.
Unfortunately, silence is not the best way to address this matter. Pretending that it doesn’t happen—or that the sport doesn’t encourage it—can be harmful, especially to youth weightlifters.
What is weight cutting?
Weight cutting involves losing weight quickly to fit into a lower weight class for a sports competition.
Weight cutting is typically accomplished through food restriction or water manipulation—forcing water out of the body prior to a weigh-in and then rehydrating as quickly as possible.
About 65% of the human body is made of water, which makes it a popular source of temporary weight loss. Studies have shown that dehydration of 2-3% has little effect on strength or anaerobic power. Reduced water can be regained by hydrating after weigh-ins. According to a study by the University of Montreal, it takes only about 5 minutes for water to enter the bloodstream from the stomach. And, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, the body can go from moderately dehydrated to fully rehydrated within 45 minutes with only 600 mL of water. (This study was performed on subjects age 25, so age could affect the timing of water absorption.)
Doctors and nutritionists generally recommend against weight cutting. However, many athletes in weight class sports do it to gain an advantage.
Is weight cutting dangerous?
Weight cutting, also referred to as rapid weight loss, came into the spotlight in the fall of 1997 when three collegiate wrestlers died within a 5-week period from complications of weight cutting. All three wrestlers were attempting to lose weight rapidly by inducing severe dehydration (exercise and heat-induced sweating and fluid depravation). After these deaths, weight cutting was no longer considered a harmless exercise in discipline and self-control.
In 2015, the American College of Sports Medicine published a journal article entitled “Rapid Weight Loss in Sports with Weight Classes.” Of interest, the article noted:
- Rapid dehydration by more than 5% of the total body weight can result in muscle cramps, muscle injuries, heat stroke, and even death.
- No matter which strategies are used, weight loss that occurs in less than 7 days has potential negative health and performance effects.
- Athletes who are competing at an appropriate body composition achieved with scientifically sound training and nutrition principles will maximize their performance without needing to engage in rapid weight loss prior to the competition.
Why is there not more medical guidance on weight cutting?
When asked about weight cutting, Dr. Mark Lavallee, Chairman of the USA Weightlifting Sports Medicine Society, acknowledged that numerous athletes regularly cut weight without any adverse side effects. He explained, however, that he could not give general recommendations on weight cutting because what is safe and perfectly fine for a healthy athlete with no medical conditions could be detrimental to another athlete.
Dr. Lavallee pointed out that an athlete’s age, physical maturity, body composition and associated medical conditions all factor into the equation. He gave two examples to illustrate his point:
- A 12-year old female who is borderline anemic because she has heavy periods. A simple 1-2% weight cut could greatly decrease her strength and predispose her to passing out.
- An 11-year old male with sickle cell trait. During physically stressful times, such as dehydration, heat stress, or high altitude, his red blood cells could “sickle” or change shape, which would decrease oxygen carrying capacity and increase risk of hypoxia, clots, severe joint pain, and even death. This athlete should not dehydrate even 2-3%.
Dr. Lavallee advised that any athlete wanting to engage in weight cutting practices should seek the advice of a sports physician for a personalized plan.
What about organizational guidance?
Weightlifting has not suffered the same tragedies as wrestling, and USA Weightlifting (USAW) does not regulate weight cutting practices. USAW does prepare Competition Readiness plans for members of its international team, which monitor athletes’ bodyweight going into international competitions. For all other athletes, however, USAW leaves the matter of weight management up to the individuals involved.
Wrestling, however, has developed some regulation following the deaths of the three collegiate wrestlers. The National Federation of State High School Associations implemented rules in the 2006-2007 competition season that are intended to discourage high school wrestlers from last minute weight cutting. Most notably, the regulations require:
A hydration level not to exceed 1.025
A body fat assessment no lower than 7 percent for boys and 12 percent for girls
A monitored, weekly weight loss plan limiting weekly weight loss to 1.5 percent of total body weight per week.
So, a wrestler who wants to “weight light” for a competition must plan in advance and cannot rely on last minute dehydration.
Why are the wrestling regulations of interest to weightlifters?
Both wrestling and weightlifting are weight class sports. Wrestling has decided that a last minute bodyweight cut of 1.5% is acceptable for high school athletes, but anything more is not okay. As a coach or parent of a youth weightlifter, this could serve as a helpful number if your athlete wants to cut weight before a competition.
Keep in mind, however, Dr. Lavallee’s recommendation to seek advice from a sports doctor before undertaking any weight cutting measures.
What can the weightlifting community do to reduce weight cutting by youth weightlifters?
- Education: Youth athletes should be taught that rapid weight loss measures can be dangerous. They should learn proper weight management techniques so that weight cutting does not become necessary. Weight management is simply achieving a desired body weight through healthy food choices. The process can be as simple as cutting out junk food prior to a competition or as complicated as a detailed diet plan. Coaches can assist in this effort by encouraging their young athletes to make good food choices. Parents can assist by keeping junk food out of the house and making healthy snacks readily available. And USA Weightlifting can assist by making weight management and nutrition materials available to its athletes.
- Rule Changes: According to the American College of Sports Medicine article referenced above, rule changes impact athletes’ behavior even more than educational programs. The article points out that voluntary education programs in place between 1960 and 1997 had little impact on wrestlers’ weight cutting behavior. After the NCAA and National Federation of State High School Associations implemented weight cutting regulations, however, the frequency and magnitude of weight cutting by wrestlers went down.
What rule changes would benefit youth weightlifters?
Allow 13 & Under weightlifters to compete regardless of their bodyweight. Under the current rules, a youth weightlifter at a national USA Weightlifting competition, such as USAW’s Youth Nationals, must declare a weight class the evening before the competition begins. Two hours before the athlete competes, he or she must weigh in. If the athlete weighs in too heavy or light for the declared weight class, the athlete cannot compete. This rule applies to all weightlifters in the competition, whether the lifters are age 9 or 17. The rule puts pressure on athletes who are positioned on the borderline of a weight class. The athletes’ parents have forked over a good amount of money in flights, hotel rooms, meals, and competition fees. If the athlete does not make weight, he risks letting down his parents and wasting their time and money. The rule often leads young athletes to take last minute weight cutting measures.
Coach Jimmy Duke, head coach of Lift for Life gym in St. Louis, Missouri proposes a very simple solution to this problem:
Allow the youngest lifters (13 & Under) to lift regardless of their bodyweight. If an athlete weighs-in too heavy, just ask the athlete to return a couple of hours later when the next weight class weighs-in.
Q: Why not extend this rule to all youth lifters?
A: Coach Duke points out that lifters 13+ can compete in International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) competitions. IWF rules require athletes to compete within designated weight classes. If the athletes do not make weight at the competitions, they cannot compete. So, athletes 13+ should learn any weight management techniques necessary to compete within their weight classes.
But I want to move down a weight class! Can I do this safely?
In weightlifting, it is not unusual for athletes to obsess about their weight classes—even to the detriment of building muscle or training hard. All too often I hear a weightlifter say, “If I could only lose [a ridiculous amount of weight], while maintaining the same strength, I could be really competitive.”
A few thoughts on that . . .
- Have patience. This is not the sport of weight loss. It is the sport of weightlifting. It is easier to lose weight than to gain strength. Building strength takes time! Ultimately, however, you will be more satisfied if you train hard and lift heavy than if you are always hungry and performing below your potential.
- Body Fat: If you have a lot of body fat to spare, losing weight likely will benefit you. Shedding excess fat will make you lighter and healthier without affecting your strength. After all, fat doesn’t lift weight—muscle does. If you are currently at a healthy weight with a normal amount of body fat, however, losing weight probably won’t make you any more competitive because some of the weight you lose will be muscle.
- Weight management: Healthy eating can lead you to the correct weight class. There is nothing wrong with losing weight by cleaning up your diet. Swap junk food for healthy snacks like fruits and vegetables. Substitute water for sugary beverages. Eat a salad once in a while! And if you are serious about losing weight while lifting heavy, consult a sports nutritionist for a personal weight loss plan.
Weight cutting should not be taboo in the weightlifting community. As long as weightlifting remains a weight-class sport, weight cutting will occur. However, as parents, coaches and advocates for youth weightlifters, we should do our best to encourage healthy weight management over last minute weight loss efforts.
Khodaee, Morteza, Lucianne Olewinski, Babak Shadgan, and Robert R. Kiningham. “Rapid Weight Loss in Sports with Weight Classes.” Current Sports Medicine Reports 14, no. 6 (2015): 435-41.
Péronnet, F, et al. “Pharmacokinetic Analysis of Absorption, Distribution and Disappearance of Ingested Water Labeled with D₂O in Humans.” European Journal of Applied Physiology., U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21997675.
“The Acute Effects of Fluid Intake on Urine Specific Gravity … : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.” LWW, journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2013/04000/The_Acute_Effects_of_Fluid_Intake_on_Urine.18.aspx.
Lambert, C., and B. Jones. “Alternatives to Rapid Weight Loss in US Wrestling.” International Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 31, no. 08, Nov. 2010, pp. 523–528., doi:10.1055/s-0030-1254177.
Photos courtesy of Lifting.Life.