How Fighters Cut Weight and How It Hurts Us

If you’ve read my Fitness Story, then you’ll know I have been training in Brazilian jiu jitsu for a little over a year now. Shout out to Gracie Barra Alabama! I’ve competed a couple times myself and have actively supported my husband and teammates while they train and compete. Whether skinny, overweight, or somewhere in between, almost all of us have a weight cut experience of some sort.

Here’s mine:

Spring 2014: I’m running half marathons on a regular basis, training at my BJJ gym 3-4 times per week, and eating fairly healthy. I was 148lbs and about a size 8. I was a fairly fresh white belt, but I had great training and support and was being encouraged to compete. I had done one small competition and had held my own. Competing is scary, but good for me. It puts me outside my comfort zone, lights a fire under me as far as training goes, and can be a lot of fun if I don’t let it freak me out completely (which I have a tendency to do). So, I made the decision to compete in the BIG International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) Atlanta Open in August 2014.

But I had to make another decision: what weight class was I going to compete in?

IBJJF Weight Classes

There are a ‘gagillion’ different rules for the IBJJF competitors, which is why I rely on my coach to make sure I’m where I need to be when I need to be there with everything I’m supposed to have. Thank goodness for people who know what they’re doing. But here are four really important points to remember about the IBJJF and weighing in for competition…

1. The IBJJF rules require all competitors to weigh-in on the official IBJJF scales at the event. You can’t just say you weigh a certain weight and step on the mats. And you never know if their scales will be heavy or light compared to your own at home.

2. If it’s a gi competition (meaning you’re wearing your kimono  while you fight), then you must weigh in WEARING YOUR GI. Depending on your gi, that could add 4-7 pounds!

3. You can’t switch your class on the day of the event. You don’t make weight; you’re disqualified.

4. For all IBJJF competitions, you weigh in RIGHT BEFORE YOU FIGHT. 

The Water Weight Cut

The typical fighter weight cut is almost always about dehydration 24 to 48 hours before weigh-ins. Sweatsuits, steam rooms, saunas, dieuretics, laxatives, and decreased water intake. Combine that with some low intensity exercise to get the sweat flowing, and some people can drop 20 to 30 pounds of water weight. (For an uber-scientific explanation of how this is done, see this article.) So great, you can make a weight class that you think you’ll have a size advantage in and then can dominate everyone, right? Maybe not…

The Dangers

Remember that list of important IBJJF stuff above? Take another peek at it. IBJFF weigh-ins are mere minutes before your first match. While the crazy water weight cuts are feasible for organizations with weigh-ins the night before, you do NOT have time to refuel and rehydrate before an IBJJF tournament. And even if you did have time, let’s think about what rapid weight cuts do to your body…
– Imbalances in electrolytes: This can cause diarrhea and vomiting as well as seizures.
 – Kidney damage: While it’s true that you have an extra, you probably prefer both of them to continue working at full capacity. Dialysis is kind of a buzzkill for your training schedule. 
– Metabolic damage: The more yo-yo-ing you do with your weight, the more you damage your metabolism. It will get harder and harder to lose the weight, eventually becoming impossible and causing you to gain even more weight in your ‘off-season’. 
– Decreased performance: Imagine you were building a race car. You spent months, YEARS, putting it together with the quality parts and attention to detail. And then, on the day of the race, you only put a quarter tank of gas in it. 
– Low blood pressure and increased heart rate: If you follow UFC, you may remember Renan Barao having to pull himself from his fight with TJ Dillashaw 

If you don’t believe a white belt (otherwise known as the smear on the mat after training), then listen to my professor Kaliffa Oliviera, black belt in BJJ and Judo, who competes in world-class competitions regularly…

Cutting Weight Safely

While the professionals and long-time competitors may cut water weight, it’s like playing with fire for most of us. Since I still had a few months, I did what I hoped would work: I worked out harder, longer, more often, and created a caloric deficit by going paleo/whole 30. Still not fun, but at least I could eat enough so I had energy to continue to train. It worked. Slowly, over the summer, I began to drop the weight. It was touch and go for a bit. I actually wasn’t eating enough to lose weight and luckily had someone point that out to me in time to fix the problem. I made weight with some to spare, and got totally owned at the Atlanta Open. I freaked out. It happens. But that’s not the important part. For me, the REAL victory was making weight. I also watched some fellow competitors do the traditional fighters’ weight-cut method. And I saw the serious drawbacks to it.

It just doesn’t make sense. You’ve trained for years, focused on training for this particular competition for months, and then you completely deplete your body of nutrients and water right before asking it to perform at top level. Doesn’t work so well. Think of the last time you tried to do any exercise when you hadn’t eaten in a while or were dehydrated. You probably got it done, but it likely wasn’t a pretty workout, or your best athletic performance.

Quick caveat: there are some fighters who have professional help in cutting weight, are professionals themselves, or just know how to manipulate their own body so well that this isn’t as dangerous for them. Everyone is different. That said, MOST of us are playing with fire when we do stuff like this.

So what other options do you have? Well, you can do what I did and move mountains to drop 8 pounds. It took me a LONG time though. If you’re far enough out from your competition that is certainly an option. But I’ve learned a LOT about my own body and fitness in general since that time. I’ve found some better and more efficient ways to increase my fitness, decrease my body fat, and eat healthy on a sustainable level.

I want to present some options for fighters, whether IBJJF, MMA, wrestling, or otherwise, that can provide quick ways to cut weight in a healthy way that actually makes you stronger for your competition.

Healthy Weight Cut Options

21 Day Fix / 21 Day Fix Extreme

This is the perfect program if you’ve got a couple months before a major competition. Not only is it giving people some amazing results of double digit weight loss, but it’s going to leave you stronger with more muscle. Just from personal experience, my rolling partners have commented on the new strength in my arms after just 2 rounds. I mean, I had noodle-arms before, but they noticed a difference. For an explanation of the workout programs, see my whole page on it
The regular eating plan is going to lend itself well to training. You are eating a balanced diet and staying very hydrated. You’ll probably notice an increase in your energy, especially if you’re using the Shakeology. If you’ve got time, I’d go with this one!
To really shred out your results, the 21 Day Fix Extreme program features an optional eating plan called Countdown to Competition. While it’s referencing the diet that the celebrity trainer Autumn uses for her bikini competitions, it’s a good competition weight cutting diet for fighters as well. It’s extreme without sacrificing performance. If you’re wondering what sort of low carb, high protein diet you should do to shed weight before your competition, THIS IS IT. It has different levels depending on your caloric requirements (which the plan will help you calculate). It’s explained simply, in idiot-proof color-coded containers so you can’t even screw up the portion sizes.

Beachbody Ultimate Reset

This is a 21 day detox/cleanse program that focus mostly on detoxifying your body. It’s definitely a calorie-restrictive diet. The program actually asks you NOT to workout while doing it. However, adding a little extra food, like a Shakeology protein shake or a fruit, would likely give you the energy needed to continue training. This would be a great tool for competitors who might need to take a little time off to rest before a big competition to allow injuries to heal.

This video is from a big-time Beachbody coach and fitness professional. She and her husband are obviously athletic and got crazy good results from the Reset. 

3 Day Refresh

This is a great program if you are a few pounds away from your weight class or right on it and worried about being over on competition day. This involves 3 Shakeology shakes a day as well as clean, fresh food to give you a short cleanse. People regularly lose 4-6 pounds on it. The best part is that you aren’t going to be losing any nutrients or protein that your body needs to maintain strength and muscle tone. Shakeology is going to keep you fueled while you ‘cleanse’ in a healthy way. 

Whatever program you end up doing, whether it’s one of these, or something of your own, just make sure you’re not hurting your performance, short-term or long-term. If you’re looking for a comprehensive program or wondering how to mix in your BJJ workouts with a Beachbody program, hit me up and I’ll help you hash one out specifically designed for YOU.