Credit and Publisher – Alex Neilan
Making weight – Without the Risk
Firstly, I am a not fighter and I never have been. The idea of a Sport Dietitian or Sport Scientist rhyming off study after study to criticise common making weight practices in MMA rarely makes a pleasant read for any athlete. With my little sister representing Ireland in the Amateur World Championships this November, the idea of chasing her ringside with a heavily referenced “Do’s” and “Don’ts” seems Ludacris. Despite this, I feel knowing the current FACTS about making weight safely should be a priority for every athlete.
I have made it my responsibility to educate myself on the practical challenges in MMA and the reasoning behind common methods of making weight. I understand the view that Rapid Weight loss (RWL) to allow athletes to compete at a lighter weight may give them a size advantage over their opponent. But is there true value to this advantage if both athletes practice it? Will you be as sharp and move as fluidly after putting your body under severe physiological and psychological stress in order to make weight? Is there a need to unnecessarily add to the health risks involved in MMA? Even if living a long MMA career is not a long-term goal, I assume living a long healthy life usually is.
Rapid Weight Loss
Classified as weight loss of at least 5%-10% body weight (BW) in a week (Francini et al, 2012), RWL as high as 10.8% body mass has been observed in MMA athletes pre-competition (Mathews and Nicolas, 2016). RWL of 5% can have serious health consequences such as muscle injuries, heat stroke or even death (Khodaae et al, 2015). RWL strategies include reducing food and fluid intake, heat exposure, increasing body secretions and/or increasing body metabolic rate prior to weigh-in (Artioli et al, 2010a; Kiningham et al, 2001, Wilson et al, 2014). This article will concentrate on which of these methods should be avoided and which can be administered in a safe and controlled manner.
Ok, so what can you do to make weight safely? How much weight do you have to lose? How many days do you have to lose it? Well, how long is a piece of string? While the guidelines below are evidence-based please remember a nutritional strategy should always be individually tailored. An optician doesn’t prescribe the same glasses for everyone.
Adhering to a low fibre diet by removing grains and consuming vegetables as blended soups for 2-3 days pre-weigh-in has been shown to be an effective method of decreasing bowel content, translating into a 300-700g weight loss. Results from this method are very variable and should be administered with caution if an athlete suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or other gastrointestinal problems.
Reducing carbohydrate (CHO)
Although arguably the most important macronutrient for sports performance, reducing CHO foods such as rice, pasta, potatoes, and grains can lead to a depletion of muscle glycogen (The fuel stored in muscles) and subsequently reduce fluid retention providing a modest weight reduction. Short-term side effects include irritability, fatigue, reduced immune function and disrupted sleep. If adhered to during exercise further symptoms include increased perception of effort, increased injury risk, reduced power output and slowed reaction time (Burke, 2015).
Reducing intake of processed and salty foods alongside avoiding adding salt to meals may help minimise fluid retention and contribute to weight loss.
Water loading can be an effective method of acute Body Mass (BM) loss when controlled safely (Reale et al, 2017). Changes in vasopressin, an anti-diuretic hormone that plays a key role in maintaining osmolality, may in part underlie the mechanism facilitating the widespread use of this method of BM reduction in MMA (Reale et al, 2017). Basically, the body continues to produce more urine than usual despite a dramatic decrease in fluid intake on the day before weigh in leading to a reduction in fluid retention. Water loading in excess can lead to hyponatremia, low levels of sodium in the blood, and if severe can be fatal. Table 1 provides a safe water loading regimen, specific to an athlete’s current body weight. Fluid intake should be spread evenly over the day to avoid bloating.
Table 1 – Water loading and fluid restriction protocol
4 days pre Weigh-in
3 days pre weigh-in
2 days pre weigh-in
1 day pre weigh in
15ml/kg/d OR 1000ml/d
A modest fluid restriction as an acute weight-loss strategy allows more retention of electrolytes and more rapid rehydration after weigh-in compared to sweating (James and Shirreffs 2013). See Table 1 – 1-day pre-weigh-in for recommendations on safe fluid restriction, please note for smaller athletes an intake of less than 1000ml/d is termed “extreme” and is not recommended (Burke, 2015).
N.B Please note if symptoms such as headaches, tiredness, muscle spasms, seizures, and confusion occur, please terminate the water loading procedure and seek medical attention immediately.
A small weight loss of 0.1-0.2kg can be achieved safely by sweating via low-intensity exercise and should be achieved as close to weigh in as possible. Sweating in excessive heat situations or in very hot climates is not recommended and has led to several fatalities related to extreme dehydration (Francini et al, 2012).
All the of the practices discussed above are extremely dependant on the individual in question, similar to all dietetic advice I give to my athletes, if it is good enough for competition, it’s good enough for practice. Everything MUST be tried and tested to see how your body reacts to various strategies implemented to make weight prior to competition.
In conclusion, the best way to make weight to is to have already made it. An accurate and professional assessment of body composition will determine if there is potential for body fat reduction. A tailored nutrition plan with a controlled calorie deficit and appropriate macronutrient intake can enable athletes to walk around at or close to their fighting weight allowing them to compete at their absolute best via avoidance of extreme RWL strategies which can put excessive physiological and psychological stresses on the body.
Dietetic support for seamless problem-solving strategies is essential to overcome barriers such as flavour fatigue, lack of time and/or lack of motivation. My individualised and flexible nutrition plans provide a concern free eating structure that focuses on meal timings, cooking skills, macronutrient quantities and portion sizing.
For a free dietetic consultation please contact Alex using the below web links:
Artioli, G., Gualano, B. and Franchini, E. 2010a. Prevalence, magnitude, and
methods of rapid weight loss among judo competitors. Med. Sci. Sports
Exerc. 42, 436-442.
Burke and Deakin, 2015. Clinical Sports Nutrition. 5th Ed. Australia. McGraw-hill.
Franchini,E., Brito, C., Artioli, G. 2012. Weight loss in combat sports: physiological,
psychological and performance effects. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 9, 52.
James, L. and Shirreffs, S. 2013. Flued and electrolyte balance during 24 h fluid and/or energy restriction. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 23, 545–563.
Khodaee, M., Olewinski, L., Shadgan, B and Kingingham, M. 2015. Rapid Weight Loss in Sports with Weight Classes. Current Sports Med Rep, 14(6), 435-441.
Kiningham,R. and Gorenflo, D. 2001. Weight loss methods of high school wrestlers.