Whether you're a youth wrestler who needs to lose 2 pounds or just a wrestling enthusiast who's recently joined the local Greco-Roman club, few moments hold more gravity than weighing in for the season. Despite the pivotal effect your weight class exerts on the season, cutting weight for wrestling is never an excuse to put your body at risk. The good news is you can still make weight, stay healthy and perform at your peak by following in the footsteps of athletes who've found that balance in decades past.
Cutting Weight for Wrestling: Health
The temptation to gain a muscle advantage over lighter opponents is strong. If you're not careful, it's easy to fall into the quick appeal of extreme weight loss methods.
Because the weigh-in determines the lowest weight class in which you can compete, it's not uncommon to hear myths of wrestlers losing a few pounds in a day or even more drastic stories tell of shedding 10 pounds overnight. In January of 2018, UFC middleweight Uriah Hall was hospitalized and came close to death for suffering a minor heart attack and mini seizure after extreme weight loss. As he told ESPN in May of that year, "I just wasn't in control of my body."
These stories, both truth and myth, often inspire extreme and potentially unsafe weight loss methods, from diuretics to starvation. When you're cutting weight for wrestling, remember that no matter how important the season seems at the time, nothing carries more weight than your long-term health.
Plan Ahead: The Preseason
When you think about weighing in for the season, always follow this mantra: It's not about cutting weight, it's about managing weight. Rather than trying to fit your body's square shape into a round weight-class hole, focus on maintaining a weight range for the class you naturally tend to fall into when in your optimal fighting shape.
As Morris Bird of Beat the Streets Los Angeles tells the U. S. Olympic Committee, "The right weight class for a wrestler is the one in which the athlete feels the strongest mentally and physically. If it's too taxing on the mind and body to drop to a lower class, [the wrestler] shouldn't do it. Parents and coaches should err on the side of encouraging the athlete to not drop to a lower class."
To be fair, this may still mean that you have a few extra pounds to lose before you can successfully make weight for your class. To cut that weight safely while maintaining your maximum performance standards, fast is rarely the correct speed setting. You need to play a long weight loss game, starting during the preseason and continuing all the way through the wrestling season.
"The right weight class for a wrestler is the one in which the athlete feels the strongest mentally and physically." — Morris Bird, Program Director, Beat the Streets Los Angeles
Preseason Weight Maintenance
Remember, the tried and true basics will serve you well. Start by cutting fast food and sugary drinks from your diet (yes, that includes sports drinks and even fruit juice). While wrestlers are well known for reducing their water weight quickly just before weigh-in, increasing your water intake during training is actually the way to go as it may help encourage weight loss.
A June 2016 study from Frontiers in Nutrition suggests that increased water intake reduces appetite and accelerates lipolysis (fat breakdown). Drinking water every 10 or 15 minutes during training or every three to four hours on your downtime makes for a solid rule of thumb. Of course, everyone's hydration needs naturally vary a bit.
About 1 to 2 pounds per week is generally a healthy level of weight loss. This steady pace tends to cut fat without affecting lean mass.
Try picking one day of your training week to indulge in an active rest day. An all-out cheat day can pack on the pounds over time, so engage in light activity that gets your body moving instead. Grab a basketball game, a jog or a swim, letting your muscles recover while still trimming a few calories and keeping your metabolism up.
Eat Right: Nutritional Tips
Cutting weight for wrestling in a healthy manner isn't just about running your hardest or lifting your heaviest. Instead, it's dependent on your diet.
Throughout your training, you'll typically be better served by eating four or five small meals throughout the day than eating a big breakfast, lunch and dinner. That's because smaller meals help you avoid overeating and keep your blood sugar levels stable. Smaller meals alone won't increase your metabolism, though — that's just a myth.
Avoid skipping breakfast. In fact, eat a bigger breakfast high in protein and healthy fats to keep your metabolism up in the days leading up to your weigh-in. As much as possible, make sure the carbs you eat also provide plenty of fiber.
Foods rich in sugar, trans fats, saturated fats and salt typically offer low nutritional value while potentially increasing your cravings for high-calorie grub. This can lead to weight gain or stubborn, hard-to-lose pockets of fat. Instead, focus on the trifecta of lean protein, fiber and healthy fats.
Try These Dietary Staples
Even if your goal is to cut a little fat before you weigh in, you've still got to eat to properly fuel your training schedule. Certain foods, however, will help you in your journey more than others. Protein and healthy fats, such as monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, are the name of the game here.
Some time-tested foods that help wrestlers trim down healthfully and successfully include (but, of course, aren't limited to):
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Nut butters
- Lean ground beef
- Baked potatoes
- Milk (2 percent)
- Pita bread
- Brown rice
- Brussels sprouts
- Sweet potatoes
The United States Olympic Council provides an example of a consistent meal cycle geared toward energetic training and weight loss:
- Breakfast: 600 to 700 calories
- Lunch: 600 to 700 calories
- Snack before practice: 200 calories
- Recovery drink after practice: 200 to 300 calories
- Dinner: 500 to 600 calories
- After-dinner snack (optional, if you're hungry): 100 to 200 calories
Trim Down: Before Weighing In
The days before it's time to make weight may require a few crunch-time tactics, but that doesn't mean you should put your health at risk before the almighty scales.
In the 48 hours before you weigh in, focus on cutting your salt intake. It's typically safe to do that to reduce water weight in moderation. Remember that 4 to 6 cups a day is generally healthy, but if you feel thirsty, don't risk dehydration. Heavy sweating means you're losing water.
Your overall goal is to keep your weight within 2 to 3 pounds of your ideal weigh-in when fully hydrated so that you can sweat that small amount off just before you hit the scale. Hit your workout hard just before you make weight. If your weigh-in is at 10 o'clock, get a good hour of working out in at 9 o'clock. That alone can trim an often crucial pound or two from your weigh-in.
Don't Ever Dehydrate
It can't be stressed enough: Dehydration is not the right path to making weight. As a 2013 review in the Turkish Journal of Sport and Exercise reports, "Rapid weight loss via dehydration has profound adverse effects on the wrestler's physiology and muscular endurance even with 1 percent of body weight loss. Additionally, there is a decline after 4 percent of weight loss in strength or anaerobic power performance."
Steer clear of sauna suits, plastic clothes and other methods that increase sweating to promote temporary weight loss, as they may lead to dehydration. Loading up on caffeine, taking laxatives, diet pills, water pills or diuretic drugs or sitting in a steam room can also result in dehydration and long-term health problems.
When you're dehydrated, you're far more susceptible to heat because you sweat less to cool off. Overheating leaves you prone to injury, illness, heat stroke or even, in extreme cases, death. And that's to say nothing of the long-term kidney damage. It's absolutely crucial to prevent dehydration in the first place.
Listen to Your Body
What happens to your body when you dehydrate yourself? First, consider what water does for your body.
When you're hydrated, your muscles pump blood normally and that blood delivers oxygen and nutrients to your body while removing waste from muscle cells. Proper hydration allows your kidneys to maintain an ideal balance of potassium and sodium, an essential component of healthy cell function.
Speaking to Popular Science in January of 2018, Nicholas Rizzo of the Association of Ringside Physicians says, "The analogy I give fighters is that your body and muscles are like a sponge. It's easy to squeeze out a wet sponge, but when water goes back in, it goes at the sponge's rate. You can't force water into it."
In other words, err on the side of more rather than less water. While clear urine indicates that you're hydrated, you need to hydrate immediately if your pee is a dark, apple juice-like color — a sign of dehydration.
Always stop training and get some rest if you feel dizzy, ill or light-headed. These may be signs of overexertion, heat stroke or dehydration.
"Your body and muscles are like a sponge. It's easy to squeeze out a wet sponge, but when water goes back in it, it goes at the sponge's rate." — Nicholas Rizzo, Association of Ringside Physicians
Avoid These Other Pitfalls
Subjecting yourself to extreme calorie deprivation, such as fasting, also reduces your nutrient intake, leading to a loss of strength, endurance and stamina, not to mention possible muscle atrophy and even depression. None of these will give an advantage inside or outside of the ring.
Besides, extreme weight loss may even disqualify you. In high school wrestling, for instance, mandatory hydration assessment tests typically don't allow young men under 7 percent body fat or women under 12 percent body fat to lose any more weight and require a signed doctor's release to allow participation in competition.
Oh, and the wrestling trend of Jolly Rancher spitting, in which you generate then expel lots of saliva by sucking on Jolly Ranchers and spitting into a bottle? It's bogus – don't waste your time. Avoid the sensationalist minefield of old-school wrestling myths and stick to proven, safe and researched weight loss methods and you'll be a lean, healthy fighting machine this season and the next.
- Children's Hospital Colorado: Wrestlers: "Tips on Losing Weight Safely – Avoiding Risky Weight Loss Behaviors"
- United States Olympic Committee: Team USA: "The Right Way to Make Weight"
- California Interscholastic Federation: "Wrestlers' Diet – A Healthy Guide to Weight Control"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus: "Can You Boost Your Metabolism?"
- PubMed – U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: Frontiers in Nutrition: "Increased Hydration Can Be Associated With Weight Loss"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Truth About Fats: The Good, the Bad and the In-Between"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "How Much Water Should You Drink?"
- Marshfield Clinic: Shine365: "Wrestlers: Scale Back on Extreme Weight-Cutting Methods"
- Cleveland Clinic: "The 7 Best Weight Loss Tips You'll Ever Read"
- Nationwide Children's Hospital Sports Medicine: "Wrestling Assessment"
- Popular Science: "This Is Why Cutting Weight Is so Dangerous for Professional Fighters"
- ESPN: "UFC Middleweight Uriah Hall on Dangerous Weight Cut – 'I Wasn't in Control of My Body'"
- Turkish Journal of Sport and Exercise: "Physiology of Wrestlers' Dehydration"