Cutting weight for competition – is it bad for you?

Cutting weight for competition – is it bad for you?

What does rapidly weight loss do to your body? Is it healthier to stay on weight between tournaments or go up a division?

During my 4.5 years of jiu jitsu I have only had to cut weight once and it was a very miserable time. I was stressed at every meal and couldn’t stop thinking about food. How much I’ve had so far, how much I could still eat today… It was difficult to focus on anything else. Weighing myself way too often and seeing varying results (which is perfectly normal) only increased the pressure. (real weight loss graphic)

I hardly slept the night before the match, because I was trying to sweat out extra water. In the morning I made a mistake. Being satisfied with my weight I ate a small breakfast, which almost sent me into panic mode at the test scale. I started running laps around the building in the scorching heat even though I couldn’t drink anything. My division got pushed back in time, so the suffering was prolonged even further.

In the end, I was bang on weight, but also hungry, dehydrated, tired and stressed three times as much as usual. Surprisingly, I didn’t do too badly, but I was also nowhere near winning (lost in the quarter final after two successful matches).

   

For many competitors this is nothing uncommon. While there’s nothing wrong with going down a division, is it really worth doing it this way?

According to numerous studies (paper1)(paper2)(paper3) weight cutting does not necessarily have long-term health consequences. Most sources mention decreases in memory, concentration, and self-esteem with increases in confusion, depression, rage, and fatigue after rapid weight loss, yet these effects were reversed after normal feeding was resumed sometimes within as little as 4 hours. Apart from the obvious unpleasant sensations related to short-term starvation and dehydration, studies have reported lower bone density in athletes who practice rapid weight loss on a regular basis, hormonal changes, decreased basal metabolic rate and increased risk of injury. However, after reading over twenty studies on the subject, I found that while all of them warned about potential risks, they also stated that medical trial results indicate that most side effects of rapid weight loss disappeared when athletes returned to their previous weight. If there are no confirmed medical consequences, why would it be a bad idea?
  1. It’s painful and affects your performance. It is never easy to go through a period of crash dieting. The enhanced feelings of stress, irritation, lack of concentration combined with mood swings, low energy levels and malnutrition will decrease the quality of your training in the period leading up to the competition. While you may not suffer from long-term health consequences, this will likely affect your performance on the day. Many BJJ competitions will only allow athletes to weight in an hour before their match, which does not leave you with enough time to refuel before fighting.
  2. You’ll have to do it every time. As most studies have shown, crash-dieting athletes quickly return to their previous weight after the competition. This means that unless you’re willing to take a sustainable approach to weight loss, you will be forced to repeat this painful process every time you decide to compete in the lower division. Just thinking of that makes me dread competing.
 

Some sources suggest that it’s possible to cut healthy if you’re up to 2 kg over your desirable weight. While this may be true for some people, especially men, it’s not a universal rule.

Unpredictable hormonal fluctuations causing water retention can successfully mess up your cutting plan and force you to engage in the more dangerous cutting techniques such as extreme dehydration. On the other hand, 2 kg seems like very little in higher weight divisions, but in feather and lower ones it becomes increasingly difficult to cut this much weight while maintaining an appropriate volume of training.

  When I began researching this post I was convinced that cutting for competition must be terrible for you, because that’s just what everyone around seems to believe. The scientific evidence I looked at didn’t necessarily support this theory, but it’s always good to be careful. Whichever approach you choose, good luck with your comps!

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