A look into the healthy and unhealthy methods fighters use during the countdown to weigh-ins.

Fighters usually go through a weight cut to compete in a weight class that is lower than their natural weight in order to enjoy a weight and size advantage when in the cage. More often than not, the larger fighter is more likely able to execute more powerful strikes, get the take down, defend the take down, out-wrestle and out-grapple an opponent on the ground and just generally power through most situations.

It has been a little bit of a mystery to me what fighters do exactly to cut 20-30 pounds in 3 days or less. The insight I have is only through the bits and pieces collected from episodes of The Ultimate Fighter and pre-fight interviews. Given the recent events at UFC 177, with Renan Barao and Henry Cejudo having to drop off the card due to weight cut issues, I decided to look more deeply into the weight cut process. I thought I’d share my findings with you so that we can all go into the next MMA event a little more educated and a better MMA fan. Especially with the Olympias on the 18th of September, 2014, weight cutting and diet will also be a pertinent topic there.

It is no secret that the majority of fighters try to compete in a lower weight class. On average, fighters will come in about 20 pounds above contract weight. They will put their bodies through a phenomenal amount of torture and pain in the 48 to 24 hours leading up to weigh-ins so as to cut pounds of water weight.

Just how much torture and pain? If you recall from Season 1 of TUF, Bobby Southworth was going through absolute hell to cut 20 pounds for his fight against Lodune Sincaid. The amount of help he needed from Chuck Liddell and Josh Koscheck which included Chuck Liddell having to sit against the sauna door so that Bobby wouldn’t escape out. The weight cut process captured on the show was eye opening and to a non-fighter, it was out of this world (video of Bobby’s weight cut here).

Fighters who cut a lot of weight to reach contract weight are names that we have come to know and love. These fighters include:

Anderson Silva – cut 45 pounds to make middleweight
Forrest Griffin – cut 35 pounds to make light heavyweight
Thiago Alves – cut 30 pounds or more to make welterweight
Anthony Johnson – cut 30 pounds or more to make welterweight
Gleison Tibau – cut 20 pounds to make lightweight
Sean Sherk – cut 20 pounds to make lightweight

Other fighters known to cut a lot of weight to compete (or fail to make weight) are Jake Shields, Gray Maynard, Jose Aldo, Krzystof Soszynski, Zoila Frausto Gurgel, Cristian “Cyborg” Justino, Gina Carano, Quinton Jackson, and Brock Lesnar. Let’s also not forget James Irvin coming into the weigh-ins looking like Skeletor for his fight against Alessio Sakara at 185 lbs.

The list is endless as many fighters try to squeeze as much water out of their bodies in order to benefit from the size and weight advantage in the cage. In fact there are very little fighters who do not cut weight and the only fighter that comes to mind is Frankie Edgar when he fought at 155.

The evolution of the weight cut

The human body is about 60% water. Fighters usually check into the hotel before the weigh-ins about 20 pounds above the contract weight. This 20 pounds will be lost over the next 2 to 3 days in the form of water weight. Through my research into weight cutting methods, there are healthy and non-healthy methods of cutting weight. The non-healthy method is also the method that fighters traditionally use and the method that we are usually exposed to on fighter reality shows like The Ultimate Fighter.

The traditional method of weigh cutting involves the fighter using a combination of starvation diets, diuretics, saunas, and working out in sweat or plastic suits.

Starvation diets involve the fighter cutting out any and all carbohydrates from their diet so that they do not retain any water. This type of diet is dangerous for the fighter as it deprives him of energy and nutrients.

Diuretics can be a harmful method of cutting water weight as the fighter can lose essential nutrients such as magnesium and potassium.

The sauna is a very traditional and reliable method of cutting water weight. Many fighters know how their body reacts to it and can time how long they need to be in the sauna. However, the sauna essentially “pulls” water out of the body. Fighters lose electrolytes, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. In a sauna, fighters are also, quite simply, cooking themselves. Their internal organs, eyeballs, and skin are all under an immense amount of heat which cannot be a good thing especially when going into a fight…or in general.

Plastic suits are a very common way for fighters to increase the body temperature to induce sweating with an increased heart rate. It is convenient for the fighter to use the plastic suit to leverage and capture the body’s elevated temperature while going through a regular work out or warm up routine. However the plastic suit requires the fighter to be active and working out and this activity could lead to wearing out the muscles and depletion of energy right before a fight. Especially when the plastic suit is used in combination with the sauna, it creates a heavy toll on the fighters muscles and joints hours before the most important fight of their career.

In combination, these traditional tools can lead to the fighter cutting weight in an unhealthy method and the result will likely be long term damage to the fighters body. Famous cases of this that come to mind include the death of Leandro Santos and Daniel Cormier’s kidney problems.

Healthier weight cutting method

As the sport of MMA evolves, the science around the sport also evolves. Fighters and trainers understand the importance of nutrition and balance more and have tools and methods to support it.

Fighters are now moving towards a more well-rounded and healthier method of cutting weight by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and diet throughout the year, even when not in training camp. This allows the fighter to maintain their body weight at a certain level and not get too heavy and unhealthy.

When fighters go into training camp, they can further adjust their diet and training to cut even more weight throughout the 8 to 10 weeks. This type of healthy lifestyle will allow the fighter to arrive at the hotel before the weigh-ins in the 10 to 20 pounds range over contract weight instead of the 20 to 30 pounds range.

Fighters also now adopt hot bathes and towel wraps to lose the water weight instead of starvation diets, diuretics, and saunas. About 24 hours before the weigh-in, fighters will start limiting their fluid intake. However to keep hydrated, fighters still drink some water or eat ice cubes.

Hot baths are a more healthy way to lose weight compared to the sauna and diuretics. Fighters use a combination of the Epsom Salt Bath with rubbing alcohol and very hot water. The hot water will increase the heart rate and body temperature of the fighter to induce sweating. The bathroom will usually become steamed and will naturally become a steam room as well. The heat will help open the pores which allow the fighter to absorb the magnesium that is in the Epsom Salt Bath. The magnesium will help reduce inflammation, relax the muscles, and feed and repair damaged muscles.

The routine fighters follow is usually 10 to 20 minutes in the bath and then 10 to 15 minutes out of the bath to cool down. Depending on the fighter, anywhere from 2 to 9 sessions are needed to help lose the water weight. However each session will result in less water loss. Tim Boetsch has famously done 9 sessions which can become a painful process.

The towel wrap comes after the hot bath when the body temperature of the fighter is still high. The fighter will typically put on a sweat suit, lie on the floor wrapped in towels and covered with a blanket. This induces more sweating while the fighter can relax his body and muscles before the fight.

See the below videos from Josh Koscheck and Daniel Cormier which preach a combination of well-balanced lifestyle and nutrition with a safe weight cutting process.

Josh Koscheck interview with Kutting Weight

Daniel Cormier interview with Kutting Weight

It is never a good thing to have to cut any water weight in a short period of time. This is what fighters typically choose to do in order to take advantage of the weight and size advantage of fighting in a lighter weight class. The boxing world has adopted some rules in order to increase the safety of fighters during the weight cut. These include having weight classes that are closer together. That’s why you see the almost absurd number of weight classes that change in 2 to 4 pound increments. The WBC has also implemented a pre-fight weigh in check-in routine. Fighters will have to weigh in 30 days away from a fight to make sure they are within 10% of the contract weight. 7 days out, fighters will weigh in again to make sure they are within 5% of the contract weight.

Although these methods are effective and well implemented in the boxing world, MMA is still coming from a wrestling mentality where fighters train at a certain weight and will cut to meet contract weight. Perhaps the painful weight cutting process can be seen as part of the life of being a fighter. Or an initiation process to ensure that the individual has the mental toughness it takes to be a fighter. Despite the romantic notions of living up to a Louden Swain type weight cut, it is important to keep our fighters healthy, training, and fighting.