WEIGHT CUTTING: HOW MUCH? HOW SAFE?
Late last year, I made my stance and set my limits: I won’t cut more than a certain amount of weight.
These days I walk around at 65kg and I cut to 61-63kg over a period of weeks leading up to a fight.
While I do run in a sweat-suit and lose water weight, I don’t lose more than a kilogram and a half through dehydration.
I made this stance because I felt an incredible sense of loss at the tragedy that befell Australian fighter, Jessica Lindsay.
I didn’t know Jessica personally, but the fact that a young fighter died while cutting weight is unbearable. I wanted to do something – I heard fighters, trainers, managers and promoters alike express a desire to revise their current attitude and practices after this incident, so I certainly wasn’t alone.
I recently declined a potential match at 60kg for Nai Khanom Tom Day in Ayutthaya; a decision that still haunts me. What if her corner had compromised their own upper limit and raised the offer to 60.5kg? Would I have accepted? If I had, there is no doubt that I would have been compromising both my health and my performance.
Unfortunately, at my weight and experience level I fall within the ranks of the desperate and dateless of the fighting scene, and it’s really tempting to agree to cut just that little bit more in order to get matched.
I’m a fighter who has taken a stance about not making big weight cuts, but it seems that all this does is shift the burden from cutting from me to my opponent. And from the point of view of self-care, I have traded the risks associated with weight cutting for the risks associated with facing off against a bigger, harder-hitting opponent.
On one hand, cutting a lot of weight is unhealthy and harmful and on rare occasions fatal. On the other hand, not cutting weight possibly subjects a fighter to the risks of being damaged by a heavier fighter. So, what’s the answer? Find someone exactly the same weight as you and fight them? The reality is that in most cases, someone is going to have to cut some weight to make the match possible.
What does that mean from the point of view of safety? I contacted two doctors to discover more from a medical perspective: Dr. Nicholas Rizzo, past president and board member of The Association of Ringside Physicians, and Dr. Peter Lewis from the Australasian Ringside Medicine Association.
How much is too much?
According to Lewis, the weight cut for amateurs may only be 1 or 2kg. Professionals may lose 6 to 8kg depending on their weight division. Lewis says the amount of weight fighters are losing has increased over the years, but fighters are getting more scientific about losing weight.
Fighters aim to achieve a set weight for the weigh-in, and then recover the weight they lost for when they fight (8-24 hours later.) A fighter may restrict food for a period of time, and many fighters will also, or mainly, lose water-weight through dehydration.
They opt for dehydration over starvation because it is a faster way to both lose and regain weight. It also entails less muscle catabolism (the breaking down of muscle) and less depletion of glycogen and fat stores (energy for fighting). Obviously, however, it entails dehydration, which also comes at a cost.
The traditional way to lose weight through dehydration would be to don a sweat-suit and start jogging – my method – or to sit in a sauna and sweat it out.
I’ve also heard of fighters “water loading” by consuming extra water over several days to trick the hormones in their body that regulate water and salt levels into causing a rapid loss of water, or diuresis, after a certain amount of time, so that even when fluid consumption is reduced or stopped altogether, the body continues to lose water.
Both doctors warn that dehydration methods can be dangerous.
A fighter who has lost a lot of weight will most likely enter the ring in a dehydrated state – there’s simply not enough time to recover from water deprivation and there is evidence to suggest that a dehydrated brain is a greater risk of concussion or brain damaged when hit.
When I interviewed Rizzo, he expressed concerned about any method entailing dehydration because it could “lead to excessive, inappropriate, or too rapid dehydration.
Improper methods would include losing too much water and doing it too quickly, such as in heat rooms like saunas, losing sweat through workouts, dehydration through decreased water intake, or the use of laxatives and diuretics.”
Most fighters typically cut weight through dehydration, a method Lewis cautions against. He also argues against the use of diuretic tablets to lose weight on the basis that it is dangerous that it may take days rather than hours to recover.
Similarly, Rizzo cautions against the method of water loading due to concerns about fluid status and electrolyte imbalances. Rizzo warns that excessive consumption of water after dehydrating for the weigh-in can also be dangerous due to electrolyte imbalances.
Not all fighters cut a lot of weight. Some might lose only 3% to 5% of their body weight. Rizzo says that the proper way to cut weight is not to go below what your healthy competition weight is. Both doctors say that the method used to cut weight is crucial, and both doctors state that proper nutrition and training are very important.
According to Lewis, a fighter should not lose more than 10% of his or her body weight. Rizzo, however points to a more complex relationship between what an individual can safely lose through dehydration and their percentage of body fat, as well as their gender.
Female competitors should not be allowed to cut to a weight lower than their body weight minus 7% of their body fat and male competitors should not be allowed to cut to a weight lower than their body weight minus 5% of their body fat.
Rizzo warns that individual fighters tolerate dehydration differently and factors like health and they manage their nutrition plays a critical role in dealing with various degrees of dehydration.
Any fighter or manager who is planning to dehydrate to make weight should carefully consider the amount they are planning to lose through dehydration – remember, the more you lose through dehydration, the greater the risk to your health, and risks include death.
They should also carefully consider how they are going to dehydrate: any method that involves losing fluid entails risk due to dehydration and possible overheating. Methods that entail rapid dehydration are especially risky.
More than self-regulation
At present, in Muay Thai, weight cutting is entirely self-regulated. Is there a way that weight-cutting can be sanctioned? According to Dr Rizzo, for some weight-category sports in some countries, weight-loss for fighters is regulated.
“In the United States the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations have programs that are nationally standardized, inexpensive to run, and work.
“They use skin calipers in addition to body weight and hydration testing to calculate and fighter’s percentage of body fat. These numbers are then plugged into an equation that determines what the fighter would weigh at 5% body fat for males and 7% for females.
“The fighters are then not allowed to compete below this weight. This prevents excessive dehydration below a safe weight for the fighter.”
If weight cutting were to be regulated by an official or governing body, what would that regulation look like?
Some people have suggested that having weigh-ins closer to the event, say the morning of the event, or even a few hours before the event, would eliminate unsafe weight-cutting methods.
At present, fighters are on their own when it comes to weight cutting.
With no sanctioning or rules in place, self-education is crucial. If, like me, you are not medically trained, find someone who is and consult them.