How to Cut Weight for Wrestling
Cutting weight isn’t fun. It’s incredibly stressful. Any athlete that competes in sports where body weight is a component factored into the competition knows the burden. It weighs on the athlete (pun intended).
Athletes who compete in the sport of wrestling are all too familiar with cutting weight. Cutting weight for wrestlers, especially in the U.S. of A, is known for having very, very, hard cuts. People have dropped clinically insane amounts of weight, talking in the neighborhood of 20-30 lbs. in the manner of a week; people have had seizures on the mat from exuberant weight cuts; people have literally died on the scale from cutting stupid-dumb amounts of weight. The hyperbole is real. These horror stories of weight cuts should be submitting screenplays to Blumhouse for production; they're that terrifying.
So, what is the best way to go about cutting weight? Better yet, why are we cutting weight to begin with? The idea of cutting weight starts with a horrendous misconception. The misconception being that the athlete, after cutting a ridiculous amount of weight, will be better at that lighter weight class. That isn’t always the case. Oftentimes coaches and wrestlers tend to forget that there is a significant diminishment in performance.
Yeah, an athlete’s sports performance won’t diminish too much with a 3-5% weight cut but, as science has shown us, after that 3-5% weight cut a tipping point is reached and there is a HUGE performance drop off in strength, endurance and coordination. Not good. Not good at all. Not good for wins or pins.
At Garage Strength we want to push against this culture of hard weight cuts that don’t pay off in wins and pins in the sport of wrestling. Here are 5 key factors to help you to understand how to cut weight and when you should stop at certain points.
5. Response to sleep and practice
Do you know how your body reacts to a good night of sleep? Do you know how your body reacts to a good, strong practice?
Being fully hydrated and following a practical, nutritional plan (eating well, getting optimal amounts of protein, eating plenty of carbs) allows wrestling athletes to perform optimally on the mat. But remember, the wrestling athlete is trying to cut weight as well, so maybe the athlete is cutting back on fats to help with the weight cut.
So when the athlete is eating well (proper amounts of protein and carbs) and gets into practice, the athlete needs to recognize how their body loses weight throughout the practice. They also need to recognize how much weight their body is losing when they go to bed. Here is the kicker: now that the athlete is eating better, their sleep quality will improve dramatically. If the athlete’s sleep quality improves, they are probably going to lose a little more weight because they are able to recover more optimally. For example, we can see a wrestling athlete who goes to bed at 155 lbs., they may wake up at 152.5 lbs the next day because they’re healthy and their body is recovering well. On the flip, when the wrestling athlete is cutting too hard, we'll start to see the athletes barely losing and weight overnight because they are not properly nutritionally nourished.
Losing weight is much easier when properly nourished.
4. Plan ahead
Don’t wait until the last week.
Take a step back and notice when the big competition or meet is coming up. Maybe the big competition or meet is eight weeks out. With this foresight, the athlete can lose a pound or pound and a half a week instead of trying to lose it all in the week leading up to competition. Cutting weight over a longer range of time is much more subtle, which allows the body to adapt much quicker.
The drastic, one week cut does the opposite. The body doesn’t adapt. This is when the drop off of performance comes on.
As athletes and as coaches, we have to gauge the athlete’s performance during the cut. How can we do this? It’s pretty simple actually. We can monitor energy levels in practice, what the athlete is doing in the weightroom and the power output being displayed. And there is no need to rely on the subjective, passing the eye test either. Athletes can test their vertical jump on a regular basis, a 5 rep bench max or pull ups for a max out to gauge where the drop off happens.
A good rule of thumb is that about a 3% reduction in body weight, a big drop off will begin to be seen. With that knowledge of when the drop off occurs, the coach and athlete can put in a plan on how to operate from a nutritional perspective.
And let’s face it, the sport of wrestling is TOUGH AF. It is taxing in all manners on the continuum of difficulty. We know wrestling challenges aerobic and anaerobic thresholds. We know wrestlers need to be strong, explosive and able to endure. We know how challenging the sport is. But for some mind-boggling, archaic reason we starve these athletes and expect them to perform. If that isn’t crazy, we don’t know what is.
3. Cutting doesn’t mean better results
Ever hear a coach say, “If you cut down from 152 to 138, you’ll have superior strength and you’ll dominate at the lighter weight class”, or something along those lines? But what if there is a wrestler at 138 walking around at 141 who is fully nourished, still lifting weights, still training as hard as they can? This hypothetical 152 starts to cut the weight really, really hard. They’re less focused, can’t take their creatine, not eating as much protein as they should be, no carbs in the body and eating no fat. Now the trace minerals and vitamins are being lost and performance is horrible because the athlete is starved, while the 138 pound athlete walking around at 141 is fat and happy.
The fat and happy athlete is eating well, focused during practice, getting better reps and able to work on the mat and the weight room is going to dominate because they are in a better situation from a nutritional perspective.
And that is the key factor: cutting weight doesn’t guarantee better results. Sometimes staying at a weight where the athlete can stay nutritionally primed but can still fill out the frame by bulking up with lean muscle mass, not weight gain.
2. Plan refeeds
If an athlete is in a caloric deficit trying to lose weight, we at Garage Strength recommend going into the caloric deficit for four days. Let’s say that the caloric deficit is at 400-450 calories below typical caloric intake. During this time in the caloric deficit the athlete is not eating as many carbs or as much protein as they typically would. During the first two days the athlete will feel pretty decent, but come day three and day four, the athlete will probably not feel as strong, as vibrant, and a visual drop off may be seen. Our recommendation is that on that fifth day, say after weigh ins or after a tough tournament, you should plan a refeed.
During a refeed, the athlete adds in the calories that had been cut during the deficit state (400-450 calories in this example), plus adding an additional 200 calories. Within this roughly 36 hour period the athlete is eating, adapting and feeling really good. From there, the athlete enters back into the caloric deficit.
The refeed helps rejuvenate the athlete’s body, helps with the athlete’s recovery and helps the athlete mentally. BUT. And this is the key factor. The athlete has to do it properly. No starving and then gorging on hamburgers and hot dogs. The athletes have to be precise. They have to focus on nutrition like they focus on the mat: like a champion.
1. Weigh-in plan
What does a weigh-in plan mean?
Think of it this way. The wrestler measured their response to sleep and practice. The wrestler planned ahead and started their cut 8 weeks out, using a refeed strategy that optimized nutrient intake and decided to cut the weight with clear indicators that the cut will bring about better results. Terrific! They step on the scale, make weight, let a smile flash across their face and decide they’re going to munch down on wings, cheesesteaks and pizza before the match, chasing it all down with a can of soda.
WTF just happened?
No weigh-in plan is what happened. Instead of eating unfamiliar foods that their body is not used to eating or in that amount and quantity, the wrestler needs to focus on what food they will be eating after weigh-ins. What type of carbs? Oatmeal or rice? What type of proteins are they going to be eating? Chicken or some whey protein? Maybe a little nut butter or almond butter to feel full? Some nice fats like palm oil or coconut oil or some butter on toast? Whatever it is the athlete is going to use to refuel, have a plan on what is going to be done with eating and hydrating. Don’t forget to get the electrolytes in, but not so much to feel bloated. Don’t overeat.
Have a plan.
Bonus: remember, if in a tournament, to eat a little bit of something in between matches to help stay nourished and energized.
Cutting weight isn’t always the best option for the best results on the mat. Being strong and nourished is a more optimal approach. However, we at Garage Strength understand cutting weight will occur in the sport. With that being said, remember to optimize the cut in the same manner training on the mat is optimized.
Plan the cut weeks in advance. Monitor sleep and training performance, noting quality and trends in the amount of weight lost during both. During that time in a caloric deficit, plan appropriate refeeds that lessen the stress and keep performance trending upward. And finally, don’t forget that after the successful weigh in from the disciplined cut to keep the discipline by implementing a post weigh-in plan.
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.