I recently competed in a powerlifting meet to practice for my upcoming Georgia State meet, and decided to include a practice weight cut as well. I’ve been dieting down to the 57kg weight class for several weeks now, and though I wasn’t planning to try and make weight, I did want to have all of my ducks in a row before show time! While rapid weight loss isn’t ideal for a sustainable goal, it’s a reality for most individuals who participate in a weight class sport. Done properly, rapid weight loss through carbohydrate, sodium, and water manipulation can lead to a significant reduction in weight without significant health risk. However, there are some key limitations and safety protocols that you should be aware of if you’re planning to attempt this! While the interim between weigh-ins and competition varies by sport, I am currently competing in USAPL Powerlifting, which uses a two-hour weigh-in. I’ll touch on the other options, but for the sake of this installment, I’ll be focusing on the two-hour option.
- Know the safe limit of weight loss for the time you have available to rehydrate and replenish.
- Have a plan and timeline for both weight loss and subsequent replenishment.
- Check with your physician before beginning, and make sure you have at least one person on hand in case of emergency!
SAFE LIMITS OF WEIGHT LOSS
The human body is comprised of about 70% water, and most of it is found within cells—especially skeletal muscle cells. Most people are aware that water is essential for life as it plays essential roles in electrolyte balance and the regulation of body temperature. Dehydration leads to increased blood viscosity, which means the heart must work harder to deliver oxygen-carrying blood cells to tissues, and this in turn leads to reduced exercise performance. Even a 3% loss of body weight through dehydration can lead to reduced power, strength and endurance! So, when you plan to cut weight for a competition, you must be able to replenish a sufficient amount of water and carbohydrate between weigh-in and go-time, or else your performance will suffer.
You need an estimated 2-3 cups of water (480-720mL) to replenish each pound of bodyweight lost, and the upper limit of gastric emptying is about 1.5L per hour. So, over the course of 2 hours, you could theoretically absorb 3L, or about 12 cups of water, to compensate for up to 6 lbs of weight loss. That being said, there’s another side to this coin, and that is the consideration of the percentage of bodyweight one can safely lose. Losing more than 5% bodyweight due to dehydration can lead to hyperthermia, tachycardia, loss of coordination, and even kidney failure as the loss approaches 10% bodyweight. Clearly, this isn’t something to take lightly. That being said, not all of the weight lost through these methods is from body water, so that’s the next thing to consider.
Muscle and liver store glucose in the form of glycogen, and glycogen binds to water. Considering the fact that you may be storing anywhere from 90-500g of glycogen at this very moment—and three times as much water on top of that—you could be looking at roughly 1-4lbs of weight to lose via glycogen depletion alone. That being said, you don’t want to go into a competition with low or depleted glycogen stores, so there’s a limit to just how much of this you should lose when you only have 2 hours to refuel. Maximal carbohydrate utilization appears to top out around 90g per hour, so you’re theoretically limited to digesting, absorbing, and storing 180g of glucose in that time period. Maximal gastric emptying can be achieved with a 6-8% carbohydrate concentration, so assuming we want that 180g of carbohydrate to clock in at 7% of the water we’re planning to drink, that puts us at about 2.6L—right under the 3L we can ingest in that period of time! Given that your training volume should taper down to minimal levels before the competition, you can reduce your carbohydrate intake drastically, and this alone will lead to some weight loss. On rest days, you can have effectively zero carbohydrates, and on very low-volume training days while tapering, as little as 1g per pound of lean body mass will suffice. Over the course of a week, you will likely lose a few pounds. You may also lose some weight from reduced inflammation that accompanied the overload before your deload week.
A two-hour weigh-in doesn’t leave much time for replenishment, so following the initial loss of bodyweight from reduced carbohydrate ingestion and deload, you can safely lose an additional 2% of your bodyweight from a moderate water cut and reduced food volume the day before you weigh in. For me, this amounted to potentially 2.6 lbs in addition to the 1.2 lbs I lost over the course of the week before my meet. There wasn’t much to this weight cut; in the two days before my meet, I ate a very low-volume diet with only trace carbohydrates, which translated to eating plenty of eggs, egg white,
peanut butter, and avocado. I didn’t add salt to my food, and I stopped drinking water at about 5PM the day before weigh-ins (though I did drink about 1.5L over the course of the day prior to that time). Even with this moderate approach, I lost 2.2 lbs over the course of the week and felt just fine the morning of weigh-ins. I won best female lifter at the meet, and all lifts were rated at 8.5-9RPE. Now that I know I can drop 2.2 lbs without much fuss, I know I can drop even more with a bit more dietary manipulation in the week leading up to weighing in!
My next meet is just a week away, and I am sitting at 128.8 pounds today, with a goal of 125.4 and 3.4 lbs to lose. I can drop 2.6 lbs in the day before my meet, which leaves me with just 0.8 lbs to lose in the next week. I plan to follow a similar plan, but will reduce both my training and rest-day carbohydrates as well as my water intake the day before weigh-ins.
So, if you want to give this a try, aim for the following guidelines:
- Calculate safe 24-hour weight loss by determining 2% of your bodyweight; this is what you can lose the day before the meet, though you may lose more over the course of the week
- On rest days during deload week, eat a low-carbohydrate diet (<0.5g/lb lean body mass, or simply aim for zilch!)
- On light-load training days during deload week, eat a fairly-low carbohydrate diet centered around your training (0.5-1g/lb lean body body mass)
- For two days leading up to the meet, eat trace carbohydrates and low-volume, dense sources of protein and fat to keep food volume low
- Stop drinking water in the afternoon before weigh-ins; in the morning, only drink when thirsty, and just enough to satisfy thirst
- Aim for a maximum of 1.5L (~6 cups) of fluid and 90g carbohydrates per hour
- Added electrolytes at ~500mg/L would also be a prudent addition
- Your carbohydrate sources should be dense to keep food volume low in the stomach, but also low in fat and fiber
- Rice cakes, cereal, graham crackers, and even gummy candies would be good options
- You’re probably hungry, so feel free to add in a lean protein source as well
Of course, all bodies are different, and results may vary, but this is a safe, evidence-based approach that will certainly lead to weight loss, almost certainly without a decrement in performance.
Dunford, M., & Doyle, J. A. (2015). Nutrition for sport and exercise. Cengage Learning.
Jeukendrup, A. E., & Gleeson, M. (2010). Sport nutrition : an introduction to energy production and performance. Human Kinetics.
Spano, M. A., Kruskall, L. J., & Thomas, D. T. (2017). Nutrition for sport, exercise, and health.