Thanks to the 24-36 hour grace period between a weigh in and fight, weight cutting is as much a part of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) as questioning the referee’s eyesight is a part of football. And with the soaring (sweaty) popularity of hot yoga studios and post-gym sauna sessions amongst us average humans, a lot of interest has been generated in what cutting weight does to your body. So we got Jimmy Crute (the UFC’s most recent signing from Australia), on the line, as well as his trainer Sam Greco (former K1 World Champion) and his nutritionist Michelle Reeves—to learn the truth about weight cutting.
Done right, weight manipulation can significantly increase a fighter’s chance of winning. However, weight cutting can have severe consequences if undertaken by individuals with underlying medical conditions, or even healthy individuals if not done properly (to ensure this you should be under the watchful eye of an expert trainer). So although aspects of a fighter’s weight cutting program (namely: a ruthlessly efficient diet), can benefit your health, if you do it wrong—or use any of the “unhealthy” cutting techniques we are about to mention—you are putting your life at risk.
“Done right, it can significantly increase a fighter’s chances of winning… Done wrong, it can make even the toughest guy lose his edge… and probably the fight. There’s serious risk of organ failure if done haphazardly,” Nate Green, PT and Precision Nutrition writer.
The truth is, many UFC guys don’t cut enough “actual” weight (as opposed to water weight) in the months leading up to the weigh in, so when the moment arrives they go to extreme measures to dehydrate themselves—a process where you compromise energy and power (at best) and your organ heath and life (at worst). The key to avoiding this tradeoff, according to Jimmy Crute, is to cut weight gradually, so that you reach the necessary weight weeks out from the fight, and perform physically and mentally at your best.
What Is Weight Cutting
Weight cutting is the process by which professional athletes shed kilos in order to classify into a certain weight class. It is a controversial topic because weighing in lighter than you really are gives you a competitive advantage over your opponent. Conversely, extreme weight cutting can hinder an athletes performance, or even put their life in danger, so there is a fine line to walk for those looking to take the risk. Jimmy Crute is all too aware of these risks, explaining how he prefers to fight in his “walk around” weight class in order to prepare for a fight properly, using healthy—gradual—weight cutting techniques.
“I’m relatively small for light heavyweight, but I would lose my edge at middle because I wouldn’t enjoy the training as much and I would be focussing on losing the weight rather than training. I’d rather focus on building and being on my game from day one—starting from a flat surface—rather than starting heavy and cutting down.”
How Do Fighters Cut Weight
With the caveat that all athletes differ depending on their specific needs, Michelle told us, “If they are well planned, the weight cutting during the week leading up to the fight is minimal,” with the best case scenario being, “Eating the same food as the whole time, drinking lots of water etc.” Unfortunately though, the reality is, “Too many guys leave their weight cutting up until the last 3-4 weeks, end up taking drastic measures, cutting their food, using saunas etc… (My job) is to limit that kind of stuff—and keep them eating all the way along.”
The following is a list of decidedly unhealthy ways to cut weight, which neither Michelle nor Jimmy advocate (but which are prevalent in the MMA world).
- Taking Diuretics (e.g. espresso coffee)
- Not drinking any water
- Skipping meals
- Wearing trash bags while exercising
- Wearing trash bags while exercising… in the sauna
And here are a list of (relatively) less risky methods.
- Having a disciplined diet from months out from the weigh in.
- Eating all food groups and, contrary to popular belief, not cutting out carbohydrates too soon.
- Using the sauna or a hot bath to help with the last couple of kilos, rather than abusing it to shed significant weight.
What Are The Risks Of Cutting Weight
Apart from organ failure and other catastrophic risks associated when weight cutting goes wrong, even done right, Michelle says, “If you cut everything out of someone’s diet you’re going to affect performance.” And often, 24 hours is not optimal to rehydrate. Another reason it is so risky is that these athletes are really bloody tough, “With the mental ability to get through (hell) even when they’re on empty—so they go out and perform to what they know is their best after cutting weight using unhealthy practices like cutting water and food and sitting in a sauna—and think they’ve got away with it.” But actually they would have performed better if they had cut weight earlier, in a controlled manner, and utilised a hot bath or sauna for a little help.
“Physically and psychologically, it can knock you out,” (Sam Greco).
What Are The Benefits Of Cutting Weight
Two words: competitive advantage. As long as you don’t significantly compromise your strength and energy levels, and manage to hydrate in time, cutting weight allows you to fight at a heavier weight than your opponent.
How Do You Cut Weight Properly
Be disciplined with your food from further out from weigh in, so you lose weight by burning body fat rather than dehydrating yourself. Jimmy is a great example of this, and has such a good dietary and training balance that he can even afford to eat all the food groups pretty much all the way up until weigh in. Of course, if you’re not a professional fighter, extreme weight cutting is never necessary. That said, the basic principles of sticking to a well-crafted food plan and reducing the number of “nutrition-less calories” you take in are useful for anyone looking to maintain a healthy weight, or for overweight people looking to lose a few kilos.
For the average person, Jimmy recommends you, “Get someone that knows what they’re doing (to make you a plan); and do your own research.” Sam Greco, his trainer, added, “Cutting weight or losing weight should be something we incorporate into our lives so we don’t have to do it all at once (whether we are an athlete or a bride-to-be worried about dress size).” Also: “The healthier you eat, the easier it is to not let yourself go.” This is backed up by various studies, which show people who gave up junk food didn’t even enjoy it when they went back to it.
“Keep it simple, get all the food groups on your plate and keep moving (Michelle).”
Michelle also pointed out that, for the average person wanting to take something useful from an elite athlete’s training regime, it would be to realise there’s no secret or magic food to success—just hard work, “But if you eat good sources of protein, fruit, veggies and good fats: that’s a pretty good start.”
How To Cope With Food Cravings
When it comes to food cravings, finally we hit on an issue that everyone from couch potatoes to elite UFC fighters can relate to. The point of difference? A fighter knows how to deal with them—and believe it or not it does’t come down to starving yourself, it’s about eating right.
“I deal with food cravings by not stocking my fridge with bad food. I don’t go to the shops when I’m hungry (and plan my meals in advance), so I’m never put on the spot. By eating the right foods and giving my body what it actually needs I find the cravings are hardly there compared to cutting whole food groups out and starving my body of what it needs. Also, being disciplined and sticking to a plan allows me to have a treat every now and then, and actually enjoy it when I do,” (Jimmy).