Any sport that uses weight classes requires athletes to fall within a certain weight range at the weigh-in, which happens 24 hours before the competition. Weight classes are most common in combat sports, including MMA, boxing, and wrestling.
To do this, fighters will drop weight quickly in the weeks, days, and hours before the weigh-in and have various strategies to cut weight quickly. But contrary to other “weight watchers,” they aren’t trying to lose body mass! Rather, they are shedding water weight and sodium to temporarily get down to the magic number required by the scales.
In the 24 hours between weigh-in and competition, the athletes also have strategies for gaining their strength and mass back quickly to return to their optimum fight weight, rather than their required weigh-in number.
But how do they do it? Let’s look at how athletes ensure that they qualify for a weight category and don’t tip the scales.
If you are looking for more permanent weight loss solutions, check out our article on Metabolic Confusion.
How Much Weight Do Fighters Lose?
While there is no strict rule, most fighters tend to lose between 15-20 pounds off their ideal training and fight weight to get passed weigh-in. Some fighters will need to lose less, while others may need to lose more than 30 pounds to hit their weigh-in number.
But this is for professional fighters, who might fight between 2 and 5 times a year. If you are fighting only twice a year, the risks associated with a period of extreme weight loss is limited. But if you are an amateur athlete fighting monthly, yoyoing your weight every month can pose serious health risks. It can play havoc with your metabolism, making it harder to maintain your weight, and can result in repeated bouts of dehydration, which can affect the organs to the point of failure. The more you fight, the closer to the weigh-in number you need to stay.
Even for professional fighters, doctors and coaches suggest remaining within 15-20 pounds of the required weigh-in number. This makes it easier for athletes to return to their ideal weight quickly, which means that they are strong when they compete. Also, there is always the risk that your body just refuses to cooperate, and you don’t qualify for your competition.
Women usually need to stay closer to their required weight than male athletes as their different body makeup, and hormonal structure means that it is not as easy for female athletes to shed water weight (one of the main ways fighters get their weight down). Also, the lighter you are, the harder it is for you to lose weight as there is less “excess baggage” on board, so lighter fighters also need to stay closer to their division weight.
How Do Athletes Lose Weight for Weigh-Ins?
For most athletes, weight loss for a fight has two stages. They will reduce calories and increase training for several weeks before a competition fight to ensure they are training at their ideal fight weight. Then, 24-72 hours before the fight, they will begin shedding water weight to get down to their weigh-in requirement.
Below are the strategies that fighters use during this extreme shedding stage of their pre-fight weight loss.
Of course, fighters reduce their calorie intake to drop pounds, but they want to be sure they lose unnecessary fat rather than their hard-earned muscles. This means that in the weeks leading up to the fight, they are eating plenty of protein.
Carbohydrate intake is restricted since each gram of carbohydrate pulls 2.7 grams of water into the body. Salt also needs to be cut out in the days leading up to the fight since salt encourages the body to hold onto water.
Most fighters will have a personalized diet designed specifically for their weight challenge and their metabolism, which is extremely strict in the week leading up to the fight. But in the 24 hours before weigh-in, they may eat nothing at all to give them a final push towards the finish line.
However, fighters will rarely fast for more than 24 hours to prevent their body from going into starvation mode and start hoarding calories wherever possible.
Around 60% of the human body is water, so it is also a big source of weight! A lot of the weight that fighters lose is water weight, which they can replenish quickly as soon as the weigh-in is done.
They will often begin by managing their water intake for around five days before the weigh-in. Water intake is managed rather than reduced since, on days 5 and 4, a fighter will often drink more water to make their bodies feel well hydrated and go into “flush mode”. They will then halve their water intake each day and then drink nothing at all on the day of the weigh-in to ensure that they aren’t retaining water weight.
Fighters need to be certain not to restrict water intake too soon or too much, as the body can respond by producing hormones that close the pores and prevent the body from sweating. This can cause water retention and hinders other weight loss strategies (see below).
Some fighters will use a natural diuretic in the final hours before the weigh-in if they still haven’t made the cut. But this is only advisable under the supervision of a medical professional.
As well as restricting water intake, fighters lose further water weight by expelling water from the body through sweat!
Fighters use a variety of different strategies. Some will engage in intense cardio while using sweats, garbage bags, or special sweat suits to ensure that they are sweating as much as possible while they are working.
Saunas are also a common option, though hot baths can be even better. Both heat and humidity encourage sweating and a bath is 100% humidity. Some fighters will emerge their entire bodies with the exception of their nose for up to 10 minutes at a time.
Is Rapid Weight Loss Risky?
Yes! But there aren’t as many studies on the potential health risks of regular bouts of extreme dehydration as there should be. Analysis of how dehydration affects the strength and performance of athletes is also highly limited. But those who work with fighters confirm that performance takes a serious hit when the body is dehydrated or still recovering from a period of dehydration.
Who hasn’t shouted at the athletes on the screen to keep their guard up or stop resting against the fence? How can these professional athletes train year-round and not have the stamina to complete the fight they have trained for? Dehydration is usually the reason why.
Gaining Weight for a Fight
While fighters lose weight quickly for weigh-in, they also gain weight quickly for the fight 24 hours later. As soon as they step off the scales, most athletes are handed a gallon of water and a protein bar just to get them started on the process of replenishing their water, strength, and weight quickly.
In the 24 hours before the fight, most athletes will drink around 10 litres of water, around 25% of which will be passed directly as urine. At the same time, they will be carb-loading, both to ensure that they have the energy to get the job done in the ring and to help their body retain the liquid they are taking in (since carbs pull water into the body). Fighters will also heat a lot of salt during this period to help the body retain water.
Athletes can also eat as much as they want during the day before the fight, but only healthy and nutritious foods. Junk foods and excess sugar are still off the menu! But protein, healthy fats, and whole carbs are welcome.
How Much Do Fighters Really Weigh?
We all know that most fighters weigh a lot more than their “sticker weight” when they are going at it in the ring. How much do some of the most famous fighters actually weigh compared to their official weight?
The Irish terror used to fight in the featherweight division of the UFC (145 pounds) before moving up to the welterweight division (170 pounds). In both cases, he was fighting at around 180 pounds. This is why he looked pretty emaciated at weigh-ins back in the day and is looking much stronger from the outset now.
Yoel Romero fights in the middleweight division in the UFC, which has a maximum weight of 185 pounds, but he usually starts cutting at around 220 pounds, and then fights at 205-210 pounds. It is little surprise that he has failed to meet the required weight on more than one occasion.
Derren Till looks like he is double the size of the other UFC fighters in the welterweight division (170 pounds). He has admitted that he weighs around 220 pounds before he starts reducing his weight several weeks out from a fight. He has also shared that he went temporarily blind during one particularly intense cutting session. He usually fights at around 200 pounds, gaining back 30 pounds in just 24 hours.
Holloway fights in the featherweight division of the UFC, but he fights at 180 pounds and only cuts to 145 for his weigh-in. It is worth bearing this in mind when he accepted a fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov just a week before UFC 223. While Khabib had been cutting for weeks, Holloway had days to get down.
The Brazilian fighter fought in the bantamweight (135 pounds) and featherweight (145 pounds) divisions when she was in the UFC. But Cyborg trains and fights at around 170 pounds and has been heavier. She filmed her weight loss process in the lead-up to UFC 198 and it shows just how crazy her cutting regime is!
The champion of both the bantamweight (135 pounds) and featherweight (145 pounds) divisions, Nunes has admitted that her “walk around” weight is about 170 pounds, which drops to 162 when she is at the height of her training in the camp. This means she has a lot of weight to drop before stepping into the ring in either division. It is no surprise that she has said that she feels more comfortable at the more accessible featherweight number.
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What are the different ways that fighters classify their weight?
Fighters will often refer to their “walkaround” weight, training weight, and their weight class. “Walkaround” is what they way day to day, training is what they weigh when they are at the height of their intensive training period in a pre-fight camp, and their weight class is what they must weigh at the weigh-in 24 hours before their fight.
They will also have a fight weight, which is what they weigh while they are in the ring. This is usually a little bit lower than their training weight. It’s hard to gain it all back in 24 hours!
How do you cut weight like a fighter?
While fighters will cut calories to lose weight in the weeks leading up to a fight, most of the weight they lose on the days and hours before weigh-in is water weight. Water makes up 60% of the body, and it is easier to move than fat. Fighters will super-hydrate and then dehydrate to flush water out of their bodies, plus try and sweat out as much water as possible in the hours before the weigh-in.
This type of dehydration is extremely dangerous and should only be done under a doctor’s supervision. It is also temporary, and the weight is regained quickly with proper hydration.
How long does it take fighters to cut weight?
While fighters will start cutting weight several weeks before a fight, the process of quickly losing 20 pounds to hit weigh-in by shedding water weight usually begins five days before the weigh-in.
Fighters can shed an impressive amount of weight within a few days of a fight weigh-in, mostly by flushing water out of their body through extreme dehydration. This is a temporary form of weight loss and is dangerous without proper medical supervision.
As soon as fighters step off the scales, they will pick up a bottle of water. Most have regained almost all the 15-30 pounds they lost in the days before the weigh-in before they step into the ring 24 hours later.
Fighters use a variety of strategies to achieve this shedding, but it is rarely easy. This is why you will see fighters stripping down on the podium to try and remove every excess ounce from their body. This is also why they look emaciated at the weigh-in but much heavier when they enter the ring.
Professional fighters can afford to engage in this type of yoyo weight management because they only fight a couple of times a year. Amateur fighters that compete on a monthly basis have to maintain their weight close to their weight class restrictions.