If you compete in powerlifting or weightlifting, you’ve probably heard about grueling water cuts or athletes cutting water to make weight. In today’s episode, we look at the research on water cutting and ask two very big questions: is it safe? Does it affect performance? Listen to find out!
As athletes competing in weight class sports, most of us have probably heard about cutting water to make weight, and while the concept might seem simple at first glance, it actually can get quite complex.
Before we jump into this, we have to make something clear: unless you are attempting to compete at a high-level national or international event, water cutting is not necessary and some of the risks are very serious. If you have never done a water cut, please seek the help of a knowledgeable coach who can help guide you through the process. Do not jeopardize your health for the sake of being in a lower weight class.
Defining a water cut
A water cut is simply a means of manipulating hydrations levels to make weight for a meet. Often times up to 5% of body weight is lost the week leading up to weigh-ins. In some more extreme cases, athletes will lose 10-12% of body weight, but those instances are less common and we highly caution against doing anything that drastic to make weight. In our experience, a 5% water cut can feel pretty extreme for most people.
There are various methods to making weight via a water cut. The most common method involves some type of water loading (i.e. drinking an excessive amount of water, sometimes 2 gallons or more), followed by restricting water completely for a day. Some athletes will do a water load/cut in addition to, what are called, passive methods of dehydration (sauna or hot baths).
Another method involves manipulating carbohydrates prior to weigh ins. Since carbohydrates retain water, cutting back on water-carrying carbohydrates close to weigh ins will likely result in a drop in weight. The amount of carbohydrates to cut out depends on the individual, and so we highly suggest having a knowledgeable coach to help guide you through that process.
Dehydration does not come without health risks! It increases the risks of skeletal muscle cramps, heat exhaustion (especially if passive dehydration is used), heat stroke, acute renal failure associated with rhabdomyolysis, and even death (1). In fact, the NCAA no longer allows any form of dehydration in their weight class sports following the deaths of 3 wrestlers who used passive dehydrations to lose around 10.8% of body weight (7.5kg on average).
Water cutting is not to be taken lightly. If you are going to water cut, please inform someone of your choice so they can keep an eye on you. And do not do any type of passive dehydration alone. Make sure someone is with you or knows where to look for you in case you happen to pass out in the process.
Water cuts & performance
The big question remains: do water cuts affect athletic performance? Because what is the point of cutting weight if it affects your performance on the platform?
Dehydration levels of up to 5% loss in body mass had no effect on anaerobic capabilities or muscular strength. The research states, strength can be maintained after a loss of 5% body weight, as long as the weight is gained back before competing. It is unlikely that we will see research with greater loss in body weight, due to the increased health concerns (2).
Additionally, partial rehydration was shown to be sufficient to recover upper and lower body neuromuscular performance is severely dehydrated participants (3). Interestingly, if athletes tested 1RM bench press prior to partial weight recovery or rest, they performed poorly. But if the athlete was allowed a 2 hour rest period and access to water, the effects were lost (4). Another study demonstrated that dehydration of 2-4% body weight achieved through a week of fluid restriction followed by partial rehydration decreased maximum bar height before the catch during near maximal attempts at the Snatch (5). Meaning that athletes who underwent dehydration following rehydration lost power in the pull portion of the snatch.
2hr vs. 24hr Weigh-in
If you are still convinced that you want to do a water cut, keep in mind the following:
An average person can regain about 2% of their body weight in lost water in 2 hours, and most people can lift at around 1% dehydration without affecting their performance. That means that for a 2-hour weigh-in, most competitors should not look to cut more than 3% of their body weight, and we highly discourage any athlete going over 5% of their body weight lost to dehydration.
If you have a 24hr weigh in, you should be totally fine. Just make sure you rehydrate yourself prior to competing.
Want more? Listen to our previous episode HERE.
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