Wrestlers cutting weight to compete in a weight class is nothing new. Unfortunately, many of these athletes take on unhealthy methods to lose weight. When weight loss is done in a healthy way, the wrestler can become stronger and more competitive in a lower weight class..
An estimated 25%-67% of wrestlers use techniques such as over exercise, calorie restriction, fasting, and different dehydration methods to lose weight. Wrestlers tend to believe this type of action will improve their performance, but in reality this usually only makes things worse.
Dehydration is a wrestler’s worst enemy
Dehydration is a main health concern when losing weight quickly. It occurs when a wrestler cuts off their intake of fluids. Dehydration is the worst method of losing weight since it causes quick decline in strength, endurance and mental alertness.
Symptoms of dehydration can become noticeable after as little as 2% loss of normal water volume. Drinking too little water in combination with heavy exercise may cause cramps or, in extreme cases, heatstroke and swelling of the brain which causes seizures and hypovolemic shock.
A simple, efficient way of determining proper hydration is to check urine color. Dark urine (similar to apple juice) indicates dehydration and clear urine indicates adequate hydration.
Extreme reduction in calories can result in strength loss
Malnutrition is also pretty common among wrestlers trying to lose weight quickly. Dehydration combined with extreme calorie reduction can result in a loss of strength, muscular endurance, stamina, and concentration. Sudden unhealthy weight loss can mean that a wrestler is not getting essential nutrients like protein, calories, B vitamins, iron, and zinc; this can cause depression, muscle atrophy and lower testosterone levels. Many wrestlers have gone as far as vomiting before weigh-ins in order to make a specific weight class for a wrestling match.
Every high school wrestling program in American is required to use the national hydration assessment tests to determine if a wrestler is fit to wrestle. These tests are intended to analyze body fat percentages at the alpha weight and establish how much weight a wrestler can lose each week. When a wrestler reaches the minimum body fat percentage of 7% for boys or 12% for girls of their alpha fat composition, the wrestler cannot lose any more weight due to competition rules.
This system was put in place to ensure healthy weight loss and to minimize the harmful side effects of rapid weight loss. In Colorado, for health and safety reasons, the state’s weight control program requires hydration testing with a specific gravity not greater than 1.025, which is tested immediately prior to the body fat assessment. Any wrestler’s assessment that is below 7% for boys and 12% for girls must have a release form signed by a healthcare professional to participate in an upcoming event. This release won’t allow a wrestler to participate at a weight class below that for which the initial assessment allows. A 2 lb. variance above the scratch weight is permitted at the time of certification if signed by the parent and a physician.
Tips for healthy weight loss for wrestlers
Healthy weight loss tips:
- Drink plenty of water. It is not worth cutting the weight if you can’t wrestle due to dehydration! It’s best to get a drink every 10-15 minutes at the gym and at least every 3-4 hours during the day.
- Reduce the fat in your diet: fatty foods may taste good, but are higher in calories. Learn and know what food sources are high in fat and avoid them. Learn what foods are low in fat and eat them.
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals: keep snacks with you. This will keep you from over eating during a sit down meal and also increase your metabolism.
- Maintain strength training. You want to keep the strength you gained in the off season.
- If you snack, eat fruits or pretzels instead of chips and candy.
- Practice good nutrition by eating a balanced diet with a variety of foods.. Follow guidelines for a healthy diet. If you are restricting your intake, a daily vitamin/mineral supplement is helpful. A basic supplement which meets 100% of the RDI required nutrients is all you need.
- Slow loss is good loss: start losing weight early. 1 to 2 pounds per week. This will assume that the weight which you lose is mostly fat. Weight loss of more than 2-3 pounds will result in things you don’t want like muscle loss.
- Get plenty of sleep.
Unhealthy weight loss methods:
- Don’t use sauna suits and garbage bag shirts. This method will overheat you very quickly. They are NOT a safe or productive way to lose weight. Sauna suits only make you lose water weight faster causing dehydration.
- Don’t fast. Starving yourself to lose weight is harmful to your body. You should try to eat healthy everyday. Not eating will make you tired and you may start to feel sick at times throughout the day.
- Don’t drink too much caffeine (soda, coffee, etc.), as this will cause you to lose water through urine. After practice, drink enough water to replace to the water you lost during practice.
- Stay away from laxatives and weight-loss products. They can cause long-term health issues.
- Don’t eliminate all carbohydrates or protein, from the diet as a means to achieving weight loss. Carbohydrates and protein are important in maintaining strength and endurance.
- Don’t work out if you feel sick, dizzy or cold. These are signs of dehydration and heat illness. You won’t be able to lose any more weight without hurting yourself.
- Don’t rely on water loss to lose weight. If you are going to lose weight by sweating, limit it to the day of weigh-ins. Keep your weight within two or three pounds, fully hydrated, and you can sweat this off before weigh-ins.
Written by the Sports Medicine team at Children's Hospital Colorado.