- Can you cut weight for wrestling in a safe and healthy way??
- Is It Safe for Athletes to Cut Weight?
- 1. The Right Diet to Hit Weight for Wrestling (and Other Sports)
- Meal Planning Resources
- 2. Sweat It Out in the Sauna
- 3. Borrow a Beauty Queen’s Daily Routine to Poop Every Day
- 4. Get your Magnesium Up for Clean Bowels
- 5. Quick Poop Fix to Cut Weight Fast
- Bottom Line on Cutting Weight for Wrestlers and Other Athletes
Apparently, we grow our kids short and slim, so when my very skinny freshman son decided to join the high-school wrestling team, he was quite quickly asked if he would wrestle at varsity in the 103 weight class. He wrestled the year before in eighth grade at 90 pounds, and although he had grown a lot, I still went into the process assuming that thin kids would never have to cut weight for a sport.
Before the season started, the boys do something called an alpha weigh-in. That was explained to me as basically their base weight along with a urine test and body fat percentage. Using some sort of algorithmic calculations, the coaches would determine how much weight it was safe for him to lose.
This is a huge health upgrade from when I was in high school and there were no such restrictions! I was incredibly pleased that wrestlers are no longer asked to cut dramatic, potentially harmful amounts of weight.
But wait, there’s more…
Paul’s alpha weigh-in determined that he could only cut from 106 to 104. I mistakenly thought that this weigh-in applied to the entire season and that he would not be asked to cut more weight for wrestling matches…
Imagine my surprise when on a Tuesday morning, which is “weigh-in day” before a Wednesday meeting, Paul ate a bowl of oatmeal the size of his five-year-old brother’s first serving. In other words, that’s about a fourth of what he would usually eat before having seconds.
As he was packing his lunch, I said, “What’s going on, bud, aren’t you feeling well?” He informed me that he had to cut two pounds by five o’clock that evening.
“What!?” I cried, “You’re telling me this now? When did you find this out? Paul, I would have done research on how to cut weight safely if I had some advance warning. You have to do this today?!”
He looked at me, rolled his eyes as only a teenager can, and told me he just hadn’t thought about it.
“Did the coaches give you any instructions on how to do this?” I asked. He explained that to the coaches basically just told him to drink lots of water early in the day, eat very light, and include a lot of fruit.
I was in shock and appalled that this was going to be our new reality for the season, so I set about asking health experts in my community for advice and researching safe ways to cut just a few pounds.
I hope it will be helpful to other wrestling moms and dads for me to share that information here!
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think it’s safe or healthy for teenage boys to cut very much weight at all. Some boys come out of football season at 180 pounds and go into wrestling season at 160! This is not okay, and there are definitely potential short- and long-term health ramifications with yo-yo dieting and losing that much weight.
I do understand, though, that in the sport of wrestling as well as some others like judo, taekwondo, MMA fighting, and boxing, teenagers and young adults may need to cut just a few pounds to hit the weight they need.
Can you cut weight for wrestling in a safe and healthy way??
As it turned out with Paul, he could drop two to three pounds easily in a wrestling practice just by sweating and exercising. He didn’t even wear plastic bags or sweatshirts like they used to when I was in high school. Gross!
There are safe ways to lose a couple of pounds in a day if that’s what your sport requires, or better yet, maintain a healthy, competitive weight AND competitive energy and nourishment. I’m grateful to the following health experts for helping me out:
- Jill Lane of Fueling Champions
- Chronic pain expert Dr. Ryan Wohlfert
- Jess Sherman, MEd, RHN
- Kirk Gair, DC, cold laser therapy pioneer
- Sarah Vance, Nutritionist
Is It Safe for Athletes to Cut Weight?
Before we jump into 5 practical ways for student-athletes (or adults!) to hit a competitive weight that they desire, we have to discuss the safety of this practice.
Plenty of sports require weight classes in both genders, and both in the sports world and things like pageants, we find young people obsessed with “cutting weight.”
Many of the last-minute weight-loss practices involve dehydration, which can seriously impact health, performance, growth, mental acuity, and even muscle glycogen.
Although there are safety measures in place now to prevent severe dehydration, negative impacts begin at just 1% weight loss, and Jill Lane says that up to 75% of student-athletes are already dehydrated on a regular basis (defined as a 2% body weight loss from water).
Jill won’t even work with a client unless they’re willing to stay within a few pounds of competition weight the whole season, and her goal is to keep her athletes well-nourished and well-hydrated and then work on peak performance.
Many athletes, however, go on roller coasters of cutting weight and then “back to normal” which ends up being a binge on junk food.
An intense focus on food, particularly with body image in mind, can be a toxic ingredient for disordered eating, which affects 3-4% of adults and 2.7% of adolescents, two to five times higher for females.1
Jess Sherman, MEd, RHN, calls for awareness of the red flags in the medical field for the practice of cutting weight. She pointed out that awareness alone has made great improvements when it comes to concussions and helping athletes avoid and recover, and she believes the same can happen here.
Dr. Kirk Gair works with a lot of high school athletes and has seen improvements in the dehydration regulations, but also coaches who have figured out how to get around those safety measures. He told me it’s not uncommon for coaches to take an athlete to a big competition and have them sit in their underwear in the van with the A/C on full blast on their skin — to shiver out a last pound or two.
He assesses: “It is dangerous, but the pressure from coaches and parents to get a scholarship leads to crazy actions.” He agrees with Jill Lane that athletes “need to focus on healthy eating all the time to be at their optimal weight.”
Chiropractor and father of teen athletes Ryan Wohlfert agrees:
“I realize that many times athletes have to sacrifice optimal health and longevity in the long run, for optimal performance and ‘winning’ in the short term. But should that apply to high school athletes, especially wrestlers? The most effective way to ensure ‘healthy weight cutting’ and not lose performance is weeks and months BEFORE actual competition – a healthy diet with whole foods, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats.
Add in instruction on refreshing quality sleep, optimal spine and posture, and stress reduction strategies, and you’ll have a high performing healthy athlete for the long haul.
I love that guidelines and rules for cutting weight have been upgraded over the years. Now it’s a matter of following them and not falling prey to the ‘quick fix, short term, win at all costs’ dogma that can happen in competitive environments.”
Nutritionist Sara Vance is appalled that cutting weight in any way is still allowed: “If it were my kid, I’d tell him to wrestle at his normal weight, and not punish his body like all the others – and he will be stronger than the others who are not taking care of themselves – enough to wrestle in that weight class.”
Imagine if athletes were able to improve their strength, endurance, and decision-making capacity by 20% each just by how they chose to fuel themselves? Being one weight class up wouldn’t bring their performance down one bit.
1. The Right Diet to Hit Weight for Wrestling (and Other Sports)
Let’s talk about diet as nourishment, the way it should be, and not as a way to cut calories and weight for a temporary purpose.
If an athlete wants to compete at a very lean weight, it’s his or her responsibility to continue to be nourished with a variety of foods and enough calories to compete in their sport at their best level. So “diet” in this context isn’t what to eat on the day of weigh-in like my son was counseled. It should be looked at as a sustainable lifestyle, at least for the season.
Dr. Gair helps athletes in Southern California get off the processed carb roller coaster with what he calls a “healthy keto” eating pattern to both increase energy and remain very lean. He sometimes incorporates “healthy intermittent fasting” as well, but he cautions that it’s too easy to follow the rules but use processed foods and not enough vegetables, which is never the goal.
Jill Lane disagrees with a practical perspective: “I don’t do keto at all with youth… most are just trying to not live off junk food and are grossly undernourished and under fueled so it’s more about adding nourishing food than doing anything ‘fancy.’”
I appreciate both perspectives because you need to start your student-athlete where they are. If a wrestler is eating mostly processed junk food and tries to switch to a plant-based, intermittent fasting plan, they’ll likely have trouble sticking to it.
On the other hand, if your family eats mostly real food already (and especially if you’ve got a kid with a self-disciplined personality), healthy keto with a focus on energy and plant foods might be just what they need.
I know high school kids who can stick fairly well to a salad-chicken-broccoli diet, at least for the days before big events, and with that sort of focus and discipline, they might as well have better fuel that will improve their performance on the mat as well as the number on the scale.
Meal Planning Resources
Here are the meal planning services (in no particular order) that I endorse for you to pick based on you and your family’s needs!
Cooksmarts (great community of people to learn from)
Real Plans (organizer to add your OWN recipes and replicate plans)
PrepDish (prep ahead, easy meals all week)
Try out their freebies (some even have tree trials) to see what fits your personality and preferences!
A healthy keto diet would include a lot of plant foods, plenty of protein, and plenty of whole food fats. Keto is generally defined as 30-50g of carbohydrates from all sources per day. Using ketosis testing strips can be helpful to know “when” your body gets into ketosis, which means it’s burning fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates. Ketosis is usually achieved within 3-5 days of beginning a strict keto diet.
An athlete would NOT want to switch to a keto diet just a few days before a weigh-in, especially if they generally eat an American diet of ultra-processed foods. The additional plant-based fiber would likely bloat and constipate them, the opposite of their intended goal!
Achieving ketosis generally does result in a drastic weight loss the first week, but it’s a release of water, so if an athlete isn’t committed to drinking electrolyte-infused liquids to replenish that, they’ll likely suffer symptoms of dehydration often referred to as the “keto flu” — headaches, fatigue, brain fog. Gatorade may have electrolytes, but it’s far from keto, so make your own, mix plain salt in water, or get some Redmond’s Re-Lyte.
There are also experts who discuss athletic keto diets, which may include a carb load of 100g just before an intense workout. Many people who try a keto diet find that they lose weight, and after the initial adjustment period, they often also describe clearer thinking, a reduced appetite, fewer “sugar crashes” in the afternoon, and even more energy. The bacon-burger-butter keto diet isn’t the goal, however – remember your plant foods.
If a student-athlete wanted to try a keto diet, I’d recommend digging into research and following some experts who use keto for athletes, particularly focusing on staying hydrated, which is more difficult when eating in this fashion.
Jill Lane focuses more on protein and carbs for performance, not weight. She recommends the following:
Athletes should consumer around one gram per pound of body weight in protein per day. If we just start there, you’ll find that most athletes are barely eating half of that. Protein is important, especially for the growing athlete, because their nutrition fuels growth and maturation and performance and recovery. Protein isn’t a fuel source. It’s a recovery tool, and they need a lot of that.
Carbohydrates vary based on training load, but I recommend at a minimum 2 to 3 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight. Of course, we want the healthy stuff, stuff with lots of fiber, not super refined [not white flour or sugar or processed chemicals]. If someone wants to lose weight, the data shows this: if you’re going to cut calories, the best way to preserve muscle is to keep your protein intake high.
I would normally backload that with lots of plants, but if someone hasn’t been eating a lot of plants and fiber (especially in kids), the first thing that that’s going to do is probably stop up their digestion a little bit, get their microbiome a little gassy and bloated. And so to try to do that 48 hours out from an event isn’t going to really help them.
But if they were doing that every day, and we said, “Okay, we’re going to cut back on carbohydrates a little, keep protein intake up, watch salt intake,” I do think that’s something to consider [to achieve a healthy fighting weight].
The goal is to have a base, decent working diet, because then the tweaks that you need to make a day or two out should be really subtle and there should be little weight to actually have to “cut.”
The bottom line when it comes to diet for healthy performance and weight is: eat fewer carbs, tons of protein, plenty of food for the energy you need, healthy fats and high-fiber, non-starchy veggies…but do it all season long, not just a few days or weeks here and there.
2. Sweat It Out in the Sauna
I’ve written about the health benefits of sweating before, and I personally love my sauna.
Sweating in a sauna to cut weight is of course just a twist on all the other ways athletes like wrestlers often dehydrate, but I see a few advantages:
- It’s really fast to sweat a LOT as opposed to doing things to dehydrate all day long
- Your body gets additional benefits from infrared and heat therapy, many of which are helpful for muscle recovery anyway
Ideally, an athlete would want to do a sauna session in close proximity to weigh-in, because it’s really important to replace those electrolytes and fluids after sweating buckets like that. If that’s not possible, rehydrating with bone broth and electrolyte products like Redmond’s Re-Lyte or Thorne’s Catalyte is vital (and may eliminate the weight loss).
I did my own test at home, and in one hour in my sauna at 140-160F, I lost 1.5-2 pounds (between 1-2% of my body weight). I drank a few sips of water with salt while in the sauna, although I’d normally drink 20-35 ounces in a session like that.
After I weighed myself at the end, I guzzled 16 ounces of water and weighed myself again. Nothing changed, but maybe my scale isn’t very sensitive!
If your athlete tries a sauna, please make sure they’re well hydrated and nourished on a daily basis, and within a few hours, hydration must be replenished. Jill reminds us that all wrestlers should be watching their urine color to detect dehydration anyway.
And remember that plain water isn’t the best way to rehydrate your cells – try a homemade electrolyte drink like this one with honey or Mary’s homemade “smart water” instead.
3. Borrow a Beauty Queen’s Daily Routine to Poop Every Day
Around the time my son was in wrestling, I met a beautiful, healthy woman who was in training for the Mrs. Georgia competition (which she won). She was describing her daily routine, which was one of the most disciplined things I’ve EVER heard, especially for a busy mom of many.
One habit caught my ear when it comes to healthy weight maintenance: she prioritized pooping every day.
During her morning routine, she implemented something called a “salt flush” which gets those bowels moving regularly – a good thing for general health for anyone and to make sure an extra pound or two isn’t plaguing your weigh-in day.
Here are a few tutorials on the web:
- Salt Water Flush Recipe
- How to Make a Salt Flush Easy to Drink (This tutorial makes it sound as though you need to stay close to a toilet for a few hours, but perhaps if it’s a regular daily event, it’s quick and easy?)
Again, be sure to rehydrate, but pooping is normal and healthy for digestion and detoxification, so supporting that daily isn’t a bad thing.
4. Get your Magnesium Up for Clean Bowels
Yep, poop has pounds!
If you don’t want those pounds on the scale and a salt flush isn’t for you, magnesium citrate (find at) relaxes the bowels and pulls water into the intestines, a natural, normal process. You need to be hydrated as well, but regular bowel movements are always a good goal for both health and weight management.
Dr. Vincent Pedre has a great Instagram reel on the topic. 😉
It’s important to note that while getting a good poop out is a safe and healthy way to cut a pound or two, laxatives are habit-forming and should not be an option! Plus, in case you haven’t received this message loudly enough yet — hydrate!
5. Quick Poop Fix to Cut Weight Fast
If you aren’t keeping up on magnesium well and the salt flush doesn’t work for you, a more extreme (but still safe) option is an enema.
You can read about my experience with enemas as part of a gut-healing diet here (be prepared for TMI!). I know people who do an enema every day, so the positives are high and risk low.
Plus the percent chance of success is really, really high!
If you’re using bowel movements in your repertoire, here are some final thoughts from Jill Lane of Fueling Champions:
If someone’s trying to lighten up digestion, make sure they’re having healthy bowel movements, and maybe manage dehydration while they’re trying to cut weight, you can use some superfoods like bone broth or a really high quality whey or plant-based protein. Make sure that’s certified free of banned substances, which I take really seriously even in my student athletes. They should be treated like the pros.
The only company I use really for that is called Thorne Research. They were the first company to partner with Olympic teams right before the Rio Summer Olympics. They have a couple great protein powders, plant-based and whey, and bone broth, plus a great electrolyte product called Catalyte and an amino acid powder. So if I’m really working with someone that weight is a sensitivity but I have to keep them well nourished, I will use those sorts of supplements that are really like food replacements to augment nourishment, to help preserve dehydration and electrolyte levels, so that we don’t have a different performance after we make weight.
Bottom Line on Cutting Weight for Wrestlers and Other Athletes
The goal for athletic competition should be to get a human body to perform at its highest level while also building health for a lifetime.
Our physical bodies are incredible, designed for energy, strength, endurance, and sure – even combat. If we choose the proper inputs, we can get an impressive output.
Rather than working against your body, work with it. Choose nourishing foods that will build muscle, energy, and mental focus, stay hydrated, sleep well (find some sleep hacks to improve sleep quality here), and keep a positive body mindset.
There’s really no need for a wrestler to be competitive by cutting weight because being counter-cultural and surprising one’s opponent with an intensely nourished physique is going to win every match.
But if your student-athlete does need to cut a pound or two, they can achieve that without deprivation of nutrients, junk food, or dangerous dehydration.
- National Institute for Mental Health. (n.d.). Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/eating-disorders