5 Common Mistakes In Water Cuts For Making Weight
Dr. Derek Wilcox of Renaissance Periodization
Water manipulation is a contender for the easiest way to screw up an entire training cycle’s worth of work before a competition. The allure of competing in a lighter weight class has tempted athletes across all weight class sports for as long as they have been around and really isn’t going to go away any time soon. I have coached others through and personally been making water cuts for 24 hour, 2 hour and immediate weigh ins before various competitions for well over a decade. These sports included powerlifting, weightlifting, strongman, highland games and combat sports. There are lots of variables that play into what makes a water cut successful or tragic but the basis of it for this article will be centered around the concepts of the hormones that control much of the fluid retention ADH (Antidiuretic Hormone) and sodium balance (Aldosterone) in the body. This is grossly oversimplified but will function for what we need to cover here.
There are many inherent risks when dealing with dehydration as most are aware, but it’s not as simple as being low on body fluids. When you manipulate water you also cause a cascade of adjustments in your body that effect electrolyte balances as well. Any change detected by your body creates a physiological response as an effort to return the body back to a normal state (homeostasis) as much as possible. Water loading creates this effect by causing a suppression of ADH that allows your kidneys to essentially open the flood gates and increase the rate of urination to attempt to bring the amount of fluid in your body back to a normal level. An accompanying technique with water loading is also sodium loading which causes the same kind of effect with sodium retention (via aldosterone). Since sodium carries water with it, a lot of water is released when this effect is occurring. I can’t stress enough that these methods are inherently dangerous. When done to an extreme extent they create high risks of injury, health complications (i.e seizures) and even death in one case of a woman taking part in a water drinking contest. More relevant to powerlifting, muscle tears, cramping and a general decrease in performance are the most common issues we face even when water cuts go well. It’s always going to be a big roll of the dice with any significant methods of dropping weight before competition, but here I’ll lay out 5 of the most common mistakes I’ve seen in water cuts for competition.
1. Loading Water Too Much/Too Little.
What is that magical amount of water where you are getting the desired effect but not making your eyeballs float out of your head? That seems to be related to your bodyweight initially in the process. Unfortunately, research on this isn’t exactly available since the Internal Review Board (IRB) would laugh you out the door for even thinking of sanctioning such a thing to be studied on other humans. If you load too little, you’re just wasting time and effort, but if you load too much it’s needless stress right before competition. The standard recommended water intake for sedentary people is around 1oz per 1kg of body weight adding 8-10 fl oz every 10-15 min during exercise. The sweet spot for water loading seems to be around 3.5oz-4oz of water per kg of body weight (with the same guidelines adding more water during activity) on the high intake days. 2
2. Water Loading Too Early.
When you are above weight for your class in the competition coming up soon you really want to fix that problem as soon as possible so you don’t have so much anxiety going into the competition. A common reaction to this is ”Crap! I better start cutting water, that will work to get me down quick”. Many times I’ll hear this from athletes where they start off the water loading process a week and a half, 2 weeks and even 3 weeks before a weigh in. There’s just no reason to do this in the least. The longest a water manipulation cycle ever needs to be is 5 days and that is normally for 24 hour weigh ins and 10% body mass cuts. For 2 hour weigh ins you can easily drop at least one day from that process (usually 2 days off) in the most extreme cases but normally a 2 hour weigh in manipulation can be done in 3 days total. This would include 2 days of water and sodium loading and the morning of the third day dropping sodium and drinking about half the water you did on a loading day. The hormones being manipulated to change water retention respond in a matter of hours, not days. That makes long water manipulating cycles pointless and only increases risks of complications and injury. This leads to our next common mistake.
3. Tapering Water Intake Down.
When performing water manipulation, we are essentially trying to turn your renal (urinary) system into a raging bull running full steam ahead before we play the role of the matador moving out of the way and letting it overrun its target. The target here is homeostasis or a normal fluid balance. As we now know the body doesn’t take very long to adjust to altered fluid and sodium intake so when we make changes they need to be fast in that physiological timeline. After water loading if you begin to taper your water intake down toward the weigh in you allow the body to adjust to the lower water intake and start increasing it’s ability to retain water. A common method of this is days 1 and 2 water loading with 2-3 gallons, 3rd day down to 1 gallon, and the 4th day just a half gallon. Unfortunately by the time the second half of the 3rd day rolls around your body is adapting back toward retention mode and will have made adjustments to retain that half gallon of water on day 4 as much as possible. This is why you want to stop the loading process abruptly in order to get the full effect we’re trying to achieve. Olé!
4. Ignoring Electrolyte Balances
Sodium is our primary variable to be manipulated in this process and we need to treat it similarly to our fluid intake. It should be loaded along with the high volume of water in the early stages of the process but also abruptly taken out before the end of the water consumption phase. This allows the high volume of water to quickly push out the remaining sodium while the levels of aldosterone are in a favorable state to release it as much as possible. This time will be especially risky as on top of the upcoming dehydration effects, you will be putting yourself in a state of hyponatremia bringing about high risks of health complications. Please check out the Mayo Clinic’s statement of the risks of hyponatremia below. Performance variables in this state are affected by a much higher chance for cramping and muscle strains/tears. You shouldn’t be training in this state past a mobility warm up to make sure you don’t ruin your competition with poor planning a day or 2 beforehand.
5. Poor Reconstitution
This part can be tricky! Depending on the design of your water cut your reconstitution techniques and intake will need to be very different. As you all know a 24-hour reconstitution phase is drastically different from a two hour or immediate way in reconstitution phase. The best method to make sure you are able to perform with a two-hour weigh in is to have your body weight a kilo or so below your weight class the evening before competition. This allows you to start taking in nutrients like carbohydrates and sodium in their driest forms possible to minimize weight. This gives you the fuel to allow your body to start storing muscle glycogen, correcting your electrolyte balances and potentiate your ability to retain fluids optimally after you weigh in. Without these nutrients in your body already before the reconstitution process begins, you will not be able to retain the water you are taking in post weigh in. It doesn’t matter how much water you chug after you make weight (gallons in some cases) you won’t be in a hydrated state due to the lack of water bonding nutrients. Your kidneys will just flush the water out leaving you likely in worse shape than before and actually make urine samples for drug tests non-viable. With the modern drug testing procedures being employed currently you’ll just be stuck giving urine samples until the pH level and/or specific gravity are within standards so the drug testing agency can read the sample properly. You also will want to avoid taking in many fats during this phase as they slow down digestion which means slower reconstitution of nutrients. This concept is vital if you want to have the best chance to still perform well and hopefully avoid an increased risk of injury.
A big take home message for the concept of water cutting in general is that every individual athlete’s situation requires different measures to maximize the effect of the cut and minimize the risk associated with this. You’ll probably notice I didn’t lay out a basic water cutting template here and that is the reason why. There is no real cookie cutter approach to these scenarios but there are principals to be followed. You won’t cut the same way for 24-hour weigh ins as you would 2-hour weigh ins and 2 hour weigh ins are even significantly different from immediate before competing weigh ins. You certainly don’t want to do the same process for a 2% drop as you would a 5% drop either. The anxiety of making weight really creates a lot of knee jerk decisions to be made leading up to a competition and as an athlete and especially as a coach I hate seeing months and months of work being nullified by a lack of planning and misinformed decisions.
The best way to avoid these risks is of course consulting a professional. If you do need to manipulate water to achieve your goals however, please find a coach who is educated and experienced in these methods like the coaching staff at RP. They can save you a lot of heart ache and frustration in the long run!
American College of Sports Medicine. Position Standon Exercise and Fluid Replacement. Med. Sci. SportsExerc.,Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. i–vii, 1996