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A Critical Review of Weight Cutting Strategies in MMA and Boxing; An Example of Path Dependence?

Updated: May 30, 2021

“We all sit here in a room, and we watch a human being bring themselves close to death.”

Boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) divide competitors into weight categories to promote fairness, by attempting to eliminate any potential physical advantage derived from body mass athletes are thus classified by their bodyweight (Langan-Evans, Close & Morton, 2011). However, in an attempt to gain a perceived physical advantage and increase the chances of winning, combat athletes try to reduce their body mass to compete against weaker and smaller opponents in the lightest weight category possible (Franchini, Brito & Artioli, 2012). This belief is embedded within combat sport culture and the normalisation of “weight cutting” can be considered as path dependency. That is, the continuation of a practice based on historical long-standing tradition resistant to change, despite there being conflicting evidence (Liebowitz & Margolis, 1995). This unshakeable dogmatism persists even when confronted with controversial high-profile cases in the media such as Cris Cyborgs quote above (Chiappetta, 2015) or when challenged by the latest science. Whilst the influence on performance is complex and often unclear due to a multitude of mitigating factors, there is unequivocal concern over health implications (Artioli, Saunders, Iglesias & Franchini, 2016; Crighton, Close & Morton, 2015; Kempton et al., 2009). Important ideological and ethical questions then arise. Firstly, do the performance benefits, if any, outweigh the potential health risks? Secondly, why does weight cutting persist? Lastly, how does the sport challenge path dependency and evolve to safer practices that are adhered to?

Competitors utilise varying rapid weight loss (RWL) strategies primarily starting one week prior to a bout. RWL causes acute and chronic dehydration and water weight is primarily manipulated in order to achieve the desired weight. These RWL strategies can be independent or a combination of; reduced water intake, the use of saunas, starvation, controlled reduced kcal consumption, water loading and more extreme methods such as laxatives, thermogenic aids and diet pills. It should also be noted the implementation of illegal banned substances such as diuretics are sometimes also utilised (Brito et al., 2012; Langan-Evans et al., 2011). This is typically more customary in boxing and MMA than other combat sports, especially with more aggressive weight cutting strategies deployed by higher skill level athletes who compete less frequently (Barley et al., 2018, 2019; Reale, Slater & Burke, 2018). Crighton et al. (2015) found 100% of professional MMA athletes utilise varying RWL strategies a week prior to their bout with an average reduction of 9% of total body mass. The magnitude of total weight loss has been reported at varying percentages across a number of studies (fig 1).

Figure 1. Numerous studies highlighting the magnitude of total bodyweight lost in the final week before competition.

Weigh-ins are typically performed 24 hours before competition but can vary depending on competition rules (Reale et al., 2018). This allows rehydration and glycogen replenishment to take place before competition which can mitigate the effects of RWL on performance by enabling the athlete to recover. However, Jetton et al. (2013) found 39% of MMA athletes entered into competition not sufficiently rehydrated and thus a cause for concern. Franchini et al. (2012) suggests due to health concerns athletes who need to lose >3% of total body mass a week before a bout should consider not competing. Additionally, if the competitor has <3 hours to recover after weigh-in then RWL strategies should not be undertaken. As demonstrated in figure 1, many athletes do not abide by these recommendations. The health implications are therefore vast, significant or moderate dehydration can lead to changes in brain morphology. Furthermore, dehydration reduces cerebral spinal fluid which acts as a cushion for the brain inside the skull enhancing the possibility of brain trauma (Crighton et al., 2015; Kempton et al., 2009). Additionally, a link between dehydration and inflammatory biomarkers has been speculated, suggesting dehydration impairs recovery from both sub-concussive and concussive blows, and could enhance the development of amyloid plaques and Tao proteins associated with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

(Clark & Sirois, 2020; Dashnaw, Petraglia & Bailes, 2012; Siedler, Chuah, Kirkcaldie, Vickers & King, 2014; Yashkichev, 2015). Cardiovascular complications are also of concern during RWL. In 2018, 21-year-old Yang Jian Bing was one of many who have unfortunately lost their lives after suffering a heart attack whilst weight cutting in preparation for his ONE championship bout (Perez, n.d.). The underlying mechanisms responsible are multifactorial, an increased blood viscosity causing hypertension, reduced endothelial function, impaired temperature regulation and hydroelectric disturbances. These issues are further compounded by the use of saunas and exercising when already in a dehydrated state (Watso & Farquhar, 2019).

The impact of RWL strategies on performance outcomes have been relatively unclear primarily due to the vast number of interacting variables that decide the outcome of a bout (Franchini et al., 2012). However, physiological markers suggest a decrease in aerobic and anaerobic performance, primarily due to an increased heart rate, decrease in blood plasma volume, hydroelectric disturbances, reduced muscle buffering capacity and glycogen depletion (Fogelholm, 1994). These effects can be mitigated by the type of RWL strategy utilised, time to recover post weigh-in and rehydration efforts, thus additionally making it difficult to ascertain a clear path for best practice. It should be warned however, these detrimental effects are typically proportional to the amount and speed at which weight loss is experienced (Barley et al., 2019). Barley, Iredale, Chapman, Hopper and Abbiss (2018) demonstrated after 24 hours, with a total body mass reduction of 4.8%, repeat effort performance was compromised. Therefore, combat athletes who cut substantially more than 3% of total body mass a week before competition are at an increased risk of health complications and impaired performance.

When detailing health concerns and negative physiological performance metrics it would seem logical that weight cutting, outside of minimal reductions <3%, is a disadvantageous and archaic practice. Consequently, there have been calls to totally eradicate weight cutting from combat sport (Artioli et al., 2016). However, it should be considered that the perceived benefit to performance is psychological in origin, anchoring weight cutting in combat sport culture. Pettersson, Ekström and Berg (2013) present a model based on the psychological benefits of weight cutting (Fig 2).

Figure 1. Numerous studies highlighting the magnitude of total bodyweight lost in the final week before competition.

Qualitative data suggests athletes feel a sense of belonging and considered weight cutting as part of a physical process which heavily influences the perception of themselves and their chances of success. By going through this process, the athlete believes they have an advantage strengthening their will to win. Whilst this maybe a placebo it highlights the warrior mentality often alluded to in combat sport. That is, persevering through sometimes unimaginable discomfort dovetails perfectly with the extreme solitude, sacrifice and accepted physical cost prevalent in combat sport (Chiappetta, 2015). Consequently, this perception provides the adequate resistance substantial enough in the face of conflicting physiological evidence for athletes to continually participate in harmful weight cutting practices. Furthermore, weight cutting is held firmly in place by commercialism of professional prize fighting. Weigh-ins are a glamourisation of the gladiatorial aspect of the sport key for selling the fight to the general public (Barley et al., 2019). Therefore, this recipe creates the perfect path dependency cocktail, sheltering the belief from outside scrutiny.

Many different countermeasures have been proposed to minimise the negative effects of weight cutting, for example; same day weigh-ins, more weight classes and setting specific target weights weeks before competition. However, these suggestions have been criticised as they present their own problems (Barley et al., 2019) and do not necessarily help erode the path dependency prevalent in combat sport. As presented in this critical review, regardless of health concerns and detrimental effects on performance, there still remains resistance due to the assumptions of the athletes themselves. The belief that weight cutting gives an athlete a physical advantage needs to be directly challenged through education. Strength and conditioning coaches therefore play a pivotal role in educating combat athletes during preparation for a bout. Gradual healthy and sustainable weight loss at <1kg a week over the course of a training camp, rather than being reliant on RWL strategies has been suggested as the optimal strategy (Franchini et al., 2012). This minimises health concerns and has demonstrated no negative effects on performance (Kordi, 2009). However, this alone is only viable if the starting weight for the athlete before the training camp isn’t unmanageable in respect to their competition weight. Therefore, solely detailing the training camp within the literature doesn’t fully encapsulate the needs analysis. A training camp typically lasts for 8-12 weeks and thus to focus on both performance optimisation and weight management during such a short time frame is unrealistic due to the contrasting approaches. It can be argued that by purely focusing on the training camp implicitly suggests sufficient preparation can be garnered in these time frames. This therefore reinforces the path dependency in combat sport as athletes will continue to rely on RWL strategies due to insufficient preparation. Duncan French, head of performance at the UFC, in unpublished data highlighted a 5.8% reduction in bodyfat alone between the start of training camp and the end of training camp. French suggests if weight management was a priority before starting the training camp more time can be focused on actually enhancing the athlete’s performance (French, 2019). It is perhaps unsurprising more extreme weight cuts are found in the professional game where athletes typically compete sporadically throughout the year (Barley et al., 2019; Hillier et al., 2019). Avoiding significant increase in weight outside of training camps enables the athlete to start in a stronger and healthier position closer to their competition weight. This would mean the athlete would ideally not be worlds apart from the 3% total body mass reduction deemed acceptable one week before a fight proposed by Franchini et al. (2012). Ultimately, viewing combat sport through a macrocycle periodisation lens would help contribute to healthier approaches and also allow for more time to focus on performance optimisation. Performance is fundamentally built on good health and it is this realisation which can help erode the pillars of path dependency in combat sport.


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