Weight Cutting for Muay Thai: History, Ethics & How-To

This article was originally published August 18th, 2011 for Muay Thai Authority. I have posted it here with some minor revisions.
 

Every athlete is looking for that extra edge in competition. If we can be just a fraction of a step ahead of our opponent in one area of athleticism that gives us an advantage. In a sport where all it takes is one punch to make a champion that advantage could be cardio, strength, speed, agility, skill, experience, reach or size.

Muay Thai, like other combat sports, is divided into weight classes. Theses weight classes are supposed to level the playing field so that opponents are equal in size, but with new modern techniques borrowed from other sports like wrestling and MMA, Muay Thai fighters are now using weight cutting to gain a serious size advantage over opponents.

Some may say that weight cutting is cheating; others claim that it’s just a matter of discipline and sacrifice. I say that it’s a question of science. But like any other science experiment, if you make a mistake it can cost you a lot – in this case, it can cost you the fight.

Weight cutting or making weight has not had a long history in Muay Thai. Before the introduction of weight classes, Thai fighters fought all opponents, and there was one champion. As the sport became more regulated the addition of gloves, weight classes and rounds were included just like American boxing. We can only speculate as to how sophisticated traditional methods of “making weight” in Muay Thai whereas there are no historical accounts.

Severe weight cutting was popularized by wrestlers, who have historically used extreme methods to make weight not just on occasion, but several times in a season. The issue of unsafe weight practices among elite wrestlers gained national awareness in 1997, when three collegiate grapplers, all of whom were engaging in severe actions to make weight, died within a 32-day period. After that event, the NCAA placed some regulations to control these extreme methods. They banned the use of plastic sweat suits and saunas, increased the weight limit for weight classes and changed the weigh-in time to 2 hours before the event.

The only problem with the time change is that wrestlers still practice dangerous weight cutting methods even when they don’t have a chance to re-hydrate properly. It’s the same with Jiu Jitsu tournaments today, you have to weigh-in and compete right then, but have no time to re-hydrate. The problem is that athletes hear about various weight cutting methods from their friends, teammates, online forums and even coaches then try them out with no medical supervision and no time to re-hydrate properly before a competition.

Fortunately Muay Thai like MMA and boxing has a 24-hour window for rehydration, which makes weight cuts safer for the athlete, but it is not without risk. Even if you think weight cutting is cheating or should be banned from the sport of Muay Thai, you have to recognize that people are doing it, some better than others. Sometimes the fight is won by a size advantage alone.

I’m not writing this article to tell you if this is fair or not. I’ll be honest; I cut weight and do so to gain an advantage. I do it because if I don’t cut weight, I risk fighting someone that does and is potentially much bigger and stronger than me. Because I cut weight and I’m concerned about my health I have researched and studied the science behind weight cutting. I won’t give away all my secrets, but I do want to outline safe weight cutting practices so that athletes can make educated, science-based decisions about their training and nutrition leading up to the battle with the scale.

You need to think of weight cutting in four stages. The danger some fighters get into is when they don’t pay attention to their nutrition and their weight for weeks and then try to cut weight in the last 1-2 weeks before a fight. There are four stages to weight cutting: Training Nutrition, Pre-Cut Nutrition, Dehydration, and Hydration.

Before you even start thinking about your nutrition you need to evaluate your current weight, your desired pre-cut weight, and your fighting weight. Don’t jump into this without a game plan that would be like trying to spar Pacquiao with a blindfold on – bad news all around. The next thing you know you’ll end up in the sauna the day of weigh-ins hating life.

All the studies regarding weight cuts show that you can safely drop up to 5% of your body weight and if you have 24 hours to re-hydrate you will not lose any physical strength. For example, if you weight 160 lbs 5% of that is 8 lbs so you could only safely dehydrate to 152, therefore if your fight weight is 145 you’ll want to get down from 160 to about 153 lean but hydrated about 10-14 days before the fight. If that doesn’t seem possible to you, then you may need to re-evaluate your fighting weight. Is it safe to dehydrate more? Maybe, but we don’t have the research to prove that. No studies have been done with weight cuts larger than 5% of body weight so we can’t know.

According to a 2007 American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand, the overall effects of dehydration, exercise and fluid replacement can be unforgiving. A 2% loss in body weight due to dehydration can decrease aerobic performance as well as mental and cognitive capacity. However, in their findings, dehydration levels of up to 5% loss of body weight had no effect on anaerobic capabilities or muscular strength, a plus for fighters. So there are some drawbacks, even after re-hydration. Rapid weight cuts may leave you a little less mentally sharp on game day, and your cardio might suffer a little, but the research states that your strength can be maintained as long as you re-hydrate properly before your competition.

You may hear about MMA fighters like Georges St. Pierre and Anthony Johnson, who cut significant amounts of weight but keep in mind these guys are under constant professional supervision, and they have been practicing these cuts for a long time. One useful rule of thumb: don’t try any new drastic weight cutting methods for a competition that you haven’t tested. Make sure your techniques and the amount of weight cut is something you are comfortable with and have done before.

Another warning: do not attempt a rapid water weight cut if you have a same-day weigh in or a weigh in of less than 24 hours to re-hydrate. You will lose strength, stamina and mental cognition. Just follow phase one of this guide and be as strong and lean as you can be.

Weight Cutting for Muay Thai Phases:

Phase 1 – Training Nutrition

The start of Training Camp Until 7 Days Before Your Fight.

This phase begins as soon as you start training for your fight. Ideally, you should live close to this way of eating all year round, just cutting yourself more slack when you don’t have a fight and shaping things up a bit when you do. The goal of this phase if you are heavier than your desired pre-cut weight is to lose body fat. Remember that you are eating for performance and fat loss here, a tricky line to walk on. It’s important you have enough fuel to train hard, but not so much that you gain too much weight.

I work in close collaboration with clients to individualize this phase, but in general, it looks something like this:

Three meals a day maybe 4, with all meals comprised of meat/fish/poultry, veggies and healthy fats and healthy starches like rice and yams according to your training intensity, metabolism, and weight goals.

Focus your meals on protein and veggies plus healthy fats. Ideally, protein sources should be grass-fed meat; organic pasture raised poultry/eggs and wild caught fish. 75% of vegetables should be green veggies. Don’t eat more than and healthy fats from coconut oil, avocado, olive oil and maybe pastured butter. Fat is essential. Do not make the mistake of eliminating fats to lose fat. Eat until satiated, but not stuffed. Don’t “graze” all day, eat regular meals.

The post workout meal should have the addition of some extra starch. I call them “healthy” starches: sweet potatoes yams, rice, winter squashes, oatmeal are some examples of healthy starches. Starches are only allowed in the post workout meal if the fighter still needs to lose body fat. Starches should be carefully watched. Too much starch and you will not drop body fat. If you feel very sluggish, have a little more, but not so much that you do not steadily see a change in body comp.

Some athletes do a good job of walking around with a low body fat and their cut will be just the water weight starting at Phase 2, 7 days before the fight, in which case more carb/starch in the diet can be allowed (in the form of potato, squashes, white rice, oatmeal, fruits). The amount of starch and fruit I allow my athletes and clients to consume depends on their unique metabolism, their activity level and the amount of body fat that they need to lose. This will vary. Food journals and tracking tools like hydrostatic weighing are strongly suggested for optimal performance.

Recovery drinks are a helpful addition to phase 1 of the weight cut, ensuring that you get the best result from each workout. Recovery drinks should be made up of about 30-60 grams of simple sugars (dextrose, glucose or sucrose – but NOT fructose and especially not HFC) and 15-30 grams of fast protein, whey or egg if you are sensitive to whey. The amount depends on of your body weight, personal metabolism, and how much body fat you need to lose. Start on the lower end and check recovery and weight, adjust as necessary. The ratio of carbs to protein should be 2:1 for short, intense power workouts or 4:1 for longer duration workouts (unless you are doing marathon sessions of over 2 hours 2:1 should be fine). I like to buy my electrolyte/sugar powder separate from my whey protein powder so I can get a good quality one of both and mix to the ratios I need. If you are not into measuring your stuff, just have a coconut water or banana and half a scoop of whey protein, or just a banana. The goal is to replenish glucose stores. Please see my previous article on supplements for tips on choosing a whey protein and also about the use of BCAA’s for athletes.

The appropriate use of recovery drinks is after a hard workout where your glucose stores have been depleted. How hard is hard? Well, you have, to be honest with yourself. You know when you pushed it and when you didn’t. Did you just do a light recovery workout? Maybe just a little shadowboxing and then three rounds of pads? Well, then you probably don’t need a recovery shake. Did you do ten rounds of hard sparring or a crazy sprint and kettlebell workout? Yes, a recovery shake is probably appropriate. You know the answer to this, just be honest with yourself. Make sure to get your recovery drink in within 15 minutes after your workout and then your post workout meal in the next 60 minutes to optimize your recovery.

During this phase no sugar, alcohol, fried food, or processed food is allowed. You will lose weight without restricting calories too much if you eat the right foods at the right time and train hard. You’ll want to train hard because you want to improve your performance. If you feel you are not making fat loss progress don’t go for long runs and starve yourself; that will just burn your muscle and make you hungrier. Simply re-evaluate your food and see where you can make improvements. If you starve the body during hard training not only will you decrease performance, but also you will make your body think it’s starving, this is stressful to your body. You’ll lose muscle not fat, and your cortisol will rise. Excess cortisol production can cause sleep disturbances, bone loss, fatigue, loss of muscle mass, weight gain and can deplete the body of magnesium, zinc, glutamine and carnitine. Hard training and calorie restriction is an athlete’s worst nightmare and can create a myriad of problems that will ruin a training camp. Eat smart, sleep well and train hard during this phase.

Phase 2 Pre-Cut Nutrition

Seven days to Day Before Weigh-ins

At this stage in your weight cut, all the hard training should be done, and all the fat loss you can achieve is finished. From here on out it’s all about water. Since your training is tapering off and there won’t be any terrible glucose depleting workouts in the last seven days, you can eliminate the starches from your post workout meal and cut out all recovery drinks. Meals are comprised of lean proteins, green veggies, and healthy fats, remove salt – be wary of sauces at restaurants! No snacks and lots and lots of water.

You will need to drink 5-8 liters a day depending on body weight. Keep this up slowly tapering off by a couple of liters in the last two days out from weigh-ins. This “hyper-hydration” will trick your body into continuing to excrete water even when you stop drinking it. It’s also known as “the water diet.” Distilled water is often used, as it has “drawing out” properties, but reverse osmosis water can also be used. Just make sure it’s fresh, filtered, unflavored water.

Phase 3 – Dehydration

Day before and Day of Weigh-ins

Please note that any attempt at dehydration is not without risk. It is dangerous and ultimately unhealthy. People have died trying to make weight. I’m outlining these tactics not to promote weight cuts but to educate fighters, so they don’t resort to even more dangerous methods of making weight. To ignore the fact that fighters make weight and not write about this would be more negligent of me because fighters will always be looking to find a way to get the advantage – in short, they will do it anyway with or without my help.

Eat light the day before weigh-ins but don’t starve yourself. Just stay away from starchy veggies, stick to leafy greens, lean meats, and some healthy fats. Drink water regularly the day before weigh-ins, then stop drinking water 12 hours out from weigh-ins. If you eat breakfast the day of weigh-ins, it will be your only meal until after weigh-ins and should be something that doesn’t weigh a lot like scrambled eggs. Everything you eat now counts, so if you put it in your mouth, it better be worth the extra work to cut it. Check your weight. If you are still over you will need to sweat out the last bit. The best methods for this are the ones that are the least stressful to your body. Exercising with plastics on is the least desirable method. The best method is the bathtub method followed by wet heat then dry heat.

First, NEVER cut weight alone. Make sure you are supervised by a coach or training partner that has done a weight cut before. If you have access to a Jacuzzi where you control the heat that’s good. If not you can use a bath. You want water as hot as you can stand it, without burning yourself and it’s important that the temperate stays up while you are in it, – which is why the Jacuzzi is good. You can make the room extra steamy by leaving the water on in the shower, which helps the weight cutting process. Most fighters perform their weight cuts in 15 or 30-minute sessions. Personally, I do 30 minutes first, check my weight, then do 1 or 2 or more 15-minute sessions as necessary. I prefer the steam room, that’s the second best. But from my research I gathered that the bath tub/Jacuzzi method is reliable as a first cut method, following up with the steam room if necessary. The sauna will do fine if that is the only available method.

After you get to your desired weight towel off, check your weight and then get dressed in your scale-posing outfit, which should be skimpy to avoid adding weight to the scale. Phew, all the hard work is done. Oh, and check your weight on multiple scales. It’s no fun when you have to put on the plastics and jog because the scale you used was a half a pound off. Man, I hate that

Phase 4 Re-hydration

Immediately after Weigh-ins until Fighter Check-in

Re-hydration should start immediately after you get off the scale. The safest and best method for re-hydration is an oral re-hydration solution (ORS) the most common of these is Pedialyte, but I don’t like it because of they add artificial sugars to it to make it sweet enough for kids to want to drink (I recommend the unflavored Pedialyte). Real ORS solutions will taste less sweet but are more efficient without the nasty chemicals.

ORS can be made directly by adding eight tsp of sugar (dextrose would be best, or table sugar if you can’t find it), one tsp of the electrolyte salt, far superior to regular table salt, which is stripped of its electrolyte content. You can find these items at vitamin stores or online.

Keep sipping on the ORS then about 90-120 minutes after weigh-ins Eat a meal of about 4:1 carbs to protein. Sweet potato or white rice with veggies, and lean meat/chicken are my recommendations. Avoid wheat-based carbs. Gluten could set you off if you have been avoiding it all this time. Don’t eat any meals you are unfamiliar with after weigh-ins. You’ll eat about 3-5 meals leading up the fight with the 4:1 ratio. Stick to whole, non-processed foods, not whey protein or bars. Keep sipping the ORS. You should put back all the water weight you cut by fight time and feel robust and ready for battle.

I hope that this article has been informative and helpful to you in your training and cutting process. If you got anything from it, I hope it was that planning, preparation, and discipline are critical. The more hard work you do in the beginning, the less it hurts the day of weigh-ins. Get ripped and lean while you train hard in the weeks leading up to the cut so that your focus can stay on the fight

I would like to thank Robb Wolf, Greg Everett, and Mathieu P. Lalonde for useful discussions.

I also want to give a big thank you to Dan Hardy for helping me make weight at 132 lbs and teaching me his tricks of the trade in my first big weight cut.