The weight-cutting jiu-jitsu fighter must navigate a unique set of challenges compared to other combat sports athletes. Unfortunately, most of us rely on guesswork and pseudo-science to try to hit our target weight on comp day. BJJ Black Belt, Accredited Sports Dietitian and PhD student Reid Reale explain the best way to make weight safely and effectively.
Can and Should You Cut Weight for BJJ Competitions?
Combat sports and cutting weight go hand in hand, and the concept of ‘gaming the system’ (dropping weight in order to fight smaller opponents) has likely existed ever since weight divisions have existed. However, like many long-standing practices which are based in tradition, often people don’t have a good understanding of what they are doing, how they are doing it, or even why they are doing it.
Put simply, cutting weight is practised in order to attempt to gain a weight/size/strength/power/leverage advantage over another competitor in a weight category sport. This is usually achieved through a combination of long term weight loss and short term weight loss before weigh-in followed by rehydration, recovery and weight gain post-weigh-in.
Given that the vast majority of jiu-jitsu competitions have athletes weigh-in anywhere from 15-60 minutes before you step on the mat, it is hard to gain lost weight following the weigh-in, thus one is unlikely to be able to ‘game the system’ to gain a weight advantage. However, this does not mean that the concept of cutting weight does not apply to jiu-jitsu. We can still maximise our physique traits and ensure we do our best to optimise strength/power/leverage at a given weight. At a bare minimum, you should aim to weigh-in at the upper end of your weight division range. Weighing 87kg in the 85-91kg division and fighting against athletes who may be cutting from 94kg several days before the competition is not providing you with every possible advantage. To best explain the following concepts, I think it’s useful to set up some definitions.
First of all, weight or body mass (BM) encompasses everything we are made of and makes up the mass which registers as weight when we step on the scales. This includes fat mass and lean mass. Lean mass encompasses all which is non-fat mass, i.e. bone, muscle, organs, fluid, gut contents etc. Obviously some of this mass is more easily altered and becomes the target of weight-loss interventions. Once fully grown, intentionally altering bone and organ mass becomes difficult (if not impossible) and dangerous! This leaves muscle, fat, fluid and gut contents. While many people describe weight loss to meet a bodyweight target in general as ‘cutting weight’ it is useful to separate acute versus chronic weight loss. Chronic weight loss (occurring over weeks to months) includes that which is lost from fat stores and even muscle mass (although generally muscle loss is not the goal, and unless you are currently training like a bodybuilder and about to stop this style of training, or coming off a cycle of steroids, is actually harder than most people think). Acute weight loss (occurring over hours to days) is what we will term ‘cutting weight’ for the purposes of this article and is derived from losses in body water and also gut content.
I will now address key areas which are important to understand for the jiu-jitsu athlete when it comes to reducing body weight to make a specific weight division.
Chronic Weight Loss/Long Term Body Mass Management
In order to optimise our power/strength to weight ratio, we simply must maximise the amount of muscle mass and minimise the amount of fat mass we possess at a given weight. If we do not want to drop a weight division then we will need to increase muscle mass concurrent to body fat loss. This is quite difficult thus generally it is more efficient to prioritise one over the other at any particular time. The topic of how to best achieve this and whether it is better to prioritise muscle gain or fat loss first could (and has) filled many books by itself. However given the fact this is an article about cutting weight, I will leave the discussion of building muscle for another day and assume the goal is to drop a weight division, thus what we really want to do is maintain muscle mass while dropping body fat.
Body fat in a simple sense is stored energy, i.e. whenever we supply our body with more fuel than is needed we store it in our fuel tank (body fat) for later use. Therefore in order to reduce body fat, we need to create a demand on the body to utilise this stored energy. In other words, we need to expend more energy than we are consuming thus creating an energy deficit. It really is that simple (almost).
energy intake > energy expenditure = fat gain occurs
energy intake < energy expenditure = fat loss occurs
The question then is, “how do I decrease my energy intake/increase my energy expenditure”. I’m glad you asked. All the food we consume is made of macronutrients; protein, carbohydrate and fat – all which are metabolised to provide a certain amount of energy. In addition, alcohol can also be used for energy. Energy is measured in either kilocalorie (kcal) or kilojoules (kJ). Note, 1kcal = approx. 4.2kj.
Therefore, in order to decrease our energy intake, we need to be strategic in selecting foods which will enable us to achieve an energy deficit, while still providing enough nutrients to support good health, fuel our training and promote recovery, yet leave us feeling satisfied.
Protein is an important nutrient required to maintain muscle, support immunity, recover from workouts and for many other processes. However it’s not the case that more is better, and although total protein intake is important, the distribution across the day is very important also. So, rather than consuming large feedings of protein at one or two meals, getting 4-6 small to moderate serves throughout the day (timed so intake occurs after training especially) is a more efficient way to consume it. In terms of total intake, for 1.5-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is plenty, and if you want to eat a little more ‘just to be safe’ 2g/kg is definitely enough. Following the bodybuilding lead of eating 2g per pound is most certainly overkill, will not lead to more muscle and will take the place of other needed nutrients thus make it hard to perform at your best while achieving an energy deficit required for fat loss.
Given the need for protein and carbohydrate as just explained, this leaves reducing our fat intake in order to create the energy deficit required for fat loss. While fat is required for good health, hormone production and other functions, most people eat far more than necessary and if ‘somethings got to give’ in terms of reducing intake to reduce body fat, then it makes sense for it to be fat. Now I’m not saying you should remove every last gram of fat from your diet, but by limiting; added oils, fatty/oily spreads and dips, high-fat dairy, animal fats found on meats, desserts, cakes, junk food and fried foods etc. you can start to get your energy intake down while still consuming adequate protein for recovery and carbohydrate for fuel. In addition to moderating carbohydrate, consuming just the right amount of protein and limiting excessive fat intake, it makes sense to increase the intake of nutrient-dense/low energy foods in order to promote fullness, stave off hunger and give yourself something to chew on! I’m talking about fruits and in particular vegetables here. In one and a half tablespoons of butter, there are 150kcal of energy, which is the same amount as 1 cup of cooked rice, or ½ kg of non-starchy vegetables! (Broccoli, cauliflower, green beans etc.).
Athletes should understand that fat loss is a slow process which requires consistent effort over a long period of time. So, it is important to construct your diet in a way which you can stick to and allows some freedom and enjoyment. Therefore, be flexible and mix up your protein sources and carbohydrate selections. The difference between most lean proteins is minimal and 100g of lean beef can be interchanged with 100g of lean pork, fish, 2 eggs, 150g of no-fat Greek yoghurt etc.). When it comes to carbohydrate, it’s all about the quantity; 2 slices of regular-sized bread is the same as 1 regular sized wrap, 1 cup of cooked pasta/rice or ¾ cup of almost any cereal. Also, utilise herbs, spices, vinegar, lemon juice and other low-calorie flavourings to keep food interesting.
Lastly, when attempting to create an energy deficit, we can attack the other side of the equation, energy expenditure. Any and all types of movement require energy, and the key factor is the total amount of work which is done. Expending more energy doesn’t have to be tiresome, in fact adding in 3-5 x 45-minute walks per week will significantly aid in fat loss given a consistent energy intake. Of course, it makes sense to prioritise some sort of jiu-jitsu specific exercise (add in an extra 1 or 2 grappling sessions per week, arrive to class 30 min early, stay 30 minutes after class, introduce a conditioning circuit twice per week etc.), but it doesn’t have to be. Simply taking the stairs at work, playing at the park with the kids, taking the dog for a walk – all help here!
Acute Weight Loss
In addition to reducing body fat to get our weight down, there are several methods available which can be used to manipulate weight in the short term. Combat sport athletes who participate in sports which use a day before weigh-in or even a weigh-in several hours before competition, can “afford” to practically starve themselves, drop water weight and then refuel and rehydrate post-weigh-in. While not eating or drinking for days, and then sitting in a sauna for hours will be effective in reducing body weight to a large degree in a relatively short amount of time, there are some disastrous health and performance effects associated with these practices. Dehydration can lead to decreased strength/power output, reduced aerobic/anaerobic capacity, impaired heat tolerance and reaction time, and affect cognitive and mental performance. The effects worsen with the degree of dehydration and are also affected by the method of dehydration. Mild dehydration (0-2% BM) is unlikely to affect jiu-jitsu relevant performance; whereas 2-3%BM dehydration begins to affect heat tolerance and some cognitive measures and further dehydration starts to affect critical physical qualities for performance in high-intensity exercise. This leads many jiu-jitsu athletes to think one of two things;
1. “I shouldn’t bother cutting weight at all and apart from reducing my body fat there is little to be done to further reduce weight, and whatever my weight is one week from the competition is the weight I must compete at” or
2. “The benefit of fighting in a lighter weight division will outweigh the negative effects of dehydration and semi-starvation, so I will still cut weight like an MMA fighter and just suffer the consequences and try my luck”.
There is in fact, a third option; a strategic intake of particular foods in order to reduce stomach contents (thereby achieving similar weight loss as fasting) while still providing needed energy and carbohydrate, and a calculated restriction in fluid intake combined with mild fluid loss. A fully hydrated athlete currently consuming a high fibre diet can easily lose 2-3% of their body weight in 2-3 days without affecting performance relevant to jiu-jitsu. Simply reducing the total volume/weight of food consumed (or fasting) will empty the stomach and achieve a weight loss to some degree, however, prevents optimal fueling. Instead, a smarter option is to select low fiber foods 24-48 hours before weigh-in which will minimize undigested food in the gut, while allowing pre-competition fueling. This can be done by selecting low fibre cereals (e.g. corn flakes, coco puffs, Rice Crispies), white bread, pureed fruit and liquid meal replacements while avoiding vegetables, whole fruits, nuts, seeds and other high fibre foods.
An athlete regularly consuming a high fibre diet may lose 1-1.5% of the body weight in 2 days following a low fibre diet without affecting performance. In addition to reducing undigested foodstuff, by removing fibre from the diet the total weight of daily food intake is significantly reduced, so even 12-24 will provide some weight loss as ‘less weight is being added to the system’. Athletes should experiment with how long it takes to achieve maximum weight loss using a low fibre diet, but generally any more than 3 days is not necessary, and 2 days seems to be the ‘sweet spot’. During this time of reduced food volume, one can increase fat intake as a means to provide energy-dense food and also help with hunger as fat tends to be satiating, furthermore, at this stage, we are not trying to induce an energy deficit, rather we want to provide adequate energy in order support health and performance and peak for competition, instead of arriving at the weigh-in starved of energy. This dietary practice of low fibre, low weight yet adequate energy and lower body mass (BM) in the days before weigh-in is effectively ‘free weight loss’ and really is a no brainer when it comes to cutting weight. Weight loss in addition to this will need to be derived from fluid losses. Avoiding excessive salt intake in the days before weigh-in can help with minimizing fluid retention.
Drinking less fluid than normal in the 24 hours before weigh-in will further decrease weight and should be used in preference to increased sweating, as the physiological consequences are much less. Reducing fluid intake from a ‘normal’ amount (e.g. 30-40ml per kg / 2.25 – 3 litres for a 75kg athlete) to half this (15ml per kg) will provide a weight loss of approximately 1% BM. If after following a low fibre diet and decreased fluid intake, further weight loss is required, an athlete will need to use sweating techniques. Rather than sitting in a sauna or resorting to a hot bath/shower, which promotes fluid loss from plasma and potentially intracellular sources, exercising as a means to sweat better preserves plasma volume and tends to promote fluid losses from extracellular spaces and is much less compromising for performance. Furthermore, exercise as a means to drop 1-1.5% BM in fluid can be used a warm-up prior to competition, which is definitely a good idea and one that many athletes actually ironically skip on competition day. So why not ‘kill two birds with one stone’, put on a pair of track pants and a hoody, do some star jumps and push-ups, before busting out 30 minutes of hip escapes and drilling as a way to make sure you’re on weight and warm up your body, get your joints moving and ‘prime’ your muscles and nervous system pre-fight.
Eating on Comp Day, Pre Weigh-In & Post Weigh-In
For athletes weighing in the day prior to a fight (e.g. MMA fighters, judoka etc.), and even for amateur boxers who have 3+ hours following weigh-in, it is common to not eat prior to weigh-in (in order to keep weight down), knowing that there will be time to refuel after you step off the scales. For jiu-jitsu competitions, this is not recommended, and any benefit you gain from cutting weight may be negated by poor performance due to lack of energy as a consequence of not eating anything prior to fighting, or suboptimal nutrition post-weigh-in. To give yourself every possible chance of optimising your physique and physiology while making weight, you should consume low fibre, energy-dense low weight foods the morning /day of weigh-in.
Put simply; every gram of food or fluid you put in your mouth will show up as a gram on the scales. In this sense (providing you are not severely dehydrated) it is preferable to consume food than to drink fluid. A mild degree of dehydration will not affect jiu jitsu performance, yet coming in under fuelled will not lead to optimal performance. For example, if you wake up 200g underweight, then you have 200g to ‘play with’. You can get a surprising amount of energy from this much food. For breakfast choosing a low weight, low fibre, high energy, high carbohydrate meal may look something like this; 4 slices of white bread with 2 tablespoon of peanut butter and 2 tablespoons of honey (160g, 600 kcal, 80 grams carbohydrate). If you are 500g underweight then consuming the same meal + a coffee with a teaspoon of sugar or two (300mls / 300g) will work. In fact, even if you wake up on weight, or even overweight, it still makes to get some energy and sweat off what is required.
The point is - you have to get some energy in. Even chocolate or candy is a good idea, with a 50g chocolate bar providing 300kcal of energy and 30g carbohydrate, and 50g of jelly beans providing 190 kcal and 47g carbohydrate. A reasonable aim for a pre-competition meal is approximately 1g (or more) of carbohydrate per kg of body weight, 3-4 hours prior to fighting. When we are talking about making the weight this close, it is easy to see how certain foods provide better ‘value’ or more energy per weight than others. Something like a high water fruit, i.e. watermelon (which is normally a great food outside of the proximity weigh-in) provides only 30kcal and 8g of carbohydrate for 100g of fruit, meaning an 80kg athlete would need to consume 1kg of watermelon in order to hit the 1g/kg carbohydrate recommendation.
In addition to the pre-fight meal, topping up fuel stores and providing some extra blood sugar closer to competition is a good idea also, however, stomach comfort is increasingly important at this time so food selections should be light, low fat, low fibre ‘sugary’ selections (candy, chocolate, dry crackers, dried fruit, sports drinks if weight allows (or if its post-weigh-in), white bread with honey/jam etc.). If you know that you are the type of fighter who cannot stomach food close to a fight then don’t.
Caffeine is another commonly used and useful aide however should be trialled ahead of time, as often too much caffeine, or caffeine for someone who is not familiar with it can lead to nervousness, anxiety and poorer performance. Of course, if your caffeine of choice is in liquid form and you are consuming this pre-weigh-in, the weight of the drink needs to be factored into the pre-weigh in plan (short black anyone?). The general consensus on optimal caffeine dose is 3-5mg per kg of bodyweight approximately 60 minutes before exercise. Following the weigh-in, there is generally minimal time to recover from weight cutting strategies, and if you have followed the guidelines presented here there is little need to. If however, you have lost more than 2% BM in fluid it is a good idea to replace some of this if possible. If you only have 15 minutes post-weigh-in then trying to guzzle 1 litre of fluid will result in more gastrointestinal distress then any benefit of the rehydration will provide. In this case, the decision to drink should be based on what is comfortable and what ‘feels right’ (perhaps even drinking less to be safe), don’t force it. If you estimate you have 45+ minutes however and have dropped 2%BM in fluid, then downing a 500-750mL of an electrolyte solution is a good option for a number of reasons; 1- staying beneath that critical 2% BM dehydration threshold will optimise performance, 2- you want to get the fluid in you a reasonable time before stepping on the mat, 3- gastric emptying (the rate at which fluid leaves the stomach) is increased with greater gastric volume (up to about 900mL), 3- electrolytes (namely sodium) will promote greater fluid absorption and retention than plan water.
So rather than spreading the fluid intake out over the hour, which will mean you are drinking close to your match and each mouthful will take longer to leave the stomach and be absorbed, you are ‘front-ending’ the intake, pushing it out the stomach into the intestine, and finishing the absorption earlier before your match. Of course, match times and gut comfort is often the most unpredictable part of the whole competition experience, and if you feel like consuming fluid will be disastrous for whatever reason, then don’t do it.
For those athletes, who simply cannot stomach any food or fluids in the hours prior to a match, there are options. Recent research has demonstrated that a simple ‘mouth rinse’ of a carbohydrate (sugar) solution (sports drink like Gatorade etc.) even without swallowing has the potential to improve performance in a variety of events. Swilling the drink around the mouth for approximately 10 seconds and spitting it out affects receptors in the oral cavity, activating regions or responses in the central nervous system which may increase corticomotor activity and/or reduce the perception of effort during exercise. Thus this is a low-risk strategy which has the potential to assist the jiu-jitsu athlete.
Determining Which Weight Division is Possible
Identifying what is actually possible in terms of a realistic amount of weight loss / what an ideal weight category is can be difficult. In order to accurately calculate this, we need to know several things about our current body composition;
- What is my current weight?
- How much lean mass and how much fat mass am I carrying?
- How much lean/fat mass loss is possible?
- How much weight can I ‘cut’ in the hours/days before weigh-in?
In answer to these questions:
1. Your current weight should be assessed in a fully hydrated state and at a time when you are not actively trying to lose weight and are consuming a ‘regular’ diet, containing adequate fibre (20+ g per day) and energy. The time to weigh yourself is the first thing in the morning, before eating or drinking anything and after emptying your bladder and bowels. This is the best way to standardise measurement, assess your current state and track changes. In fact, even when standardising weight measurement in this way, bodyweight will still fluctuate day to day due to fluid and gut contents. Therefore, to get a good picture of your current weight, collect measurements 3 days in a row and average the measurement.
2. This is generally the tricky part. While tracking skin-folds using callipers, measuring waist, chest, arm and leg girths and monitoring weight can indicate if you are losing or gaining fat/lean mass they cannot quantify the amount of fat or lean mass. The best and most convenient way to assess this is to locate somewhere which provides DXA (dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry) scanning services. DXA scanners were originally designed to measure bone density to assess osteoporosis etc. so are located in hospitals, radiology and other medical centres. However, with the increasing use and popularity to assess body composition in the general population and athletes, DXA scanning services are popping up everywhere and often a service provider will solely scan people to assess body composition. Rates are now quite competitive. Google ‘commercial DXA scan’ to see if there is one in your area. One crucial consideration when getting a scan done is despite what the technician/salesperson may tell you, you MUST have the scan done rested and fasted. This means no training, no eating, and no drinking (not even water) the morning of the scan. There is very clear research which demonstrates all of these effects the readings. Therefore you will have to get the scan done in the morning. Once you get the scan done, you will get a report/print out which tells you precisely how much fat mass, bone mass and lean mass you have in grams.
3. Providing you know how much fat mass/lean mass you are carrying, you can fairly accurately predict how much you could lose. There is limited research to support this, but from working with elite athletes, other top sports dieticians and having conducted and viewed hundreds of DXA scans, it seems realistic minimum body fat percentages for most males is 8-10%, and perhaps 14-16% for women. I have definitely seen men with body fat percentages of 4-6% and women with 10-12%, but these are by far the exception and not the rule. So if you are a male, currently 75kg, 15% body fat (11.25kg fat, 63.75kg lean mass) and you were able to get to about 9% body fat with consistent effort. Assuming you lost no lean mass, this means you would weigh approximately 70kg (63.75kg lean mass, 6.25 fat mass). Fat loss is generally slow, so you shouldn’t plan for any more than 0.5kg per week if you are maintaining muscle mass. In regards to losing muscle mass, this is definitely possible although usually not preferable. In terms of maintaining muscle mass, it’s crucial to; intake sufficient protein, lose weight gradually (don’t starve yourself too hard), and engage in some sort of strength/resistance training. Therefore avoiding/ decreasing strength training, inducing a larger energy deficit and decreasing protein intake will all promote the loss of muscle mass. If you cannot quantify how much lean/fat mass you have, then it is hard to predict exactly what is possible in terms of possible fat loss, and this really leaves the only option of ‘start dropping body fat and see where you end up’. Not exactly scientific, but this is what athletes have done for decades. If you have access to an ISAK trained anthropometrist to measure your skin-folds, then a rough rule is that a sum of 7 skin-folds in the low 30s for men and the low 40s for women is quite lean with likely little fat loss possible (or at least it becomes increasingly harder) beyond this point in most people.
4. We previously discussed that a fully hydrate athlete with a gut full of fibre can lose about 3% of their body weight in the 3 days before weigh-in, so using the example above, the 70kg athlete (previously 75kg) could lose 2.1kg, meaning they could easily make 68kg. Depending on exactly how much gut content they have to lose and the potential to sweat more they could lose an additional 1-2kg, however, I wouldn’t guarantee this will be easy or not affect performance. Conclusion Summing up everything which has been described here, athletes need to: Understand the difference between long term and short term weight loss Understand how much they can get away with before performance is affected Practice weight making techniques ahead of important competitions Practice competition nutrition/fuelling strategies at training sessions Have a plan for their pre-weigh in/post-weigh-in nutrition strategies Educate themselves with reputable, evidenced-based resources Take advice from university-educated nutrition professionals (dietitians/sports nutritionists) Continually plan, practice, review and refine nutrition practices
For further, reputable evidence-based sports nutrition information, readers are directed to Reid's Combat Sports Nutrition Site.