How to cut weight without sacrificing strength

Written by Kristen Dunsmore

June 11, 2024

Weight cutting for a powerlifting competition is a common strategy many athletes use to gain a competitive advantage. This strategy assumes that stronger men and women have significantly greater muscle mass and larger muscular girth than weaker, less experienced lifters. If lifters with larger muscle mass can successfully cut to a lower weight class, they will likely have a competitive edge due to greater absolute muscle mass than those walking near the weight class. When done correctly, the athlete competes in a lower weight class without a drop in performance, even though most of their training was performed at a higher body weight.

In weight-category sports, official weigh-ins are carried out before competitions to ensure athletes meet the necessary body weight for their intended division. These weigh-ins can occur either on the morning of the competition or the evening before, allowing for different recovery periods, typically ranging from 2 to 24 hours. The shorter the recovery period, the more critical it is for athletes to manage their weight loss and recovery strategies.

Successful weight loss requires careful planning to ensure it is done safely and effectively. Athletes commonly use chronic strategies, such as body fat reduction, and acute strategies, including fluid restriction and gut cuts, to achieve the desired weight. Chronic strategies are often implemented over several weeks or months, while acute strategies are typically employed in the days leading up to the competition.

This blog will explore various weight-cutting techniques, focusing on safe and effective methods that ensure you reach your weight goals without compromising your strength.

weight cutting

Who should cut weight?

Weight cutting involves temporary weight loss techniques to fit into a specific weight class for a competition. Unlike long-term weight loss, weight cutting is often performed in the days leading up to a weigh-in and aims to reduce weight rapidly, mainly through water and gut content manipulation.

When deciding whether to cut weight, it’s essential to assess the goal of the weight cut and whether it will provide a strategic advantage. There are a few key considerations to remember:

  1. Attempting to break a state, national, or world record in a lower-weight class
  2. Having the potential to win in a lower-weight class
  3. Needing a qualifying total to compete in a higher-level meet for your respective weight class

Individuals who have never competed in a meet before should not attempt to cut weight. Cutting weight can be stressful, and adding this stress to the pressure of competing for the first time is not advisable. Instead, novice lifters should focus on building strength and improving their technique. 

Experienced lifters who have successfully cut weight and understand how their body responds to weight-cutting techniques are better equipped to undergo this process. Even if there is potential to win, it might only be worth cutting weight if there are specific incentives, such as prize money for first place or securing a spot on a national team. Finally, individuals with higher body fat percentages may also benefit from weight loss, as reducing excess fat can improve their power-to-weight ratio and promote overall health.

a person standing on a scale

Hydration Techniques: Water Loading and Dehydration

When body fluids are manipulated, most body mass reduction occurs in less than 24 hours. Up to 75% of the human body is water, so adjusting fluid levels can lead to rapid weight loss. A water cut is a quick weight-loss technique commonly used in powerlifting, wrestling, and combat sports to reduce body weight temporarily. This method is primarily achieved by manipulating water intake about a week before a meet to eliminate excess water from the body. 

The amount of water weight a person can safely lose without significantly hindering performance varies depending on the individual and their hydration status. Nonetheless, evidence suggests athletes can safely lose 3% of body weight through water manipulation without any performance decrements in combat sports. Therefore, we recommend avoiding losing over 3% of body weight through water loss for athletes with 2-hour weigh-ins to prevent performance decrements.

In a study on acute weight loss methods used by combat sports athletes, “water loading” was investigated for its effectiveness and safety. Male athletes were divided into a control group (n = 10) and a water loading group (n = 11), with both groups following a standardized diet. The water loading group consumed significantly more fluid than the control group for the first three days (100 ml/kg vs. 40 ml/kg), followed by reduced intake on Day 4 and a shared rehydration protocol on Days 5 and 6.

Key measurements included body mass, urine sodium, urine specific gravity, urine volume, sweat losses, blood levels of renal hormones, urea, and electrolytes, alongside physical performance evaluations before and after the intervention.

Results showed significant differences between groups in fluid balance and body mass loss, with the water-loading group achieving a higher fluid output/input ratio and greater body mass loss. Changes in urine and blood markers were noted, but all values remained within normal ranges, and no differences in physical performance were observed. The study concluded that water loading was safe and effective for acute body mass loss when using the prescribed loading protocol. 

Anything more than a 3% acute body weight loss can lead to decrements in performance. Extreme methods water loading and cutting methods are inherently risky, with severe consequences like seizures or death in extreme cases, and more commonly in powerlifting, issues like cramping and decreased performance. 

Key health concerns include:

  • Cardiovascular Strain and Heat Stroke: Severe fluid loss can lead to cardiovascular strain and impaired thermoregulation, particularly in hot environments.
  • Electrolyte Imbalances and Muscle Cramps: Methods of rapid weight loss (RWL) can cause electrolyte imbalances, increasing the risk of muscle cramps.
  • Renal Stress or Injury: Extreme fluid loss can cause acute renal stress or injury.
  • Chronic Negative Energy Balance: Repeated RWL can lead to chronic issues such as reduced testosterone and insulin-like growth factor 1 levels, impaired protein synthesis, reduced bone mineral density (BMD), and increased risk of rib stress fractures and dyslipidemias.


Step-by-Step Guide to a Successful Water Cut:

Water manipulation involves consuming large volumes of water (100 mL/kg body mass) for three days, followed by a significant reduction (15 mL/kg) on the fourth day. This method has been shown to decrease body mass by an average of 3.2% (2.45 kg) in athletes, compared to a 2.4% (1.85 kg) decrease with lower initial fluid intake (40 mL/kg). The more significant loss is due to higher urine output when fluid intake is suddenly restricted after high consumption.


2 Weeks Out:

  • Hydration Baseline: Start by consuming 1 gallon (approximately 4 liters) of water daily to acclimate your body to a higher fluid intake.

Water Loading Phase

4 Days Out:

  • Increase Water Intake: Begin water loading by drinking 2 gallons (approximately 7.5 liters) of water daily. This will increase urine production.

3 Days Out:

  • Continue Water Loading: Maintain an intake of 2 gallons of water. You should urinate more frequently as your body adjusts to the higher fluid volume.

Reduction Phase

2 Days Out:

  • Reduce Water Intake: Drop your water consumption to 1 gallon (approximately 4 liters). Your body will continue to expel water due to the previous high intake days.

1 Day Out:

  • Minimize Water Intake: Reduce water intake to 0.5 gallons (approximately 1.9 liters). Spread this amount throughout the day to avoid dehydration.

Weigh-In Day

  • Water Intake: Stop drinking water approximately 12 hours before your weigh-in time. This helps to eliminate any remaining excess water weight. Having small sips as needed is okay, but keep it minimal.


The Safest Weight-Cutting Strategy: Gut-Cut

The safest way to lose weight without impacting performance in powerlifting is to consume a low-fiber, high-energy density diet. While fiber is crucial for long-term gut health and is one of the reasons fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are considered part of a balanced diet, it also slows the digestive process and increases fecal matter in the colon. By spending 2-4 days on a diet with less than 10 grams of fiber per day, you can significantly reduce the weight of the contents in your digestive tract.

A “gut cut” is a weight-loss technique primarily aimed at reducing the weight of the contents within the digestive tract. This technique involves modifying the diet to minimize food and waste in the intestines, achieving temporary weight loss without affecting muscle mass or strength. 

In addition to lowering fiber intake, eating foods that are energy-dense and low in weight can help you meet your caloric and macronutrient targets. Instead of having multiple servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats, typically in a fat-loss phase, opt for a few scoops of whey protein, candy, and chocolate. This approach allows you to hit your energy and macro targets while keeping the weight of your food intake much lower.

Combining a diet that weighs less with a low-fiber intake can reduce body weight without extensive dieting or dehydration. This method can typically result in a 1-2% reduction in body weight, depending on the individual, making it a practical and safe strategy for athletes looking to make weight for competition.

Key Foods:

    • Protein Shakes: Provide high protein with minimal residue.
    • Almonds: High in calories and nutrients, contributing to your energy needs without adding significant bulk to the digestive system.
    • Zero-Fiber Foods: Sugary snacks and other low-residue, high-calorie foods to maintain energy levels.

Step-by-Step Gut Cut Guide

3 Days Out:

  • Diet Composition: Consume 60% of your daily calories from protein shakes and almonds and 40% from high-calorie, zero-fiber foods such as sugary snacks.
  • Caloric Intake: Maintain your usual caloric intake. For example, if you consume 3,000 calories daily, 1,800 calories should come from protein shakes and almonds and 1,200 calories from zero-fiber foods.

2 Days Out:

  • Continue Diet: Follow the same dietary plan as the previous day.
  • Consistency: To keep the digestive system clear, consume the same proportion of protein shakes, almonds, and zero-fiber foods.

1 Day Out:

  • Maintain Diet: Continue with the same diet. Avoid introducing new foods that could increase intestinal bulk.

By incorporating a gut cut into your weight-cutting strategy, you can effectively reduce your weight for competition while preserving your strength and performance. It is also considered the safest method for acute weight loss. 

a group of vegetables on a white surface

Long-Term Weight-Cut Strategy for Powerlifting Competitions

A long-term weight-cut strategy gradually reduces body weight over several weeks or months. This approach is less stressful on the body than rapid weight cutting and is ideal for athletes who have more time before their competition or for those who desire long-term weight loss goals rather than to make weight for a meet. Long-term diet strategies are more complex than short-term rapid weight loss goals and also require behavior changes and perceptions towards foods. Because of the uniqueness of each individual, I will only provide general recommendations for healthy strength athletes interested in improving body composition beyond making weight for a competition.

Protein consumption is the most important factor in maintaining muscle mass, especially during a weight cut leading to competition. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends daily 1.4-2.0 g protein/kg/body weight. 

Current nutrition recommendations for carbohydrates are 40-50% of daily caloric intake.

Balanced Macronutrients:

    • Protein: Maintain a high protein intake (1.4-2.0 grams per pound of body weight) to preserve muscle mass.
    • Carbohydrates: Adjust carbohydrate intake to support training and recovery. Carbs should comprise 40-50% of your total caloric intake, or 4-7g/kg body weight.
    • Fats: Include healthy fats (20-30% of total calories) for essential nutrients and satiety.

Post Weigh-In: Rehydration and Refueling

Most athletes do not consume any food until after weigh-ins. Post-weigh-in is extremely important since the athletes are likely somewhat depleted from the weight-cut. If athletes manipulate their water intake, they should consume a sports beverage such as Gatorade, Pedialyte, or another electrolyte-replenishing beverage. The athlete should also consume a high-carbohydrate meal with protein and low fats. 

The athlete should also consume a high-carbohydrate meal with protein and low fats. Research on combat sport athletes recommended carbohydrate intake of 5-10 g/kg/day following a weight cut to restore lost glycogen and increase body mass recovery.

Immediately After Weigh-In:

Rehydration Strategy: Rehydrate immediately after the weigh-in with a mix of water and electrolyte solutions (e.g., Gatorade or Pedialyte). Drink 32 ounces of 50% water and 50% electrolyte solution, then drink small sips to maintain hydration. Avoid chugging liquids to prevent stomach upset.

Refueling: Consume easily digestible carbohydrates and lean proteins to replenish glycogen stores. Aim for 50 grams of carbs every 2 hours initially, transitioning to solid foods as tolerated. Avoid high-fat and high-fiber foods to prevent digestive issues. 

When done safely and effectively, weight-cutting can provide a competitive edge in powerlifting and other weight-class sports. However, following a structured plan and monitoring progress is essential to prevent adverse events. Combining low-fiber, high-energy diets with proper hydration and rehydration strategies ensures that you make weight while maintaining peak performance. 

Effective Weight Cutting Strategies


Carbohydrate depletion

Stored, glycogen binds with 3-4 grams of water per gram of carbohydrate. Muscle and liver glycogen stores can add up to 2.5 kg to body weight. Reducing carbohydrate intake to very low levels (<20–50 g/day) in the last week before weigh-ins can help an athlete lose 1–2 kg of body mass.


Creatine Cessation

Due to water retention, creatine loading increases body mass by 1–1.5%. Stopping supplementation can reduce body mass as muscle phosphocreatine levels return to baseline. Athletes can stop creatine a month before a competition but should weigh this against potential performance drawbacks.


Water Manipulation

Consume 100 mL/kg body mass of water for three days, followed by a significant reduction (15 mL/kg) on the fourth day. This method has been shown to decrease body mass by an average of 3.2% (2.45 kg) in athletes.


Gut Cut

The amount of weight you can lose from a gut cut varies depending on several factors, including baseline body weight, the amount of undigested food in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and individual differences in digestion and metabolism. However, on average, a gut cut can lead to a weight loss of approximately 1-3 kilograms (2-6 pounds) over a few days.

Tips for a Successful Cut

Measure Food Intake: Track your food intake whenever possible to ensure you adhere to your diet plan if you plan to diet down into a lower weight class.

Monitor Weight: Weigh yourself regularly to track progress and make necessary adjustments. Weigh yourself first thing in the morning and immediately before bed to determine how much weight is lost overnight.

Hydrate Appropriately: The day before a meet, don’t cut out water completely. Take small sips as needed to ensure adequate hydration but avoid excessive water intake that could add unnecessary weight.

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