Making Weight in Olympic Weightlifting

It is inevitable in any sport that separates competitors into bodyweight categories that the athlete will be faced with the proposition of manipulating their normal bodyweight up or down for a competitive advantage. More often, this involves temporary weight loss so the athlete can compete in a lighter category than their actual bodyweight would allow. This temporary weight loss is often referred to as ‘making weight’ or ‘cutting weight’ and the athlete’s task is to cut sufficient weight to make the upper limit of the category in which they wish to compete. In Weightlifting, if the desired category is M81, then the athlete must reduce bodyweight to 81.00Kg or less. If 81.01Kg is the best they can do by the end of the weigh-in period, the athlete fails to make weight. Depending on the status of the event, the consequence of such a failure is that the athlete is forced to lift in the next bodyweight category up or is disallowed from participating in the competition at all.

Athletes should own their own accurate scales to make the process of making weight easier in competitions.

At the outset of this discussion, it should be noted that there is little justification for beginners to cut weight for competitions. Preferably beginners should compete at their normal bodyweight as their participation, at this stage of their development, should be merely for enjoyment and learning. If a beginner misses a category limit by a few grams, it really doesn’t matter.

In general, it is relatively easy for an athlete to reduce 2% of bodyweight in a 24-hour period. Thus, if an athlete normally weighs 82.5Kg at 5pm, successfully making weight for the M81 category at a weigh-in at 10 am the following day should be an easy proposition provided simple rules are followed. This amount of bodyweight loss takes advantage of the natural tendency of humans to fluctuate approximately 2% of bodyweight without ill-effect. The most important rule to follow in making weight in Olympic Weightlifting is to ensure continual access to reliably accurate scales. For most athletes, this means purchasing scales to keep at home and regularly monitoring bodyweight at different times of the day. In particular, in the final weeks before a competition, athletes should make a regular habit of checking bodyweight last thing before bed and first thing in the morning after voiding urine. This will enable the athlete to understand how much weight on average is lost over night, and what their normal bodyweight is at the start of the day.

Within the 2% rule-of-thumb guideline, making weight is matter of regular checks of bodyweight after inputs of food and fluid, and outputs of bodily waste. However, it is also important to be aware of water loss through sweat and water vapour in exhaled breath. The amount of water lost through normal breathing at rest will be 35-50g depending on the body dimensions of the athlete. It results from normal metabolic activity in the body and is often referred to as ‘insensible weight loss’.  Sweat loss varies depending on climate but can be significantly more than insensible weight loss. One way or another, even if the athlete lies on a bed for 3 hours before a weigh-in, they will lose a small amount of bodyweight. Thus, if an M81 athlete has a weigh-in at 10:00am and weighs 81.50Kg at 7:00am then, provided they do not drink or eat, the chances are they will lose the excess 500g of bodyweight through sweat, insensible weight loss, and by faeces and urine production. The key strategy, therefore, if for the athlete to regularly use reliable scales at home and get to know how their bodyweight changes during the course of the day as a result of normal life.

When needed bodyweight loss is greater than 2%, the task of cutting weight requires more significant measures. Athletes should not underestimate this task, nor the degree of planning involved. It is all too easy for the athlete to put themselves under significant stress in the last hours before competition with inevitable consequences for performance and even failing to make weight.

Reducing bodyweight by using a sauna, if one is available, is a commonly used method for making weight in Olympic Weightlifting.  Bodyweight is lost through significant sweating as the body attempts to cool in the excessive heat of the sauna but athletes and coaches should be mindful of significant issues and limitations. Although stories of significant weight loss by using a sauna abound, athletes should be wary of relying on this method to reduce more one percent of bodyweight. If this is considered a trivial amount, athletes should visualise a one litre of container of water and realise that this much sweat must be produced to lose one kilogram of bodyweight. If the athlete is relying on a sauna to make weight, they should allow enough time before the weigh-in commences and be frequently checking bodyweight on accurate scales. Athletes should also check the temperature of the sauna well in advance of their planned period in the sauna, especially if an early morning sauna is required. It is not uncommon for a sauna to be switched off overnight and fail to provide sufficient heat in the first hour of being turned on.

If a sauna is not available, athletes in hot climates can achieve a similar result by driving a car with all windows up and the heater on full blast for a period of time! In a cold climate, a hot bath will induce a similar effect. But by whatever method, losing weight takes time and can be extremely arduous. Athletes should be cautioned about the risks which include fainting, headaches and fatigue.

After completing the weigh-in process, the athlete must maximise whatever time is available to rehydrate. The quantity of fluid to ingest needs to be greater than the amount lost in the sauna and this is due to the likelihood that urine production will increase significantly within a short timeframe.  A study by Shirreffs and colleagues (1996) provided evidence that athletes should not rely on thirst alone but should deliberately aim to rehydrate 150% of the fluid loss. In the interval between completing the weigh-in and commencing the warm-up, this task is a priority. Attempts to replace fluid after the weigh-in need to be ‘isotonic’, that is with a concentration of salts and glucose that is similar to the blood stream. The consumption of isotonic fluids will help to reduce the risk of cramping.

While athletes can and do lose significantly more weight in a sauna, a gentler and more beneficial strategy is to invoke carefully planned dietary measures over time to reduce bodyweight. The object of such dietary measures should be to restrict the total energy intake in a manner that has greatest impact on body fat but minimal impact on muscle mass. When total energy intake is less than the total energy used by the body, the diet is said to be ‘hypocaloric’. There is a general view in science that if the protein and carbohydrate content of a hypocaloric diet is maintained while the fat content is reduced, then the adverse effects of the energy deficit are minimised (O’Connor and Caterson, 2010). There will be less effect on performance. However, it does depend to a large extent on the degree of daily energy deficit. A deficit of 400Kcal for an athlete consuming 3000Kcal per day might be considered small and may have minimal effect on performance. However, a deficit of 1000Kcal per day on the same athlete would likely induce greater muscle mass loss, fatigue, and mood disturbance. For this reason, athletes planning to use dietary measures to cut weight for an impending competition should start as soon as possible and avail themselves of dietary advice. The longer the period over which dietary measures are implemented, the smaller the daily energy deficit required.

Coaches will have different opinions on how bodyweight should be reduced for a competition in terms of both feasibility and safety. Although science exists on the subject is not easily accessible to the coach and, therefore, opinions tend to be forged as a result a coach’s own personal experience. The following model is proposed in the knowledge that there will be some who will disagree.

MethodAdvice
Last 24-hour dietary restrictionsIn all circumstances where the athlete is normally above their competition category limit, careful and regular monitoring of bodyweight and management of bodily inputs and outputs through last 24 hours is required.
Hypocaloric dietWhen the athlete’s normal bodyweight exceeds their category limit by more than 2%, athletes should implement dietary measures to create a daily energy deficit. The degree of energy deficit on a daily basis depends on the amount of weight to be lost and the time available. Early action always makes the task easier.
SaunaIf a sauna is available, the athlete can opt to lose 1% of bodyweight by this means. This can be instead of, or additional to the last 24-hour dietary restrictions that usually occur. If the intention is to lose more significant amounts of weight in a sauna, the athlete should avail themselves of medical advice.

References

O’Connor, H. & Caterson, I. (2010). Weight loss and the athlete. In Clinical Sports Nutrition 4th Ed. Edited by L. Burke and V. Deakin. McGraw-Hill, Sydney. 116-141

Shirreffs, S. M., Taylor, A. J., Leiper, J. B., & Maughan, R. J. (1996). Post-exercise rehydration in man: effects of volume consumed and drink sodium content. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 28(10), 1260.