In this article, we will discuss all rapid weight loss methods used in weight-sensitive sports by professional athletes. We will understand physiology, practical application, benefits, drawbacks, side effects, post-weigh-in recovery methods, and pre-competition dietary requirements.
- What is Rapid Weight Loss?
- Weight-Sensitive Sports & Athletes
- Rapid Weight Loss vs Gradual Weight Loss
- Rapid Weight Loss Can Be Extremely Dangerous
- Rapid Weight Loss Methods
- Food Restriction and Rapid Weight Loss
- Water Manipulation and Rapid Weight Loss
- Fluid Restriction
- Fluid Unlocking
- Fluid Excretion
- Sweating and Water Loss
- Active Sweat Loss & Passive Sweat Loss
- Active Sweat Loss by Exercise
- Passive Sweat Loss by Sauna
- Rubber Suits & Sweat Suits
- Gut Content and Rapid Weight Loss
- Other methods (Short introductions only)
- Recovery after Rapid Weight Loss
- Pre-Competition Nutrition
- Foods for post-weigh-in and pre-competition period
- Practical Applications (Sample)
- Final Remarks
- Important Readings
What is Rapid Weight Loss?
Rapid weight loss means a temporary weight loss of at least 5% of body weight in less than a week1. Rapid weight loss is called RWL in short. RWL is performed by athletes who participate in “weight-sensitive” or “weight-classified” sports. These athletes try to lose weight rapidly during the final few days (2-3 days) before a competition to compete in the lightest weight division possible2.
Weight-Sensitive Sports & Athletes
Weight-sensitive sports can be divided into three categories1.
- Weight-class sports, such as boxing, kickboxing, judo, karate, wrestling, taekwondo, weightlifting, etc. In these sports, competitors are matched for physical size to create an even playing field. All athletes are officially weighted (weigh-ins or making weight event) to certify that they meet the requirement of their weight-category, before a competition.
- Gravitational sports, such as running, skating, jumping, cycling, etc. In these sports, the light-weight body is helpful to move against gravity. For example, it is easy for a light-weight person to jump higher. So, a reduction in body weight may improve physical performance.
- Aesthetic sports, such as bodybuilding, figure skating, diving, gymnastics, etc. In these sports, body shape, fat-free muscles, and size is also judged. The reduction of body weight and fat is considered aesthetic and looks good.
The majority of athletes think that making weight is an important part of sports and gives them an increased sense of dedication, focus, and commitment.
Rapid Weight Loss vs Gradual Weight Loss
There is a difference between rapid weight loss and gradual weight loss3.
Gradual weight loss (GWL) is accomplished by negative energy balance. Negative energy balance means burning more calories than total calorie intake. GWL is considered healthy and permanent and takes weeks to months. If a person is losing 0.5 to 1 kg (almost 1%) in a week, it is gradual weight loss. GWL is practiced by the layman.
Rapid weight loss (RWL) is mainly accomplished by body fluid manipulation. It is a temporary and super-fast method achieved in a very short period, sometimes even within a few hours. A weight loss of at least 5% of body weight in less than a week is considered RWL. RWL can be dangerous and practiced only by professional athletes under expert supervision. A layman (non-athlete) should never try any RWL method, ever.
Rapid Weight Loss Can Be Extremely Dangerous
One should never perform rapid weight loss practices without the proper guidance of an expert such as a Registered Dietician, eligible Doctor, or certified nutritionist. Because this can be extremely dangerous.
In 1997, three healthy collegiate wrestlers died while each was engaged in a rapid weight loss program to qualify for the competition. The wrestlers were not taking enough food and liquid, maximizing sweat loss by wearing vapor-impermeable suits under cotton warm-up suits and exercising vigorously in hot environments. The cause of death was dehydration, hyperthermia, and cardiorespiratory arrest as stated in reports. You can read the complete case on the CDC website here.
Rapid Weight Loss Methods
Food restriction, water manipulation, and a few other methods are used to accomplish weight loss. Food restriction is not that fast so we don’t consider it a rapid weight loss method. But food restriction method can be used as assistance with water manipulation methods for faster weight loss. So, we will discuss all these methods to understand their functions, benefits, and drawbacks.
One more important thing, some weight loss methods are considered illegal by sports organizations or the World Anti-Doping Agency. So you must know the rules and regulations of your sport.
Food Restriction and Rapid Weight Loss
More technically, we can call it an energy deficit method. Energy deficit means, restricting energy intake or burning more calories than total calorie intake. As I have stated before, this method is not considered as RWL because it is not that fast. Athletes can use this method for a gradual weight loss, a few weeks before the competition to achieve a balanced weight or they can use this method with other methods for RWL. We will discuss this method in detail in another article.
Water Manipulation and Rapid Weight Loss
Almost 60% of the human body is made of water4. It is the highest contributor to body weight. So, it is a primary focus to achieve rapid weight loss among athletes.
Manipulation of water can be categorized into three parts as5
- Fluid restriction
- Fluid unlocking
- Fluid excretion
Fluid restriction is a common method to achieve rapid weight loss6-10. It simply means reducing the amount of liquid intake i.e. water, tea, milk, juice, etc.
This method can help to reduce 1-2% of body weight in one day and cause less impact on physical performance compared to other methods.
Glycogen Stores Depletion
Maybe you already know about the glycogen stores. Glycogen stores are stored energy in the human body. We get carbohydrates from the diet. The body uses carbohydrates for energy and stores the extra carbohydrates in glucose form as glycogen. The body can use this stored energy whenever it needs it.
Glycogen is bind to water at a ratio of 1:2.7 (water: glycogen)11. Glycogen is stored in the liver and skeletal muscles. Up to 8% of liver weight and up to 2% of skeletal muscle weight is due to glycogen12,13.
Suppose you are a person of 75 kg body weight. Your average muscle mass weight is 60%14 which is 45 kg, and your liver weight is 1.56 kg15. As we have discussed before, almost 900 grams (2% of 45 kg) glycogen is stored in your skeletal muscles and 124 grams (8% of 1.56) in your liver. So, total glycogen is 1024 grams (900+124) in your body. As I said before, glycogen is bind to water at a ratio of 1:2.7, thus 1024 grams glycogen is bind to almost 2765 grams of water. It means your glycogen stores total weight (including water) is 3789 grams (1024+2765) which is almost 5% of total body weight.
You can manipulate this glycogen store weight by two methods.
Low Carbohydrate Diet
If you consume a low carbohydrate (less than 50 grams per day) diet, it will prevent your glycogen stores to refill completely after depletion.
Use Glycogen Stores
Just add a few more exercises in your training program to deplete glycogen stores more quickly.
So, you should do more exercise on a low carbohydrate (less than 50 grams per day) diet to reduce the glycogen stores and its weight. You can lose up to 2% of your total body weight in just a week by this method16. This method does not affect strength performance for short efforts but if you are in a sport that requires strength performance for more than 5 minutes, you need an aggressive carbohydrate recovery plan in the post-weigh-in period.
Low Sodium Diet
One more method to unlock/reduce the bound water is the intake of a low sodium diet. Sodium and water are closely related. If you will take a high sodium diet, your body will store more water, and the reverse of this is also true. You can drop your body weight up to 2% if you follow a low sodium diet (<500mg) for five days17.
Respiration and Water Loss
Respiratory water loss is affected by pulmonary ventilation5. Pulmonary ventilation means breathing, in simple words. It is the process of inhaling the air into the lungs and exhaling the air out of the lungs. Respiratory rate increases as exercise intensity increases4.
Exercise in Low Humidity
If the humidity is low, the respiratory water loss will be increase significantly18. If you are doing intense exercise in low humidity then water losses will be increased from 0.8 to 2.7 ml/min18.
Exhaling Through Mouth
If you exhale air through the mouth instead of the nose while doing exercise, the water losses can be increased up to 46%19.
Some people suggest to train in higher altitudes to increase water losses but a study20 says that altitude has no significant effect on water losses.
Urination and Water Loss
The body has a urine system (also called the renal system) that regulates fluid balance. This system produces, stores, and eliminates urine. Urine is made by kidneys by filtering wastes and extra water from the blood.
Two primary hormones maintain this urine system, aldosterone and antidiuretic hormone. The main role of aldosterone is to regulate salt and water in the body. Antidiuretic hormone tells your kidneys how much water to conserve.
Normally the urine losses are almost 1 to 2 liter every day4,18. If the body is in dehydration state, the amount of urine losses decreases significantly21.
With some methods, urination can be increased.
Lying in a Position
Sleeping or lying supine on a bed that is tilted 3 degree head down can increase the urination22.
This clinical trial has no image of the said position. So, I am sharing the same sentence from the paper. “During HDT, the subject was placed supine for 12 h on a bed that was tilted 3-degree head down.”
An acute dose of vitamin C can also increase urination23. Acute dose means high-level dose in the short term. A study23 says an acute dose, 700 mg of ascorbic acid per 10 stone of body weight can increase urination. 1 stone means 6.35 kg (14 pounds). 10 stone means 63.5 kg (140 pounds). So, it means a 700 mg dose of vitamin c is enough for a 63.5 kg bodyweight person.
Urination can be increased by using pharmacological diuretics. Diuretics are also called water pills. These pills are specially designed medicines to promote urine loss. Water pills are banned as per World Anti-Doping Agency but still, athletes use these for rapid weight loss. A study24 shows a 4.2% weight reduction in 24 hours by using 1.7mg/kg of a diuretic pill Furosemide. Also, a study32 shows a 5% decrease in aerobic capacity after the use of diuretics.
Herbal diuretics are also effective and available in the market but athletes don’t prefer these for weight loss purposes. Herbal diuretics are less effective and decrease performance compares to pharmacological diuretics24.
A new method called “water loading” is also practiced by athletes. In this method, athletes drink excessive amounts of water for a few days to increase urine excretion and then suddenly restrict fluid intake. It is claimed that increased urine excretion persists beyond the period of excessive water intake. So, in this way, athletes achieve a net decrease in body water. You can read more about this method here.
This method is not scientifically tested and can cause hyponatremia. Hyponatremia is an imbalance between water and sodium. When we drink too much water, it dilutes the amount of sodium in the blood and can cause weakness, headache, and muscle cramps.
Restricting fluid intake and over excretion of fluids can cause dehydration. Water is a major part of the bodyweight so these methods are easy, fast, and effective to achieve a rapid weight loss. We can restore body fluid balance within 4 hours. But if one has less time between weigh-in and competition then it will become difficult to restore fluid losses. This can cause decreased aerobic capacity, decreased heat tolerance, and decreased mental alertness.
Sweating and Water Loss
Sweating is also called perspiration. This is an act of secreting fluid from the skin that makes you feel cooler. Normally a person sweats due to a hot environment or while doing some physical hard work.
This is a common method used by athletes for rapid weight loss. If this method is used correctly, sweat loss can be increased up to 2 liters per hour.
Women produce less sweat than men and less responsive to exercise and environment due to peripheral vasodilation and hormonal differences25.
Active Sweat Loss & Passive Sweat Loss
Sweat loss can be categorized as active sweat loss and passive sweat loss. Active sweat loss means sweating due to exercise and passive sweat loss means sweating due to environmental factors.
Active Sweat Loss by Exercise
Active sweating is easy to perform. Just add a few more exercises in your existing program, but take care of the muscle fatigue and soreness due to extra work.
Passive Sweat Loss by Sauna
Passive sweating is an easy task. You just have to sit in a sauna (wet/dry) or heated room. But passive sweating before exercise or competition can decrease your performance26 as it results in excess loss of fluid from plasma.
Rubber Suits & Sweat Suits
Exercising in rubber suits is a common method used by American college wrestlers29. Bodyweight can be reduced by 2 to 5% in less than 2.5 hours in a sauna24,30,31.
Athletes use fluid restriction and active sweat loss for rapid weight loss to minimize performance decrements. If you have enough time for recovery, you can use passive sweating methods too. If you are using saunas to increase sweating, you should use a dry heat sauna instead of a steam sauna because dry sauna will give you greater sweat loss (almost double) with less decrease in exercise performance27.
Gut Content and Rapid Weight Loss
Whatever food we eat remains in our stomach, intestine, and colon for some time. We can manipulate this content to achieve a weight loss of up to 1 kg.
Laxatives are medicines that are used to prevent or relieve constipation. Laxatives loosen stool and stimulate a bowel movement, and helps a person empty their bowels. Sometimes, athletes use laxatives to remove gut content to achieve weight loss. Usually, this method is used on or before the day of weigh-in.
A study28 says that this method can reduce up to 1 kg body weight in one day. This method is effective but can reduce cardiovascular exercise capacity. This method can also cause extreme body water loss and an imbalance in electrolytes. So, this method is used only when an athlete has enough time for recovery after weigh-in.
Vomiting is a forceful discharge of stomach content. The stomach throws up its content out of the mouth. It is a natural system of the body.
Sometimes athletes use this method to empty their stomachs before weigh-in to achieve weight loss. Many medicines and herbal remedies are also available in the market that can help you to vomit easily.
Laxatives and vomiting can decrease exercise capacity so athletes use a different dietary strategy. They reduce food volume. Reducing food volume means eating energy-dense foods that are small in size/portion but high in calories and nutrients. So, they can fulfill their energy requirements without overloading the stomach. This method can be used in the hours and days before weigh-in to achieve a weight loss.
Low Fiber Diet
The dietary fiber, which is a long chain of sugars, is a type of carbohydrate. It is the indigestible part of plant foods that helps to maintain a healthy digestive system. Fiber adds bulk to stools. It also slows down transit time and increases the water content of the food. So, in simple words, fiber increases the weight of gut content.
Athletes consume a low fiber diet to achieve weight loss. A low fiber (less than 10 grams) diet for 7 days can be as effective and empties bowl as laxatives, without major effect on nutritional status or performance. The only drawback of such a diet is that it decreases satiety. Satiety means a state of fullness after eating a meal. So, you will feel hungry and empty all day, even after eating a meal.
Other methods (Short introductions only)
- Salt bath: Fill the bathtub with warm water and add a half cup of sea salt. Sea salt is rich in minerals such as zinc, calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium. Just relax in the bathtub for 20 minutes then dry off.
- Juice cleanse: Juice cleanse is a diet in which one consumes only juices from vegetables and fruits.
- Jacuzzi or hot tub: A bath in a small pool full of heated water.
- Ketogenic diet: A very low carb, moderate protein, and high-fat diet.
- Sweet Sweat: Sweet sweat is a gel or wax that you apply to the skin before a workout. Companies say that it encourages thermogenic activity during exercise and helps you to weight loss.
- Spitting: Spiting means throwing saliva out of the mouth. Athletes use sour candies to get the saliva flowing.
- Chewing gum: Athletes use chewing gums to manage hunger and burn calories.
Recovery after Rapid Weight Loss
Now you have a basic understanding of risks, benefits, drawbacks, and methods of rapid weight loss. Now we will discuss the recovery methods. If you don’t have a strong recovery plan, all your efforts to rapid weight loss are a waste of everything.
Post rapid weight loss program can be divided into two parts, rehydration and glycogen restoration.
Rehydration is extremely important after a rapid weight loss program. The rehydration method depends on your rapid weight loss methods, dehydration status, and recovery time available.
Plain Water or Sports Drink
If you have used the “fluid restriction” method for RWL then low sodium fluids such as water or any sports drink will work fine for you.
Oral Rehydration Solutions
If you have used thermoregulatory or active sweating methods for RWL then the use of ORS (oral rehydration solutions) is best for quick rehydration. ORS is a specially manufactured powder used to prevent and treat dehydration. One sachet of ORS powder can be mixed in 1 liter of clean water. Athletes should drink 600 ml of this water immediately after the weigh-in, and other 400 ml at regular intervals. ORS solution is really helpful to restore fluid and electrolytes losses.
If an athlete has used glycogen depletion method to achieve acute weight loss, he must restore glycogen stores for optimum recovery.
High GI Carbohydrates
Athletes are advised to use a high glycemic index carbohydrate drink to restore glycogen stores. One should not consume more than 60 grams of carbohydrates in 1 hour. Also, the solution should not contain more than 10% carbohydrates. Otherwise, it will cause gut distress. If you want to consume more than 60 grams of carbohydrates in one hour, you should use different carbohydrate sources as a mix of glucose and fructose.
Pre-competition nutrition is very important. Athletes should use low-fat, low fiber, easily digested food to increase carbohydrate availability in the body to improve performance. High fiber or high-fat food can cause gut distress. So, one should avoid them.
Caffeine Supplements & Mouth Rinsing
If an athlete has any issue regarding gut distress then he can use caffeine supplements to improve endurance and focus. A moderate dose of 3-6 mg/kg of body weight of caffeine is recommended, 30-60 minutes before competition. “Mouth-rinsing” for 10-15 seconds with a high glycemic index carbohydrate drink is also useful to increase performance.
Foods for post-weigh-in and pre-competition period
- ORS (oral rehydration solution)
- Sports drink (with high sodium and low carbs)
- Sports bars
- Low-fat yogurt
- White bread with jams
- White rice
- Pasta or Noodles
Practical Applications (Sample)
- You should conduct a body mass and body composition assessment first.
- If your weight is not above weight division then no need to do anything, just try to maintain this weight.
- If your weight is above weight division then answer these three questions.
- How much weight is above the weight division?
- How many days are left in weigh-in?
- How much recovery time you will get between weigh-in and competition?
- If your weight is above 10% of weight division and you have less than 7 days to make weight, you should not compete.
- If your weight is above 5% of weight division and you will get less than 4 hours between weigh-in and competition for recovery, you should not compete.
- If above 4 and 5 are not your case, you can try rapid weight loss methods.
- Hire an expert such as a dietician, doctor, or nutritionist.
- Now we can use these methods in next 7 days under the supervision of exert:
- 5-7 days prior: Consume a low carbohydrate and high protein diet with an energy deficit.
- 4-5 days prior: Reduce sodium intake
- 3-4 days prior: Reduce fiber intake
- 2-3 days prior: Restrict fluid intake, eat energy-dense foods with low volume, use active sweating methods.
- 1-2 days prior: Use passive sweating methods.
- Weigh-in day
- Use ORS, high glycemic index carbohydrate drinks for quick rehydration, and restore glycogen stores.
- Increase carbohydrate availability on the day of the competition.
- You can use low fiber and low-fat meals before the competition.
- You can use caffeine supplements and mouth rinsing methods before competition for an energy boost.
- Rapid weight loss methods are only for professional athletes and no other person should try any of these methods, ever. Even athletes should try RWL methods under expert supervision.
- Water manipulation is a major part of RWL methods. In simple words, it is dehydration. An athlete’s performance decreases due to dehydration and it takes almost 5 to 24 hours to achieve the normal performance levels with a strong rehydration strategy.
- If the time between weigh-in and competition is less than 4 hours, one must not drop one’s weight below 4%. Otherwise, it will become difficult for one to recover.
- If the competition will be held in open sunlight, heated environment, or humidity; the dehydration method is not a good option for RWL.
- Athletes should try to maintain a near desired weight, at least a month before a competition. Using extremes methods in the last few days before a competition is not a good idea.
- Athletes should keep a journal to note down their diet, water intake, exercise, and body response. So, they can understand their physiological reaction to change in food, fluid, and exercise.
- Always remember, there are no shortcuts to real success.
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