Exploring The Strength Advantage 01 Jun 2019

Jordi Sullivan
The Fight Dietician

Weight Cutting: Do you gain a strength advantage doing it?

There is a prevailing notion in combat sports that cutting weight gives you a strength advantage over your opponent. This idea has well and truly withstood the test of time, but how does it stand against the test of science? Let’s have a look.

For anyone that follows my socials (@the_fightdietitian, The Fight Dietitian) you would have seen that we have been running some of our fighters through testing to see how weight cutting affects their performance. The results have been interesting. In this article, I'll discuss two fighters who recently fought for Australian MMA Titles. Both fighters successfully made weight and were able to return to their pre-fight camp weight before getting into the cage. This was after cutting 14% and 18% of their body weight respectively, throughout the fight camp.

Things become more interesting when you look at how this weight cutting process affected their strength and power measures the week leading up to the fight. In our first case study, as soon as we were finished the fluid manipulation (bathing or sauna to make the contracted fight weight), we tested the fighter’s explosive power (measured by a mid-thigh pull and countermovement jump) and found that it was 27% lower than the beginning of the week. We tested again the following day, after rehydrating and eating, and found that 6 hours before walking into the cage, this number was still down by 15% and didn’t show signs of improving.

In simpler terms, even though this fighter was able to put all the weight back on, his strength (more specifically his ability to produce force over time) never fully recovered. By dropping the weight, it costs him power. Despite this decrease, he still went on to win the fight impressively. 

The other case study showed different results. This fighter cut 18% of their body weight throughout the camp, and we ran the same testing protocol. We were also able to run a VO2 max test during the post rehydration and refueling testing period. 

What we found here was that his strength measures and his VO2 max decreased dramatically due to the weight cut, however, the follow up testing 6 hours before the fight revealed that these measures came back to their pre-fight week levels. In other words, he recovered from the weight cut with minimal change in his power, however, he went on to lose his bout. 

These are only two case studies, but it does offer interesting insight into whether cutting more weight and putting it back on gives you an advantage. From this data, it would seem that it doesn’t. The message is mixed when you look through other studies as well.

Plenty of lab-based studies show that weight cutting negatively affects performance measures (such as countermovement jump, grip strength, isometric strength exercises). But we all know fighting doesn’t take place in the lab.
There are lots of studies looking at competition results of wrestlers and judokas who cut weight. Some show that cutting more weight leads to success in competition, while others show no relationship at all. It's hard to give a definite answer.

In 2015, Bloody Elbow released an article titled ‘UFC fighters find little success when changing weight classes’ https://www.bloodyelbow.com/2015/8/5/9100525/ufc-fighters-little-success-changing-weight-classes-mma. It’s not an academic article, but interesting none the less. It looked at the success of UFC fighters who changed weight classes prior and up to that year.

It states that of the 107 fighters who made a permanent weight class change, 35% ended up with a winning record, 42% with losing, and 22% with a similar. Of the athletes they looked at, 84% of them made the move to a lower weight class. Almost two-thirds of the athletes who cut weight to a lower weight class did not find success in doing so. This would make it seem that at the highest level, cutting weight does not yield the supposed strength advantage.

As we all know there are so many factors that contribute to the outcome of a fight, strength being just one. As of right now, there is no clear answer for what weight cutting does to a fighter’s performance, be it good or bad, but it’s something that I intend on investigating much more.

If you are a fighter and you’re unsure about your best performance weight or how to safely get there, then remove the guesswork and reach out to a qualified health professional for an individualized assessment.

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