Written by Dr. Layne Norton
This is part of an ongoing series. To get up to speed, you may want to read or re-read the first two installments
I always say that powerlifters could learn a lot from bodybuilders and bodybuilders could learn a lot from powerlifters. But there are many mistakes that both groups make. As nutritionally astute as many bodybuilders would like to think they are, they make a ton of mistakes when dieting for contests. Namely, crash dieting and not giving themselves enough time.
These are people who agonize about eating every 2 hours and are petrified that if they don’t get at least 4000 calories they are going to overtrain and wither away. But when it comes to dropping bodyfat, they often diet on ridiculously low calories and do a TON of cardio. Nothing is more detrimental to strength and muscle mass than overdieting and overcardio-ing. Now, obviously the dieting period isn’t great for strength, but there are ways to mitigate strength losses or, dare I say, still make strength gains. But you have to be willing to go slow.
I will use myself as an example since I am an expert… on myself. I won this year’s 205 lb USAPL Raw Nationals class weighing in at a trim 202.1 lbs without ever having to cut water, and I was actually eating quite a bit of food up to the meet.
I started my journey about 5 months before the meet. I was weighing just over 222 lbs. It’s not that much to lose right? So what’s the big deal? The big deal is I added 44 lbs to my meet total (1681 to 1725) during that time while dropping over 8 kg. I actually tested at 1740 six weeks before the meet, but meet circumstances dictated going conservative on the final deadlift to ensure the win and IPF worlds qualification. In theory my total went up almost 60 lbs while losing 20 lbs!
There were other people at the meet who cut just as much as me, but they did it in a much shorter time period and many of them did not have their best day. Obviously I can’t say it was only because of the weight cut, but if you must cut a lot of weight very quickly you will lose strength, not only from muscle loss but also because your leverages will change and the way your belt/equipment (if you use a lifting suit) fits will also change. If you diet slow, you have time to adjust to these changes. If you lose it all very quickly, you will not have nearly enough practice.
That said, an IPF 2 hour weigh-in is much different than a 24 or 48 hour weigh-in. The further away you weigh-in, the more aggressive you can afford to be. Even so. I witnessed a man I’ve seen smoke 650 squat in the gym miss 595 at a meet because he dropped 25 lbs in a month by crash dieting. He said the weight felt unsteady and weird.
So how slow should we go? What is an appropriate progression? And how much fluid can we cut before a weigh in without it affecting our performance. In my experience, you should target approximately no more than 1% of your bodyweight per week average loss. So if you are 230 lbs and want to make 198 (let’s assume no water cutting for the sake of simplicity), you are looking at 2-2.5 lbs per week loss MAX to retain muscle and strength. Ideally I’d like to see around 0.5-0.75% bodyweight loss per week but I realize many people don’t want to diet for 6 months. So for our fellow at 230 we would be looking at around 14 weeks minimum diet time to achieve his desired bodyweight.
That begs the next question, how much water can we cut? If you are talking about a 2 hour weigh in, the amount is very minimal. The research shows that if you lose more than 2% of your bodyweight from fluid & you don’t have at least 24 hours to rehydrate it WILL affect your performance (1). So if you are wanting to make 198 class and have a 2 hour weigh in, you had better be around 202 lbs before you start your water cut. I want to be clear, I recommend using the minimal level of water & sodium restriction needed to make weight. More than 2% hurts performance (on a short weigh in) and more than 5% substantially impacts the body’s work capacity by about 30%. So my rule of thumb is that for a 2 hour weigh in, no more than 2% of your bodyweight loss from water & on a 24 hour weigh in no more than 5% bodyweight loss from fluid. Even if you have a 48 hour weigh in, losses of more than 10% in bodyweight from fluid are EXTREMELY dangerous. I do NOT recommend them.
Most times even moderate fluid & sodium restriction will be sufficient to lose 2% bodyweight. For example, if your typical fluid intake is 1 gallon per day and your sodium intake is 3000mg per day. Reducing your fluid to 1/2 gallon the day before the meet and sips before weigh in coupled with reducing sodium to 1500mg two days before the meet and 750mg the day before the meet with minimal sodium before weigh ins will be more than sufficient to drop several pounds of fluid without causing drastic dehydration. On a short weigh in, immediately after weighing in I would suggest rehydrating and consuming sufficient electrolytes.
No matter how little or much fluid you cut if you at any time start to become dizzy or your thirst becomes drastic you SHOULD drink fluid and electrolytes. A powerlifting meet is not worth your life, and people die of dehydration every year. Be smart. While several big name lifters have obviously done very well cutting a lot of weight very quickly to make a weight class I would argue that they would have been even stronger had they taken a bit more time. Diet slow and minimize the amount of fluid and electrolytes you need to cut. You will retain maximal strength and you’ll feel great.
1. Sports Nutrition 2nd Edition. Human Kinetics Publishing (2010).