Powerlifting Water Cutting: Step By Step Guide (Water Load & Cut)
Last Update: 12 August 2021
When done correctly, water cutting is a highly effective and safe way for powerlifters to rapidly lose weight without compromising performance before weigh-ins, both two hours and 24 hours prior to competition. But, many people wonder if a powerlifting water cut combined with a cutting weight diet is really the best way to cut weight.
This step-by-step guide provides the answer to water cutting by the scientific exploration of water loading, sodium manipulation, glycogen manipulation, safety considerations, and more.
Why Cut Water Weight?
When gaining or losing weight, whether for competitions or general interests, body composition is a key. Interestingly, water retention is a substantial contributor to overall body weight, for an isolated point in time.
Basically, this means that because water is a large constituent in all major parts of the human body, including bones, organs, tissues, muscles, fat, and more, the amount of water retained plays a key role in weight totals. In fact, about 60 percent of an adult’s body weight is water, with H2O forming approximately 70-75 percent of muscle mass and 10-40 percent of fat tissues [1, 2].
By cutting water weight, it’s possible to shed excess pounds without compromising body composition or performance. Plus, it’s a relatively rapid process, especially in comparison to traditional weight loss programs.
For these reasons, dropping water weight can be a very effective strategy to optimize performance in competitions. In fact, water weight before and after these techniques demonstrate they can have a big impact.
Water Cut Powerlifting: How Water Cutting Works for Cutting Water Weight and How To Make Weight
There are different mechanisms (methods) involved in the water cutting process:
- Water Intake Manipulation
- Sodium Manipulation
- Glycogen Manipulation
- Additional Considerations
- Dehydration Techniques
- Diuretics, Laxatives, and Creatine
- Weight of Food
Water Intake Manipulation (Cutting Weight Fast)
The human body is remarkable in its ability to respond to changes in the external and internal environment. Altering hydration levels is a prime example of this ability to adapt.
Q: How much does a drop of water weigh?
A: 0.000050 kilograms
Antidiuretic Hormone (ADH)–Water Load Principles
The body is constantly seeking a state of homeostasis (steady internal, physical, and chemical conditions).. This process is regulated by the antidiuretic hormone (ADH) – also referred to as Vasopressin or arginine vasopressin (AVP) .
When secreted by the body, ADH triggers a series of reactions that allow water to be absorbed into cells through an osmotic gradient until appropriately balanced, at which time the cell membrane becomes watertight to retain water levels . And, the opposite holds true. Low levels of ADH reduce water retention, forcing water out of the cells into the bloodstream, and then eventually filtered by the kidneys and excreted as urine.
Simply put, higher levels of ADH lead to increased water retention and lower levels of ADH promote urination and water excretion.
How to Manipulate ADH–Water Loading To Cut Weight
When excessive water is consumed, the body enters a state of hypervolemia (fluid overload) and immediately seeks to compensate by reducing the secretion of ADH. With lower levels of ADH, more water is delivered to the kidneys to be excreted through urine. (Makes sense, right?)
This is exactly what happens with water loading. During a period of increased water intake, the body will respond by secreting less ADH, and therefore, urinating more to maintain homeostasis.
Impact of Water Cutting–How to Lose Weight In 24 Hours
So in a water cut, the objective is to excessively drink water for a period of a few days. The body responds to the increased water consumption and forces frequent urination to get rid of the excess water.
Interestingly, when water consumption is drastically and immediately reduced, there is a delay between the elimination of water intake and the body’s physiological response. During this delay period, the body is still acclimated to excessive levels of water intake, and therefore ADH levels are still very low. Despite the reduced water intake, the body will continue to excrete water through urination at a very high rate until ADH levels stabilize.
The result is a disproportionate amount of water excreted, resulting in a significant loss of water weight overall.
Sodium Manipulation–Combining Methods for Weigh In Day
Another important mechanism involved in water cutting is the relationship between water retention and sodium levels. Despite a common belief that increased sodium intake results in an increase in water consumption, this is actually not the case. Rather, increasing sodium consumption actually functions to increase water retention, therefore balancing electrolyte levels .
Water retention is a complicated process influenced by hormones, metabolism, water intake, renal salt, food consumption, and water excretion . But fundamentally, with higher levels of sodium, the body will retain more water in cells and less will be excreted.
However, if sodium levels drop significantly and rapidly, inducing a state of hyponatremia (low sodium concentration in the blood), the body’s reaction is the same as hypervolemia (fluid overload) – the inhibition of ADH.
So in the same way that water loading to cut weight inhibits ADH secretion, a rapid removal of salt from the diet will have the same impact.
By drastically reducing sodium consumption over a short period of time, the body will rapidly release water retained in the cells. And, just like with water manipulation, this dietary control helps the body shed significant amounts of water weight.
Since it takes a day or two for the body to adapt, excess water will be excreted before ADH is secreted to stabilize intercellular water levels.
Glycogen Manipulation-Glycogen is an Energy Reserve
Glucose is the fuel source used to generate adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is required for muscle contraction . For immediate use, muscles store glycogen molecules which contain glucose. During physical activity, glycogen is broken down, glucose is released, and the muscles convert the glucose into ATP for energy.
Glycogen is also stored in the liver, providing a constant reserve of glucose necessary to maintain appropriate blood sugar levels. The amount of glycogen that an individual has in their body largely depends on their size and muscle mass, however, most powerlifters can roughly estimate their glycogen reserves.
The average person has 500g of glycogen in their muscles (with a range of 300-700g) and 80g in their liver (with a range of 0-160) . The average powerlifter has 600g of total glycogen reserves, with some elite powerlifters approach 900g total.
Glycogen Depletion For Weight Loss
The reason that glycogen reserves are so significant for water cutting is that every gram of glycogen requires at least 3g of water to be stored in the body . By depleting glycogen reserves, not only will the weight of glycogen be shed, but the accompanying water weight as well.
For example, if the average powerlifter with 600g of glycogen reserves completely depletes it, they will be able to shed 2400g of additional weight (600g of glycogen and 1800g of water). In other words, a loss of 5.29lbs.
For competitive powerlifters looking to maximize performance on competition day, this additional cut can make a drastic difference. Another benefit is that glycogen reserves can be depleted rather quickly using an extremely low carb diet. Excessive exercise is usually not necessary.
Glycogen Replenishment – Performance Implications
However, glycogen reserves require time to be replenished and they play an important role in optimizing performance on competition day.
Therefore, if a weigh-in is only two hours prior to competition, a complete depletion of glycogen may not be ideal. But if the competition is 24 hours after weigh-ins, replenishing these glycogen reserves is relatively easy.
Complete glycogen replenishment requires significant carbohydrate consumption. Research has found that a high-carbohydrate diet (9.8g of carbs / kg of body weight / day) restored 93 percent of muscle glycogen in a 24 hour period . Alternatively, a low-carb diet only restored 13% of muscle glycogen.
For context, a 200lb powerlifter would need to consume about 900g of carbs in a day to mimic this study, which is a very feasible amount 24 hours before a competition. So, it is an effective tool for how to cut weight in 24 hours. But because the rate of glycogen repletion is limited, it’s unrealistic to completely replenish glycogen reserves within a two-hour window.
An important note is that the theoretical threshold for performance impairment is a 50 percent decrease in muscle glycogen levels. For powerlifters accustomed to training with a high-carbohydrate diet or with high muscle glycogen levels, high level glycogen depletion may significantly impair performance .
Additional Considerations–How to Lose Weight Overnight for a Weigh In
Although the previous methods are effective at cutting a substantial amount of weight rather quickly, in a pinch it may be necessary to drop even more weight to make it for weigh-ins.
Without question, it is important to tread carefully with dehydration. There are significant risks associated with excessive dehydration, including severely impaired physical performance, cognition, skincare, cardiovascular health, gastrointestinal function, and a variety of other diseases .
Furthermore, one study reported that levels of dehydration exceeding 10 percent of total body mass may potentially be fatal . In fact, the performance implications of even just 2 percent dehydration emphasize the importance of using caution with this technique.
Some common tips for cutting weight include:
- Sauna or a hot bathtub
- Light cardio wearing multiple layers
- Salivary water loss through chewing gum or sour candy
Sauna / Hot Bath
Generally speaking, the recommended method is to use a sauna in 10-15 minute increments to sweat out excess water. This is preferred because saunas do not induce additional strain through exercise and for the numerous other health benefits.Similarly, spending 10-15 minute increments in a hot bath can help to increase the internal body temperature and promote sweating.
In both cases, it is highly recommended to have someone present to ensure safety and to stop immediately if feeling extremely light-headed or unwell. In between sessions, take breaks lasting 5-10 minutes to cool down. It is also important to dry off to ensure that sweat is not reabsorbed through the skin.
The classic approach to rapid weight loss is to layer up, enter a hot room, and do cardio until the body has lost pounds of water weight through sweating. In terms of weight loss, it can be effective, but it’s extremely taxing and easy to dehydrate too much. A better idea for cutting weight fast is to induce sweating with safer methods.
Spitting (Salivary Water Loss)
The last ditch effort to lose a little more weight is through spitting. There is a considerable amount of water contained in saliva that can be excreted for last minute weight modifications.
One method is to use chewing gum. It has actually been proven that chewing on gum increases salivary flow rate within minutes, with different flavors having marginal impacts on salivary flow rates .
Gummies and candies have also been shown to increase salivary rate. A recent study found that candies containing ubiquinol, a form of coenzyme Q10, trigger a significant increase in salivary flow rate . Studies also show that all sour candies and carbonated beverages will increase salivary production. For that last minute weight loss, some sour candy to suck on may help to secrete enough saliva to spit out .
Diuretics, Laxatives, and Creatine
It is advised to avoid diuretics and opt for natural weight loss techniques, but if necessary, they can help as well. Diuretics are commonly used to accomplish a similar purpose as water intake manipulation because they promote increased urination, but like all win water weight manipulation techniques, the water weight lost while taking a diuretic is only temporary. However, it can be an effective method for how to lose weight before a weigh in.
Q: How much weight can you lose with water pills?
A: It depends on the duration of the technique.
When using diuretics, look for natural products whenever possible. A few of the most promising include caffeine, dandelion extract, and horsetail [13-15]. It’s important to note that taking natural diuretics or other water pills are merely another form of manipulating water levels in the body. Therefore, depending on a number of other factors (including water intake manipulation, sodium manipulation, and glycogen manipulation), it is very difficult to predict how much weight can actually be lost with water pills.
Laxatives – Best laxative to lose weight overnight
Laxatives are another commonly-used strategy to quickly lose weight. Many function by pulling water from the body into the intestine to loosen up stool and stimulate passage .
However, pulling water from the body can result in further dehydration and electrolyte loss. Therefore, they are not recommended as an optimal technique for weight loss.
Creatine should not be used during the water cut. Although commonly used for strength, endurance, and muscle enhancements, one of the functions of creatine is to increase water retention. Therefore, during the cutting phase, creatine supplementation should be ceased until after the weigh in and then resumed after.
Weight of Food
A final consideration is the physical weight of food. For obvious reasons, during the water cut and immediately before weighing in, it is important to meet caloric needs to retain energy and optimize performance.
However, foods with similar calorie content may have drastically different physical weights. Consider 100g of chicken breast and 100g of MCT Coconut Oil, for example.
*Nutrition info from Google
Obviously, most people would not directly substitute coconut oil for chicken breast due to drastically different macro and micronutrient content, but the point is clear. The actual weight of the food consumed (100g) is not a good indicator of the energy that it provides.
So while fueling, it can be very beneficial to eat foods that are very nutrient and calorie dense, allowing sufficient energy intake without excessively “heavier” food. Following a low carb, “keto-like” diet high in fats, moderate in protein, and low in carbs makes sense because it promotes glycogen depletion while meeting caloric needs without excessive food consumption.
Interestingly, to support a low-weight diet, it may be useful to consume a liquid-based diet. Liquid meals can help ensure the consumption of high calorie foods with a lower mass.
How Much Weight to Cut (Cutting Before and After)
Perhaps the most difficult and important part of water cutting is to set a target weight that is both obtainable and safe. Generally speaking, the more water weight that is cut, the greater the risks.
How Much Weight Do Most Competitors Cut
Many professionals and coaches recommend cutting between 5-10 percent of total body weight for water cut powerlifting. For context, this means that a 200lb individual could potentially drop 10-20 pounds of water weight in a single week.
However, a much safer and more feasible target is 5 percent of total body weight. Greg Doucette, an IFBB Pro Bodybuilder and Guinness World-Record-Holding Powerlifter who has performed countless water cuts, recommends people to aim for around 5% .
In this YouTube video, he shares that on the few occasions he pushed 8-9 percent cut, he felt miserable, and does not recommend it to anyone . His rule of thumb is that unless an athlete is trying to set world records, water cutting should be more conservative. Health and safety should always be paramount.
But how much weight does the average competitor actually cut?
One study revealed that among competitive powerlifters (both male and female), 85.8% claimed to implement some form of rapid weight loss prior to weigh-ins, with an average loss of 3% of total body weight (3.0 ± 1.9%) .
In reality, most powerlifters cut 3 percent of total body weight, with 5 percent being the high end of the range.
Performance Implications of Dehydration
When competing, it does not matter what everyone else is doing. Powerlifters should focus on determining the process and strategy that will completely optimize their performance. For that reason, rather than designing a water cut based on what most people do, it’s important to consider performance implications.
Depending on if an athlete is competing two hours or 24 hours after weigh-ins, these considerations may vary, but always consider the performance implications of weight cutting.
First, there is no question that competing in a dehydrated state will negatively impact performance. One study found that a dehydrated state (of about 3%) hindered performance in resistance exercise, with another study finding decrements in performance with just 2% dehydration [20, 21].
What does impaired performance look like? In these studies, it included decreased repetitions and endurance, a subjective increase in exertion, and impaired heart rate recovery.
Another study found that dehydration significantly decreased the total work completed during a back squat protocol, proportionate to the degree of dehydration . Interestingly, performance decrease was observed in sets 2-3 for a 2.5% water weight reduction and sets 2-5 for a 5% water weight reduction.
In fact, one study found severe weight cuts, defined as approximately 5% of total body weight in less than 24 hours, impaired “repeat-effort capacities”. However, these concerns are likely geared more toward wrestlers and combat athletes that are required to perform for extended periods of time, whereas powerlifters are more concerned with peak power generation than endurance.
Performance Impairment for Powerlifters
Specific to powerlifting, most research indicates that a weight cut of about 5% of total body weight is unlikely to have a significant impact on performance. In fact, one study found that ≤5% loss in body weight did not impair the performance of experienced athletes .
Since dehydration doesn’t appear to have a major impact on anaerobic activities such as weight lifting , does that mean more weight loss is optimal for performance? Not necessarily.
Subjects in another study reduced body mass by an average of 5% over a three day period . Although fatigue decreased significantly, peak power did not change significantly throughout time points in the study (although it did decrease to some extent).
However, the relative peak power actually increased after weight loss, and recovery from most of the negative effects of a rapid weight loss occurred within just 12 hours.
In the context of powerlifting, this indicates that a 5% weight loss
- May not actually have a significant negative impairment on performance
- May actually improve relative peak power
- May only require 12 hours to fully recover
For 24 hour weigh-ins, given safety and performance concerns, 5% of total body mass seems to be a very obtainable, safe, and effective target to shoot for. For competitions just two hours after weigh-ins, the performance implications are a much greater concern.
Rate of Rehydration
Rate of rehydration is an important consideration when trying to determine how much water can be cut safely and without compromising performance.
Most water absorption occurs in the small intestine and is dependent on multiple factors, including rates of gastric emptying, intestinal absorption, and the speed that absorbed water reaches water pools . In addition, hydration rate can be increased with beverages that have low energy content, low osmolality, solute solutions (glucose, amino acids, and sodium), and moderate hypotonicity.
While exact rates are unknown, the small intestine is capable of absorbing up to 15L of water per day, so 24 hours provides a significant opportunity to replenish water . However, it’s important to avoid over consumption due to the potential for bloating and gastrointestinal discomfort.
For reference, a recent study found that symptoms of mild dehydration could be overcome in 45 minutes with just 600mL of water or a carbohydrate and salt solution . For two hour weigh-ins, this implies that 1.5-2L of a water solution with glucose, amino acids, and sodium could be sufficient for optimal rehydration.
Planning For Weight Loss
Prior to any implementation of a water cutting strategy, it is important to have clearly defined a target weight, well in advance, to ensure that the target weight can be safely and effectively obtained.
For example, if weigh-ins are two weeks away and an individual needs to cut more than 10% of their total bodyweight, it may not be deemed safe or feasible.
Generally speaking, for competitions 24 hours after weigh-ins, a target weight loss of 5% is recommended. Exceeding 5%, however, comes with potential risks to health and performance and is cautioned against unless under professional supervision and competing for world records.
With only two hours after weigh-ins before competing, it is recommended to limit weight loss to just 3% of total body weight. This can help to mitigate performance impairments and ensure adequate hydration levels.
Step by Step Process for Water Cutting Before a Competition (Cutting Weight Fast)
The process for cutting weight is largely dependent on the amount of weight and the time period before the competition. With more time to recover, the process can be a bit more aggressive without compromising performance.
For sake of consistency, this following recommendations adhere to a one-week plan with weigh-ins on Friday for both two hour and 24 hour competitions, beginning on Monday.
It is recommended to drink 100mL of water per every kilogram of body weight, according to a study on water loading that was determined to be a safe and effective volume . In this case, a 100kg person would need to drink 10L of water on loading days.
Following the same guidelines in the study, an immediate drop off during the water cut phase (rather than tapering) is recommended to maximize the benefits of the delayed response of ADH. For the low water consumption days, a total of 15mL per kilogram of body weight is recommended. Again, for a 100kg individual, this would be just 1.5L of water.
For a weigh-in on a Friday, this protocol would start on Monday with three days of high volume water consumption, followed by two days (including weigh-in day) of low consumption.
Specific levels of sodium intake, similar to water, are not an exact science. However, to influence the mechanisms of ADH, it is important to follow a similar procedure of adequate salt consumption prior to cutting water and salt.
For the high sodium days, it is recommended to consume about 60mg of sodium per kilogram of body weight during the water loading phase (Monday – Wednesday). Of course, this can be manipulated as desired and necessary. For the water cutting phase, this should be cut down to 10mg per kilogram of bodyweight. (Keep in mind the sodium content in foods. )
For this technique, remember to consider the regular diet, and that loading carbohydrates during the water loading phase and then immediately removing them during the cutting phase can effectively deplete glycogen reserves and accompanying water weight.
The biggest difference between the two hour and 24 hour approaches deal with carbohydrate consumption, as glycogen depletion should be minimized when competing with only two hours before competition. Therefore, while a 24 hour competition will have two full low-carb days, it is only recommended to have one low carb day prior to a two hour competition.
This chart highlights recommended carb intake. As always, these are subject to modification and customization to an individual’s dietary preferences and weight loss / performance goals.
For dehydration techniques such as sauna or bathtub usage, they should be done in small increments with regular weigh-ins to carefully manage weight loss and symptoms. Similarly, laxatives and diuretics should be used in minimal effective doses and monitored carefully.
Rehydrating and Refueling
After the weigh-ins were successful and the water cut reached the target weight, the focus now is on preparing for maximum performance in the competition. Given significant water, sodium, and glycogen depletion, replenishing these are a top priority.
24 Hour Weigh-Ins
First, water should be consumed immediately with a solution containing glucose and sodium. Not only does this optimize absorption, but it can assist with the replenishment of sodium and glycogen reserves. Pedialyte is the top recommendation, but coconut water and diluted sports drinks (such as Gatorade and Powerade) are great options as well.
It is important not to chug water and cause excessive bloating, which can hinder absorption and cause gastrointestinal issues. Instead, it is best to pay careful attention to thirst and bloating, and drink as much as tolerable. This may range from 500-1000mL per hour depending on the size of the athlete.
Regarding glycogen repletion, the body is limited in its ability to restore glycogen reserves immediately, but a high carb diet over a period of 24 hours can very nearly completely restore reserves. To achieve this, it is recommended that an athlete seek to consume 10g of carbs per every kilogram of body weight throughout the 24-hour period.
In smaller chunks, this may look like 50-100g of carbs every 1-2 hours depending on the athlete. To optimize absorption, foods with a high glycemic-index (which are more readily absorbed into the bloodstream) may be ideal. Example foods include white rice, potatoes, white bread, and sugary foods.
However, the most important caution when refeeding is to try to eat food that is consistent with an individual’s regular diet. After months of clean and restricted eating, binging on pizza, burgers and pancakes may seem to be the perfect combination of reward and recovery, but they may cause gastrointestinal issues.
Stick to high quality, calorie-dense foods that are consistent with a normal diet, tweaking as necessary to meet the demands for increased carbohydrate intake.
Two Hour Weigh-Ins
Given the nature of a short recovery time, it is ideal to begin rehydrating and refueling before the weigh-in. Obviously, if you can not afford to gain more weight, then the refueling strategy has to wait.
With only two hours, there is only so much that can be done. Ideally, the strategy used for weight loss will have enabled sufficient weight loss for weigh-ins without overly dehydrating or reducing glycogen reserves in the process.
This process is very similar to 24 hour weigh-ins, only with less time. The first priority should be an electrolyte solution such as Pedialyte, coconut water, or a sports drink that has glucose and sodium. Ideally, aim for 1000mL if possible, but recall that even 600mL can be effective for rehydrating.
As for glycogen replenishment, food high in carbs (with a high glycemic-index) is recommended to provide a quick energy boost for the competition. Eating foods consistent with a regular diet ranging from 100-200g of carbs may be ideal to refuel without bloating or causing performance-hindering gastrointestinal issues.
White rice, potatoes, or white bread with some fruit and an electrolyte solution is a highly effective meal for recovery.
Following this step-by-step guide, an athlete will have optimized their performance for the day of the competition and will be ready to leave it all out there, set some records, and move weight with the ferociousness of a professional powerlifter!
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