As part of our Experts are Made series, the Fight Science team look beyond the obvious health issues of rapid-weight and focus on the impact of weight cutting on a fighter’s performance and confidence during training camp.
Though filled with many intelligent athletes, coaches, and complex techniques akin to physical chess, MMA is often perceived as a violent and dangerous sport because of the apparent visceral and gladiatorial nature of this combat spectacle. To the uninitiated, weight cutting is not a variable calculated into this danger; however, to the initiated, weight cutting can be, and often is arguably one of the most dangerous aspects of MMA. While it’s somewhat ironic this danger occurs outside of the cage, weight cutting does pose a true danger. Unfortunately, this danger is evident when athletes like Khabib Nurmagomedov and Renan Barao are removed from fights because of complications apparently related to rapid-weight loss. And the dangers are even more apparent when an athlete dies as a result of the weight cut as Jordan Donald did earlier this year.
Despite the danger and difficulty associated with fighting at the lowest weight class possible, fighters and coaches often opt for the lower weight class because of a perceived size and strength advantage. But is this really an advantage? Perhaps not, as evidenced by UFC stars who have noted how good they feel fighting at or near their true weight, and those who have now excelled at a higher weight class. This includes fighters such as Robert Whittaker, Donald Cerrone and Kelvin Gastelum. Nonetheless, many fighters opt for the lower weight class. Unfortunately, the ripple effect of weight cutting often permeates every aspect of the fighter’s camp, and thus their performance. If a championship title is desired, coaches and fighters must look beyond whether a fighter can “make the weight.”
What the Experts Say
It is not uncommon for fighters to drop 5% to 7% of their body weight during fight week. In some cases fighters have gone to extremes to cut more than 10% of their body weight less than 2 days out from the weigh in. The typical modus operandi, don “plastics” then suffer in the sauna and dehydrate themselves to squeeze out every ounce of water possible. While folks continue to argue the risk vs reward of weight cutting, limited research seems to cloud the debate. While some researchers suggests it leads to increased confusion and cognitive impairment (Martinen, 2011), others have found strength and power was not impacted (Smith et al, 2000).
More recent research by Crighton, Graeme, and Morton (2016) suggested that dehydration may increase the chances of a traumatic brain injury while Coswig, Fukudu, and Del Vecchio (2015) revealed that rapid-weight loss resulted in harmful biochemical and hormonal responses. Though it’s not hard to argue the fact that rapid-weight loss on MMA fighters is dangerous, we just are not sure how dangerous it is or what the long-term implications are for such practices. In addition, there has also been little research done on the psychological impact of weight cutting on performance. Given the uniqueness of each athlete (e.g. age, gender, body, mass, experience), the best approach for examining the impact of weight loss would be through in-depth case study as opposed to combining the effects of rapid-weight loss across groups of athletes (e.g., Coswig, Fukudu, & Del Vecchio, 2017).
However, it doesn’t take a researcher to understand that, while dropping weight may have advantages, drastic weight loss in a short period of time can and will have a large and negative impact on a fighter’s performance before, during, and after the fight. Consequently, there are a variety of factors fighters and coaches should consider before deciding on the appropriate weight class.
The Winning Edge or a Performance Killer
…it is the quality of a fighter’s camp that is the largest predictor of a fighter’s performance.
While it is clear that extreme weight cutting is bad for the fighter’s health, the question remains, are large weight cuts bad for the fighter’s performance, and will it provide the “winning” advantage? While we explore this topic deeper, it’s important to consider this question from the following perspective; that is, while mistiming or struggling through a weight cut can impact performance on fight day, it is the quality of a fighter’s camp that is the largest predictor of a fighter’s performance.
When we say a good camp, we mean the quality of coaching, training partners, nutrition, rehab, strength and conditioning. These components do not work in isolation. Each impacts the other. When each component is of high-quality, the collaborative impact is positive and powerful; however, when one component is deficient, the fighter’s performance suffers. Much like a race car equipped with a competition engine would perform poorly with sub-standard fuel, fighters who experience even subtle side effects during camp from poor dieting and weight cutting fail to reach peak performance…even with the best coaches and training partners. This negative impact on performance during training camp can create a vicious cycle as poor performance erodes confidence, and poor confidence erodes performance.
Weight-cutting and the Impact on Training Camp
Extreme weight drops, which typically starts during fight camp, creates a stressful environment for the athlete from a physiological standpoint. And on top of this, the athlete is likely to be psychologically stressed about “making the weight” as well. We all understand that stress creates more stress and there begins the downward spiral. However, all stress is not necessarily “bad.” And in fact, in the sport sciences we conceptualize stress as operating on a continuum from optimal to not optimal. Optimal stress leads to improved performance up until a point, then the stress becomes debilitative and performance then starts to decrease.
If an athlete experiences stress in the form of heavy training loads, but also perceives stress from weight-cutting issues, the psychological stress will inform the physiological stress and vice versa. This leads to performance decrements and ultimately reductions in confidence. This is extremely important because confidence has been found to be one of the best predictors of performance quality. One need look no further than Conor Mcgregor as evidence of this! The point is, enhancing confidence in fight camp is paramount. Unfortunately, many fighters and coaches may have never considered how excessive weight cutting affects a fighter’s confidence.
Unfortunately, many fighters and coaches may have never considered how excessive weight cutting during training camp affects a fighter’s confidence.
To put it simply, there is a negative relationship between excessive stress and a fighter’s confidence. Stress is very complex and comes from all different angles. And if the fighter is consistently exceeding his or her optimal states of stress throughout training camp, then the quality of the training is lowered and then confidence is thusly lowered. At this point, it doesn’t matter how good the coach’s direction and feedback are during a sparring session. If an athlete feels hungry, tired, and exhibits unhealthy biochemical and hormonal responses to what we would consider unhealthy eating practices, his or her performance will be impacted, and so will his or her confidence.
As noted from one of our previous articles on the topic: “For example, throughout one of the training camps for Brad Pickett during his drop to 125, Brad sometimes appeared out of character or tired. Prior to each training, using a self-assessment scale of 1-10, Brad reported on average his mood falling between a rating of 4-6. Compare this with his typical self-rating of 7-8 during his return to 135, one might hypothesize that the weight cut negatively impacted him psychologically. It doesn’t take science to figure this one out…cutting weight, especially that much weight, put a tremendous amount of stress on Brad’s body and mind, on top of the already stressful endeavor of preparing for a fight. It is clearly a difficult task for a fighter who walks around at 155 prior to camp to put himself through the grueling task of training with other elite athletes on a very limited diet. In our opinion, just making that weight is a victory in and of itself and might be considered a measure of a fighter’s grit and determination” (Edmonds & Gavoni, 2015).
Weight Cutting and Drilling
A fighter must engage in what we term deliberate practice (think focused drilling on specifics) during training camp in order to achieve high levels of proficiency and ultimately become an expert and ultimately a champion. Tyrone Woodley and Damien Mai don’t just stumble to the top of their game simply because they are physically talented or because they work hard. They have engaged in 1000s of hours of deliberate practice. Daniel Cormier finds ways of engaging in deliberate practice in his preparation for championship fights by bringing in the best strikers, kickers and wrestlers from around the world. This is the difference between experts and non-experts- the extent of deliberate practice accrued over time. If excessive weight-cutting is part of training camp, then it’s likely that the fighter’s mind and body are affected, thus the quality and quantity of deliberate practice.
A critical element of deliberate practice is what we call the optimal zone of functioning. A good coach and fighter will find a fighter’s optimal zone (via the mind and the body) which equates to his or her best performance. And the key to maximizing deliberate practice is by creating conditions where the fighter can practice in his or her optimal states or optimal zone. For example, it’s important to gauge heart rate and heart rate recovery and mental states to find which states are related to optimal performance and then nurture these states in training.
Imagine doing anything when you are sick, highly anxious, or just in a bad mood. Then imagine doing it consistently. How might that impact your performance? How might that impact your perception of your ability if you are consistently coming up short? You might think “I don’t have the right stuff anymore!” Excessive weight cutting can have this effect as it typically interferes with bodily rhythms and mood states which often prohibits a fighter from training within his or her optimal zones.
Its critical to build successive high-quality performance successes inside training camp in order to build a fighter’s confidence leading up to the fight.
The fighter’s optimal zone, which is a function of deliberate practice, all ends in a fighter’s confidence—the most important predictor of performance quality. Its critical to build successive high-quality performance successes inside training camp in order to build a fighter’s confidence leading up to the fight. However, non-optimal stress related to excessive weight cutting during training camp will reduce the opportunities for the fighter to find his or her optimal zones and thus deliberate practice is negatively affected. As a result, confidence is lowered.
In the end, fighters and coaches must carefully consider the pros and cons to selecting the appropriate weight class. While being able to make the weight class is the obvious consideration, the impact on the fighter’s mind and body during camp must receive the greatest weight when in the decision making process.
Crighton, B., Close, G. L., & Morton, J. P. (2017). Alarming weight cutting behaviours in mixed martial arts: A cause for concern and call for action. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 446–7.
Coswig, V. S., Fukuda, D. S., Del Vecchio, F. B. (2015). Rapid weight loss elicits harmful biochemical and hormonal responses in mixed martial arts athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 25, 480-486.
Edmonds, W. A., & Gavoni, P. (2015). The psychology of weight dutting and its impact on training camp. Scifighting Magazine. http://www.scifighting.com/2015/09/28/40348/the-psychology-of-weightcutting-and-its-impact-on-training-camp/
Marttinen, R. H., Judelson, D. A., Wiersma, L. D., & Coburn, J. W. (2011). Effects of self-selected mass loss on performance and mood in collegiate wrestlers. Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 25(4), 1010-5.
Smith, M.S., Dyson, R., Hale, T., Harrison, J. H., & McManus, P. (2000). The effects in humans of rapid loss of body mass on a boxing-related task. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 83(1), 34-39.
An expert in leadership and human performance, Dr. Paul “Paulie Gloves” Gavoni is a highly successful professional striking coach in mixed martial arts. As an athletic leader and former golden gloves heavyweight champion of Florida, Coach Paulie successfully applies the science of human behavior to coach multiple fighters to championship titles at varying levels worldwide. With many successful fighters on his resume, Coach Paulie tailors his approach to fit the needs of specific fighters based on a fighters behavioral, physiological, and psychological characteristics. Coach Paulie iw is a featured coach in the book, Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts and the featured Bloody Elbow article Ring to Cage: How four former boxers help mold MMA’s finest. He can be reached at [email protected]
Alex Edmonds, PhD, BCB, is currently an associate professor of research at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida. He graduated from Florida State University and received his doctoral degree in Educational Psychology with a minor in Statistics and Measurement. Over the years, Dr. Edmonds has applied his knowledge of research design, measurement and assessment in both field and laboratory examinations. He has published extensively in a variety of areas such as research design, psychophysiology and sport psychology. Prior to graduate school, he was a strength and conditioning coach working with professional athletes in football, track, and boxing. He then combined his passion for the sports with the field of psychology making it the emphasis of his graduate work. While in graduate school, he conducted his field work with the track and field team at Florida State and started using biofeedback for research and practice during this time. He has utilized biofeedback extensively with various types of athletes for performance enhancement, as well as stress-regulation techniques. Dr. Edmonds is certified through the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance in general biofeedback.