Drs. Michael Gaetz and Jason Brandenburg, associate professors of kinesiology at UFV, and student researcher Jason Soolaman, have found weight cutting in mixed martial arts (MMA) athletes can lead to altered cognitive function, reduced upper body strength, and reduced cardiovascular functioning.

Weight cutting is a common practice in many combat sports with weight classes. It involves rapidly losing weight for the day of the official weigh in, in order to fit into a lower weight class. The rapid weight loss is done through the loss of water weight, leaving the athlete severely dehydrated.

As Gaetz explained, fighting in a lower weight class theoretically means that the heavier fighter will be stronger, and harder to handle.

“It’s done to get the advantage, but what we found is that you may not actually be getting any advantage at all,” Brandenburg said.

For MMA fighters in B.C., the official weigh in is 24 hours before the fight. The athlete then attempts to rapidly return to their pre-cut weight.

Gaetz, Brandenburg, and Soolaman tested the athletes 10-14 days before the fight, when they had not yet started the weight cut, and on the day of the official weigh in. Some of the athletes also agreed to be available to the researchers on the day of the fight.

On each of the three testing days, strength, dehydration, cognitive abilities, and cardiovascular function were assessed. On the day of weigh in, when the athletes were the most dehydrated, it was found that there was a dramatic decrease in upper body strength, and an alteration in heart rate. The dominant leg was also favoured in jump tests. In cognitive testing, athletes maintained pre-cut testing speed, but made more errors than before.

“It seems like there was a little bit of a slipping of control, in a way,” said Gaetz, in reference to the cognitive and jump test results. “I’m still not quite sure how to interpret it yet.”

At the day of weight in, the average weight loss in this study was found to be around five per cent of their body weight, with the highest loss being upwards of seven per cent. On the day of the fight, despite rehydrating, most athletes were found to only have regained about 90 to 95 per cent of their pre-cut strength and cognitive function.

“Is that ideal on the day that you’re competing, coming into the fight at less than 100 per cent?” questioned Gaetz. “You have to be paying attention to all sorts of cues in the ring, and if you’re making errors in that regard, you’re leaving yourself open to all sorts of problems.”

This study was commissioned by the B.C. Athletics Commission, who hoped to study the health consequences and, to a lesser degree, performance loss associated with weight cutting.  

The BCAC also commissioned a short documentary on the results of Gaetz and Brandenburg’s research, hoping to reach fighters, and inform them of the dangers of severe weight cutting, and the damage they could be doing to their bodies and internal organs.

They hope, as well, that the work they have done may result in rule changes for the B.C. MMA.

“There are health consequences, but it’s up to the government body now to make a smart decision,” said Gaetz. “We’ll see what happens.”

Soolaman has presented the research at the 2017 International Sports Science and Sports Medicine Conference in Newcastle, UK, as first author, where it was well received. He is working on getting the research published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Image: Alec Chu/Flickr