How To Lose 20-30 Pounds In 5 Days: The Extreme Weight Cutting and Rehydration Secrets of UFC Fighters

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Nate Green workout and nutrition tests

The following is a guest post by Nate Green, who works with Dr. John Berardi, nutritional advisor to athletes like UFC champion Georges St. Pierre (GSP).

This is the first of two blog posts entailing extreme physical experiments. Absolutely no performance enhancing drugs of any kind were used.

Part 1 — this post — details exactly how top fighters like Georges St. Pierre rapidly lose 20-30 pounds for “weigh-ins.” To refine the method, Nate performed this on himself, losing 20 pounds in 5 days. The unique part: Dr. Berardi and team measured key variables throughout the entire process, including the last “rehydration” phase. As Berardi put it:

“We used GSP’s exact protocol with him [Nate]. The idea was that by doing this with a guy who didn’t actually have to compete the next day, we could measure all sorts of performance variables that you’d never get with an athlete about to fight.”

Part 2 — the next post — will share how Nate used intermittent fasting and strategically planned eating to gain 20 pounds in 28 days, emulating a fighter who wants (or needs) to move up a weight class in competition.

Cautionary Note on Part 1

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters put it all out in the open for the world to see: they kick, punch, laugh, cry, and bleed in front of thousands of arena fans and millions more watching at home.

But even if you’re a hardcore fan who knows all the stats, there’s something behind the scenes that you’ve probably never seen in full: world-class weight manipulation

Done right, it can significantly increase a fighter’s chances of winning. An athlete will artificially lower his weight for pre-fight weigh-ins, then show up to the actual fight 10, 20, or even 30 pounds heavier than his opponent. It’s a game changer.

Done wrong, it can make even the toughest guy lose his edge… and probably the fight. There’s serious risk of organ failure if done haphazardly.

Even though boxers and wrestlers have been manipulating weight in this fashion for decades, it has the air of illicit activity. And though it’s legal in MMA competition, you should *never* try this at home or without medical supervision. Excessive dehydration can kill you. “Cutting weight” has no place in real-world dieting or behavior.

This is NOT an article on sustainable weight loss or healthy living. Rather, it’s a fascinating look at how far athletes and scientists will go to manipulate the human body for competitive advantage.

Here’s how it works…

Enter Nate

Imagine this: It’s Saturday night and you’re a top-ranked MMA fighter who just stepped into the cage to fight for the 170-pound Welterweight Championship.

Question: How much do you weigh?

The answer may seem obvious: 170 pounds, right? But if you followed the steps of extreme weight manipulation, the real answer is that you weigh somewhere between 185 and 190 pounds. That’s 15-20 pounds more than the “cutoff” weight of 170.

24 hours before you stepped into the cage, however, you did in fact weigh 170 pounds. You had to. Friday night was the official weigh-in where you and your opponent both stripped down to your skivvies, stepped on the scale in front of the judge, and prayed that the number on the scale hit 170 or lower.

But once you stepped off that scale it was a race to gain weight.

I find this kind of physiological puppetry very interesting. Most of us regular guys have a hard time gaining or losing just 5 pounds at a time.

But the top combat athletes can lose up to 30 pounds in just 5 days leading up to the fight. Then they can gain nearly all of it back in the 24 hours between weighing in and going toe-to-toe.

They do this to gain a massive competitive advantage. In other words, the bigger guy who retains more of his strength, agility, and endurance will likely win. The guy who weighs in at 170 — and then fights at 170 — often has a world of hurt coming his way.

That’s why Anderson Silva – arguably the world’s best MMA fighter — normally fights in the 185-pound class even though he actually weighs 215 pounds. A few days before he fights, Anderson “cuts” 30 pounds to make weight…then gains most of his weight back in 24 hours in time for his fight.

Georges St Pierre — arguably the world’s 2nd best fighter – normally walks around at 195 pounds. He ends up cutting 25 pounds to make his 170 pound weight class, and then gains 20 of it back before his fight.

Sneaky, huh?

Just how do these guys do it? And what does this rapid weight loss and weight gain do to their performance?

My Extreme Weight Manipulation Experiment

I’m lucky enough to be friends with Dr. John Berardi and Martin Rooney, two guys who regularly work with UFC athletes.

Recently, I told them I wanted to see what cutting weight was like. Is it really possible for a regular guy like me to drop 20 pounds in a few days then gain all of it back in 24 hours?

And if it was possible, what would it feel like? I heard cutting weight was one of the hardest things fighters do throughout their career. Was I man enough to handle it? Or would I give up when things got tough?

They agreed to help me cut 20 pounds in one week, and then put it all back on again in 24 hours.

Nervous doesn’t even begin to explain how I felt.

The Smart Way To Cut Weight Fast

Nate Green before cutting
Before pics. Full of water and feeling happy.

Now extreme weight manipulation can go horribly, horribly wrong. Even a lot of UFC guys don’t know how to do it the smart way. Instead, they put their bodies in real harm by doing stupid things like taking a lot of diuretics, not drinking any water, skipping meals, wearing trash bags while exercising (sometimes in the sauna) and generally being idiotic.

They lose weight, of course. But they also lose energy and power and develop one bad temper. None of which helps during fight time.

With the help of Dr. Berardi and Rooney, I decided to take a smarter route, instead of putting my health in serious jeopardy.

I started at 190.2 pounds and had 5 days to lose 20 pounds.

Here’s a breakdown of the nutritional strategies we used — the same one Georges St Pierre and other elite MMA fighters use before a big fight. (Remember: we know this because Dr. Berardi is Georges’ nutrition coach).

STRATEGICALLY DECREASE WATER CONSUMPTION

Dropping weight fast is all about manipulating your water and sodium levels.

For a fighter who wants to cut weight quickly and safely, here’s how much water he would consume in the 5 days leading up to his weigh-in:

Sunday – 2 gallons
Monday – 1 gallon
Tuesday – 1 gallon
Wednesday – .5 gallons
Thursday – .25 gallons
Friday – No water till after weigh-in at 5PM.

As you can see, the amount of water starts high with two gallons and decreases with each day till he’s drinking hardly any water on Thursday and Friday.

This is to ensure their body gets into “flushing mode.”

By drinking lots of water early on, the fighter’s body will down-regulate aldosterone, a hormone that acts to conserve sodium and secrete potassium.

And when he suddenly reduces the amount of water he drinks in the middle and end of the week, his body will still be in flushing mode, meaning he’ll hit the bathroom to pee a lot even though he’s hardly drinking any water.

What happens when you excrete more fluid than you take in? Bingo! Rapid weight loss.

DON’T EAT MORE THAN 50 GRAMS OF CARBS PER DAY

Since one gram of carbohydrate pulls 2.7 grams of water into the body, it’s important for fighters to keep their carb intake low.

By doing this, they also deplete muscle glycogen (a source of energy) and keep their body in “flush mode”.

DON’T EAT FRUIT, SUGAR, OR STARCHES

These are carbs that should be avoided entirely while cutting.

EAT MEALS THAT CONTAIN A LOT OF PROTEIN AND FAT

Fighters have to eat something. Since they’re avoiding carbs, Dr. Berardi advises them to load up on high-quality protein like meats, eggs or a vegetarian sources of protein. It’s also the perfect opportunity to eat lots of leafy vegetables (like spinach) and cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli and cauliflower).

Georges St Pierre normally has his meals prepared by a private chef so he doesn’t even have to think about this stuff or make decisions. Recommended reading: here’s an entire article detailing GSP’s training diet.

DON’T EAT SALT

Since the body likes to hold on to sodium (which will hold on to water), dropping salt helps the fighter’s body flush water out.

CONSIDER A NATURAL DIURETIC

This step isn’t always necessary, but it can help when you’re getting down to the wire and still need to lose water. Opt for a natural diuretic like dandelion root, but wait until the last 2 days to use it.

TAKE HOT BATHS

We sweat a lot in hot environments. However, we sweat the most in hot, humid environments. Since hot water offers both heat and 100% humidity, fighters lose water quickly by taking hot baths and fully submerging everything but their nose for 10 minutes at a time.

SIT IN THE SAUNA

This is the “finishing touch” to flush the last few pounds of water and is only used on the last few days leading up to the weigh-in.

The Weight Cut Schedule

So if we take all of that and break it into a weekly plan, it looks like this:

SUNDAY

Carbs: Less than 50 grams per day. No fruit, starches, or sugars.
Protein and Fat: As much as you want in 3 meals
Water: 2 gallons
Salt: None

MONDAY

Carbs: Less than 50 grams per day. No fruit, starches, or sugars.
Protein and Fat: As much as you want in 3 meals
Water: 1 gallon
Salt: None

TUESDAY

Carbs: Less than 50 grams per day. No fruit, starches, or sugars.
Protein and Fat: As much as you want in 3 meals
Water: 1 gallon
Salt: None

WEDNESDAY

Carbs: Less than 50 grams per day. No fruit, starches, or sugars.
Protein and Fat: As much as you want in 3 meals
Water: 0.5 gallon
Salt: None
Sauna in afternoon

THURSDAY

Carbs: Less than 50 grams per day. No fruit, starches, or sugars.
Protein and Fat: As much as you want in 3 meals
Water: 0.25 gallon
Salt: None
Sauna in afternoon for 30 minutes, hot water bath at night

FRIDAY (WEIGH IN AT 6PM)

Carbs: Less than 50 grams per day. No fruit, starches, or sugars.
Protein and Fat: Eat 2 very small meals until weigh in
Water: None till weigh-in
Salt: None
Sauna until weight is met

(Note from Tim: You can download the entire weight-manipulation plan that Nate used here: Weight Loss and Rehydration Protocol.)

What It Feels Like To Cut Weight

Nate Green after cutting weight
Dry as a bone and none to happy about it.

So that all looks fine on paper. But what does it actually feel like to go through it?

One word: Hell.

I started my cut on Sunday at 190 pounds. Here’s a quick rundown of what it looked like.

SUNDAY – 190 POUNDS

I carry a gallon water jug with me wherever I go, which makes me feel ridiculous. But I have to make sure I get my two gallons of water in. Overall, though, I feel fine. It actually doesn’t seem that difficult. I’m not sure what the big deal is.

MONDAY – 187 POUNDS

I’m starting to miss the taste of salt. All of my food is bland. Now I’m drinking one gallon of water instead of two. Still not that bad.

TUESDAY – 182 POUNDS

I go to the bathroom 13 times in one day. A new record, I believe. And I’m still drinking a gallon of water.

WEDNESDAY – 179 POUNDS

Now I’m down to half gallon of water per day, which means I have to ration it out, which feels weird. I have a little with breakfast, a little with lunch, and a little with dinner. It’s definitely not enough water.

My mouth is dry. I feel dehydrated. I’m drinking straight espresso instead of drip coffee because it contains too much water.

In the evening, I try my first hot water bath. I generally enjoy baths, but this one’s different. My apartment’s water doesn’t get as hot as Dr. Berardi wants it to be — “hot enough to cause moderate pain but not burn your hand” — so I fill two pots and a kettle with water, put them on the stovetop until they boil, and pour them into the bath tub.

I get into the bath and immediately regret the decision.

10 minutes later, I’m lying naked in the middle of my living room trying to catch my breath. My eyes are rolled back into my head. My entire body feels like a giant heartbeat. I want to drink some water, but can’t.

This is starting to be less fun.

THURSDAY – 175 POUNDS

I am a zombie. A zombie who sits. Mostly in the sauna or on the couch.

In the sauna I watch beads of sweat collect on my skin. I see my precious water run down my arms and chest and legs and know that I won’t be able to replenish any of it when I get out.

I only have .25 gallons of water to last me the entire day. I’m ready for this to be over.

FRIDAY – 169.7 POUNDS AT 5PM

I look sick, very sick.

I spend the last 30 minutes before the weigh-in in the sauna and drink four sips of water throughout the entire day…

What Cutting Weight Does To Performance

OK, I’ll save you the rest of the journal entries and share some performance data.

While the fighters are tested in competition, no one has ever really documented how much strength or power they lose by dehydrating. (Or how much strength and power they regain after they get all their weight back.)

So we decided to check.

And it turns out, losing 20 pounds in 5 days is not conducive to being strong, powerful, or agile. (Surprise!) I couldn’t jump as high, lift as much weight, or run as fast or as long as I had just a week before during our baseline testing.

POWER TEST: VERTICAL JUMP

Baseline: 31.7 inches
After Dehydration: 27.6 inches

STRENGTH ENDURANCE TEST: 225-POUND BENCH PRESS

Baseline: 15 reps
After Dehydration: 5 reps

ENDURANCE TEST: MAX TIME ON TREADMILL

Baseline: 3 minutes and 14 seconds of sprinting at 8mph with 6% incline
After Dehydration: 1 minute and 28 seconds of sprinting at 8mph with 3% incline

It’s no wonder these guys try to gain all their weight back immediately after weighing in. They’d be screwed if they didn’t.

Speaking of which…

The Smart Way To Gain Weight Fast

Once UFC athletes cut weight and weigh-in, they’d never be able to perform at a top level. (Which is obvious from my less-than-stellar performance in the gym).

So what do they do next? They gain as much weight as humanly possible in 24 hours.

Here’s how they do it. (And how I did it, too.)

DRAMATICALLY INCREASE WATER INTAKE.

According to Dr. Berardi, the body can absorb only about 1 liter (2.2 pounds) of fluid – at maximum – in an hour. So he advises the fighters he works with to not to drink any more than that. Instead, he tells them to sip 1 liter (2.2 pounds) of water per hour.

However, the fighters won’t retain all that fluid. In fact, probably about 25% of it will be lost as urine.

So, here’s the math for someone like Georges St Pierre:

  • 9 liters (20 pounds) of water to get back.
  • 11 liters (25 pounds) of fluid between Friday weigh-in and Saturday weigh-in to get it all back.
  • 24 hours in which to do it. 8 of which he’ll be sleeping and 3 of which will be leading up to Saturday weigh-in.

This leaves 13 total hours for rehydration.

So as soon as Georges steps off the scale, he literally slams a liter of water and carries the bottle around with him, refilling it and draining it every hour until 3 hours before his fight. (There isn’t a bathroom in the cage.)

EAT AS MUCH CARBOHYDRATE (AND PROTEIN AND FAT) AS YOU WANT

Now’s also the time for fighters to load up on carbs and pull all the water they’re drinking back into their muscles. It also helps them feel more human and look less sickly. (Something I definitely experienced during my super-hydration phase.)

Dr. Berardi has his fighters eat a big meal directly after they weigh in. He doesn’t restrict calories – his athletes can eat as much as they want in that meal as long as it’s healthy food like lean meats, sweet potatoes, rice, and vegetables. (Gorging on junk food is a bad idea.)

Then on Saturday (fight day), Dr. Berardi has his fighters eat a satisfying amount of healthy food in a few small meals leading up to the fight.

ADD SALT TO EVERYTHING

Since sodium helps the body retain water, fighters are encouraged to add extra salt to their meals.

Here’s what my super rehydration schedule looked like:

The Weight-Gain Schedule

FRIDAY AFTER WEIGH-IN

Carbs: Eat as much as you want in one meal after weigh-in and testing
Protein and Fat: Eat as much as you want in one meal after weigh-in and testing
Rehydration Beverage: Drink 1 liter of water mixed with 1/2 scoop of carbohydrate/protein drink for every hour you’re awake. (We used Surge Workout Fuel.)
Salt: Salt food

SATURDAY

Carbs: Eat satisfying amount in four meals before weigh-in
Protein: Eat satisfying amount in four meals before weigh-in
Rehydration Beverage: Drink 1 liter of water mixed with 1/2 scoop of carbohydrate/protein drink for every hour you’re awake but stop 3 hours before testing.

What Gaining Weight Does To Performance

Nate Green after rehydration
Back to normal-ish.

First things first: Personally, I ended up gaining 16.9 pounds back in 24 hours. Not bad.

But the real question: How much strength and power do you really gain when you super-hydrate?

Answer: A lot.

While I didn’t perform as well as my baseline (when I did all the performance tests before I started the experiment), I got really close. Which means that even though I put my body through a week of torture, it was almost 100%.

And I totally annihilated my performance numbers from just 24 hours before when I was sickly and dehydrated.

I ran faster and longer, jumped higher, and lifted more weight for more reps.

POWER TEST: VERTICAL JUMP

Baseline: 31.7 inches
After Dehydration: 27.6 inches
Re-hydrated: 29 inches

STRENGTH ENDURANCE TEST: 225-POUND BENCH PRESS

Baseline: 15 reps
After Dehydration: 5 reps
Rehydrated: 12 reps

ENDURANCE TEXT: MAX TIME ON TREADMILL

Baseline: 3 minutes and 14 seconds of sprinting at 8mph with 6% incline
After Dehydration: 1 minute and 28 seconds of sprinting at 8mph with 3% incline
Rehydrated: 3 minutes and 25 seconds of sprinting at 8mph with 6% incline

Lose Weight. Gain Weight. Fight.

For an MMA fighter, this is about the time when he’d be getting ready to step in the cage and fight, which means it’s about the same time you’d turn on the TV and see him in his corner, jumping up and down, getting psyched and ready for battle.

How much does he weigh?

It’s safe to say at least 10-30 pounds more than the weight class he’s fighting in.

And now you know the “secret” to extreme weight manipulation, something 99.9% of guys who watch MMA will never know.

Pretty cool, right?

If you have questions, please put them in the comments and Dr. Berardi and I will do our best to answer them.

###

Nate’s not done yet. Next we’ll have Part 2 – How To Gain 20 Pounds in 28 Days: The Extreme Muscle Building Secrets of UFC Fighters.

For more about Nate and his work on building muscle and gaining strength, check out Scrawny To Brawny.

Posted on: May 6, 2013.

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386 comments on “How To Lose 20-30 Pounds In 5 Days: The Extreme Weight Cutting and Rehydration Secrets of UFC Fighters

  1. My question is regarding sodium. So many foods have sodium built in. Even an egg, a staple breakfast for many who cut weight, has 60 mg. Egg substitutes have even more. Chicken, fish, beef — they all have some sodium, too. So what number of milligrams of total sodium is a good goal? Or am I okay as long as I’m not adding salt and I’m eating all low-sodium foods? My plan is a few eggs for breakfast with mushrooms and peppers, then boiled chicken and asparagus for lunch, then boiled fish and broccoli for dinner.

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