Blog Post

Weight Cuts for Powerlifting – Everything You Need to Know

Powerlifter setting up to deadlift

Acute weight cutting (sometimes referred to as a water cut) is an area of powerlifting that I see not being done well frequently. Honestly, I see it as a bit of a gap in the sport where people are missing out on a massive potential advantage.

In a lot of combat sports where making weight is a requirement as well, it is at the point where almost everybody undertakes a significant weight cut. If an athlete chooses not to do one, it puts them at a noticeable disadvantage due to the difference in size and muscle mass.

Even though weight cuts can provide an advantage, they haven’t become as much of a part of the culture of powerlifting, which is why I see it as a bit of a gap.  

At one end of the spectrum, there are quite a lot of people, even at the elite level who don’t do weight cuts at all. They just aim to weigh near the top end of their weight class in the weeks leading up to the weigh-in. This is leaving a massive competitive edge on the table.

There is an obvious advantage to weighing 5-10% more than your competitors if you are still able to make weight and then rehydrate and replenish yourself in time for the competition so that you have no loss of performance.

The other aspect I see is people attempting a weight cut but implementing it poorly in a way that hinders their performance.

One common mistake is attempting to cut too much weight since even if you do it as effectively as possible, there is only so much you can cut while being able to recover in time to compete without loss of performance.

Another mistake I see is people only using one main mechanism, rather than the full range of tools available.

Even the fact that a lot of people call it a “water cut” instead of a weight cut highlights this. If you are solely manipulating water and ignoring the other variables, you will not be able to get the best possible outcome.

Ideally, you want the loss of weight to come from a combination of dehydration, glycogen depletion and decreased food residue in the gut. If you implement an appropriate strategy to maximise losses from each category in the most efficient manner, you can cut more weight before it affects your performance, compared to if you overly focus on just one of those aspects.

This post is solely going to focus on making weight within the last week of the competition. It won’t cover how to drop body fat or just weight loss in general since that is a separate topic. These strategies are solely for attempting to create a short-term competitive advantage.

How Much Can You Cut?

Firstly, I want to start by saying WHO should do a weight cut. If you are new to powerlifting or are not looking to place in a high-level competition or break a record, I highly recommend you do not undertake a weight cut.

Under those circumstances, I think that your goal should be to make the comp go as smoothly and as enjoyably as possible. Part of that process should be eating up until comp day in a fashion that will best fuel your performance so you feel as strong as possible on the day.

If you ARE trying to break a record or place highly at a comp though, a weight cut might be a necessary part of the process.

It is an effective strategy when implemented well and in many cases you can lose at least 5% of your body weight within the final week before weigh-in without any loss of performance.

One study showed 5% weight-loss over 5 days resulted in no loss in performance with only a 4hr weigh-in. Another showed 5% weight loss over just 3 days resulted in similar outcomes with a 12hr weigh-in.

In powerlifting, there are a range of different weigh-in periods. Some are as long as 24 hours, while others are as short as 2 hours.

For this article, I am largely focused on the 24 hour weigh-ins. For shorter weigh-ins, I would scale these strategies down accordingly. I would also put more emphasis on the fibre and food volume side of things and less on the water, sodium and carbohydrate restriction strategies which will be mentioned later in this article. This is simply because there is less time for recovery before competition.

The maximum weight cut I would recommend for somebody one week out from the competition is ~8% of their body weight. The main exception I’d have for this is if somebody had previously done a cut around that level and had a good experience. If you have done that, then I can see an argument for experimenting with slightly more.

Some people are freaks and can get away >10%, but that isn’t the norm. My recommendation would be to start conservatively the first time you try it and then be a little more aggressive if that goes well.

Weight cutting graph

Hormone Manipulation

Two of the main hormones involved in regulating water balance are aldosterone and anti-diuretic hormone (ADH).

Aldosterone is released in response to decreased sodium. When you drink more water, it lowers the concentration of sodium. In response to this, aldosterone will be released to address low sodium concentrations.

While aldosterone indirectly regulates water resorption through regulating sodium, ADH directly regulates water resorption.

When you consume a lot of water, you down-regulate aldosterone and ADH, which causes you to urinate more. But there is a lag effect when you stop consuming that much water before aldosterone and ADH are up-regulated again. This lag effect allows you to drop water more quickly than you otherwise could.

To put it simply, this means if you consistently have a high intake of water, your high output of water will continue for a little while even after you stop taking in that high intake.

This mechanism can build a case for water loading. Personally, it is not common for me to use water loading with athletes, because:

  1. It comes with some risk.
  2. It adds another variable. Some people will lose the added water more easily than others.
  3. It doesn’t improve the ability to lose excess water that much.

If somebody wanted to see what water loading would look like if they wanted to do it, it would look like this:

Monday = water intake (in litres) = body weight (in KGs) x 10%

Tuesday = water intake (in litres) = body weight (in KGs) x 10%

Wednesday= water intake (in litres) = body weight (in KGs) x 10%

Thursday = water intake (in litres) = body weight (in KGs) x 10% (although there is an argument for reducing water up to 36 hours away from weigh-in)

Friday = water intake (in litres) = body weight (in KGs) x 1%

Saturday (weigh-in day) = nothing until weigh-in unless comfortably under the desired weight

There is a similar situation with sodium. If you have a high intake of sodium for most of the week leading up to weigh-in but cut it down within the last 2-3 days before weigh-in you can take advantage of that lag effect as well. This will allow you to drop water weight much more effectively than you otherwise would have been able to. While I do not often do the water-loading approach, I typically do manipulate sodium a bit.

Glycogen

Glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrates. It is stored in our liver and skeletal muscle. Glycogen itself has weight, but on top of that we typically also hold onto roughly 3g of water weight per gram of glycogen. To put context around that, on average a 75kg athlete can store slightly more than 100g glycogen in the liver and 400g in the muscles.

It appears as though restricting to <50g carbs per day over the week can allow a 1-2% additional drop in weight on average (depending on baseline intake).  This is important since applying this strategy in addition to the dehydration allows you to drop more weight, without having to dehydrate as severely.

The week of weigh-in should not contain high-carb foods as a general rule. It could even be appropriate to stay <30g carbs per day if you have a big cut. This shouldn’t impact training since training is normally tapered down at this stage and the decrease in performance during any sessions won’t matter. The goal is just to be ready to go on comp day.

Food Residue and Volume

Another area where a bit of weight can be lost is through literal food weight in the gut. Eating low-fibre/low-residue meals in the last 2 days of a weight cut can result in the maximal amount of weight lost through the elimination of food and residual fibre in the gut.

Within the last 24-48 hours prior to weigh-in, it makes sense to reduce food volume substantially too. For example, if somebody reduced their food volume by half, the amount of food weight in their digestive tract would be reduced too (unless it happened to be excreted prior to weigh-in). In many cases food volume can be reduced without reducing calorie intake, simply by choosing higher calorie options.

Doing a weight cut is completely different from focusing on health. Vegetables are good for our health for example. But during a weight cut, they are high fibre and low calorie, which means they will often be limited the 2 days prior to the weigh-in.

Other Strategies

In the past, I viewed sweating as a last resort if the above strategies haven’t gotten you the results needed. But an argument can be made for using it proactively.

If in one scenario you had to lose say 1-2kg through fluid loss, you could go about it two ways. One version of you could simply go a more prolonged time without consuming much fluid and then wait until they have lost that much. The other could speed up the process by spending some time in a hot bath or sauna. The latter version would end up spending less total time dehydrated, which is arguably a good thing.

Passive sweating (e.g. sauna) is better than active sweating since it will fatigue you less. This is particularly relevant because in powerlifting you have a planned peak and taper. Ideally you would prefer to not have to be doing added exercise exclusively to lose water weight.

Dry saunas work better than wet saunas due to promoting around 2x the rate of water loss through sweat. They are also slightly safer since they increase body temperature and heart rate less than a wet sauna. Make sure to seek appropriate guidance and utilise a safe protocol for this as well if you were to attempt to utilise it as an option.

One massive piece of advice is that you only want to use a temperate warm enough to significantly increase your sweat rate, but not hotter than that. If using a hot bath, the recommended temperature is ~40 degrees celsius. It is often tempting to go warmer for athletes, but there are clear downsides to unnecessarily exposing yourself to more heat stress, particularly since it will not increase sweat rate much more.

Laxatives and diuretics are technically also an option (although if you are in a federation that bans substances, make sure you know what you can/can’t do) but not preferred and they aren’t tools I recommend. Often they significantly increase the chances of things going wrong in a way that can harm your performance. Sure, they can potentially be implemented well, but in my opinion, the risk-to-reward ratio isn’t good enough.

Piecing It All Together

The table below effectively summarises how this could potentially be put together in practice. Note that this protocol is designed for larger weight cuts. If you are shooting for a smaller percentage of weight loss, then you would scale back these recommendations.

Day Food Water
Sunday
– Low carb (<30g)
– Normal, healthy fibre intake
– Relatively high sodium intake
Normal

Monday
– Low carb (<30g)
– Normal, healthy fibre intake
– Relatively high sodium intake
Normal
Tuesday
– Low carb (<30g)
– Normal, healthy fibre intake
– Relatively high sodium intake
Normal
Wednesday
– Low carb (<30g)
– Normal, healthy fibre intake
– Relatively high sodium intake
Normal

Thursday
– Low carb (<30g)
– Low fibre intake
– Very low sodium intake
Normal
(although for a bigger cut, start reducing from ~36 hours out)

Friday
– Low carb (<30g)
– Low fibre intake
– Very low sodium intake
Body weight (in kg) x 1%
Saturday
(weigh-in)
– No food/drink before weigh-in
Zero before weigh-in

Rehydration and Replenishment

The other piece of the puzzle people make mistakes with is their rehydration strategy. Most people will just down a large amount of fluid, electrolytes and food without any real plan. This is better than nothing of course, but it is sub-optimal. If you dial in your rehydration and replenishment appropriately, you will be able to cut more weight while still being able to recover in time to perform at your peak.

The specific strategy I recommend involves having multiple servings of the following on hand: 250ml protein shake (30g whey protein or equivalent) + 3g creatine, 500ml Gatorade/Powerade, 250ml Hydralyte.

Healthy kidneys can excrete almost 1L of fluid per hour on average. The focus isn’t on the amount you drink, it’s about the amount that makes it into your cells.

Based on this, combined with a few other factors, it is ideal to consume the combination of those fluids just mentioned around once per hour for the first 1-3 hours post-weigh-in, or longer if needed. Don’t chug this liquid down all at once. Sip it instead. This will allow you to absorb more and reduce the need for urination.

Creatine can help us hold onto water. It is a small factor here, and tou won’t be able to saturate your cells in this short timeframe, but it can still help.

Protein is included in the shake for multiple reasons. One minor factor is that it will re-elevate muscle protein synthesis, but at this stage that won’t make a big difference. Another more important factor is that it can allow you to replenish glycogen quicker than carbs alone could.

Your body can store roughly 10g of glycogen per kg of LBM. Therefore, your carb intake goal over the 24hr period is roughly around that mark.I know it’s not that simple, but it is still a good guide. For an 80kg athlete at 10% body fat, this will be roughly 720g carbs as the target over the 24 hours.

This is assuming you are trying to maximise glycogen stores. Powerlifting doesn’t require you to maximise your stores. But you definitely want to avoid having low glycogen while competing.

The highest glycogen synthesis rates have been reported at 1-1.85g/kg/hr when consumed post-exercise at 15-60 min intervals.

Since carbs have been low for a while during the weight cut in addition to you not being primed for glycogen synthesis due to exercise, rates likely will be at the lower end of the spectrum.

Ideally you want to consume 50+g carbs every 2 hours during the first part of the process. After that, ideally, you divide the rest of your target carb intake over several meals.

If relevant it makes sense to obviously allow time for sleep since that is also a top priority. Don’t sacrifice sleep just to get a little more food in.

Ideally, you start with the liquids that I mentioned previously and then you switch over to solids. It’s a good idea to avoid the “eat everything in sight” strategy because:

  • It’s important to stick to foods you are used to so you can limit GI upset.
  • You want to keep fat relatively low. Below 0.8g/kg is ideal since otherwise, it will be difficult to meet carb needs.
  • You want to focus on avoiding a dramatic increase in fibre intake.

A Caveat Regarding Constipation

I update this blog post every time I think of a way that this protocol can be improved. And surprisingly, very few people seem to have issues with constipation while following this protocol. But I think this section could be useful for some people.

The way I would implement it in practice is to the protocol once through and see how you respond (ideally in the leadup to a comp of lesser importance). And only if you had issues with constipation leading up to weigh-in would I look at addressing it.

If there were no issues, I would not make any changes. There is no point in trying to fix a problem that probably does not exist.

But if you DID have issues, I would consider the following:

  1. You could do the low-fibre diet for only 1 day rather than 3. Or you could simply skip it. Just accepting that it’ll mean relying on glycogen/water losses.
  2. Some people have this occur if they take out caffeine leading up to the weigh-in. For a number of people, coffee stimulates a bowel movement. However, some athletes pull out caffeine on competition week to resensitize to it. However it is debatable whether helps, so I’d advise keeping your usual caffeine consumption. This might mean using less fluid in your caffeine sources if relevant.
  3. Finally, being dehydrated can lead to constipation. So in some cases, it may not be 100% avoidable. Having a mild (non-prescription) laxative about 3 days away from weigh-in, followed by either liquid or low-residue meals, would hopefully offset how much constipation could occur in those next few days. A common example is Osmolax.

Final Thoughts

While this is not individual advice, I have tried to make this post as insightful as I can about some of the strategies I consider under certain circumstances.

I believe part of the reason why weight cuts haven’t become a more common practice yet is that people are cautious of them due to hearing about times they have gone wrong and it has either led to poor performance (at best) or been a medical risk.

If executed safely and effectively though, they can be a tool that can give you a competitive edge that takes your powerlifting to the next level.

Disclaimer: The contents of this post are intended for informational purposes only and are not intended as individual advice. Making weight through food restriction, fluid restriction and other methods involves risk. I recommend enlisting the services of a dietitian or other healthcare specialist if you wish to undertake a weight cut.

By Aidan Muir

Aidan is a Brisbane based dietitian who prides himself on staying up-to-date with evidence-based approaches to dietetic intervention. He has long been interested in all things nutrition, particularly the effects of different dietary approaches on body composition and sports performance. Due to this passion, he has built up an extensive knowledge base and experience in multiple areas of nutrition and is able to help clients with a variety of conditions. One of Aidan’s main strengths is his ability to adapt plans based on the client's desires. By having such a thorough understanding of optimal nutrition for different situations he is able to develop detailed meal plans and guidance for clients that can contribute to improving the clients overall quality of life and performance. He offers services both in-person and online.