Keywords: Wrestling, weight loss, injury
In this blog post, we will explore our study that investigated the association between degree of rapid weight loss (weight cutting) and in-competition injury in Division I collegiate wrestlers . We used data that was collected over seven years at the University of Wisconsin for the analysis.
Why is this study important?
Weight cutting is a central feature of the sport of wrestling where athletes dehydrate themselves to make weight prior to competition. The goal of weight class sports is to make sure that athletes compete against other athletes of similar size. However, weight cutting is also perceived to be advantageous because it could allow athletes to compete against smaller and weaker opponents, assuming that they can recover quickly enough to be effective. In collegiate wrestling, athletes weigh in only 1-2 hours prior to competition, which doesn’t give them much time to recover and rehydrate .
How did the study go about this?
We used prospectively collected DXA scans (dual energy X-ray absorptiometry) from the preseason and midseason setting to assess body composition changes (fat, lean mass, body weight) in that interval. We then compared midseason weight to competition weight to estimate the degree of weight cutting our athletes undergo. In-competition injuries were recorded during those seasons and hazard ratios were calculated.
What did the study find?
The degree of weight cutting among our cohort of collegiate wrestlers was profound—on average, injured athletes cut 7% of their body weight and uninjured athletes cut 5.7% of their body weight. Dehydration of this degree has been associated with impaired cognitive function, lower power output, and lower muscle contraction velocity. In a sport as physical as wrestling, diminished function in these domains could lead to reduced ability to respond to an opponent’s actions and lead to injury. We found that for every kilogram of body weight lost, wrestlers had a 14% increased risk of injury during competition. We also assessed the relationship between win percentage and weight change and found no correlation between them.
What are the key take-home points?
Weight cutting is a feature of weight class sports like wrestling, but there may be opportunities to improve the health and safety of athletes. The NCAA has previously changed weight cutting rules after three Division 1 wrestlers died from complications of massive rapid weight loss. These rule changes have been effective at preventing death , but there is an opportunity to further reduce the risk of less catastrophic injury. In collegiate wrestling, athletes must undergo a weight certification process that determines the lowest weight class they may compete in based on their expected weight at a minimum of 7% body fat. One option could be to raise the minimum acceptable body fat percentage allowed. Another possibility is to further reduce the interval from weigh-ins to competition such that wrestlers step onto the mat to compete directly from the scale. This would not eliminate weight cutting, but it would further disincentivize athletes from massive rapid weight loss.
Efforts to transform the rules around weight cutting are likely to face stiff resistance from stakeholders within the wrestling community. Stories about weight cutting are a part of the lore of wrestling culture. As in most sports, discipline is a highly valued trait in wrestling. The ability to endure and excel despite weight cutting is a central feature of this paradigm. Indeed, when the NCAA transformed the weight cutting policies in 1998, prominent figures in the sport vocally opposed such changes even after catastrophic events within the sport . Regardless, the health and safety of athletes are paramount. Education alone will not result in safer degrees or methods for weight loss unless the playing field is level. Reasonable policy changes to limit weight cutting should be considered by the organizations responsible for such legislation, as has been done to improve safety in other sports.
Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, Madison, WI, USA
University of Wisconsin-Madison, Badger Athletic Performance, Madison, WI, USA
University of Wisconsin-Madison, Biostatistics and Medical Informatics, Madison, WI, USA
1 Hammer E, Sanfilippo JL, Johnson G, et al. Association of in-competition injury risk and the degree of rapid weight cutting prior to competition in division I collegiate wrestlers. Br J Sports Med 2022;:bjsports-2022-105760. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2022-105760
2 Houston ME, Sharratt MT, Bruce RW. Glycogen depletion and lactate responses in freestyle wrestling. Can J Appl Sport Sci 1983;8:79–82.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6883617
3 Oppliger RA, Landry GL, Foster SW, et al. Wisconsin minimum weight program reduces weight-cutting practices of high school wrestlers. Clin. J. Sport Med. 1998;8:26–31. doi:10.1097/00042752-199801000-00007
4 Media not telling rest of story, Smith says. The O’Colly. 1998.