Weight 'Cutting' Waning Among College Wrestlers

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
September/October 2003 Volume 14, Number 5
©2003 Gürze Books

Five years ago, after three collegiate wrestlers died while trying to "cut," or lose, weight, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) developed new rules designed to curb extreme weight loss efforts among college wrestlers. The new rules added 6 lb to every weight class, moved weigh-ins closer to the start of each competition, and established a minimum wrestling weight based on body fat composition at the beginning of the season. In addition, each wrestler had 3 months to meet his competitive weight.

The NCAA's weight-control rules seem to have had a slight but positive effect upon extreme weight measures among collegiate wrestlers, according to the results of a recent survey (Int J Sport Exerc Metab 2003; 13:29). Drs. Robert A. Opplinger, Suzanne A. Nelson-Steen and James R. Scott of Iowa City, IA, conducted a survey among 47 Division I, II, and III schools to determine if the rules had made an impact upon harmful weight-cutting methods. The results were based on the extent of weight loss, information on weight-cutting methods, and assessment of eating behaviors elated to standard criteria for bulimia nervosa.

Results: Some Improvement Seen

From the 741 survey responses they received, the authors determined that the most weight lost during the season was 5.3 kg, or 6.9%, of body weight. Weekly weight losses averaged 4.3% of body weight. The most common methods used for taking off pounds included gradual loss through dieting (27.6%), and increased levels of exercise (75.2%). Unfortunately, the authors found that some of the old extreme weight loss methods were still being used by wrestlers: 55% fasted, 28% used saunas to steam weight off, and 28% used rubber/plastic suits to sweat off pounds. Five of the 741 wrestlers who responded met the criteria for bulimia nervosa.

Coaches and fellow wrestlers were credited with changing harmful weight-loss practices, and 40% of the wrestlers said they were influenced by the NCAA rules. Compared with high school students, the collegiate wrestlers still showed more extreme weight control behaviors, but less extreme measures than were common among collegiate wrestlers during the 1980s.

Why do wrestlers use extreme methods to lose weight?

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, athletes often believe that losing weight will improve their chances of winning. Ironically, weight-cutting may impair their performance and endanger their health. The combination of food restriction and fluid deprivation creates an adverse physiologic effect on the body, often leaving the wrestler too weak to compete. Wrestlers also may justify their choice of weight class with the belief that they need to lose excess body fat. However, studies show that in the off-season, high school wrestlers have body fat levels in the 8% to 11% range, well below that of their peers, who average 15% body fat. In the wrestling season, wrestlers typically have body fat levels of 6% to 7%.

Dehydration caused by sweating in a sauna or rubber suit, use of laxatives, and forced vomiting contribute to loss of electrolytes as well as water. Wrestlers hope to replenish body fluids, electrolytes and glycogen in the brief time between weigh-ins and the competition. However, replenishing body fluids may take 24 to 48 hours, muscle glycogen replenishment may take 72 hours, and replacing lean tissue may take even longer. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that male athletes 16 years and younger with body fat below 7% and those over 16 with a body fat lower than 5% get medical clearance before they are allowed to compete.

The NCAA and the American College of Sports Medicine both urge greater cooperation among coaches, exercise scientists, physicians, dietitians, and wrestlers to use research and education to determine the best medically sound system for selecting a weight class. Their hope is that harmful weight loss methods will one day be a thing of the past among collegiate wrestlers.