The use of rapid weight loss techniques (dehydration, extreme calorie reduction) has long been an issue in wrestling. Though many steps have been taken to change the rules of wrestling to prevent rapid weight loss, these techniques are still widely used. With the rise in popularity of mixed martial arts, we are seeing the spread of these rapid weight loss techniques into a larger section of the population.
The topic is rather controversial, as a number of wrestlers have died from these rapid weight loss techniques(1). Virtually no health professionals support the use of these techniques, yet they remain in use. This is largely due to the fact that scientific research is ignored and weight loss techniques are passed down from coach to athlete(2), something I have witnessed personally.
Basic scientific studies on the effects of dehydration and low glycogen stores show that the athlete's bodies will be less effective when engaging in competition. The actual effectiveness of lowering one's weight has not been widely investigated in wrestling or MMA, though one would assume that due to basic physiological principles, it would lower the effectiveness of the athlete's performance.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) believes that lowering an athlete's body fat percentage below 6% is unhealthy, and that these rapid weight loss techniques lower performance.
From all available research, it would appear that lowering an athlete's body weight through dehydration and extreme calorie restriction are a bad idea for optimal performance.
One aspect of wrestling that was changed to try and prevent the use of dehydration was the changing of weigh in times. Where once they would weigh in 24 hours ahead of time, they now weigh in several hours before competition. This obviously causes the effects of dehydration to be much worse, since there is no way to replenish all the fluids that would be needed to be replenished in a severely dehydrated body. That being said, some athlete's still engage in this practice, and many wrestlers restrict their calories. Because of this, they are, for the most part, low on glycogen stores. Being that wrestling is a largely anaerobic activity, this would seem to be a poor idea.
MMA, however, still allows it's athletes to weigh in 24 hours before competition. Because of this it is not uncommon for these athletes to lose 10 - 20 lbs of weight in water the day of weigh ins. The use of IV's after dehydration is widespread. The effectiveness of this is hard to gauge. I myself have lost 10 lbs in water weight (from 145 to 135) been given an IV, and competed the next day. In the 24 hour recovery period I was able to eat and drink a large amount. I feel as if I filled my glycogen stores and that my
effectiveness was not lowered. My body felt as good as it did when it was hydrated and fed normally.
In MMA and other competitions where striking is used, having a larger frame that is capable of generating more force when punching or kicking is useful, so if your opponent is dehydrating himself to get to a lower weight class and you aren't, he will most likely be much larger than you. I believe a new metric should be created, rather than relying on weight alone. Instituting urine specific gravity tests (testing for adequate hydration levels), much like those used in college wrestling could solve this problem.
As the rules are set now, I believe an athlete does have a competitive edge if they use dehydration in MMA and maybe even in highschool wrestling. I also think that the rules should be changed, in wrestling and MMA, to remove this competitive edge. As of right now, I haven't heard of anyone pushing for this in MMA.
Sources listed for once!