Stepping on a scale to make weight has been a part of combat sports almost as long as they’ve been around. In 2000, the United Rules of Mixed Martial Arts were put into effect and the modern era of nine weight classes was born. Since then, every competitive fighter has had to make the choice of which weight class to fight in.
Over the years, more and more fighters have stretched the limits of their weight cut to try to gain a size and strength advantage by fighting in a lower weight class. At times, such a strategy has paid off well and resulted in decisive wins or even a title run. Other times, however, the drop to a lower weight class has turned out to be a poor decision as a fighter is left weak and gassed out from the ill effects of having to cut too much weight in a short period of time.
Because the decision of which weight class to fight in can literally make or break a career in the sport, the choice to drop a weight class must be made only after careful deliberation. Although such a change is often made simply because a fighter suffers a string of losses and is searching for anything that may offer any potential advantage, the potential benefits of dropping a division should always be first weighed against the potential costs.
In 2010, UFC veteran Tim Boetsch went through this process and began discussing the possibility of dropping a division to fight at 185lbs with both Matt Hume and myself. He had always felt he was undersized in the light heavyweight division and even though he had always been known for his strength and power, he found himself on the short end of battles against much bigger opponents that had advantages in size and reach.
Step 1: Weigh the Options
The first, and arguably most important, step in the process of fighting in a lower division is looking at the situation and deciding whether or not it’s the right move to begin with. The last thing any fighter wants to do is drop a weight class only to find they are worse off than when they started, so it is absolutely essential to accurately evaluate the potential impact of facing opponents in a lighter weight class.
The best place to begin this process is to evaluate body composition and determine how much weight would need to be lost to get within a realistic range of making weight in the lower division. To do this, a fighter will need to have his or her bodyfat accurately assessed so that they can determine how many kg of lean muscle mass they have compared to fat mass.
Since there is rarely an advantage to losing muscle mass, it must be determined that there is enough fat mass to lose to drop bodyweight down to the desired range. If a fighter is already extremely lean and dropping muscle mass or being forced to endure an extremely grueling weight cut is the only way to get to the lower weight class, it is usually better to stay in the current weight division.
The most accurate ways to assess body composition is through DEXA analysis or through skinfold measurement done with calipers, provided they are made by someone well qualified to do so. Once a fighter determines their body fat % and how many kg of fat mass they have, it can then be determined if there is enough extra body fat that can be lost to get down to the lower division or not.
In Tim’s case, he used DEXA analysis and found that he could drop 5kg of body fat and still be within a healthy body fat percentage – for most fighters, a healthy range is above 8-10% if using DEXA and 6-8% if using the calipers method. Being 5kg lighter would put Tim within a reasonable weight cut to make the 185lb limit so showed the potential to drop a division was there.
Aside from determining the feasibility of getting to the lower weight class, Tim also needed to decide if it was a smart move or not. Just because dropping to a lower division is possible, doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea. Before making this decision, Tim discussed the move at length with Matt Hume, a coach that’s been in the fight game as long as anyone out there.
Matt gave Tim his input as his coach and his evaluation of the benefits and risks associated with dropping to the middleweight division in the UFC. This input from an experienced coach is an absolutely vital step in the decision making process. Matt’s professional opinion was that all things considered, Tim was likely very well suited to move down a division and doing so gave him the best chance of success in the sport.
A fighter should never make the decision to drop to a lower division without thoroughly consulting his coaches and evaluating all the options first. The goal should never be just to win the next fight; it should be to find the weight class that gives the fighter the best chance to win in the long-run. If a fighter’s losses have had nothing to do with their respective weight division, it’s rarely a good idea to drop to a lower division just for the sake of doing so.
Step Two: Drop the Weight
Once the decision to drop a division has been made, the next step is figuring out how to do it. Unless a fighter has been fighting in a weight class well above where they should be, they will inevitably have to drop some bodyweight to get to the lower division. It’s vitally important that this drop be a gradual process and the fighter doesn’t attempt to drop weight too fast or they may put themselves at an increased risk of injury. An extremely low calorie diet plus a high volume of combat sports training is often a recipe for disaster.
Along these lines, it’s vital to use technology like BioForce HRV to manage your program as you drop the weight can help make sure you’re not pushing too hard and heading towards injuries and overtraining. Never forget that dieting is a stress on the body, just like training. It’s vital to always make sure to find the right balance between stress and recovery so that your weight loss goals don’t lead to injury or poor performance. Far too often, trying to lose too much too fast can lead to much more harm than good.
The goal should be to lose no more than about .5kg of bodyweight per week, so how long it will take to get down to the desired bodyweight should be based on that rate. It should require a caloric deficit of around 500 calories per day to achieve that rate of fat loss so a diet that achieves this will need to be followed. Since most fighters already train many hours per week, it’s generally easier to make relatively modest changes in diet than attempt to train even more to burn the extra calories.
If you are already following a well-balanced diet that includes the right amount of protein, quality carbohydrates and essential fats, you’ll need to adjust the portion sizes of your meals or eliminate one meal to drop the weight. Most fighters, however, typically include at least some food in their diet that may not be the healthiest choice, so simply cutting such foods out or replacing them with lower calorie choices is often the best place to start and may be all that’s necessary.
Tim fit into this category and was able to cut out or replace some of the “junk” food he enjoyed at least once per day with healthier, lower calorie foods. Cleaning up his diet in this manner was enough for him to begin dropping the weight and over the course of about 10-12 weeks he was able to drop the 5kg of body fat necessary for him to be within striking distance of the 185lb division. Another thing to point out is that it’s always a good idea to make this drop well away from any potential upcoming fights to give yourself time to get down to the right weight and get used to fighting there.
Step Three: Test the Cut
Once a fighter has successful dropped the weight and is down to the targeted goal weight, I suggest spending a few weeks at that weight and then going through a practice weight cut to see how your body reacts. This will help you make sure that you can make the necessary weight without putting too much stress on your body and end up drawn out and overly fatigued come fight time.
It’s much better to make this test cut when a fight is not on the line find out how you feel, rather than waiting until the first fight at your new weight to see what happens. Everybody reacts differently to dropping weight and even though you may have felt great in your old weight class after dropping 5kg to make weight, you may find that dropping that same 5kg has a whole different effect now that you’re at a lower weight class.
The test cut gives you an opportunity to give your new fighting weight a try and allows you to make sure you’ve set the correct target weight to start your cut from. It’s best to try to simulate the last week of a fight and cut your weight just as you normally would if you were to fight on a Friday or Saturday night. You don’t have to make the exact weight you’ll need to in a fight, but you should at least come within 1kg of fight weight and then rehydrate and do everything you’d normally do if you were really going to fight.
The next day, you should then train hard and spar at a high pace to simulate a fight and see how your body feels. If you find yourself suddenly gassed out and far more fatigued than you should be then it’s a good sign that may have more weight to lose before beginning your cut. Only by going through this test run can you find out how your body is going to react to your new weight and to fighting in this new weight division. There is no substitute for this test cut and if only if you feel good during your simulated fight session should you then schedule a fight in a lower division.
Step Four: Fight!
Once you’ve dropped the bodyweight and gone through a test cut to make sure you’ve set the right target weight and can make the cut, the only thing that’s left to do is fight. The only way to know for sure whether or not dropping a division is the right career move is to get in there and find out. Tim’s first fight at 185lbs in the UFC came against Kendall Grove and it was quickly obvious that dropping a division was the right move as he was able to easily overpower his opponent and his conditioning was better than ever without the extra bodyweight to carry around.
In his next two fights, Tim was also able to outwork and overpower Nick Ring and outlast Yushin Okami to get to 3-0 at 185lbs Moving forward, only time will tell if his success in the division will continue, but he has certainly found the right weight class and feels better now than ever. To get there, he followed the exact steps laid out above and avoided the many common mistakes fighters often make when moving to a lower division and the results speak for themselves. Dropping a division may or may not be the right move for you, but following the four step plan is the best approach to getting in the ring or cage finding out.
Common Division Dropping Mistakes:
- Making the decision to drop a division after a string of losses without thoroughly evaluating the potential benefits as well as the risks
- Not measuring body composition to determine how much weight can safely be lost without having to sacrifice muscle mass and strength
- Trying to drop too much weight too fast. Don’t attempt to drop more than .5kg per week and never resort to any crash diets with a huge drop in calories
- Failing to take enough time for your body to adjust to the lower weight before taking a fight. Ideally, at least 1-2 months should be spent at the lower weight before a fight is scheduled
- Failing to make a test cut before a real right to see how your body reacts to the new weight cut
- Not monitoring and managing the training process with techology like BioForce HRV, Polar’s Training Load, RPE or other related tools
This article has been reprinted with permission from Fighting Fit Magazine. For more great articles, make sure to check out Fighting Fit!
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