Weight class sports including powerlifting have more athletes who water cut to temporarily lower their weight so that they can compete in a lighter weight class and be more competitive. But, maintaining optimal levels of performance through a water cut is challenging.
So, how do you water cut for powerlifting? A water cut for powerlifting is accomplished by a brief period of water loading (5-7 days) in which we drink more water than normal, followed by a sudden halt in water intake, which causes the body to excrete enough water to bring us to a temporarily dehydrated state to weigh in lighter for the competition.
The protocol for water cutting is not a complicated one when the necessary variables are manipulated correctly; however, if we make one of the 5 mistakes I’ll discuss in this article, we risk missing weight and being unable to compete or in extreme cases, there could be health complications.
In this article, I will discuss the variables we should manipulate for a successful water cut, give a step-by-step guide for how to manipulate each variable, and address who should water cut and who should definitely not water cut.
How To Water Cut For Powerlifting
Water cutting for powerlifting is a process of manipulating water intake, sodium intake, and sometimes carbohydrate intake to result in a temporarily dehydrated state in order to weigh-in lighter for a competition.
The 4 methods used for water cutting in powerlifting are:
- Water Loading
- Sodium Manipulation
- Carbohydrate Manipulation
- Additional Measures
Water loading is a process of increasing water intake beyond normal hydration levels to manipulate our hormones into adapting to this higher intake. In doing so, we can cut off hydration the day before competing while continuing to excrete, and “fool” our body into excreting more water than it typically would.
Our body is constantly trying to maintain homeostasis (a state of balance), so when we throw off that balance it tries to come back to homeostasis by upregulating or downregulating hormones.
When we’re water loading, we are essentially shutting off our antidiuretic hormone which is responsible for water retention because water is coming in in excess quantities. This is telling the kidneys that they need to excrete this excess water to bring the body back to its normal state of fluid balance.
We are using this to our advantage because there is a period of time when the body can continue excreting excess water even when we are not taking in additional water, before it regulates and begins storing water once the antidiuretic hormone kicks back in.
Knowing this, we can cut off all water intake before the competition and continue peeing out all the excess water to lose additional water weight that will bring us into a temporarily dehydrated state that would not normally occur to make weight.
You shouldn’t solely rely on water cutting to make your weight class in powerlifting. If you’re several weeks or months away from competition, you should employ some of the principles I discussed in my article Powerlifting Cutting Program: 7 Rules To Follow.
When we manipulate our water intake we should also manipulate our sodium intake accordingly, because one of sodium’s functions in the body is to help with water retention.
By manipulating sodium, we are able to manipulate water weight further rather than fighting against its water storing properties.
Carbohydrates can also be manipulated to further reduce the amount of water storage because for every gram of carbohydrates consumed, we store 3 grams of water.
Manipulation of carbohydrates is usually restricted to those who need to lose more than 1.5% of their body weight because it is more likely to impact performance.
Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel for the body during high-intensity activity, and therefore if we restrict the amount of carbs we are eating prior to a powerlifting competition we will have less energy stored to perform optimally.
While we do make an effort to replenish carbohydrates quickly after weighing-in, we may not be able to replenish them enough to avoid decrements in performance. This is a risk that lifters must be aware of before making a more intense weight cut.
So, take your body weight and multiply it by 0.015. If you have to lose more weight than that number, you’ll probably need to manipulate carbohydrate intake, in addition to water and sodium.
If we have followed the water-cutting protocol but we are still weighing in over our target weight class, we can implement different strategies depending on how much weight we still have to lose.
These are methods that you would implement just before your weigh-in, or if you’ve missed weigh-in and you need to re-weighin.
While it may sound disgusting, spitting is an effective way to lose additional water weight. It requires us to use sour candy or gum to promote more saliva production, which we can spit out into our vessel of choice in order to shed extra fluid.
With this method we could expect to lose ounces but probably not many pounds, as we will already be slightly dehydrated and therefore even with sour candy, our saliva production will likely be lower than normal.
It’s important to note that inactive sweating (sauna, bath) is a better option than active sweating (running, HIIT) to lose extra fluid because active sweating will create much more fatigue and therefore is more likely to negatively impact our performance.
With this method, we could lose up to 2-3% more of our bodyweight but this does not come without consequences, and therefore should not be our preferred method but can be used if absolutely necessary.
Sweating out additional fluid after loading/tapering water is an advanced practice, and it is recommended that when enacting sweating protocols, we always have someone with us to monitor our well-being. When taken to the extreme, these protocols can cause serious health issues.
Rehydration & Glycogen Replenishment
The most important part of a water cut is the rehydration and glycogen replenishment process because the whole point of a water cut is to cut to the weight class that is best for our performance, but if we mess up the processes following the weigh-in we will definitely not perform well.
As soon as the weigh-in is complete our top priority is to rehydrate as quickly as possible without causing gastrointestinal distress or bloating.
I recommend having an electrolyte/sugar solution such as Pedialyte (the apple flavour is pretty dang good) with equal parts plain water. This helps us to maintain a solid fluid and electrolyte balance.
We also need fast-digesting carbs to replenish our depleted glycogen stores to give us the energy we need to lift heavy weights, without overwhelming our stomach with too much volume. Keeping the volume of food low is important so that we can continue to take in more energy to meet our caloric needs without upsetting our stomachs.
We should continue to eat and re-hydrate throughout the competition to try and bring our body back to its normal state, while still being mindful of avoiding excess bloating.
If we want to decrease the amount of weight we need to water cut, to avoid higher levels of dehydration and strength decrements, we should consider implementing a Powerlifting Cutting Program well before the competition.
Water Cutting Guide: Step-By-Step
The steps for a safe and effective water cut for powerlifting are:
- Step 1: Create A Realistic Plan Within The Current Timeline
- Step 2: Record Evening And Morning Weigh-Ins
- Step 3: Calculate Peak Water Intake
- Step 4: Calculate Water Intake For Each Day Of The Loading Period
- Step 5: Adjust Sodium Intake
- Step 6: Adjust Carbohydrate Intake If Necessary
- Step 7: Determine Whether Additional Measure Are Required
- Step 8: Rehydrate & Replenish Glycogen Stores
Step 1: Create A Realistic Plan Within The Current Timeline
We must create a plan for our water cut that works within our timeline and avoids drastic measures; therefore, we should avoid cutting more than 3-5% of our bodyweight for a 2-hour weigh-in. In addition, we should follow a shorter protocol to avoid prolonging the period of dehydration which can lead to more decrements in performance than is necessary.
Research shows that water cutting between 3-5% of our bodyweight appeared relatively safe and showed no indication of hyponatremia or any ill-effects. But beyond this percentage of body weight loss through dehydration, there is no scientific evidence on the possible health effects.
At 2 weeks out we should ensure that we are properly hydrated throughout the week, by practicing good hydration habits. This is not the time to start water loading but we should be drinking enough that we are sufficiently hydrated.
At 1 week out from the competition we should be ready to start water loading, and continue loading throughout the week. We will cut water intake the day before the competition to let the body continue to excrete excess water and weigh-in on target. The night before we can make an educated decision of whether additional measures are required.
Step 2: Record Evening And Morning Weigh-Ins
Recording evening and morning weights helps us to determine how much we can expect to lose from the evening to the morning, which will provide us with data that will help us evaluate the night before the competition if we will make weight or if we need to implement additional measures.
We should begin this process 2 weeks out from the competition to collect additional data, which will give us a better average for the amount of weight lost overnight. To calculate this, we want to take the difference between our evening and morning weight for all the data we’ve collected, and then find the average.
Step 3: Calculate Peak Water Intake
Our peak water intake is the highest amount of water we will be drinking throughout the water load and is based on our body weight and how much we are trying to lose.
For a 2 hour weigh-in it is generally accepted that between 100 to 120 milliliters of water (lon the lower end if less weight needs to be lost, on the higher end if more weight needs to be shed) per kilogram of body weight is the optimal amount to cut between 2-5% of our body weight.
We will use our peak water intake to calculate the amount of water we will be drinking throughout the week of water loading.
For example: If I weigh 78kg and I need to cut around 2-3% of my body weight to make weight as a 76kg lifter, I can set my peak intake to be 100ml/kg of my body weight which is equal to 7800ml or 7.8 liters of water. So for my peak water intake days, I will be drinking around 7.8 liters of water.
Step 4: Calculate Water Intake For Each Day Of The Loading Period
Using our calculated peak water intake, we can determine how much water we need to drink throughout the week of the water load leading up to our peak water intake.
This step is important so that we gradually introduce more water to avoid overwhelming the body and getting the signaling from our hormones (ADH and Aldosterone) to cease water and sodium retention when we begin our water taper.
The protocol I suggest is:
- 6 days out: Consume 60% of peak water intake throughout the day
- 5 days out: Consume 60% of peak water intake throughout the day
- 4 days out: Consume 80% of peak water intake throughout the day
- 3 days out: Consume 80% of peak water intake throughout the day
- 2 days out: Consume 100% of peak water intake throughout the day
- 1 day out: Consume 100% of peak water intake before 16 hours out from the weigh-in
Continuing with my example, this would equal the following:
- 6 days out: 4.68 liters
- 5 days out: 4.68 liters
- 4 days out: 6.24 liters
- 3 days out: 6.24 liters
- 2 days out: 7.8 liters
- 1 day out: 7.8 liters before 16 hours out.
It should be noted that the numbers do not have to be exact, if we end up drinking 8 liters instead of 7.8 liters it’s not a big deal.
Step 5: Adjust Sodium Intake
Adjusting our sodium intake to complement our water load/taper is important to regulate our fluid and electrolyte balance and to assist in additional water losses to make weight.
We are loading sodium initially throughout the week which encourages us to store more of the water we are taking in by pulling it into the cells.
We are often given the recommendation of aiming for 5000mg of sodium throughout the high sodium intake days, but generally, if we just make an effort to add salt to our meals and choose foods higher in sodium we can achieve this quite easily.
When we are 2 days out we want to consume very little sodium (typically less than 1000mg) to signal to the body that we do not want to retain water, and instead we want to excrete it. Water intake remains high once sodium intake tapers which will help the body to excrete additional sodium without resistance from aldosterone (which is responsible for sodium reabsorption).
The sodium protocol is the following:
- 6 days out: High sodium intake
- 5 days out: High sodium intake
- 4 days out: High sodium intake
- 3 days out: High sodium intake
- 2 days out: As little sodium intake as possible
- 1 day out: As little sodium intake as possible
Step 6: Adjust Carbohydrate Intake If Necessary
It is important to adjust our carbohydrate intake if we need to lose more than 1.5% of our bodyweight in the water cut, because it will allow us to lose more weight as carbohydrates do encourage water storage when they consume.
I want to emphasize that they should only be manipulated if necessary because they are the primary source of energy for lifting and if we deplete them in order to make weight, we will likely experience decrements in performance but the level at which this occurs will be different for everyone.
The carbohydrate protocol for additional water loss is:
- 3 days out: normal carbohydrate intake
- 2 days out: low-carb, higher fats to maintain caloric intake
- 1 day out: low-carb, higher fats to maintain caloric intake
At 3 days out, the protocol suggests a “normal carbohydrate intake”, but if we have been implementing a caloric deficit prior to the initiation of a water cut, we want our normal carbohydrate intake on day 3 to be the same as the amount of carbs that we were eating in our deficit, to avoid a spike in carbohydrate intake from our current baseline intake.
For our lower carb days we want to keep our carbohydrate intake under 100 grams of carbs, or if a more aggressive approach is needed then perhaps under 50 grams. On the lower carb days we are increasing our fat intake to keep our calories the same so that we are still taking in enough energy to fuel our body, but just with a different fuel source that does not store water.
Because fats are higher in calories and we are maintaining our calories at a certain level, we will naturally limit the volume of food we are eating which is an added benefit to reduce the amount of waste in our digestive system when we weigh-in.
Step 7: Determine Whether Additional Measures Are Required
The night before our competition, we want to assess if we are on target to make weight the following day or if additional measures such as spitting or sweating are required to ramp up the protocol.
Based on the bodyweight averages we have collected from evening to morning weigh-ins, we will have an idea of how much weight we can expect to lose overnight. If we are within our norm, we can relax until the weigh-in and focus on rehydration afterwards. If we are not at a weight that will put us on target the following morning, we can implement an additional protocol prior to the weigh-in.
If we will need to lose ounces, we can spit our way to the weight class, but if we need to lose pounds, we can try sweating it out in the sauna or in a bath.
For the spitting protocol we will need sour candy or gum, and a cup with the goal of spitting as much saliva as we can into the cup to make weight. We should weigh ourselves periodically to determine how close to weight we are.
For the sweating protocol we will need a sauna or a hot bath and someone to supervise us throughout the protocol. Typically the process of sweating out additional weight is accomplished by spending 20 minutes in the heat and 10 minutes out of the heat to dry out and re-check our weight. We can repeat this process until we are on target weight or start to feel unwell.
Step 8: Rehydrate and Replenish Glycogen Stores
After the weigh-in our top priority is to get rehydrated and replenish our glycogen stores as soon as possible without overwhelming our digestive system.
After the weigh-in we will need a source of electrolytes/sugar (such as pedialyte) and water in a 1:1 ratio, and some fast-digesting carbohydrates that we are used to eating. We want to make sure to sip rather than chug because we don’t want to bloat and be unable to brace or eat enough to regain our energy.
The initial replenishment is the most important but we want to continue sipping and eating as tolerated throughout the day, without inducing bloating and discomfort.
To learn more about how to properly fuel your body on meet day and learn the 6 rules we need to follow, check out my article on What To Eat During A Powerlifting Meet.
5 Mistakes To Avoid When Water Cutting
The 5 mistakes to avoid when water cutting are:
- Water Loading Too Much Or Too Little
- Starting The Water Load At The Wrong Time
- Tapering Water Intake Too Early
- Ignoring Sodium Intake
- Failing To Rehydrate And Replenish Glycogen Stores
1. Water Loading Too Much Or Too Little
It is important to water load in the correct amounts to achieve the desired amounts of water loss to make weight, and to avoid health complications that could occur if we water load too much.
If we load too much we may lose more weight than we intended and risk seriously impacting our performance, or in extreme cases (drinking 200ml/kg or more) we could experience hyponatremia which is a life-threatening condition related to fluid and electrolyte imbalances.
On the other hand, if we do not water load enough then we may not lose enough water weight to make it into our target weight class, and we may not be able to compete.
To water load in the right amounts we should aim to drink 100 to 120ml per kilogram of bodyweight for our peak water intake (closer to 100ml if we’re losing 3% of our bodyweight and under, closer to 120ml if we’re aiming to lose more than 3%) and base our water intake for the week off of this amount.
2. Starting The Water Load At The Wrong Time
Starting a water cut at the wrong time will affect the results of the water cut which could affect the amount of weight we are able to lose, the timing of the weight loss, and the impact on performance.
If we start the cut too early, we will prolong the state of dehydration and therefore impact our performance more than is necessary. The goal is to be dehydrated for a little time as possible to weigh-in and then rehydrate quickly. Being even 1-2% dehydrated while lifting can significantly impact performance.
If we start the cut too late then we may not be at the right levels of hydration for long enough to suppress our Antidiuretic Hormone, which will result in water retention and minimal losses of water despite loading and tapering.
3. Tapering Water Intake Too Early
A mistake that water cutting protocols often make is that they taper water too early by reaching their peak water intake at 3 to 4 days out from the competition and then tapering water intake into the competition.
This is a mistake because it gives the body time to adapt to these lower levels of hydration and results in the body retaining more water; therefore, we will not excrete as much fluid if we taper water intake early.
Instead, we want to water load until the day before the competition and then stop water intake completely at 16 hours out from the competition, to take advantage of the delay period when our body excretes excess water before it switches gears and begins to retain water again.
4. Ignoring Sodium Intake
Ignoring our sodium intake when we are water cutting is a mistake because it can counteract what we are trying to achieve by signaling to the body to pull water into the cells, when we are trying to excrete as much of the water as we can.
In order to control sodium levels to assist us rather than resist us, we need to load and taper sodium intake as well as water intake.
5. Failing To Rehydrate And Replenish Glycogen Stores
Failing to rehydrate and replenish glycogen stores is the worst mistake we can make because it can result in intense muscle cramping, lack of energy, and an inability to perform at our normal strength levels.
To avoid negative effects of water cutting we should make it a priority to drink an electrolyte solution and water in equal parts to begin rehydrating as soon as possible, and consume fast-digesting carbohydrates to begin replenishing glycogen stores that we will need for energy during the meet.
With a 2 hour weigh-in we have 2 hours to get our bodyweight back up and energy levels restored as much as possible before we have to step on the platform for our first squat attempt.
Who Should Water Cut
A water cut is an option for us to cut weight if we are trying to make a national or international team, we have to lose less than 3-5% of our bodyweight, we are an experienced lifter, and it is not possible to achieve this weight loss in time with nutritional interventions.
The water cut is usually a tool that is used by lifters when the stakes are high, so it is important to follow the protocol correctly and in a timely manner to avoid any additional efforts to make weight that may affect our performance.
Who Should Not Water Cut
We should not water cut if we are new to the sport, we are only competing at a local or provincial level, or we have any medical issues that may put us more at risk with the use of a water cut.
If we are new to the sport or we are competing at a lower level of competition, it is likely not worth the effort involved as our main priority should be to learn the meet process, improve our meet day practices and gain experience.
If we are unsure about whether we should perform a water cut because of medical reasons, we should consult a doctor and/or a sports dietitian.
To learn more about what we should focus on for our first powerlifting meet, check out my article on How Strong You Need To Be For Your First Powerlifting Meet.
Considerations For A 24-Hour Weigh In VS 2 Hour Weigh-In
The current recommendations are all based on a 2-hour weigh in process because that is the weigh in time for the International Powerlifting Federation – which is the most popular powerlifting federation. However, other federations such as the USPA, often have a 24-hour weigh-in.
The 24-hour weigh-in is an advantage if we are water cutting because it gives us more time to rehydrate and replenish glycogen stores before we have to compete. For this reason, lifters will often cut more weight (5-10%) of their bodyweight because they are less concerned about performance decrements.
It is important to note that dehydrating ourselves to this level of weight loss can be dangerous so it should not be taken lightly.
A water cut when executed correctly is a way for competitive powerlifters to drop weight to weigh-in at a lighter weight class. With a protocol that accounts for water loading in the correct amounts, appropriately timed water tapering, sodium manipulation, additional measures, and rehydration and replenishment – we are setting ourselves up for a successful water cut.
About The Author
Amanda Parker has a passion for competing and coaching in both powerlifting and weightlifting. She uses her knowledge from her Kinesiology Degree, CSCS, and Precision Nutrition certification to coach athletes and lifestyle clients for performance in training and nutrition. Connect with her on Instagram.