Collegiate wrestling is separated into 10 mass classes ranging from 56.8 to 130.0 kg (125-286 lbs). This classification and the intense competition lead wrestlers to often reduce mass or “cut weight,” hoping to experience strength and leverage increases over their opponents (2,6). Rapid mass loss typically is performed in <1 week and usually entails dehydration (39). Gradual mass loss generally requires >1week and includes negative energy balance and hypohydration (11). Despite recommendations from several organizations (including the American College of Sports Medicine) (27,29), many wrestlers abruptly lose body mass in the 24−48 hours preceding competition because of tradition, ease (in comparison to prolonged dieting), and perceived ability to maintain muscle mass.
Several stressors (including competition, injuries, training, and personal life) affect athletes' physiological and psychological function; research suggests wrestlers and other weight control athletes might also suffer decrements in mood (3,8,13), strength (8,19,21,38), power (9,10,15,16,30,38), and competitive performance (1,13,18,29) because of rapid mass loss, although several conflicting reports exist (1,13,31). Unfortunately, many of these studies used a 5-hour recovery and refeeding time before testing or allowed subjects to reduce mass via rubber suits, saunas, and diuretics. Although these practices might have previously sufficed, current National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules mandate that weigh-ins occur 1-2 hours before competition and outlawed the previously mentioned mass-cutting procedures (27). Additionally, much research on this topic suffers from a lack of generalizability, because most investigations failed to collect data immediately before a meaningful competition. As a result, very few studies determined the compounding effects of mass loss and competition, the natural state of the wrestler. In light of conflicting evidence and challenges to external validity, the purpose of this study was to determine the effects of self-selected mass loss on lower body power, upper body strength, and mood immediately before a meaningful competition.
Experimental Approach to the Problem
We employed a repeated-measures design with 4 observations. Data were collected 10 (D-10), 6 (D-6), 2 (D-2), and 0 (D-0) days before the competition. Baseline testing of mass, mood, strength, and anaerobic power occurred 10 days before the wrestling match; posttests of the same variables took place on the day of the competition. During additional observation points 6 and 2 days before the match, subjects were weighed and completed a mass loss questionnaire. Subjects self-selected the method, timing, and magnitude of mass loss during the 10 days. Investigators performed all testing in an exercise physiology laboratory. Subjects participated during November 2007, just before the competitive season; coaches reported that wrestlers' fitness closely approximated that achieved in-season.
Sixteen male Division I competitive collegiate wrestlers (age = 20 ± 2 years, height = 177.5 ± 7.2 cm, and initial mass = 81.7 ± 18.2 kg) participated in this study. Before enrolling, each subject completed 3 months of official practice composed of endurance exercises, resistance exercises, and wrestling-specific drills. Exclusionary criteria included injury and the use of mass loss methods outlawed by the NCAA (e.g., saunas, rubber suits, diuretics, or steam rooms). Given the free-living nature of this study, we cannot verify that subjects obeyed NCAA rules; however, investigators rigorously emphasized and explained the violations on several occasions and subjects clearly understood the negative ramifications (e.g., loss of team membership) of using these practices. Before initiation, the California State University, Fullerton Institutional Review Board approved the study, and informed consent was obtained from all subjects.
Ten days before the competition, euhydrated subjects (urine specific gravity ≤ 1.020 ) reported to the laboratory for D-10 testing between 8:00 am and 11:30 am. A refractometer (RHC-200 Westover, Woodinville, WA, USA) determined urine specific gravity. Wrestlers became euhydrated by consuming 1 L of water before retiring the previous night, 0.5 liter when they woke up that morning, and an additional 0.5 L throughout the day before testing. Subjects' height and mass were then measured using a wall-mounted stadiometer (Seca, Hanover, MD, USA) and an NCAA certified digital scale (PS6600 Befour Inc., Saukville, WI, USA), respectively.
Participants then completed the Brunel Mood Scale (BRUMS ), a shortened version of the popular Profile of Mood States (POMS) (25), which has been comprehensively validated in sport environments (22). Subjects rated how well 24 simple adjectives described their current mood. Respondents answered each question by asking themselves “How do you feel right now?” The 6 psychometric subscales of the BRUMS include anger, confusion, tension, vigor, depression, and fatigue. In a separate questionnaire, subjects documented how they planned to reduce mass; options provided were fluid restriction, food restriction, exercise, dietary supplements, and “other.” The subjects completed both questionnaires in the exercise physiology laboratory. Subjects lacked private testing rooms, but investigators tested no more than 2 subjects concurrently and closely monitored participants to ensure no between-subject interaction occurred.
Wrestlers then completed a grip strength test using a dynamometer (Jamar, Sammons Preston Roylan, Boiling Brook, IL, USA). Subjects stood with feet shoulder width apart with their elbow flexed at 90°. The test was 3 maximal efforts of their dominant hand, the highest score being reported. Participants recovered for 1 minute between attempts. Finally, wrestlers performed a Wingate test (894E, Monark, Varberg, Sweden) that consisted of 30 seconds of maximal cycling preceded by a 5-minute warm-up on a stationary bike. Subjects cycled against 9.5% of body mass as resistance (33). Computerized software recorded peak power (absolute and relative), mean power (absolute and relative), total work, and fatigue index (percent decrease in absolute power from peak to minimum) at 1-second intervals throughout the 30-second test. These physical tests were selected because they (a) reflect the anaerobic and strength requirements of competitive collegiate wrestling (21), and (b) allowed investigators to test many subjects in a short time frame without compromising the integrity of the subsequent intrasquad competition.
Between D-10 and D-2, wrestlers participated in normal team practice consisting of running, resistance exercise, and wrestling practice. Six and 2 days before competition, researchers weighed the participants. Respondents also repeated the mass loss questionnaire, this time retrospectively reporting their mass loss methods (as opposed to the prospective questionnaire on D-10). No formal team practice occurred the day before competition.
The day of the competition, before wrestling, subjects weighed in and replicated the test battery from D-10. Unlike D-10, hydration status was not controlled during D-0 testing to allow wrestlers to self-select mass loss practices. Additionally, we opted not to direct subject's pretesting nutrient intake or exercise pattern to better increase the study's external validity. Subjects performed the Wingate test against the same resistance used during the initial trial despite any changes in body mass. We chose to maintain exercise intensity across testing sessions because recent recommendations (20) suggest manipulating both exercise demands and body mass precludes a frank assessment of the effect of changes in mass on muscle function. Participants completed all testing ±1 hour to control for diurnal variation.
One to 2 hours after testing, subjects competed in a competitive intrasquad wrestling match. Wrestlers considered the match a typical competitive situation because success or failure strongly influenced subsequent starting positions on the squad. The match was a regulation 7-minute match with an official referee and was open to the public. Anecdotally, subjects reported preparing for this competition similarly to a typical intersquad match.
Descriptive statistics (means, SDs, and SEMs) were calculated for all test variables. Results were grouped by amount of mass lost from D-10 to D-0 (0.0-1.9% loss [G0+], 2.0-3.9% loss [G2+], and 4.0+ % loss [G4+]). We based these groups on hypohydration literature that describes (a) consistent decrements in endurance exercise performance starting at 2% body mass loss (7) and (b) increasing physiological stress with greater intensities of hypohydration (26). A 2 (time) × 3 (mass loss) repeated-measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) analyzed potential differences in mood, strength, and power variables. A 4 (time) × 3 (mass loss) repeated-measures ANOVA analyzed potential differences in mass. Per ANOVA assumptions, all physiological data were normally distributed, although most mood measures displayed some skewness. Many authors, however, consider ANOVA robust to minor violations of the assumptions (37). In the event of significant F-ratio, Fisher's post hoc examined specific pairwise differences. Effect sizes (η2 p) were also calculated for each analysis. Pearson product-moment correlations determined the relationships between mass loss and change in BRUMS, strength, and Wingate variables. The alpha for all analyses was set at 0.05. Unless otherwise noted, all results are mean ± SD.
We used data from participants in G0+ to measure reliability of the physiological-dependent measures. Using these subjects, intraclass correlation coefficients calculated to 0.993, 0.988, 0.982, and 0.803 for Wingate absolute peak power, Wingate absolute average power, Wingate fatigue index, and grip strength, respectively. Because the BRUMS measures highly variable “state” constructs (as opposed to stable “traits”), we followed standard convention and did not evaluate BRUMS reliability.
Figure 1 displays mass loss. From D-10 to D-0, 4 subjects lost 0.0-1.9% of body mass (G0+), 6 subjects lost 2.0-3.9% (G2+), and 6 subjects lost 4.0%+ of body mass (G4+). At D-2, G0+ lost significantly less mass than G4+ did. At D-0, G0+ and G2+ lost significantly less mass than the G4+ did; G0+ lost nearly significantly less mass (p = 0.056) than G2+ did. All participants were hydrated for D-10 (urine specific gravity = 1.015 ± 0.005) but achieved different hydration states at D-0 (urine specific gravity: G0+ = 1.020 ± 0.011, G2+ = 1.029 ± 0.006, G4+ = 1.035 ± 0.006).
Table 1 presents mood results. G4+ confusion significantly increased from D-10 to D-0. A significant main effect existed in Anger, Depression, and Vigor variables over time (D-10 < D-0, D-10 < D-0, and D-10 > D-0, respectively). No other values significantly differed among groups or across time.
Magnitude of mass loss significantly correlated with change in confusion (r = 0.733) and change in tension (r = 0.568). No other variables significantly correlated with magnitude of mass loss.
Figure 2 shows performance results. No significant differences existed across time or among groups in Wingate variables (absolute or relative peak power, absolute or relative average power, or fatigue index) or grip strength.
The primary findings of this study were that (a) when allowed to self-select mass loss procedures, wrestlers chose to lose the majority of the mass in the days immediately preceding competition, (b) mass loss significantly increased confusion, and (c) mass loss failed to significantly affect Wingate or grip strength performance. These results suggest that wrestlers allowed to self-select large, rapid mass loss might suffer decrements in aspects of psychological functioning without affecting grip strength or lower body power.
Previous research documented wrestlers to lose 3.2-4.4 kg to compete in a few days (9,12,23,39). Our subjects lost similar mass as noted in past research; from D-10 to D-0, mass loss ranged from 0.0 to 5.7 kg (0.0-8.1% of body mass). Mass loss spanned a larger range in this study because we included heavyweight wrestlers who frequently do not engage in mass-cutting behavior. These participants (all in G0+) acted as “control” group to which G2+ and G4+ could be compared. As shown in Figure 1, “weight-cutting” subjects lost the majority of body mass (up to 4.3 kg) in the 2 days before weigh-ins. Technically, NCAA rules state that wrestlers may lose up to 1.5% of their body mass each week, but the NCAA only considers certified weigh-ins. Because several weeks sometimes separate official early season mass certifications, wrestlers typically manipulate the system to rapidly lose multiple weeks' worth of mass in the few days preceding competition, thereby following the letter of the law (averaging < 1.5% per week) but not its spirit. Notably, wrestlers knew they had to reduce mass to compete at this match over a month beforehand but chose to lose most of the mass in the last 2 days. Additionally, these rules fail to control mass cycling between competitions.
Several studies examined the effect of mass loss on POMS scores. Few evaluated mood state close to competition; as participants reported mood within hours of competition, we feel our results successfully captured the actual precompetition mood of “weight-cutting” wrestlers. G4+ confusion significantly increased from D-10 to D-0 and a significant positive correlation existed between amount of mass lost and change in tension, indicating that tension rose as percent of body mass lost increased. Concurrent with past research, greater mass reduction translated into greater psychological stress (40). No other subscales showed a significant difference. Because wrestlers experienced the compounding effects of mass loss and competition (the natural state of a wrestler making weight), mood results might be attributed to mass loss, competition, or the synergism of these factors. Previous work documents a negative effect of impaired psychological status (34) on exercise performance, suggesting the significant changes in confusion and tension related to mass loss might impair actual wrestling performance.
The current results indicate that mass loss fails to decrease grip strength and measures of anaerobic power. Small effect sizes (η2 p < 0.25 for all analyses) supported the lack of statistically significant differences among mass loss groups. Three possible reasons explain these findings: (a) mass loss does not affect physiological function for the performance measures used in this study, (b) methods to monitor performance lack the sensitivity to detect small changes in performance (24), or (c) wrestlers' constant mass fluctuating behavior conditions them to more effectively deal with the stress of acute mass loss. Contextualizing these hypotheses with previous research is difficult as the body of knowledge describing the effects of mass loss on grip strength (1,8,21,38) and anaerobic power (9,10,15,17,19,30,38) produced inconsistent results, used mass-cutting practices outlawed by the 1997 NCAA rule change (1,10,15,32,38), or failed to describe mass loss procedures (21). Only a small body of literature exists that, similar to our investigation, manipulated mass without violating current NCAA rules that govern mass loss methods (8,9,19,30,32). Unfortunately, even this small pool of research produced divergent results because these studies report mass loss decreased (19,30) or failed to affect (8,9,32) performance. No methodological practices (method of mass loss, magnitude of mass loss, performance tests, subject population, etc.) apparently explain these conflicting findings.
This study included 3 notable weaknesses. First, small sample sizes led to low statistical power (ranging from 0.11 to 0.88 for the group*time interactions; only 1 value exceeded the recommended 0.80). The low effect sizes for nonsignificant comparisons, however, imply the lack of statistical differences matched low practical relevance. Second, the addition of a wrestling-specific performance outcome measure would have significantly strengthened our research design and findings. However, adding such a measure in this study would have imposed several major complications. Wrestling lacks an objective scoring system based solely on individual wrestler's performances. Admittedly, a standardized scoring system exists, but the opponent strongly influences the performance measure. Conducting a wrestling performance test would eliminate this concern (36), but simultaneously decrease the study's external validity thereby compromising the primary strength of the psychological data. Finally, including a familiarization session for the Wingate test would improve internal validity; however, (a) previous work showing a learning effect associated with repeated trials of the Wingate test (5,14,28) failed to examine well-trained anaerobic athletes like those used in this study, and (b) the very high ICC values measured for Wingate variables in G0+ suggests at least this subset of subjects demonstrated consistent performances without familiarization.
In conclusion, (a) when allowed to self-select mass loss procedures, wrestlers chose to lose the majority of the mass in the days immediately preceding competition, (b) mass loss significantly increased confusion, and (c) mass loss failed to significantly affect Wingate or grip strength performance. These results suggest that wrestlers allowed to self-select large, rapid mass loss might suffer decrements in aspects of psychological functioning without affecting grip strength or lower body power.
Practically, our study suggests that greater mass loss leads to more confusion and might contribute to increased psychological tension. In a sport which requires split-second decision making, a higher state of confusion and tension can detrimentally affect the wrestler's performance (34). Although we found no differences in performance with mass loss, successful wrestlers display important attributes in addition to anaerobic power and grip strength (e.g., repeated anaerobic performances, aerobic capacity, agility, and speed) (15,18) that research has yet to equivocally demonstrate withstands the effects of rapid mass loss. Therefore, we suggest wrestlers should avoid rapid mass loss to avoid potential decreases in psychological well-being and exercise performance. Coaches, certified athletic trainers, and strength and conditioning professionals should be cognizant of their wrestlers' weight loss state to safely and effectively coordinate practices, rehabilitation, and competition.
We would like to thank Amber Giaccomazzi, Colleen Muñoz, Sergio Cutrona, Kari Marsh, and Nallie Yoon for assistance in data collection, Scott Judd for assistance in data analysis, Dan Hicks, and the participants. The authors declare no funding sources or conflicts of interest. The results of the present study do not constitute endorsement of the results by the NSCA.
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