How I Lost 30 Pounds in One Day: Secrets to Water Cuts for Strength Athletes

TAGS: rehydrate, hot water bath, sodium load, staying lean, extreme weight loss, ben pollack, water cut, water load, weight cut, carb intake

Author’s Note: This article explains how I cut extreme amounts of weight for elite powerlifting competition. It is not intended as a guide or medical advice! Everyone is different, and any type of rapid weight loss comes with inherent risks. Consult your doctor before attempting any sort of weight-loss regimen. 


Cutting weight is one of the most controversial parts of powerlifting. Don’t kid yourself:

  1. Cutting weight is part of powerlifting, and of all weight-class sports. Get over it.
  2. Cutting weight is not easy. If you’re unmotivated, undisciplined, lazy, or weak, forget it. Don’t cut. You’re not up to it.
  3. Cutting weight is not healthy. Don’t cut more than 5% of your target bodyweight in the week before a meet.

Still reading? Good. Because there are a lot of ways that you can make a cut easier for yourself, keep your strength, and finish the meet with a high Wilks.

I’m speaking from experience. It sounds arrogant, but I’m one of the best powerlifters in the world at cutting weight. In August of 2016, I cut 25 pounds, from 217 to 191, to win Boss of Bosses 3. This year, I cut from 212 to 181 to win the CETC US Open and $40,000, and then again, a month later, to set the all-time American record squat of 750 at that same weight. In all of these cases, I’ve lost a bit of strength — but only a little bit.

Here’s how I did it.

Stay Lean in the Offseason. Very Lean.

When I cut water, I’m trying to maximize my strength-to-weight ratio. Staying lean helps me do that in two different ways. First, since I’m lean, I have more muscle to help me lift maximum poundages. On top of that, muscle has a much higher water content than fat (because muscles hold glycogen and fat doesn’t.) Bottom line: the more muscle you have, the more water you can sweat out.

Keep Your Macros Consistent.

Again, I’m of the opinion that every individual’s body responds differently, and so there’s little reason to recommend a cookie-cutter macro intake. You should eat what works for you. That said, when you’re preparing to make weight, you need to eat only what works for you, not try to change things up out of laziness or curiosity — that’s an easy way to fuck up your prep. Small changes in your carbohydrate intake, in particular, can cause your body to retain water — or to flush water early, leading you to believe that you can cut more weight than you should.

Start Your Water & Sodium Load Early.

When it gets close to meet day, your sodium and water intake are even more important than your macronutrient intake. Most weight-cutting guides recommend only a few days or maybe a week of water- and sodium-loading. For me, that isn’t enough. I’ve found that — just like with my macros — my body takes a while to adjust to higher and lower intake of salt and water. As a result, I can have huge weight fluctuations in a short amount of time, but it’s obviously very uncomfortable to bloat ten or 15 or even 20 pounds in a day. For that reason, I prefer an extended loading phase to give my body time to adjust gradually (see below for my recommended protocol).


MORE: The Science Behind the Weight Cut


Don’t Cut Carbs.

At least, not too early. If you don’t regularly follow a low-carb diet, then cutting carbs too early in the week will leave you feeling worn out, making it more difficult to find the mental resolve necessary to sweat out those last few pounds. (Of course, it’s a different story if you’re used to a low-carb diet — see the point about consistency above.)

Know How to Sweat.

As I explain below, I prefer to sweat in a hot water bath, but for that to work, I have to have extremely hot water. When I’m traveling or during the winter, it’s sometimes impossible to know in advance whether I’ll be able to find water that’s hot enough, so I make sure to have a backup plan. Usually, that’s a sauna at a 24-Hour Fitness, which are pretty ubiquitous in the U.S. I go so far as to call them up in advance to make sure the sauna’s working and set hot enough for that purpose. It’s always a good idea to have a sweating plan, even if you’re not planning on cutting weight — just in case you wake up before weigh-ins a pound overweight.

Know How to Rehydrate.

So many people cut weight successfully and then throw all that hard work away before the meet ever starts. Rehydrating is absolutely crucial to your performance on the platform: you need to regain all the weight you lost during the cut, without feeling sluggish or overly bloated.

My Protocol for Extreme Weight Loss

I strongly recommend against cutting significant amounts of weight for powerlifting. It’s not a healthy practice and it will probably hurt your performance on the platform. If you cut weight at all, you should consider about 5% of your target bodyweight the upper limit for short-term weight loss. That means if you want to compete in the 198-pound weight class, you should weigh no more than 208 the week before weighing in.

Keep in mind also that I compete with a 24-hour weigh in. Cutting and rehydrating for a 24-hour weigh in is extremely difficult, but rehydrating for a 2-hour weigh in is nearly impossible when cutting any significant amount of weight. Also, keep in mind that the use of an IV for rehydrating is often banned for events with 2-hour weigh-ins.

Six Weeks Out

At six weeks out from the meet, I’ll typically weigh about 215-220 pounds — well over 15% above my target goal weight. Cuts that large might be physically possible, but they’re more than I’m comfortable attempting. So it’s around this point that I adjust my diet to drop to a more manageable weight, by reducing my carbs on training days by about 30%, and my fats on off days by 50%. (Note: I don’t necessarily recommend that same approach to reducing for everyone: you need to find what works for you, and diet is a topic for another day.)

Also keep in mind that I eat a clean, consistent diet almost every day of the year. That means small changes in my diet produce big results, and it’s very easy to see how macro- and micronutrients affect my weight. That’s a huge advantage when attempting drastic weight cuts. If you don’t pay so much attention to your diet, though, that might mean you can lose even more weight by cleaning it up. If you’re not so lean or don’t stay consistent with your food, I recommend giving yourself even more than six weeks to get on track before attempting any water cut.

Immediately before my biggest cut last October, I had my bodyfat measured 4.7% (tested with calipers). Now, that number is probably not accurate, but clearly, I was very lean, and could not reasonably lose any more weight without sacrificing muscle or risking injury. I had also noticed some important trends in my daily weight fluctuations: I tended to weigh about three pounds less the morning after a training day, as compared to the morning after an off day. That became important later on. Regardless of how much weight you plan on losing before the meet, as you approach your goal “walking weight” (your weight before attempting a water cut), you’ll want to note the average daily fluctuation in your bodyweight. It’ll differ from day to day, and that’s okay — you just want to have a pretty good idea of how much you drop overnight.

Two Weeks Out

Somewhere between two weeks and ten days out, I begin really dialing things in, and here daily changes became crucial. I’ll decrease my food volume slightly, cutting my vegetable intake (usually pretty high) in half, and up my sodium intake quite a bit (just by over-salting everything I eat). I make sure to drink at least two gallons of fluids per day.

Weigh-In Week

At this point, there is absolutely zero room for error. At my last meet, I made the mistake of assuming that I could deal with several pretty significant commitments outside my weight cut (traveling to Los Angeles, filming with Chad Wesley Smith at Juggernaut, presenting an address to the North American Society of Sport History, and teaching class at the University of Texas). As a result, I wasn’t properly “tuned” to be ready to lift, I had a damned hard time sweating enough out to make weight, and my performance overall suffered for it. Don’t make that mistake: if you’re trying to cut upwards of 5% of your target bodyweight, you must be entirely dedicated to that process the week of the meet.

Monday

Assuming a Friday-morning weigh-in, Monday is usually a very light training day for me, designed to boost my metabolism and keep fresh without significantly impacting recovery. I take a bodybuilding-style workout with light weight and high repetitions, training the entire body but avoiding compound lifts. My macros generally follow my standard training-day plan, but at this point I begin to decrease sodium significantly and continue to water load.

Tuesday

This is typically my last workout before the meet. I take light singles on squat and bench press -- about 50% of my planned third attempt -- and do some ab work. This workout is designed just to stay loose, mentally and physically. After my workout, which I perform in the morning, I cut out all carbs and sodium, and switch from tap to distilled water, making sure to still take in a total of 2.5 gallons throughout the course of the day.

Wednesday

On Wednesday, things start to get tougher. I eat only lean protein from low-sodium sources (I usually use tilapia) and drink 3 gallons of distilled water. From now until after weighing in, I perform as little physical activity as possible.

Thursday

The day before weigh-ins, when I wake up, I take 1,000 mg of dandelion root extract, 100 mg of potassium, and 200 mg of caffeine, and eat about 8 ounces of salmon. Throughout the morning, I will sip on black coffee and have another 8 ounces of salmon or some peanut butter, but after about 1 PM, I avoid all food and drink. I take 1,000 mg of dandelion root and 100 mg of potassium twice more throughout the day.

I prefer sweating the morning of weigh-ins, not the day before, because I want to be at my weight class for only as long as absolutely necessary. I like to sweat in a hot water bath, using this method:

  • I fill the tub with hot water first, which really needs to be scalding hot for this method to work. I wait until it cools to the point that it's just barely manageable.
  • Then I close the bathroom door, put towels under the door so no steam can escape, and turn on the shower at full heat and get in the tub.
  • I stay in the tub for as long as I can, which at first is about ten minutes. Then I get out, dry off with a towel, and stay in the bathroom for as long as I can (at first about another ten minutes).
  • Once I can't stand to stay in the bathroom anymore, I turn off the shower, leave, keep the bathroom door closed, and just sit by a fan until I'm ready to go back in (about another ten minutes)
  • I just repeat all that until I'm at my target weight. Since I can't sleep well on an empty stomach I usually just do it the morning of weigh-ins, and that way I'm at weight for only a very brief period of time.

Without access to scalding-hot water, this method won’t work. In that case, I’m better off using a sauna, but it takes longer and I find it to be harder on my body.

Rehydrating

It seems like many athletes view making weight as something worthy of celebration, and immediately go stuff their faces with junk food in order to “rehydrate.” In reality, the reward for making weight is the chance to compete in a lower weight class. Whether you take that reward seriously or not is up to you, but I don’t see the point in cutting any significant amount of weight if you choose to to hit up IHOP as soon as you hop off the meet scale.


RELATED: Meeting the Scale: The Art of Making Weight


Rehydrating correctly is crucial to a good performance the next day. Your first priority should be to consume some type of electrolyte fluid with some carbohydrates; I use Pedialyte, but diluted Gatorade or any other generic sports drink would probably work, too. I drink half a gallon of Pedialyte and another gallon of regular tap water within two hours of making weight. Your first solid-food meal should contain some easily digestible carbohydrates; like fruit with salt, but make sure whatever you choose is easy on the stomach. It’s beneficial to wait a short while after you start drinking to begin eating, especially if you feel nauseated after you start drinking.

Thirty to 45 minutes after that first meal, you can eat something more substantial with some protein content. Whatever you choose should be high in carbohydrates and salt, low in fat, and with a moderate amount of easily-digestible protein. It should also be a food that you eat regularly! If you upset your stomach at this point, you’re just going to make the rehydration process more difficult. I usually go with my typical preworkout meal: whole-wheat pancakes made with protein powder and fruit.

Throughout the rest of the day, you need to continue to eat small meals every two hours and to consume at least another gallon of water. Your meals from this point on should be balanced in carbohydrates, protein, and fats, and high in salt. I usually eat three meals each consisting of about 6 ounces of chicken, 6 ounces of salmon or fatty ground beef, and a couple sweet potatoes. I also eat several large pickles with each meal.

Personally, I also prefer to use an IV after cutting weight. Most big cities offer some sort of IV therapy spas or services, but if you go this route, make sure you’re getting enough fluid -- many of them offer only 500mL treatments, which won’t be enough to make a big difference in your hydration. I usually take 2000-3000 mL of normal saline; it’s a fast, easy, and fairly affordable way to speed your hydration. IVs should only be administered under the supervision of a medical professional.

Conclusion

Personally, I enjoy cutting weight, in a masochistic way. It’s become part of my meet prep ritual, and the first few sips of ice-cold Pedialyte taste sweeter than anything else in the world. I also benefit mentally from knowing that I have an edge over my competitors who can’t efficiently cut as much weight as I can. Ultimately, this type of cut is extremely effective if you have the discipline to do it right, but it’s also very hard on the body and the mind.

Again, if you do decide to drop weight for any kind of athletic competition, make sure to do so under a doctor’s supervision, and don’t be discouraged if it proves more difficult than you imagined. If you have any questions or are the least bit uncertain, don’t do it!

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