Ahhh, weight cutting. Some call it barbaric, and others call it essential to maintaining a competitive edge. Like it or not, it’s embedded into the dynamics of MMA competition. It contributes to the drama of MMA culture as well (Did Joanna’s weight cut really affect her performance against Rose, or as so many people suggest, is it just a silly excuse for an embarrassing loss?). Adding to the multiple layers of complexity is the fact that women’s weight-cutting experiences differ greatly from those of men.
First of all, studies like this one show that losing weight in and of itself of generally more difficult for women than for men. There are a couple biological factors at play. For the most part, men are bigger and more muscular than women. Their metabolisms are a quicker as a result, and require greater caloric intake to maintain their weight. Even if they slightly reduce the numbers of calories they consume, they are likely to lose weight.
There are also hormones to consider. Research indicates that women typically have much greater levels of progesterone and estrogen than men do, for instance, and they lead to more intense food cravings. Of course, women usually have far less testosterone than men – and testosterone promotes muscle-building and fat loss.
Valerie Letourneau is no stranger to the challenges of weight cutting. She struggled for years to drop to 115 pounds for the UFC’s strawweight division, ultimately moving to Bellator to fight at the much more comfortable weight of 125 pounds (just missing the introduction of UFC’s flyweight division).
In December 2017, Letourneau told MMAFighting.com, “Boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, condition – it’s very easy to over-train. Then, on top of that, you have to worry about losing weight…I feel like for a long time all I was thinking about was staying light, so now at flyweight I think I can get back to normal so I can focus on my performance and being strong and healthy.”
So what does all this mean for weight cutting? For women, weighing less than men obviously means they can’t shave off as many pounds. More specifically, their higher body fat percentages limit the possibility of losing as much water weight (fat repels water, so it’s difficult to make an impact via a water cut). Due to having less muscle mass than men, women can’t rely as much on losing much from glycogen (which is found in muscle and the liver).
Now let’s get back to the hormones. With stable levels of testosterone, men can deplete their stores of glycogen and water and expect predictable outcomes. Therefore, they can cut a significant amount of weight in a shorter amount of time than women. The fluctuating amounts of progesterone and estrogen that women deal with happen to interfere with energy metabolism and water retention. This makes weight cutting more unpredictable and time consuming.
“On a few occasions, I can remember being in a sauna with a male teammate…After twenty minutes, he would have already lost three pounds and I would be stuck 0.8 of a pound or something,” said Letourneau. “I’m doing exactly the same thing as the guy next to me! We don’t lose water as easily and we have to prepare our bodies beforehand for losing all of that water…I remember one time I got some help from my friend…he couldn’t believe how much time I had to spend in the sauna to get on weight…All of the guys had come and gone and got themselves on weight. I had started by cut before them and I was still there after, it was taking forever.”
The bottom line is that female athletes are likeliest to be successful when they take their cuts slowly and holistically, with ample expert guidance. This way, they can tweak their strategies as necessary, with minimal disruption to their progress – and remain as physically sound as possible. As Letourneau says, “Weight cutting for women is a different game and you’ve got to work with somebody who knows about that to make sure you can do it the healthiest way.”