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Cutting Weight

Tara jogs in a hooded USA sweatshirt, attempting to cut weight. Shot of Tara’s legs and feet as she stands on a scale before a competition. Tara and her friends sit at a restaurant table with trays of food and drink. Tara is not eating.

Despite well-publicized medical dangers, “cutting weight,” or rapid weight reduction, remains popular among both male and female amateur wrestlers. Wrestlers traditionally lose weight for two reasons: to gain an alleged advantage over a smaller opponent, and/or to wrestle at a weight class that ensures that they don’t have to compete with another team member. Competing in a lower weight class is often just a matter of losing a few pounds.

“I was supposed to be 115, but I was four pounds over. That’s why I decided to run. I didn’t think I could lose that. The last time I [tried to cut weight], I got really sick.”
—Tara Neal, GIRL WRESTLER

Statistics
  • High school and collegiate wrestlers report “cutting” an average of four to five pounds in a week.
  • Twenty percent of wrestlers can lose as much as six to seven pounds in a week.
  • One-third of wrestlers report repeating the practice of weight cutting more than ten times in one season.
  • Wrestling accounts for almost three in four instances of eating disorders among male athletes.
  • Male high school wrestlers have on average eight to eleven percent body fat, well below their high school peers, who average 15 percent. During wrestling season, wrestlers typically have six to seven percent body fat.

But losing these few pounds—especially in as short of a time as a few days or hours—can be difficult and dangerous, leading to impaired muscle recovery, cardiac complications and even death. Methods used by wrestlers for rapid weight loss include severe dehydration, caloric restriction, diuretics, diet pills, laxatives, rubber exercise suits and vomiting. Wrestling accounts for almost three in four instances of eating disorders among male athletes. Tara Neal, in GIRL WRESTLER, even considered a change in hairstyle as a possible way to shave off a few ounces in order to compete in a lower weight class: “We were going to cut my hair,” she said. “That’s how desperate I was.”

In 1997, the deaths of three college wrestlers—including 21-year-old Jeff Reese, who died from heart and kidney failure while attempting to lose 12 pounds in one day—brought the practice of cutting weight to national attention and prompted many colleges and high schools to be more vigilant about controlling these unhealthy practices. The National Federation of State High School Associations recommended a seven percent minimum body fat limit for male high school wrestlers and a twelve percent body fat limit for female wrestlers. The National Collegiate Athletic Association also banned weight cutting practices such as using laxatives and rubber or plastic exercise suits and mandated that weigh-ins take place within one or two hours of wrestling matches. Five years later, these revamped rules may have been successful, as a study that followed a Division I wrestling team has found that most team members increase their wrestling competition weight in the span of two years.

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