Weight management is an important part of weight-classified sports, including wrestling. It is important for the pediatric health care provider to understand the demands of the sport, the nature of weight-classification, methods of determining minimal competition weights, and to recognize safe and unsafe methods of weight management.
What Criteria Are Used to Determine an Appropriate Weight Class for a Wrestler?
As outlined by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), each individual state high school association must develop and use a specific weight-management program.1 The purpose of these programs is to determine appropriate weight classification for each individual wrestler and allow for optimal athletic performance in a fully hydrated and normally nourished state. The rules and procedures of each program may vary slightly, but all are designed to support this goal. All programs share the common features of hydration status determination, baseline hydrated weight, and baseline body density.
To determine an accurate overall body composition, the student-athlete must be hydrated. Although it is not a perfect measure of hydration status, the urine specific gravity test is the preferred method of ensuring adequate hydration. There are several methods of measuring specific gravity, including refractometry, litmus tests, and color charts. One of these methods is performed as the first step in the initial assessment of each athlete. A urine specific gravity more than 1.025 (or >1.020 in some organizations, including the National Collegiate Athletic Association [NCAA]) indicates that the athlete is dehydrated and must wait at least 24 hours until retesting can be performed. If the sample is determined to be adequately dilute, the wrestler can move on to the second step, which must be performed immediately after the urine testing.1
Baseline Hydrated Weight
Next, the wrestler is weighed, and the measurement is recorded as the baseline hydrated body weight.1
Baseline Body Density
Body density (the proportion of fat in the human body compared to its overall mass) is then determined. This value may be attained by skin-fold measurement with calipers, underwater weighing with direct measure of residual volume, or air displacement plethysmography analysis. Skin-fold measurement is the most commonly used method due to practicality and ease of use.1 There are a variety of methods for calculating body fat percentage from skin-fold measurements, but the most commonly used technique is the Lohman-Brozek method. This method uses three skin-fold sites, as well as age, weight, and gender to estimate body density.
Regardless of what method is used to determine baseline body density, the body density can be plugged into the NFHS online “Optimal Performance Calculator,”2 which uses hydrated body weight and body density to determine the percentage of body fat and the lowest allowable weight.1
The lowest allowable weight is the athlete's projected total body weight at the lowest allowable body fat. The lowest allowable body fat is typically 7% for high school boys and 12% for high school girls. The lowest allowable body fat is 5% for college athletes. Most federation guidelines state that the athlete may not cross below this body fat percentage threshold and remain in competition.1
The lowest allowable weight may also be affected by the amount of time remaining between initial assessment and competition. To ensure that weight loss is due to fat loss, rather than dehydration, athletes may not lose more than 1.5% of their body weight each week starting on the Monday of the week of their initial assessment. Depending on the number of weeks left in competition, the lowest allowable weight, then, is no lower than the number of weeks left multiplied by 1.5% of initial body weight. Whichever of the two calculations for lowest allowable weight is higher becomes the minimum wrestling weight for that individual athlete.1 The lowest weight class a wrestler may compete in is the nearest weight class above their minimum wrestling weight. For example, if a male athlete weighs 136 pounds with 7% body fat, he will be placed into the 140-pound weight class as his lowest class for competition and would be prohibited from competing at 135 pounds.
Each state program must also outline the appropriate proceedings if a wrestler has less than the minimum required body fat at the time of body composition assessment. In most states, the wrestler cannot certify at a weight class less than their actual weight at the time of assessment, even with a physician's written release. If, however, a wrestler's percentage of body fat at the time of body composition assessment is below 7% (or 12% for female wrestlers), then the wrestler may wrestle at their baseline hydrated weight with a physician's written release.1 This release must be obtained with each new season and state: “It is my medical opinion that the above-named wrestler is naturally below 7% (for males)/12% (for females) body fat and can compete in a safe and healthy manner at a weight class that may be below their weight predicted at 7%/12% body fat without compromise of normal growth and development.”1 This determination is up to the discretion of the releasing physician. There are no useful tools to help determine whether the athlete is maintaining a low body fat through safe or unsafe means.
What Are Important Tips to Share with Wrestlers and Families about Participating at Appropriate Weight Classes?
The goals of each state's weight management program are to:
Encourage wrestlers to compete at a hydrated, well-nourished healthy weight.
Accurately establish a safe, minimum wrestling weight for each individual.
Provide a weight-loss plan for wrestlers who choose to lose weight.
Provide nutrition education and diet planning information to wrestlers and parents.
When talking to athletes and their families about appropriate wrestling weight, the focus should be on optimal health and performance. Body composition (body fat, lean mass, and body water) can be emphasized as more important than absolute body weight for athletic performance. Athletes should be aware that their body composition can affect both their strength and agility.3 The goal of weight certification programs should be to attain a state at which the athlete is optimizing athletic performance, rather than meeting the minimal-allowable weight class.
This optimal performance can, in part, be achieved by maximizing the amount of total weight that is occupied by muscle mass or advantageous “usable weight,” or lean body mass, as compared to an excessive percentage of body fat. Total body weight can be divided into lean body mass (muscle, bone, blood, organs) and fat tissue (essential fat that protects vital organs and nonessential fat).3 Lean muscle mass and bloodstream volume are the largest component of water in the body and provide the energy and power needed to perform. For most well-nourished athletes, lean muscle mass should be greater than the 25th percentile.4 Likewise, maintaining essential fat is important because adipose tissue provides vital benefits, including absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, myelination of the central nervous system, phospholipids in cell membranes, synthesis of prostaglandins and leukotrienes, long-term energy, and organ protection, and are a part of the neuroendocrine axis.5 The amount of fat that is essential differs between male and female athletes and is estimated at approximately 5% to 7% and 12%, respectively, which are the basis of the “lowest allowable weight” in wrestling weight-management programs.1
Adipose tissue does not store water nor does it provide the energy and power needed during competition (although some free fatty acids can be mobilized during endurance activities). Lean muscle mass and short-term energy stores require appropriate maintenance of blood volume and intracellular fluid, making hydration crucial to optimal performance.6 These fluid spaces are in a dynamic state and, subsequently, rapid fluctuations in weight may occur depending on body temperature, exercise level, and salt and fluid losses. Through normal training (while fueled and hydrated) an average athlete's weight may shift by as much as 2% to 3% of total body weight in a single workout, primarily through fluid losses.5 This rapid fluctuation is a concern for all athletes, particularly those participating in weight-determined competition, and is the basis for the rules of allowable weight loss over time as well as weigh-in time as it relates to competition time.
Most high school federations mandate that wrestlers weigh-in 1 hour prior to competition. This discourages athletes from using methods of rapid weight reduction to reach a lower weight classification prior to competition while still being able to perform at a high level. Re-establishing fluid homeostasis after significant fluid loss may take up to 24 to 48 hours.7 Replenishing muscle glycogen may take as long as 72 hours,8 and replacing lean tissue may take even longer. In the setting of a 1-hour weigh-in, there is simply not enough time for an athlete to recover from intentional dehydration or calorie restriction and be able to compete at an optimum level only 1 hour later.
The effects of underhydration emerge rapidly, and there is a reduction in the body's ability to maintain thermoregulation with as little as 1% dehydration.6 At 2% dehydration, endurance is diminished. At 3% to 4% dehydration, muscle strength is impaired. And at 4% to 6% dehydration, temperature regulation is severely impaired and predisposes an athlete to a heat-related illness.3 At all levels, weight loss due to dehydration results in suboptimal performance due to impaired reaction time, electrolyte imbalances, and metabolic acidosis. It may also result in temporary learning deficits, decreased concentration ability, lethargy, mood swings, and changes in cognition.5
Fluids should be consumed before, during, and after workouts to avoid dehydration, lower core body temperature, and lessen cardiac strain.6 Intake of 1 to 2 L of electrolyte-rich fluid per hour should be sufficient to offset losses from sweating. It is important to remember thirst is a late indicator of dehydration, especially in adolescents.4 The best method of determining rehydration needs after exercise is to weigh the athlete before and after activity with instructions to consume 16 ounces of fluid for every pound lost. Replacement fluids should contain carbohydrate and sodium for optimal absorption.4
Many methods of rapid weight reduction are banned by state and college federations. Wrestlers are not permitted to use saunas, steam baths, impermeable garments (sauna suits), or diuretics to decrease body weight. Other medical methods of weight restriction, including laxative and stimulant abuse, are also banned, but are less commonly used. It is generally safe and permissible to restrict nutrients with high osmotic loads, such as salts and fiber, in the days prior to a weigh-in to reduce the amount of retained body water and to lower weight.
Competing in an appropriate weight class allows room for weight gain throughout the season in the form of lean muscle mass, resulting in a stronger and more powerful athlete. This gives athletes the opportunity to focus on overall nutritional quality without concern for altering their competition parameters. In general, athletes require more calories than nonathletes.9 Athletes must consume enough calories to provide for both baseline energy requirements of normal living and growth as well as the requirements of activity, building and repairing muscle mass, and nutrient replacement. These additional athletic functions require increased total energy availability, defined as the energy remaining for physiologic functioning after accounting for energy expenditure normalized to fat-free mass.5 Inadequate energy availability results in negative physiologic effects, ranging from metabolic changes and abnormal hormone profiles to impaired bone health and use of lean muscle mass for fuel, with deleterious effects on athletic performance.6 These effects are particularly prominent in adolescent athletes who are also actively growing.6
If necessary, it is best for the athlete to lose weight outside of the competitive season. Even then, the goal should be to decrease total body weight by maintaining muscle and reducing body fat. Each pound of weight loss per week requires a net deficit of 500 calories per day. However, maximum rate of fat mobilization each week is only 1.5% of total body weight, so excessive caloric deficit will result in muscle catabolism and subsequent decreased performance capacity.5
Instead, it is recommended to decrease total energy intake by 10% to 20% to achieve weight loss without nutrient deprivation. General healthy-eating strategies apply to athletes just as they do in the general population. Portion awareness, nutrient variety, limiting intake of processed foods, and favoring whole, fresh options are simple, important, and often-overlooked methods of weight control. If determined to be appropriate, athletes may reduce fat intake but should be counseled on the controversial evidence surrounding fat intake and fat metabolism. A low-fat diet will not guarantee weight loss unless a total negative energy balance is achieved.5
Dietary protein is recommended to support maintenance of lean tissue. Athletes should be reminded that protein is less calorie-dense than fat, with only 4 calories per gram of protein compared with 9 calories per gram of fat.5 Suggested protein sources include low-fat dairy, lean meats, fish, and poultry. Additional protein and amino acid supplementation has not been shown to positively influence athletic performance,8 and currently the American Dietetic Association recommends use of protein supplementation only for optimizing training response during periods of recovery between training sessions.5
Even though 7% body fat has been established as the lowest acceptable amount for male wrestlers in high school, not every wrestler can or should attempt to reach this mark. Most athletes will perform well at percentages higher than this. Moreover, there is no evidence that wrestling performance will improve simply by losing weight.10 A wrestler's individual lowest certifiable weight is not a goal to be achieved. Athletes should be encouraged to compete at the weight that optimizes their performance, which may be well above their lowest allowable weight.
Once weight certification is completed, the competitive season may begin and the nutrition focus shifts to weight maintenance. This requires balancing calories and shifting fuel types to support training and recovery needs. Underfueling or misfueling will undermine training efforts. There are natural patterns of weight fluctuation during training, primarily due to fluctuations in hydration, but also due to shifts in glycogen and food byproducts remaining in the body. Allowing higher weights early on in the training week may allow achievement of the target weight by each weigh-in, all while enabling the body to receive the energy and nutrients it needs to peak by competition time.4