Gather ’round, boys and girls, let me tell you a story. I’ll narrate, for you, in explicit detail, the first time I attempted a water cut for a powerlifting meet.
Meet day was Saturday, weigh-ins on Friday. All year, it had been my goal to get my elite-level meet total- 704 pounds with my bench, squat, and deadlift combined in the 56kg (123 pound) weight class. On Monday, I weighed in at 127.0. Of course, considering I’m an estimated 16% body fat, it would be absolutely impossible to lose 4 pounds in less than a week, and so I embarked on the powerlifting tradition of water cutting.
Water cutting for a sport is simple: you dehydrate your body in order to show a smaller number on the scale for weigh-ins, then rehydrate before you have to perform. Of course, there is a limit to how much water you can take out of your body before it is dangerous, and yes, people like MMA fighters and boxers, as well as weight class strength sport athletes have taken it too far before. I will not pretend that it is the “healthiest” practice, but it is a reality of many competitive athletes, and can be done within safe parameters, with proper rehydrating after. I’m lucky: my federation performs weigh-ins 24 hours prior to the actual competition, leaving plenty of time for recovery. This is done by first over saturating your body with water- water loading, which kickstarts your body into eliminating the water as quickly as possibly, followed by a period of restricting water, while your body continues to eliminate as it did in the days prior, effectively removing the excess water and then some. Ideally.
Sunday, I drank 200 ounces, about a gallon and a half, which is only slightly more than my normal (around 130 ounces). I did not find this difficult in the least. I kept track using my FitBit app, adding the water each time I filled my water bottle or other vessel. My Klean Kanteen is 32 ounces, and whenever I drank something other than water, I measured it in a glass pyrex measuring cup before pouring it into the appropriate vessel. Yes, this means I counted tea, coffee, BCAAs+creatine… it’s all water, folks. Alllll water.
In addition to increasing my fluid intake, I also increased my sodium intake slightly and began tapering my carb intake down. Remember, the idea was to saturate my tissues with water- and we all know how much water we can hold with a little sodium bloat. I am not a heavy food-salter, normally, and I don’t gravitate towards salty snacks, so this was actually perhaps the hardest part at this point. I added a few sprinkles of salt to my BCAAs+creatine for the day, and a few sprinkles to the powdered peanut butter I ate with celery in the afternoon, then made a stir fry with fermented black bean garlic sauce for dinner to help boost my sodium intake. My water intake did not effect my lifting for the day, the first day of my deload for peak week… though I did take a pee break before deadlifts, because I hear sometimes girls pee, and I wasn’t risking it.
I kept this level of intake on Monday, as well. I still felt great. I was peeing a few extra times each day, butnothing unbearable. The only trouble I had was my back-to-back third and fourth period classes, with no break in between. By the end of fourth, I was crossing my legs and doing that little hippity hop potty dance a little. The bell could not have rung any slower.
Tuesday, though, started to get a bit rough. I woke up at 127.2. A full 2 gallons was the plan. TWO. Around 250 ounces. Sodium was still high- luckily I realized Tajin has lots of salt, so I just started putting Tajin on, like, everything. Two gallons is, by the way, a fuckton of fucking water. As a reminder, I’m not a big person- I’m 5’2″ and, like I said, 127 pounds. Two gallons might as well be a swimming pool. But I persevered. I had read all the things, watched the YouTube videos, talked to the powerlifting friends who had done this before. This was the method. Stick to it. I drank my two gallons, I peed every freaking hour- the clearest pee, by the way- I probably just could have redrank it. I didn’t, though. But just saying. It was now a struggle to get through my water, and I brought my water bottle to bed with me, determined to get it in my belly before zonking out for the night. My husband made fun of me a little, but commended me on my tenacity.
I woke up Wednesday feeling absolutely wretched. I was literally SWOLLEN from all the water. The scale put me at 127.8. My skin felt stretched and tight, and I didn’t even want to drink my morning coffee. Another 2 gallon day- the last day of loading. I could not have been more grouchy as I got my day started. I put on the stretchiest leggings and filled my water containers. Angrily.
Now here’s something I fucked up. I was supposed to take my sodium down on this day. But I misread my spreadsheet, and kept it high. High-water-high-sodium. In my brain, this made sense. Avoiding hyponatremia, obviously, try to keep the balance, right? WRONG. I realized it midway through the day, my mistake, but I couldn’t unconsumed what I had already eaten. Bringing sodium down on this day would have helped me to release some of the sodium bloat that I had purposely accumulated, flushing it out again with the obscene amount of water I was drinking, much like drinking extra water the day after hitting the buffet a little too hard helps to flush out the bloat.
I was miserable all day. My clothes were touching me too much, my skin was sore. I felt like a pickle- just soaking in water, water logged. You probably saw me complaining about it on Snap Chat. I hated everything on Wednesday. I was grouchy and mean and full of pee. My husband was nervous to even cuddle me in bed Wednesday night because I kept on telling him I was a water balloon and he didn’t want to pop me.
Thursday, the day before weigh-ins, I woke up still feeling water logged. On this day, however, I would drastically cut my intake. I measured out 10 ounces of coffee, filled up my shaker with 20 ounces for my BCAAs and creatine, and then filled my water bottle. I was to enjoy the coffee, sip the BCAAs, and sip the water only as needed- a drastic decrease in fluid volume indeed. My food for the day was to be as close to zero carbs as possible, and low volume, no salt, in order to flush as much water and muscle glycogen out of my body and matter out of my gut as possible as well. I was to finish consuming all of my food and water before 5pm. In addition, to help with the emptying out of the gut, I took a mild laxative with the last of my food, knowing full well that pooping while dehydrated would not be an easy task in the morning. (I was very thankful for this foresight on Friday.) It was almost a welcome reprieve to have such little obligation to my drinking vessels that morning. I woke up at 129.2 pounds that morning: pickled.
I packed my food for the day, which was decidedly one of the most difficult food days I have ever encountered- way harder than any bodybuilding peak week food prep. No carbs. No sodium. Low volume. I ended up browning some round turkey and tossing some fresh basil from the garden and balsamic with it (sounds ok, but I assure you, without salt, it was terrible), some fresh mozzarella, a can of tuna (yes yes, trace sodium, but seriously…) mixed with a tiny dollop of Greek yogurt and some Mrs. Dash (no hot sauce because why is there so much sodium in hot sauce?), 3 hard boiled eggs (again with Mrs. Dash), and a handful of raw walnuts and hazelnuts. It was pitifully little food, but I had exhausted all of the options in my house that met the qualifications of the day. It ended up being a little under 1200 calories, but honestly, I didn’t even care. The food was so bland and terrible to consume that I didn’t want to eat any more anyhow.
Midmorning, Zack sent me a text: “How’s your peeing going?” I still felt so FULL. My bloat was not subsiding. My peeing was not going well. I stepped on the scale in the school nurse’s office, to see that no change had occurred. My body felt sluggish and my brain seemed to be not on the same page with it anyhow- my students were surprised at how spacey and out of it I seemed. I could barely hold a conversation, much less teach. By the time I got home from work, around 5pm, the scale said 128.8- I had lost 0.4 pounds over the course of my day. This was not what I was promised. With no other options in sight, I sent my husband off to his fancy work Christmas party alone, and I headed to the sauna at one of the Navy base gyms to sweat it out.
I spent over two hours hopping in and out of the sauna. I do not handle heat well, so upon getting light headed, I would need to take breaks. I would hop out, dry off, weigh myself, take a seat in the hallway for a few minutes, and get back in. Two. Hours. At one point, I was very, very close to blacking out- my vision was closing in… I had stayed in a little too long. I knew I was pushing it. I checked my weight, once my head stabilized a little, and I knew I wasn’t in dangerous territory yet, based on how much water I hadn’t lost. I felt confident that I was within the realm of safe up to about 4-5% of my body weight lost, and I was still sitting right around where I had started the week- an overall loss of 0%.
I was at the sauna long enough to have what my husband later called “four acts,” each with a different sauna partner character:
Act 1: Guy Who Listens to His Headphones So Fucking Loud I Can Hear It Over My Podcast
Act 2: I’m Only Here For a Second (wholly unremarkable, in and out quickly, no conversation)
Act 3 (the most interesting character of the night): Nipple Sweat
Act 4: Actual Nice Guy Who Was Fun to Talk To
Act 3… the moment he got in he took off his pants. The rules say you can’t take off your damn pants. Then he starts stretching and stuff over in the corner. Ok. Until I hazard a glance his way after hearing him moaning and catch him sensually rubbing the sweat into his arms and torso with his legs contorted into some crazy pretzel stretch using his pants as an assistive device to keep them that way… and he pinches his nipples. At that point I needed a fucking break and went and sat outside on the hallway floor. He stayed for a ridiculously long time- he later told me his objective was to stay until he stopped sweating, at which point I told him he would at that point need medical care and please don’t put that on me, not tonight. He literally crawled out of the sauna- luckily before that point. I was too drained to care anyhow.
I dried off, changed out of my soaked gym attire, and headed home, feeling drained, the gym scale clocking me in at 125.2 pounds. On the way home, I stopped and picked up three packs of fruity sugar free gum, feeling confident that I would need them in the morning. By this point, I had started to feel thirst unlike anything I had ever experienced before- I was literally fantasizing about water. I leashed up the dog for a walk upon arriving home, and realized about a block down the road that I had grabbed a handful of ice cubes to take with me on my walk. I just held them in my hands. Occasionally I would put one in my mouth just to hold or to crunch into tiny ice pieces, then spit out the cold water and crushed ice. I had never been more sad in my life than the moment I realized what I was doing. Nearly delirious, feeling broken and defeated, I threw myself into my bed without even showering.
Cue one of the worst nights of my life.
This was on par with those first few nights after I got eye surgery.
It is physically impossible to sleep when you are thirsty to the point of feeling that it is almost painful. I slept fewer than 2 hours, tossing and turning, miserable, in and out of fitful dreams and that weird half-awake status where everything is a little scary and you aren’t sure what is real. At some point, my husband arrived home from the Christmas party and I was terrified that I was being mean to him on accident- happily, he reported to me that I wasn’t, though I was a bit “odd,” which he chalked up to being sleepy. It felt like I was on some kind of drug, and not a fun one.
I woke up at 123.8 pounds at 4:45am. I had two choices: try and lose the 0.8 pounds before the morning weigh-ins at 9am, and call in to work to get classroom coverage for my first to periods to do so, or go the entire day without food or water- teaching all of my classes and going to my afternoon meetings before going to the 5pm weigh-ins. The former would be difficult, but the latter sounded like the worst torture, and a recipe for failure. I honestly did not think I could make it through the day. I text another teacher in my department who had agreed to cover my first class, then called the school to tell them I wouldn’t be in until later and needed someone to take my second class. I bundled up in a few layers of clothes, popped some gum in my mouth, and Fritter and I embarked on a fast-paced, sweet inducing, saliva spitting walk. The gum, which I replaced with a new piece every couple of blocks, stimulated my salivary glands to spit out whatever remaining water I had left in my body. Chew and spit, chew and spit, walk faster… poor Fritter.
By 8 am, when I walked out the door with my bag full of lifting gear, I was at 122.8, according to my scale. I felt terrible, but I had made it. Although weigh-ins weren’t until 9, I headed to the gym. I needed to be first to get my gear checked and weigh in if I was going to make it to work on time for my fifth period class.
Ultimately, I weighed in at 55.5kg, half a kilo inside the 56kg weight class. I had made it.
Even before I stepped out of the gym to drive to work, I had drank half a shaker bottle of BCAAs, and I had Pedialyte waiting for me in the car to replenish lost electrolytes- I would sip this throughout the day. I had a protein bar and half a box of cereal on my way to work, and I started to feel human again. In the time it took me to drive to work, I realized I had left my work keys at home, I had taken my husband’s car keys, I didn’t have my planner for school, and I didn’t have a lunch. If I’m 100% honest, I probably was not ok to drive to weigh-ins. My head was not on straight at all, and it’s a miracle I managed to get there without smashing my car into something or someone. I was glad to have a full 24 hours to recover, replenishing electrolytes, water, and food.
Prior meets, I have simply stayed within my weigh class and not had to bother with cutting water. This year, I gave myself permission to grow, following my bodybuilding season. I made the conscious decision to not stay as lean this winter as I have previously- for my health, and for the purpose of making as much progress as possible before my pro debut in the spring. Had this just been any meet, for me, I would have simply gone up a weight class, but this was the meet I was to get my elite level met total, a 704 combined total on bench, squat, and deadlift, and in order for that to happen, I needed to compete in the 123s. I was not confident that I could get the 132 class elite total, in the 740s (though ultimately I did). I would not advocate cutting a significant amount of water weight just to do so- especially if it’s a first or second meet. Without that very specific goal, or an attempt at breaking a record, I would say it’s not worth the stress and the difficulty and the recoup. Properly fueling into a meet has served me well in the past, and I think I’ll be moving to the 132s going forward.
Will I attempt a water cut again in the future? Possibly, if necessary. I think I know where I messed up- the sodium at 2 days out. I do know that this was not a pleasant experience, though, and I will be doing my best to avoid having to recreate it in the future.