Weight Issues In

Wrestling

 

By: Mike Viscardi

 

 

NCAA ResponseThe ProblemThe SolutionsConclusionsReferences

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What do Billy Saylor (19 years old) at Campbell University in North Carolina, Joseph LaRosa (22) at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and Jeff Reese (21) at the University of Michigan all have in common? They are all dead now, victims of one of the ghastly secrets of college wrestling. All three boys were engaged in dehydrating practices trying to lose weight in order to qualify for their first college-wrestling matches. Reese was trying to lose 17 pounds so that he could wrestle in the 150-pound weight class. His two-hour workout in a rubber suit in a 92-degree room cost him his life. He died of rhabdomyolysis -- a cellular breakdown of skeletal muscle under conditions of excessive exercise, which, combined with dehydration, resulted in kidney failure and heart malfunction (Iowa Gazette - December 22, 1997). LaRosa was also riding a stationary bike and wearing a rubber suit when he collapsed and died. Saylor was riding a stationary bike in a predawn workout when he suffered a heart attack (Washington Post - January 14, 1998).

Physicians are of the consensus that excessive dehydration as a means to lose weight can harm bodily functions, possibly leading to kidney failure, heat stroke or a heart attack. Why then do the wrestlers engage in these dangerous activities? Legendary University of Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable had this to say in an ESPN report:

"They (wrestlers) think they are indestructible. But I’ll tell you what -- those three athletes thought they were indestructible, too. And they aren’t around to talk about it."Wrestlers believe that it is mind over body; they can accomplish anything and nothing bad will ever happen to them. So, LaRosa’s behavior on that fatal day in November wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for many college wrestlers. He was wearing sweats over a rubber suit and riding a stationary bike in a steam-filled shower room. His body temperature reached 108 degrees. He was trying to make weight for his match the next day, and wrestling’s rules did little to discourage such dangerous practices. The logic in wrestling is to make the lowest weight you can in the weigh-ins, which are 24 hours before the match. Then you can replenish and rehydrate your body over the course of the 24 hours between the weigh-in and the match. This will give you an advantage in the competition because you really will be bigger and stronger then most of the wrestlers in that lower weight class.

 

 

In the face of these tragedies, the NCAA responded quickly with several rule changes effective immediately:

This third rule change will have the most significant impact. According to Marty Benson, playing rules liaison to the NCAA Wrestling Rules Committee, "With less recovery time after weight-in, a person who is using his head knows if he has to cut too much weight, he’s not going to perform on the mat." This change should severely reduce the frantic, last minute attempts to drop weight using the dehydration measures. These rule changes became effective immediately, but are only temporary, in place just for the remainder of the season. A further review of the problems is forthcoming. The NCAA will look at successful high school rules and regulations, and the success of this year’s changes and hopes to have new rules in place for the 1998-99 season.

    The Problem:

What is it that the NCAA, coaches, and parents across America are worried about, though? Rapid weight loss is potentially very dangerous to the health of wrestlers. Estimates show that 25%-67% of wrestlers use techniques such as exercise, food restriction, fasting, and various dehydration measures to lose weight. Wrestlers do this with the notion that their competitive success will increase as a result of these behaviors. However, these techniques appear to adversely influence the wrestler’s energy reserves, and fluid and electrolyte balances (Oppliger, Case, et. al). Often wrestlers will attempt to rapidly replenish their fluids between the weigh-in and their matches. That is why making weigh-ins shortly before the fight might be an effective rule change. This would decrease the benefits of cutting weight, because you would be at a competitive disadvantage physiologically, as a result of dehydration.

In another study on weight loss and wrestling, Roemmich and Sinning looked at the effects of nutrition, growth, maturation, body composition, and strength. Their experiment compared two groups of adolescents (mean age 15.5), one group recreationally active and the other a group of wrestlers. The control group consumed adequate amounts of energy, carbohydrates, protein, and fat and demonstrated normal gains in weight, fat mass and fat-free mass. The wrestlers, however, consumed a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet but did not get enough energy or protein during the season. This deficient diet decreased weight gain, relative fat, and fat mass and also slowed the growth of muscle tissue. Interestingly, it was found that the wrestlers experienced reduced strength in their arms and legs during the season. This conflicts with the idea that weight loss will give the wrestler an edge over his competitors. Strength and weight increased again post-season, though, as the wrestlers reduced their physical activity and increased their energy intake. It does not appear that undernutrition has any long-term effects on bone growth or pubertal maturation.

  The Solutions:

What has been done in high schools to correct this problem in wrestling? In 1989, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association looked to curtail this problem by enacting rule changes and implementing a nutrition education program (Oppliger, Harms, et. al). The project was instituted over a three-year period, consisting of a pilot testing year, a voluntary participation year in which the program was fine-tuned, and then the mandatory implementation in the third year. Training clinics were used to prepare a pool of about 200 certified testers. Using skinfold body fat measurements and scale weights, a minimum weight class for each wrestler was determined. It was required that testing be completed prior to the wrestler’s first competition. Wrestlers were also restricted to a maximum weight loss of three pounds per week.

The nutrition education program focused on three main points: the basics of nutrition, the relationship of nutrition to performance, and the appropriate measures for weight control. The education program is still voluntary, but over 60% of the schools conducted a program in 1993. The success of the project has been overwhelmingly positive. Coaches, who were originally against it, are now 95% in favor of it. More than 75% of the wrestlers questioned were also in favor of it. Preliminary evidence shows that the frequency of weight cutting episodes, amount of weight cycled weekly, total weight lost, and longest fast prior to weigh-in have all decreased since the program's implementation.

 

Methods Used by Wrestlers to Lose Weight 

(Table from Perriello, et. al)

Activity

% Using

Frequent Fasting

75%

Severe Fluid Restriction

75%

Run or jog

73%

Exercise devices

59%

Rubber suits

34%

Sweat in sauna

14%

Vomiting

8%

Diuretics

2%

A recent study done in Virginia revealed that 93% of wrestlers engage in strategies other than exercise to lose weight and 82% lose 5-10 pounds every week in order to make weight (Perriello, Almquist, et. al). The table at the right shows some of these methods of weight loss, fasting, fluid restriction, and using rubber suits. Perriello proposes two reasons why this problem exists in wrestling. One is the "no pain, no gain" mentality that many wrestlers have. They feel that to succeed they must punish themselves in order to make themselves tougher. The second reason is the notion that wrestlers will gain an advantage by competing at a lower weight. This, however, has been found to be a fallacy. Most studies have concluded that wrestlers perform best at their ideal weight and that they are weaker and have less endurance at lower weights.

 

 

Weight loss of more than two pounds per week must involve either dehydration or starvation and it is exactly this type of weight loss that is most damaging to the body. Among the harmful effects on performance of rapid weight loss are a decrease in strength and power, a decrease in muscle endurance, a decrease in testosterone, and a decrease in isometric endurance and short-term sprinting. These harmful effects also extend beyond the mat, and cause a decrease in school performance, a decrease in the protein content of the body, and an increase in susceptibility to infections. To make wrestling a safer, healthier sport, The Medical Advisory Committee of the Virginia High School League recommended the following rule changes:

The committee’s goal was to make the program mandatory statewide. In the process, they wished to "maintain the integrity, discipline and nature of the sport of wrestling while providing an environment that will allow wrestlers to be more successful, have more fun, and be healthier and also keeping the competition fair."

  Conclusions:

After the tragic deaths of Saylor, LaRosa, and Reese, it became clear that the problem of rapid weight loss must be curbed before more young men are found dead in rubber suits in 95-degree rooms. The NCAA’s immediate actions in January showed that they are going to do everything in their power to make wrestling safer while not ruining the competitiveness of the sport. Over the course of this year, the NCAA will institute permanent rule changes for the betterment of wrestling. But will the new rules be enforced effectively? According to Dan Gable, below, in an interview with ESPN, this answer lies with the coaches. "If the coaches take the responsibility that they should take, it will be enforced. If they think it’s a knee-jerk reaction, we have a problem. And I think most of the coaches are taking it seriously, but a few of them aren’t. You have to have ethics in this sport."

      References:

Oppliger, Case, Horswill, Landry and Shelter. American College of Sports Medicine. Position stand: weight loss in wrestlers. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 28(6): ix-xii. June 1996.

 

Oppliger, Harms, Herrmann, Streich and Clark. The Wisconsin Wrestling Minimum Weight Project: a model for weight control among high school wrestlers. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 27(8): 1220-1224. August 1995.

 

Perriello, Almquist, Conkwright, Cutter, Gregory, Pitrezzi, Roemmich, Snyders. Health and Weight Control Management among Wrestlers: a proposed program for high school athletes. Virginia Medical Quarterly 122(3): 179-185. Summer, 1995.

 

Roemmich and Sinning. Weight Loss and Wrestling Training: effects on nutrition, growth, maturation, body composition and strength. Applied Physiology Research Laboratory 82(6): 1751-1759. June, 1997.

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NCAA Response

The Problem

The Solutions

Conclusions

 
References

 

 

 

 

 

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