In 2017, Hugh Jackman entered the great canon of celebrity-diet lore as he revealed his routine leading up to the shirtless scenes in Logan. Jackman, who portrayed Wolverine for 17 years, said he would chug four gallons of water a day, every day — then cut all liquids for the final 36 hours.“You can lose up to 10 pounds of water weight, particularly the water that sits under your skin,” Jackman told the New York Post. “It really cuts you up.”
Of course, Jackman is a professional; he had easy access to medical care should something go wrong. During his press tour for the movie, the 44-year-old actor took extra care to warn audiences not to try his diet at home… but that hasn’t stopped bodybuilders from aping his routine, looking for an extra edge over the competition.
In fact, I took to several bodybuilding forums and found that yes, dehydration before competition is a regular part of “peak week” — the week of preparation before a bodybuilding show. “I did both a water cut and [diuretics]. I had to pee every three hours. The last day was hell, but it was a really good look onstage,” one redditor posted in a r/bodybuilding thread asking for experiences.
“Did water cut. No diuretics or sodium manipulation. I wanted to die,” said another.
Robert Herbst, a personal trainer, 19-time World Champion powerlifter and former supervisor of drug testing at the Rio Olympics, says bodybuilders do this because they’re attempting to strategically lose the water between their muscles and skin.
“I think just about everyone dehydrates, but there are also different types of dehydration and variables, such as whether the person is drug-tested or can use banned diuretics,” he says. “The goal is to keep as much intracellular water to maintain muscle volume but get rid of extracellular and subcutaneous water so the person can look ripped.”
Herbst adds that by “taking a legal [diuretic] product that brings water and electrolyte into the muscle cells while doing a short pumping workout to sweat out other water,” bodybuilders should “minimize [the] negative health effects of electrolyte imbalance.”
Still, there are reasons the redditors above said they felt notably shitty. “There are two major risks of dehydrating to look ripped, one physical, one aesthetic,” Herbst says. The physical stems from depleting your electrolytes, which “can cause cramping and even heart arrhythmia.”
There are stories about bodybuilders cramping up so bad, Herbst says, “that they can’t pose or end up passing out by the time they get to the stage, because they are excited and nervous and starved for blood sugar. They may look like perfect physical specimens, but their health at that moment is not great.”
Horia, a 22-year-old bodybuilder in Romania, says he tried dehydrating himself for a show in April 2017. “Over the course of four days, I consumed two liters of water total, halving the amount each consecutive day and having no water in the day of the competition,” he says. “I started feeling uncomfortable the day before the show and couldn’t sleep at night. I was feeling my heartbeat everywhere: ears, toes, etc., I think due to how thin my blood was and overcompensating for it with high blood pressure.”
Looks aside, there’s no guarantee bodybuilders like Horia will even achieve the look they’re going for. “If they lose too much fluids, they will lose muscle volume,” Herbst says, “so they will come out looking flat.”
“As far as aesthetics go, it didn’t help much,” Horia admits. “Maybe I wasn’t doing it right, but I ended up flat and unable to get a pump. So I dropped the process from my pre-show routine, and [now I] keep water intake normal before the show, with greater success.”
Jason, a 32-year-old bodybuilder who dehydrated for several shows before retiring, says he just had to “learn to deal” with the pains of being dehydrated for a shoot.
“The first time I did it, I dropped about seven pounds of water,” Jason tells MEL, adding that since he knew what he was in for, he was better prepared. “Chapped lips, dry joints, thirsty, hungry, exhausted, maybe irritable — but the world isn’t ending and it is only for a short period. … Anybody that makes a big deal out of it is just looking for attention, or is doing a method that has them dehydrated for too long.”
Notably, Jackman used the physical and emotional toll of dehydration for his acting, telling the New York Post that the dehydration “really pisses you off.”
The former bodybuilder Jason tells me cutting water before a show is still prevalent: “Peak week is absolutely a huge part of competitive bodybuilding,” he says, referring to the week leading up to a show. “The goal isn’t to just dehydrate since that takes water out of muscles and makes for a flat, deflated look. … The real goal is to reduce skin-water and fill muscles full of as much water as possible. Thin skin equals easy-to-see muscle definition.”
Like Herbst mentioned, Jason explains the process of achieving this look is much more nuanced than simply not drinking water for several days leading up to a show:
The day before a show or photoshoot will typically have lowest water and glycogen retention (the individual might see 10+lbs of weight loss in those last few days), but the day of the show or the shoot the goal is to fill the muscle back up with glycogen so it’s time to start carb intake again.
Keeping water intake low during this period forces the body to steal water from other areas to refill the muscles. So the new glycogen comes from the sudden influx of carbs and water comes from skin and organs. This thins the skin and shrinks organs a bit leading to a full figure with good definition and ideally a more trim waist. Vascularity comes along with that, as the skin thins… and as impressive as that can look, it typically isn’t a direct judging criteria, so [most bodybuilders] don’t sweat it too much.
The verdict? Leave it to the professionals.
“For competition or a photo shoot, it absolutely is worth it. The benefits are obvious — and under stage lighting in a mankini, it will absolutely show,” Jason tells MEL.
“If someone is so dehydrated that they are at risk of immediate health problems, they’ve done it wrong,” he says. Even if you make it through your routine shaking and cramping from dehydration, you’re still at risk: “If your electrolyte levels are very low and you flood your body with more water, further diluting that… it can create a dangerous scenario.”
So if you’re like this guy who asked the bodybuilding subreddit about dehydrating himself “to look slightly more cut if i’m going to the beach or some event,” don’t chance it. Putting your body into a “low-hydration, low-nutrition state just for a few photos isn’t worth it,” Jason concludes. “You’ve basically spent a week, give or take, preparing the body to respond very specifically to a timed influx of the right amount of carbs and the right amount of water to hit a look that won’t last more than a few hours? Real-talk, without stage or photo lighting, it might not even be that noticeable if someone showed up ‘peaked’ like that.”