Do Sauna Suits Work For Fighters?

November 26, 2021

The sauna suit is usually reserved for that final weight cut leading into a fight. Saunas, sauna suits, and hot baths are all strategies fighters will use to make weight. But did you know the sauna suit can be used for more than just weight cutting?

Sauna suits work by trapping the sweat against the skin so it cannot evaporate increasing the storage of heat within the body leading to improved aerobic endurance, heat acclimation, and greater physiological stress.

So, how do sauna suits work and what are all of the benefits of wearing a sauna suit when your goal isn’t to cut weight?

How Do Sauna Suits Work?

Sauna suits work by reducing heat dissipation by inhibiting the evaporation of sweat [1]. You’re essentially trapping the sweat against your skin resulting in greater heat storage raising your core and skin temperature.

This heat storage enhances the stress on the body’s physiology causing increased heart rates and lower blood pressure. Without a sauna suit, the evaporation of sweat is a cooling mechanism.

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Sauna Suit Benefits For Fighters

Do Sauna Suits Work

The benefits of sauna suits for fighters extend much further than cutting weight. They can be a cost-effective tool to strategically enhance your physical preparation.

Enhance Conditioning Without Increasing Volume Or Intensity

One study had subjects perform 30 minutes of cycling under one of four conditions: normal room temperature (22°C), normal room temperature with sauna suit, hot room temperature (40°C), or hot room temperature with sauna suit [1].

They found that wearing a sauna suit in the heat increased core body and skin temperature, heart rate, perceived effort, thermal sensation (how hot they felt), and thermal comfort (how bearable the heat was) compared to the other conditions.

So, the same exercise intensity and volume resulted in a greater cardiac load when wearing the sauna suit in heat. But wearing the sauna suit when not in the heat also resulted in greater physiological benefits compared to not wearing a sauna suit.

When looking at the chronic benefits of exercising with a sauna suit, physically healthy adults performed 6 weeks of moderate-intensity exercise (55-60% of heart rate max) for 30 minutes 5 times per week which led to improved resting heart rate, resting blood pressure, and body composition [2].

However, there was no control group for this trial so it’s impossible to speculate whether a group that performed the same intervention would see similar results without the sauna suit. Interestingly, a study in obese subjects did just this and found the sauna suit group had greater improvements in VO2max and body composition compared to the no sauna suit group [3].

But let’s be real. You’re not going to turn up to class 5 times a week and train in your sauna suit. Performing intense sparring or rolling while wearing a sauna suit is a recipe for hyperthermia (aka overheating).

Turns out, there is a better way to use your sauna suit for enhanced conditioning. And you don’t need to wear it while you are training. Simply put it on after you are done training for 30 minutes. 

Doing this for 3 weeks, 3 times per week enhances lactate threshold and VO2max to a greater extent than those that don’t wear the sauna suit [4].

I’m talking about an extra 5% gain in lactate threshold and 2% in VO2max. Just for wearing the sauna suit after training. This follows the same findings when endurance athletes sit in a sauna after exercise [5]. But saunas aren’t usually readily available and it is much more convenient to put on a sauna suit and chill in the car ride on the way home or at the gym.

Sweat More To Lose Water Weight Before A Fight

If you’re already training in a hot environment, you will already sweat profusely and a sauna suit won’t add any further sweating benefits. But at normal room temperature (22°C), adding a sauna suit will allow you to sweat more than without it [1].

If you are performing your acute weight loss strategy, then wearing a sauna suit will help you quickly shed that last bit of water weight before weighing in.

Enhance Your Response To Training

Did you know there is such a thing as a responder and a non-responder to training? Think about that guy you know who got huge and strong after lifting weights for half a year while you lag behind.

Non-responders within the research are those who don’t progress from the intervention like other subjects did or even see a reduction in performance from an intervention. But these non-responders to exercise may just need more volume as one study had subjects perform 2, 8, or 16 sets per muscle group per week of training [6].

They found that a greater number of high-responders were found in the 8 and 16 sets groups whereas the greatest number of low-responders were part of the 2 sets group. Meaning, being a low or high-responder may just come down to volume.

Interestingly, sauna suits have this same effect without the need for an increase in training volume. 

That is, every single subject improved VO2max within the sauna suit group (wearing the sauna suit after training) whereas only 50% of the subjects improved VO2max in the non-sauna suit group [4].

So, if you find you are lagging behind your training partners when it comes to conditioning, then a sauna suit can accelerate your gains.

Heat Acclimation

Fighting under the bright lights can potentially be a surreal experience. Even if the heat is not extreme, acclimating to heat has a myriad of benefits from increasing endurance performance (as shown above), improving your ability to tolerate heat, and reducing the likelihood of heat illness [1].

And the two most important criteria for heat acclimation? Increasing and sustaining elevated core and skin temperature while promoting a major sweat session [1]. You can tick all of those boxes with a sauna suit.

Sauna Suit Myths

How To Use A Sauna Suit To Cut Weight

It goes without saying, sauna suit beliefs are rampant. Especially through the weight loss and combat sports worlds. I’m sure people sleep in them if they could get some kind of weight loss benefit from them. But I digress, here are some of the myths surrounding sauna suits.

You Use More Energy

When subjects were put through 10 x 1-minute cycling intervals, the group wearing a sauna suit only expended 23 more calories than the group without the sauna suit [7]. Do you know what that is equivalent to?

A quarter of an apple. Safe to say, if you are using the sauna suit to try to burn more calories, it's not working.

You Lose More Body Fat

Yes, you indeed increase fat oxidization (i.e. burning) when wearing a sauna suit and exercising more than when not wearing a sauna suit [3][7]. However, acute increases in "fat-burning" during or after exercise aren't indicative of chronic weight or fat loss.

It generally doesn’t matter what fuel source you are using when exercising when it comes to losing body fat. All that matters is maintaining a caloric deficit for weeks at a time.

Cons Of Wearing A Sauna Suit

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows when wearing a sauna suit while training. Here are some of the cons that can potentially arise when using your sauna suit.

Can Potentially Cause Chaffing If Used Too Often

A case report was published from Turkey about an obese woman who wore her sauna suit for 30 minutes 3 days a week while performing aerobic exercise which resulted in serious chaffing [8]. Chaffing is caused by heat, moisture, and poorly fitting clothes. Basically, everything a sauna suit does.

However, you won’t be wearing a sauna suit chronically especially within training so you are less likely to run into this problem.

High Thermic Stress

How Long Should You Wear A Sauna Suit

Being unbearably hot is uncomfortable. It can feel like you are suffocating. But this is par for the course. You may have to suffer a little to get performance enhancements. This discomfort will subside as you acclimatize to the heat.

May Not Be As Beneficial During High-Intensity Exercise

Most research surrounding the use of sauna suits and exercise is done at low to moderate intensity. The one paper investigating high-intensity exercise shows no difference in the rise of core body temperature when comparing sauna suit vs. no sauna suit during 10 x 1-minute cycling intervals [7].

However, this may be different if wearing a full-body sauna suit instead of one with short sleeves and legs.

How To Use A Sauna Suit To Cut Weight?

When you are cutting weight for a fight, the use of a sauna suit or any other acute weight cut strategy should only be used on the day of the weigh-in. This is to drop that last bit of weight which can easily be replaced with fluids.

Using a sauna suit too early in your weight cut serves no purpose as you don't want to dehydrate yourself days before weighing in. Regarding how you use your sauna suit when cutting weight, this video below demonstrates an effective method.

Petchpanomrung is lightly hitting the pads with his sauna suit on. Activity should be light just like this. You don’t need to hit the pads. You can jump rope, sit on a bike, go for a light run, whatever you usually do and feel comfortable with. As long as it is low-intensity.

How Long Should You Wear A Sauna Suit?

You should wear your sauna suit anywhere between 20-45 minutes according to the current research. Between 20-25 minutes when performing high-intensity exercise. 30 minutes if wearing it after exercise for enhancing endurance. And 30-45 minutes if performing low-intensity exercise.

Best Sauna Suit For Fighters

Interestingly within the sauna suit research, one brand and model is often used. And that is the Kutting Weight Sauna Suit V3. It is like a more comfortable, more flexible, and thinner wetsuit as it is made from elastic neoprene.

It covers all of the main areas of the body that need to be covered with a sauna suit and leaves the forearms and lower legs uncovered which can make the heat much more bearable. The best thing about the Kutting Weight Sauna Suit is that if you wanted to do light grappling drills, you can.

Best Sauna Suit For Fighters

Kutting Weight Sauna Suit V3

The big loose plastic or vinyl sauna suits with long sleeves make it near impossible to grapple. If you want to try the sauna suit after training strategy to enhance your endurance, I would opt for the Kutting Weight Hoodie Sauna Suit instead. It’s much more comfortable and casual so if you had to walk around the block, it doesn’t look like you’re trying to go for a swim!

Do Sauna Suits Work?

Sauna suits do work and are highly effective for enhancing your conditioning, cutting that last bit of water weight, and acclimatizing to heat. Ideally, you use your sauna suit for low-intensity exercise or even better, wear it directly after training. This way, you get all of the benefits of heat without having to train in a sauna suit.

References

1. Willmott, A. G., Gibson, O. R., James, C. A., Hayes, M., & Maxwell, N. S. (2018). Physiological and perceptual responses to exercising in restrictive heat loss attire with use of an upper-body sauna suit in temperate and hot conditions. Temperature, 5(2), 162-174.

2. Van de Velde, S. S., Pierre, I. A., & Fargo, J. S. (2016). Effects of exercise training with a sauna suit on cardiovascular health: a proof-of-concept study. Int J Res Exerc Physiol, 11(1), 1-10.

3. Haney, D. E., Owen, A., Fargo, J. S., Harrison, S. N., Chevalier, M. K., Buchanan, C. A., & Dalleck, L. C. (2017). Health-Related Benefits of Exercise Training with a Sauna Suit: A Randomized, Controlled Trial.

4. Dalleck, L. C., Byrd, B. R., Specht, J. W., & Valenciana, A. K. Post-Exercise Passive Heating Strategies with Hot Water Immersion and Sauna Suits Improve VO2max, Running Economy, and Lactate Threshold.

5. Stanley, J., Halliday, A., D’Auria, S., Buchheit, M., & Leicht, A. S. (2015). Effect of sauna-based heat acclimation on plasma volume and heart rate variability. European journal of applied physiology, 115(4), 785-794.

6. Marshall, P. W., McEwen, M., & Robbins, D. W. (2011). Strength and neuromuscular adaptation following one, four, and eight sets of high intensity resistance exercise in trained males. European journal of applied physiology, 111(12), 3007-3016.

7. Matthews, A. R., Astorino, T. A., Crocker, G. H., & Sheard, A. C. (2020). Acute Effects of High-Intensity Interval Exercise While Wearing a Sauna Suit on Energy Expenditure and Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

8. Çil, Y., & Yıldız, H. (2014). Skin Abrasion and Chafing Caused by Sauna Suit Clothing. Journal of the Turkish Academy of Dermatology, 8(3).

About the author 

James de Lacey

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international level teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your combat training.


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