When you think of powerlifting “foods” you probably think of donuts and gummy worms, but for most, a lot more consideration goes into our diets if we’re looking to maximize performance.
So, do powerlifters eat whatever they want? No, while powerlifters are usually more flexible in their approach when compared to bodybuilders, powerlifters also pay attention to protein intake, micronutrients, and getting healthy sources of food that won’t cause digestive upset during training or make them stray too far from their given weight class.
While everyone’s goal is to get stronger, the method that best works in getting to that result will be different for different people. One lifter may be struggling to put on muscle, another may be worried about gaining too much fat or not making their weight class in time for the next competition.
In this article I will go over:
- Why powerlifters don’t eat whatever they want all the time
- How dieting approaches change between different powerlifting athletes
- Whether eating “whatever you want” will help you get stronger and build more muscle
- 5 tips for eating anything you want as a powerlifter (within limits)
Curious to hear my recommendations on what to eat at a powerlifting meet? Read my article on What To Eat During A Powerlifting Meet: 6 Rules To Follow.
Can Powerlifters Get Away With Eating Anything?
Powerlifters can’t just neglect all basic nutritional knowledge and eat anything they want without consideration for its effects on their body.
It may appear that powerlifters eat whatever they want because they do typically have a larger appetite in general and approach food in a more flexible way when compared to diets other athletes adopt. In addition, there definitely are plenty of lifters who do truly just eat without any forethought, however, it’s not an approach I would recommend.
While it may be tempting to eat anything in the pursuit of getting strong and big, usually your digestive system will quickly remind you of why eating healthy is important. There is, frankly, nothing more uncomfortable than setting up for a deadlift while experiencing heartburn or acid reflux. In addition, having stomach cramps, gas or bloating can sometimes even prevent you from bracing or being able to buckle up your belt and will definitely make your squats feel like unnecessary torture.
Some people can also experience puking if they simply eat whatever they want before they lift.
Beyond just feeling good during training, powerlifting is a weight class sport. While many don’t care about making a certain weight class, most people don’t want to weigh in unnecessarily heavy or light and, so maintaining a good diet all year around is important so you don’t need to do last minute dietary interventions 6 weeks before a competition.
Therefore, while powerlifters are not as concerned with aesthetics as other athletes, the way we feel when we train is incredibly important to our performance and maintaining weight is important for many who do wish to stay within a certain weight class range.
Thinking about doing a water cut for your next competition? Read this first: Water Cut For Powerlifting: 5 Mistakes To Avoid (FULL GUIDE)
Not All Powerlifting Diets Are The Same, Here’s Why
When it comes to powerlifting, goals will shift based on your personal needs as well as the time of year of time within your competition season.
The following are situations in which a powerlifter may make a change in their diet:
1. Cutting weight for competition
While not all powerlifters need, or should, cut weight (especially novices!), cutting weight is still a very common practice in the powerlifting community since weighing in lighter often results in a higher score.
For this reason, many athletes alter their diets once they sign up for a competition to help them in the process of losing weight. This means their diet will likely start to resemble something similar to a bodybuilding diet where protein is kept very high and fat and carbs will be cut slightly depending on the preference of the lifter.
Powerlifters do have the added pressure of needing to perform well so the diet will be generally less restrictive and depleting than you will find among those cutting weight for aesthetic reasons although they will base their approach on similar nutritional principles.
Looking to cut weight? Check out our guide right here: Powerlifting Cutting Program: 7 Rules To Follow (GUIDE)
2. Maintaining weight for competition
The most ideal situation to be in as a competitor is to maintain your weight leading into a competition. In this case, nutritional principles, like fueling with balanced macros and eating healthy are still looked at, but calories should not be dropping below maintenance.
This means eating a healthy and balanced diet that makes you feel good and strong while also enjoying a donut, getting takeout or having some intra-workout candy within reasonable limits so that you don’t put on any weight right before competition.
3. Building muscle and strength
Coming out of a competition, powerlifters will typically prioritize training in the gym above all else. This is the time to focus on getting strong and building any muscle they can.
These phases in the year or in someone’s powerlifting career are extremely important as remaining in a restrictive diet for too long will eventually have major impacts on future performance.
This is when you’ll find powerlifters really enjoying eating the most flexibly as their goals aren’t based on how they look, but rather how they perform. If a lifter finds that they can eat certain “unhealthy” foods and still maintain performance there isn’t any incentive for them to cut that food out.
Also, if the dietary choices result in weight gain, it is not necessarily looked down upon during this phase as that likely means the athlete has created an anabolic environment that is allowing them to maintain or build muscle.
If you’re a female powerlifter, check out our complete guide to the Female Powerlifting Diet, where we break down the exact calories and macros you should be eating, considerations for competition, and how to eat properly for your menstrual cycle.
Will Eating Anything You Want Make You Stronger?
Eating anything you want won’t make you stronger, but eating enough and training at the right intensity will.
In order to get strong you need to have good quality training which comes down to good programming, but also being able to recover and rise to the occasion when you train is important for making progress.
Bad nutrition can sabotage your progress because it can compromise your ability to recover and go into the next training session at full potential. It can also affect your ability to complete training if you are dealing with digestive issues or having low energy.
Therefore, eating anything you want isn’t the key to getting stronger, but rather eating what makes you feel your absolute best each day. Also, not eating enough, or eating too much, if not managed, can result in negative changes in performance.
Looking to lose weight with powerlifting? Check out my ultimate guide on Powerlifting For Fat Loss.
Will Eating Anything You Want Allow You To Build More Muscle?
Eating anything you want won’t make you build more muscle, but if you’re struggling to build muscle, taking on a more ‘open’ approach to nutrition may be beneficial for you.
Building muscle, similarly to building strength, requires good training that will stimulate the muscle to grow. However, it also requires an anabolic environment which simply means there is enough energy floating around the body for the muscle to grow. This typically means you are eating close to, or just above maintenance, calories and will result in gradual weight gain over time.
While eating anything you want in order to build muscle is one approach, it’s important to not be ignorant to good nutrition. If you were to entirely neglect how many extra calories you consumed and were negligent about how much protein you intake, you could just end up gaining far too much fat than intended.
For that reason it’s important to still have some restraint when making dietary choices; however, when building muscle there is definitely room to have a little more fun with your diet since calorie targets are higher.
Eating Whatever You Want As A Powerlifter: 5 Tips To Doing It Properly
The key to being healthy and eating whatever you want comes down to choosing foods that you do truly love eating while still adhering to some basic principles for success.
Here are 5 tips to help you get there:
1. Pay Attention to Fibre and Micronutrients
It should go without saying that fibre and micronutrients are essential for a good diet.
Fibre includes both soluble and insoluble fibre, found in fruits and vegetables as well as grains and oats. Fibre will ensure your digestive system is working well and keep you full.
Micronutrients are all the vitamins and minerals essential to good health, longevity and feeling full of energy found mostly in fruits and vegetables.
If you include these foods in your day-to-day you can rest assured that you are filling your body with the good stuff, so that when you do include something less “optimal,” you don’t need to sweat it.
2. Prioritize Protein
Macronutrients include fats, carbs and proteins, but as a powerlifter, protein is the one to pay attention to.
If you go into every day with a focus on just getting enough protein you will not only find you’re not as hungry throughout the day, but also you will ensure that your body is getting enough building blocks to maintain and/or build the muscle it needs.
This can mean getting takeout, but still looking for a high protein option, or choosing to get dessert but doing so after you have first eaten your protein-rich meal.
A common practice many powerlifters, including myself, do is using protein shakes to fill in any protein gaps or adding protein powder to foods like oatmeal to make a normally carb-heavy meal into a more balanced one.
3. Cook Most Meals
You are what you do most of the time. Therefore, if most of the time you are cooking at home and making nutritious meals that cover you off from a micro and macronutrient perspective, your body will reflect that. This is true even if you like to indulge once in a while in less “healthy” options.
What most people refer to as unhealthy food is unhealthy when it becomes your primary energy source, but, if you mostly feed yourself with good, home-cooked food, eating less healthy meals occasionally is not going to throw your performance off the rails.
4. Pay Attention to Timing
Nutrient timing shouldn’t be your first priority; however, if you have other variables accounted for it is something to consider. This is especially true when it comes to feeling good during your training hours.
Ensure you don’t go into your training super hungry and make sure to eat in the hours before training. However, lifting while feeling full after a high fibre or high fat meal will make you feel terrible.
Therefore, if you plan to have such a meal, choosing to do so after you’ve already trained for the day is a better option than using it as pre-workout fuel.
Tip: If you have a sweet tooth, use it to your advantage and bring a small amount of your favourite sugary snack to the gym for intra-workout fuel on long training days.
5. Monitor your Weight
Powerlifting is a weight class sport, therefore, having awareness of where your weight is headed as a result of your nutritional habits is important information for success. It’s great to give yourself the flexibility you need, but this can result in changes in weight that may not necessarily be in your best favour.
It’s not necessary to stay at a certain number all year but rather aim to stay within a range that is reasonably close to where you wish to compete. That range will depend across lifters, some prefer to stay within 1-3kg within their target weight class whereas others are comfortable moving farther away without being worried about making weight.
The point is that awareness is key and avoiding the scale for months at a time may cause you to end up in a spot you didn’t know you were heading toward. This will ensure you can make small changes as you go in case current habits are not serving you well.
Check out my article on Will Powerlifting Make You Fat? This is everything you need to know about physique changes when powerlifting.
Powerlifters are often perceived as athletes who pay no attention to nutrition, but nothing could be further from the truth.
What is true is that focusing on strength training will help you build more muscle which increases your appetite, and so while it may look like powerlifters are eating large quantities of food, it’s simply because their daily intake requirements are higher than that of their non-heavy lifting counterparts.
Eating healthy is important for good performance and for maintaining your competitive edge in a weight class sport; therefore, fully neglecting your diet is not recommended for powerlifters at any stage of their lifting career.
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.