Lifters who can maximize their muscle mass and maintain a lower body fat percentage, are the most competitive powerlifters. How do we go about cutting weight to lose body fat while maintaining strength? What are the nutritional strategies and how does our training program change?
The 7 rules to follow in a powerlifting cutting program are:
- Set Realistic Goals For Your Timeline
- Ensure A Caloric Deficit
- Keep Volume Elevated With Corresponding Intensities
- Monitor Food Intake And Training Variables
- Adjust Intake and/or Activity Based On Performance Data
- Avoid Excessive Amounts Of Cardio
- Be Consistent
While cutting and training for powerlifting is not rocket science, there does seem to be a number of lifters who end up worse off than they started if they are not educated about the process. In this article, I’ll discuss how to change your nutrition and training for a successful weight cut.
To learn more about the benefits of maximizing muscle mass and maintaining a lower body fat percentage, check out our article on How To Pick Your Weight Class For Powerlifting.
Cutting For Powerlifting: 7 Rules To Follow
1. Set Realistic Goals For Your Timeline
The first step is for us to determine what our goals are in terms of how much weight we are trying to lose, and how lean we are trying to get. We could have a weight class in mind, or we could be trying to maximize our lean mass and let our body weight fall where it may.
It is important to understand that no matter how much we are trying to cut, we want to do so at a slow-to-moderate pace. The reason for this is that aggressive approaches to weight loss, which lead to losing weight more rapidly, will result in greater losses of strength and make the process more uncomfortable.
Instead, we want to commit to at least 8-12 weeks of cutting but ideally longer if we have the time.
This will allow us time to get the results we’re looking for while keeping the rate of weight loss slower to retain as much muscle mass as possible.
However, if we are planning on cutting for 16 weeks or more, we should include a diet break (returning to maintenance calories for 1-3 weeks) to prevent down-regulation of metabolism and provide a mental break.
Going about the cut at a slower rate also has better data for keeping weight off long-term instead of rebounding back to a heavier bodyweight with additional fat mass. For this reason, it’s important to have a more long-term view.
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.
2. Ensure You Are In A Caloric Deficit
A caloric deficit refers to expending more energy than we are taking in, this is primarily done by eating less calories but a deficit can also be accomplished by increasing energy expenditure through exercise.
Determine Maintenance Calories/Intake
An important step for setting a deficit is to first get an estimation of our current caloric intake, which should be an intake at which we are able to maintain our weight. These will be referred to as maintenance calories, or our maintenance intake.
This is an important step because in doing so, we have a better estimate of how much to decrease our calories or intake to achieve a good rate of weight loss.
If we do not know what our current intake is, it is recommended to spend 3-7 days eating as normal and keeping a food log recording food choices and portions, to get a better idea of how much we are consuming on a day-to-day basis.
We can go about our food tracking in 2 different ways: one is using an app such as MyFitnessPal to track macronutrients and calories down to the gram, or we track our intake using a food diary – noting portions (using hand measurements) of each food group.
The method we choose is dependent on the amount of detail we want to dive into – some prefer the detailed approach of macro tracking, while others prefer the lower effort (but still effective) method of food journaling.
Altering Intake To Create A Deficit
Once we have an estimate of our maintenance calories/intake we can plan our deficit to begin our cut.
It is important to note that we do not want to decrease our protein intake; in fact, we may need to increase our protein intake if we are not getting 1 gram of protein / lb of BW, or eating at least 1 palm-size serving of protein at every meal.
Therefore, any changes in our intake to create a deficit will come from decreasing our carbohydrates or fats (or increasing energy expenditure). If we are tracking our macronutrients, we could do this by subtracting 250-500 calories from a combination of carbohydrates and fat grams.
If we are using a food journal, then we are having 2-3 less servings of carbohydrates and/or fats than our maintenance intake throughout the day.
If you’re in need of a water-cutting strategy for competition, check out my article on Water Cut For Powerlifting.
3. Keep Volume Elevated With Corresponding Intensities
When we are cutting to be more successful in powerlifting we need to continue training to retain as much muscle mass as possible in order to maintain our strength.
To do this, we want to make sure that we are training with enough volume and intensity to signal to the body to retain muscle mass rather than breaking it down for energy.
This is usually accomplished by training at higher volumes that are typical for general preparatory or hypertrophy blocks of training. While strength blocks will be higher intensities, it may not be enough volume to be the most efficient use of training during a cut (Read my article on How To Taper For Powerlifting).
It is important to note that a caloric deficit will likely limit our ability to recover because we are consuming less overall energy.
Therefore, we need to monitor for symptoms of excess fatigue, soreness, and changes in mood/motivation to determine when we are approaching or surpassing our maximum recoverable volume of work (the most work we can recover from, without detriments in performance).
4. Monitor Food Intake And Training Variables
In order to see if progress is being made or to know which variables to change to ensure progress, we must keep track of our food intake, weight, and training variables (load, volume, intensity).
If we are not keeping track of our food intake we are likely not getting an accurate representation of our intake, which makes it difficult to maintain a caloric deficit.
In addition, if we are not planning our training to ensure progressive overload then we are limiting our ability to make strength gains or retain our current level of strength.
Those who do not keep track of the variables and the changes they make, will have less success and make the process overly confusing. It is important to monitor variables, change one variable at a time, and then evaluate from there.
5. Adjust Intake And/Or Activity Based On Performance Data
It is important to base the decisions for changes on concrete data that we have collected. We only want to make changes if the data suggests that no progress is occurring, because if we are continuing to progress then we want to ride it out until we reach a point where progress is stalled and then make changes.
Every decision we make about changing variables (nutrition, energy expenditure, or training stimulus) should have a reason based on data. The goal is to make the process as simple as possible and avoid unnecessary stress; therefore, we only want to make changes in nutrition and/or energy expenditure if it is required for continued progress.
Changes in training loads and volume will change based on our performance; if performance is increasing then we can continue gradually increasing loads or volume, or if performance is decreasing then we may need to temporarily decrease volume and/or load to promote recovery.
6. Avoid Excessive Amounts Of Cardio
Including too much cardio in a powerlifting program, especially while trying to cut, can be detrimental to our strength and performance because cardio and strength training have opposing adaptations.
Cardio decreases muscle protein synthesis (a precursor for muscle growth) while strength training encourages it.
While we are in a caloric deficit we need to try to retain as much muscle as possible in order to maintain our strength, but increasing cardio too much can have the opposite effect and break down tissue instead.
7. Be Consistent
If we are not consistent, then we cannot determine if our protocol is working or not. In order to see progress in a timely manner, we must stick to the program – with both training and nutrition.
This is why we encourage lifters to choose a nutritional strategy for losing weight that they are able to maintain, because if it is unmaintainable then we will not see the progress we are looking for. For this reason, we say the best diet for an individual is the one they are able to do consistently over time.
The same is true for training, if we are constantly stopping and starting our program, it will be less effective than if we were as consistent with our workouts – even if they need to be modified once in a while.
How To Structure Your Program When Cutting For Powerlifting
When we are starting a cut, it is best to do so when training can be dedicated to a GPP and/or hypertrophy phases. In doing so, we are getting a sufficient amount of volume with adequate loads to signal to the body to keep as much muscle mass as possible.
What many do not realize is that hypertrophy is not only for growing muscle, but it is also appropriate for retaining the muscle mass we currently have while in a caloric deficit.
While it is possible to cut weight while in a strength block (which normally follows a GPP/Hypertrophy block), it is not recommended because when we are in a deficit we are not physiologically or psychologically in the best state to express strength and therefore reap the most benefit from that style of training.
That being said, it is often necessary to do so when an athlete is cutting weight to compete at a competition; however, if possible we should do so earlier on in our training and be nearly at our desired weight class (+/- 2%) by the time we start the strength block.
While cutting we need to keep volume and intensity high to retain as much muscle as possible during a cut, because muscle tissue is metabolically expensive tissue and therefore, if our body feels that we don’t need it because of lack of use, it will break it down.
By keeping the tissues stimulated with enough volume and intensity we signal to the body that we need to keep this muscle.
For this reason, it is ideal to train for GPP or hypertrophy and to focus on progression within these training phases. A typical rep range for building work capacity is 2-5 sets of 8-15 reps at 30-70% of our 1 rep maximum. For hypertrophy it is typical to do 2-6 sets of 8-12 reps with 40-80% of our 1 rep max.
While we want to get enough work in to retain our muscle mass, we don’t want to overdo it with volume and intensity because when we are in a caloric deficit we are likely more limited in our ability to recover. We should monitor our levels of recovery to determine if we need to make adjustments over time to compensate for lack of recovery.
It is best to incorporate these phases of training during the off-season. To learn more about how to program your off-season, check out our Off-Season Powerlifting Program.
If our goal is to become better powerlifters, we must continue training the squat, bench, and deadlift. These exercises will benefit us because they are compound movements and therefore recruit more muscles, which helps to keep the volume higher for multiple muscle groups at the appropriate intensities.
As we would in a GPP and Hypertrophy phase, we want to incorporate accessory movements to supplement the main lifts to keep volume high – which will not only burn more calories, but it will stimulate the muscles to maintain their size and strength while in a deficit.
It is common for lifters to overdo the cardio when starting a cut, but instead we should set a caloric deficit and monitor changes that occur from the variable alone first. If we can get by without adding cardio we decrease the odds of losing strength by incorporating too much cardio.
That being said, if our progress is too slow and it is unpleasant to drop calories further, we can start by adding 20 minutes of cardio throughout the week and then monitor the changes. If cardio needs to be increased further throughout the cut, it is recommended to increase the frequency rather than increasing the length of the bouts of cardio.
Research has shown that it is more beneficial to perform bouts of cardio at lower intensities to facilitate easy recovery and avoid bouts longer than 20-30 minutes, as it decreases the interference effect (complications of opposing stimuli).
When we are adding in cardio to increase the amount of calories we are burning, it is common for lifters to incorporate running but this is not the best choice for maintaining strength when we are already in a caloric deficit.
Instead, we should consider biking as our form of cardio because cycling has been shown to have less of an interference effect with strength training than running, but will still work to increase caloric expenditure.
While running is not the most effective mode of cardio to maintain strength when cutting for powerlifting, it can be included with powerlifting training when we are not cutting. To learn more, check out our article on Powerlifting And Running.
How To Maintain Strength While On A Cutting Program For Powerlifting
- Don’t Cut Too Aggressively
- Keep Protein Intake High
- Add Cardio Only As Needed
Don’t Cut Too Aggressively
When we lose weight too rapidly by decreasing food and/or increasing energy expenditure too much, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain strength.
Muscle is valuable tissue for powerlifting because it directly relates to the amount of weight that we are able to lift; therefore, we should aim to retain as much as possible through a slow-to-moderate (< 0.5-1% BW per week) cutting approach.
Keep Protein Intake High
In order to preserve muscle mass we also need to consume enough protein because our body has higher protein requirements when we are in a deficit.
Typically we recommend that strength athletes have protein intake to be 30-35% of total daily calories or 1-1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.
If we do not want to get too far into the details of tracking protein intake down to the gram, I recommend that you eat 1 palm-size serving of protein at almost every meal to ensure adequate protein intake.
If we feel that muscle mass is decreasing more than we want, we can bump up our protein intake or re-evaluate our rate of weight loss.
Add Cardio Only As Needed
To maintain as much strength as possible, we should avoid adding excess cardio if it is not necessary to further our caloric deficit.
When progress is stalled we should first consider if a decrease in calories/intake is tolerable, and if we decide that it may be easier to increase our energy expenditure instead, it is best to start with one day of biking a week for 20 minutes. This modality and duration tends to yield the best result while maintaining strength.
Frequently Asked Questions: Powerlifting Cutting Program
How Much Weight Should You Aim To Lose Per Week?
The amount of weight loss per week that we are looking for depends on our determined timeframe, but I would advise against losses of 2% BW or more per week – if we want to preserve muscle mass to stay as strong as possible.
How Often Should You Weigh Yourself To Track Progress?
It is recommended to weigh-in every day as it gives us a more accurate representation of bodyweight changes. Although, we should be aware that daily fluctuations are normal; therefore, we are looking for trends over time rather than changes day-to-day.
Are Certain Foods Better Than Other For Cutting Weight?
While we can lose weight no matter the foods we choose as long as we maintain a caloric deficit, some foods are more high-volume and low-calorie and they will keep us full for longer. Foods that are higher-calorie and lower volume can be included in our diet, we just need to be more aware of the amount we are consuming as they are easier to overeat.
Are There Special Considerations When Cutting For A Powerlifting Meet?
When cutting for a powerlifting meet, it becomes increasingly important to set a realistic timeline for weight loss that allows to drop weight without an aggressive cut. The reason for this is to negate as much strength loss as possible, which can be done through nutritional interventions early on or using a water cut.
Cutting weight and gaining or maintaining strength is possible with the right approach to training and nutrition. For the best results, we should try to cut when we are in our offseason during a general preparatory or hypertrophy period and aim to be back at a maintenance level of calories for strength blocks and peaking for competition.
About The Author
Amanda Parker has a passion for competing and coaching in both powerlifting and weightlifting. She uses her knowledge from her Kinesiology Degree, CSCS, and Precision Nutrition certification to coach athletes and lifestyle clients for performance in training and nutrition. Connect with her on Instagram.