When people think of powerlifters, they often think of massive men and women built like sumo wrestlers. Does powerlifting cause this type of physique?
Will Powerlifting Make You Fat? No, training the powerlifting squat, bench and deadlift will not make you fat because the capacity to store adipose tissue (fat) relies on energy balance (calories in vs calories out). Energy balance encompasses nutritional intake and energy expenditure, rather than simply your style of training.
In this article, I’ll discuss whether there are benefits to being a fat powerlifter, what the body compositions of successful powerlifters actually look like, and 6 tips to stay lean while powerlifting.
Does Powerlifting Make You Gain Weight?
No, powerlifting alone does not cause weight gain. Although powerlifting in combination with a caloric surplus does increase the potential for weight gain, this could be in the form of muscle mass and/or fat mass.
Weight gain is determined by overall energy balance which includes nutritional factors, and not training stimulus alone. If we eat a caloric surplus, we are more likely to gain weight (fat and muscle mass), whereas if we eat at a caloric deficit, we are more likely to lose weight (mostly fat, and potentially some muscle).
It’s important to note that I could be a long distance runner and still be overweight if I ate more than my body required. Obviously, it would be harder to do this because of the energy expenditure of running compared to powerlifting, but it is possible to gain weight regardless of the sport.
Why Are Powerlifters Fat?
There are 3 reasons why powerlifters can be fat:
- To Gain Muscle At A Faster Rate
- Less Energy Expenditure
- Overeating By Overestimating Requirements
1. To Gain Muscle At A Faster Rate
Some powerlifters are fat because they purposely try to consume excess calories in an effort to put on more muscle mass, because “mass moves mass”.
Research confirms that it is “easier” to put on muscle mass in a quicker time frame with an aggressive bulk; however, the downfall with this is that we would also gain more body fat with this method.
Aggressive bulking could increase our absolute strength (strength regardless of size) by adding muscle mass, but may decrease our relative strength (how strong you are for your size) because of the added fat mass; which can be detrimental to our performance because powerlifting is a weight class sport.
2. Less Energy Expenditure
Powerlifters could also be fat because powerlifting involves less caloric expenditure than other sports.
This is especially true for those who only train the competition lifts and don’t include accessory movements (which I don’t recommend), and don’t have an active lifestyle outside of training.
3. Overeating By Overestimating Requirements
It is common for lifters to overeat by accident because they overestimate how many calories they burned in a training session.
After training when it comes time to “re-fuel”, our goal is to replenish our energy stores and encourage muscle protein synthesis (process of building muscle in response to exercise) by eating a meal. But what often happens is, we eat more food than our body actually requires post-workout because we think we’ve expended more energy in the training session than we actually have.
Research tells us that in general, lifting burns an average of 75-100kcal for a lower volume session in women, roughly 150kcal for a lower volume session in men or a higher volume session in women, and around 300kcal for a higher volume session in men.
These numbers are not set in stone, as energy expenditure will change depending on the amount of total work (sets x reps x load) performed during the training session; but it’s probably not 900kcal like a fitness tracker may suggest.
If you’re a bodybuilder, read my article on How To Switch From Bodybuilding to Powerlifting.
Is Being Fat Better For Powerlifting?
No, it is true that mass moves mass; however, this only applies to muscle mass and not fat mass. Fat is not a contractile tissue, therefore it does not help to exert the force required to lift heavier weights.
We may feel stronger with more body fat, but this is mainly because we would be consuming more calories. That being said, we can still eat at our maintenance calories (your calorie intake required to maintain weight) and implement nutrient timing, to have more energy readily available for our workouts.
Instead of being fat, the goal should be to fill out our weight class with as much lean mass as possible, by having more muscle mass and a lower body fat percentage. Research tells us that if we assume similar skill levels among athletes, the strongest lifter in each weight class will be the individual with the most lean mass.
For example: Let’s say I compete in the 83kg men’s division and I weigh exactly 83kg at 15% BF; I have almost 71kg of Lean Mass (this would also include the mass of bones, organs, not just muscle). My competitor also weighs 83kg but at 20% BF and would only have roughly 66kg of Lean Mass (assuming equal mass of bones and organs). My competitor would have less contractile tissue to compete with; therefore, I have the muscular advantage.
That being said, if you are new to powerlifting and looking to compete for the first time you shouldn’t worry about your lean mass and/or weight class at this point. Instead, check out our Beginner’s Guide for How To Start Powerlifting for everything you need to know.
Example Body Compositions of Powerlifters
Most high-level athletes in powerlifting, are maximizing their relative strength by filling out their weight class with as much lean body mass as possible.
Here are the physiques of some of the top powerlifters in the world, who compete in drug-tested federations:
– Heather Connor, 47kg
– Jessica Buettner, 72kg
– Brett Gibbs, 83kg
– Ray Williams, 120+kg
How To Stay Lean While Powerlifting (6 Tips)
The lifters with the highest relative strength know the importance of staying relatively lean and close to their weight class, to avoid major cutting phases that can deplete their energy stores and athletic performance.
Here are 6 tips to help us do the same:
- Increase Your Protein Intake
- Monitor Your Energy Balance
- Focus On Nutrient Timing
- Cut or Bulk Gradually
- Get Your Steps In
- Prioritize Sleep
Increase Your Protein Intake
Protein is the most important macronutrient for gaining and preserving muscle. Without adequate protein intake, we limit our potential to build muscle – which affects our size, strength, and metabolism.
Having more muscle mass can help us to maintain a leaner body composition because it requires more metabolic energy than fat. Therefore; the more muscle we have, the more calories we burn throughout the day.
It is recommended for strength athletes to consume 1.3-1.8 grams of protein/kg (body mass). Although, if we are in a caloric deficit, perhaps to drop a weight class, it is recommended to eat between 1.6-2.4 g protein/kg (body mass) to help preserve muscle mass while losing excess fat, with emphasis on the higher end the more intense the deficit.
When calculating our protein intake, if we have a higher body fat percentage (above 25% for men, or 32% for women) it is better to use our lean body mass rather than fat mass to determine our intake. If we are unable to get an accurate measurement of our body fat to estimate our lean mass, it is better to use a height measurement in centimeters rather than body mass or lean mass.
For athletes that are trying to fill out their weight class, it is also worth mentioning that, although limited, there is research suggesting that a high protein diet while “bulking” could help to minimize fat gain and encourage more gains in lean tissue.
Monitor Your Energy Balance
Energy balance refers to the amount of calories we consume versus the amount of calories we burn, this is also often referred to as CICO (calories in, calories out).
The balance is said to be negative when we consume less than we burn (a caloric deficit), which leads to weight loss.
The balance is positive when we consume more than we burn (a caloric surplus), and are therefore consuming more energy than our bodies require. The body can use this energy to create more muscle tissue or to store it as adipose (fat) tissue.
Increases and decreases in mass due to energy balance can be the result of changes in muscle mass and/or fat mass, depending on training stimuli and nutritional factors (ex: volume/intensity, macronutrient ratios, and the length of time spent in a deficit or surplus)
Focus On Nutrient Timing
Nutrient timing has the potential to improve body composition, training performance, and promote recovery when energy balance is accounted for.
Nutrient timing refers to manipulating your macronutrient consumption throughout the day to accommodate that our bodies can better use certain macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, protein) at certain times.
Carbohydrate manipulation pre and post workout is important to provide energy for our workouts, and to optimize body composition. Consuming carbohydrates before training ensures that we have the energy to perform our best during our training sessions.
Afterwards, consuming more carbohydrates is necessary to replenish the glycogen stores we have just depleted, to promote recovery and adaptation. Carbohydrate intake should remain higher in the 3 hour window following a training session.
This is especially important when calories are restricted or we are relatively lean, because we would have less energy readily available.
When carbohydrates are consumed in their highest quantities, fat intake should be at its lowest; because, it is not the primary fuel source for our bodies while strength training and therefore is better used at other times throughout the day.
Instead, fats should be prioritized when we are more sedentary, or performing everyday activities; because this is when fat is the body’s preferred source of energy.
Protein should be consumed throughout the day, with every meal or snack to encourage more muscle growth and retention.
The simplest method is to evaluate roughly how much protein (in grams) we need throughout the day, and divide that by the number of meals/snacks we are planning on consuming – this is the amount of protein (in grams) we should aim for at each feeding.
- Eat most of our daily carbohydrates before, and up to 3 hours after training
- Consume less fat around training times (before and 3hrs post)
- Eat more fat, and less carbs when activity level is low
- Include a serving of protein with every meal or snack
Even though nutrient timing is a great tool for our toolbox, if we struggle to control our energy balance, we should ignore nutrient timing for the time being. If we cannot nail the basics, we should avoid overcomplicating things.
Cut Or Bulk Gradually
Whether we want to bulk to gain lean mass and fill out our weight class, or cut to decrease body fat and become more lean, we need to do it gradually.
If we rush a bulk, we are more likely to put on more body fat than muscle mass which will make us less competitive in a powerlifting competition.
If we cut too quickly, we risk losing muscle mass (our precious contractile tissue) along with our body fat, which decreases our force generating capacity.
The expression “slow and steady wins the race” really applies when we’re cutting or bulking to retain or gain as much muscle mass as possible.
Get Your Steps In
We’ve discussed energy balance strategies in terms of nutritional interventions, so lets touch on how increased activity can help us to stay lean while powerlifting.
Getting 10,000 steps a day is a popular recommendation that came about because studies found that, active individuals were averaging 6000 steps/day from daily activities (without exercise) and approximately 4000 steps from 30 mins of exercise, so public health made the recommendation of 10,000 steps as a target for people to become more physically fit.
10,000 isn’t a magic number by any means, but it’s easier to give people a goal rather than simply telling them to “move more”. For this reason, I think it’s worth using 10,000 steps (or whatever number of steps is challenging but realistic for you) as a guideline – whether it be for increased caloric expenditure or simply better health.
This is important because most individuals feel that if they are getting a workout in, they are being active enough to stay “healthy” and/or lose weight. But if we train for 2 hours a day, and then sit for the other 22 hours, does that really balance out?
Studies show that sleep needs to be prioritized in order to gain and/or maintain muscle mass. The reason for this is, inadequate sleep can affect muscle growth by limiting the secretions of anabolic (building) hormones, and increasing the secretion amounts of catabolic (breaking down) hormones which ultimately limits our ability to increase and maintain lean body mass.
Loss of sleep can also cause increases in fat mass by messing with hormones that control our hunger signals, causing us to consume more calories than we typically would. It can also decrease our daily movements (NEAT) because of overall fatigue.
The general recommendation is for adults to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night; however, it has been suggested that athletes may need more sleep (9-10 hrs) than the average individual, to recover optimally.
How Lean Is Too Lean For Powerlifting?
This varies widely between individuals, but on average 10-15% body fat for men and 17-20% body fat for women seems to be the limit; any further and we start to see more decrements in performance, extreme fatigue, and lack of motivation due to hormonal imbalances and decreases in energy availability.
If you feel like you’re bordering on being too lean, monitor your symptoms and assess your performance. If the symptoms persist and you are consistently under-performing, it’s probably time to increase your caloric intake appropriately.
Powerlifters are always referred to as being the fat and lazy strength athletes, but I’m hoping that this stereotype changes over time. To be more competitive as powerlifters, we need to take our nutrition more seriously, build more muscle mass, and move more throughout the day and not just while training.