Introduction to Powerlifting Diets
A powerlifting diet and meal plan is simply one that supports your powerlifting program and overall goals. This article is designed to take you from zero to hero and empower you to be the captain of the ship driving your physique and strength goals.
With that said, certain aspects will require commitment to understand and complete. Finding your precise daily caloric expenditure and working to create a meal plan you are able and excited to follow both take effort. Sticking to the plan takes effort. But if you expect to make amazing, lasting changes though, you clearly should expect to put forth effort worthy of such dramatic results. Nothing in life is truly free—and that includes a good life that necessitates a healthy, strong, and admirable physique.
These goals differ from individual to individual but typically fall into at least one of three categories:
- Fat and weight loss to remain within a specific powerlifting weight class or to achieve body composition goals
- Strength gain to increase competitiveness and athletic ability
- Muscle hypertrophy (growth) to support further strength increases
Beyond simply changes in one’s physique, the best diet for powerlifting will also include foods that are nutrient-dense and provide micronutrients—the essential vitamins and minerals for optimal body functioning—and not just macronutrients which fall into one of three categories:
In simplest terms, macronutrients provide the building blocks for cellular growth while micronutrients lend themselves to optimal physiological functioning. The correct amount of both leads to optimized, efficient progress towards physique and strength goals. When you are training correctly and eating properly, you will make rapid progress.
Ketogenic Diets for Powerlifting
While ketogenic diets, those devoid of substantial carbohydrates, have grown in popularity, scientific research does not necessarily suggest that a carbohydrate—free meal plan provides any real benefits over one with glycogen-restoring carbs (here’s another study). Furthermore, daily fiber provides benefits that reduce the risks of heart disease, strokes, and intestinal issues.
More likely, ketogenic powerlifting diets simply encourage more prudence in food choices. Instead of a bag of chips, someone adhering to keto would instead eat nuts. This is a clear positive change if total caloric input is also lower (or higher if attempting to gain muscle). There is also debate if the majority of benefits from a keto meal plan aren’t simply gained from the increase in overall protein to accommodate for lower levels of carbs.
Some evidence does show that low-carb diets do provide a more satisfying and satiating diet that improves fat loss. However, there is an individually-determined point at which lowering carbohydrates further will lead to detrimental effects.
With that said, current understanding on specific macronutrient functioning is nowhere near complete. As researchers continue to search for answers, conventional wisdom will likely be adjusted. Unarguably, the specific details of any one diet are not supremely important as long as proper health is maintained and caloric goals are met. If you find that a keto diet is beneficial, you should use it. If you find that you crave a higher level of carbohydrates to accommodate for a higher level of activity and still follow your meal plan effectively, there is no reason to stop. Above all else, consistency and adherence to the process will always reign king.
Getting the Most Out of Powerlifting While Dieting: Maximizing Strength
Explained thoroughly in the muscle and strength guide, strength and muscle share a high positive correlation. As one develops more muscle, strength goes up. And as strength increases, the ability to lift heavier weights lends itself to the development of more muscle. With that said, strength is a function of several factors, of which muscle only plays one role.
Neural efficiency and optimized biomechanical positioning (proper form towards lifting maximal weight) also play a very large role. These two factors provide a logical explanation for truly elite lifters. Taking a look at the current junior records (18-23 years old) in the USA Powerlifting League, you will find lifters in the 163-pound weight class squatting above 550, deadlifting over 600, and bench pressing well north of three plates. Those in the 183-pound weight class routinely squat over 650, deadlift 700, and bench press more than 400 pounds.
While some would argue the gear is solely responsible for this better form, the increased poundage that gear adds only enhances the wearers’ current form—which can be great and also very poor. Though they definitely add weight, their optimized powerlifting shoes and deadlift slippers definitely aren’t the foundational reason for their exceptional biomechanical positioning.
One could simply argue these individuals are muscular. While this is absolutely true, these levels of strength exemplify exceptional neuromuscular conditioning. In simplest terms, this refers to the brain’s ability to send efficient, powerful nerve impulses to muscle groups in order to elicit a strong contraction.
The form of top-level powerlifters is also immaculate. There is zero kyphosis (upper-back rounding), no significant hip dysfunction (such as anterior or posterior pelvic tilt), and a lack of patellofemoral issues (knees tracking improperly or feet externally rotated). With proper positioning of the joints and high-efficiency form, even more weight can be lifted.
Other factors like age, structural health, and genetics also play a role with the latter being arguably the largest determining factor in what one is capable of achieving. While genetics may determine the ultimate end-state, each individual is far from maximizing their potential when they first begin.
It takes decades of training and dieting efficiently to reach one’s true genetic maximum—and that doesn’t include the use of performance-enhancing drugs which some may choose to use to push things even further.
While the use of PEDs may not be morally wrong, using them too early can place a low ceiling on one’s ultimate capabilities. If the body still has plenty of growing to do, but is introduced to a large enough hormonal imbalance for long enough, its ability to grow without external hormones decreases radically.
It is the exact reason the common adage rings true: one you start taking them, you can’t (don’t want) to stop.
Using PEDs in a tested federation is a display of unethical sportsmanship. Any argument against this is mute and should be directed at changing the rules themselves. If one chooses to compete in a given tested league, they forfeit their independence to the proposed social contract of the group.
Bottom line: training consistently with the use of an optimized powerlifting routine and eating within the boundaries of a successful diet plan will provide plenty of amazing results. As with anything difficult in life, however, it takes true dedication. In return for this dedication, one’s strength, physique, and health all benefit.
Understanding TDEE When Powerlifting for Weight Loss or Gain
At the basis of any successful diet is TDEE: total daily energy expenditure. Simply put, this is how many calories you burn on a daily basis. This number will determine how much food you are able to consume. If your goal is weight loss, eating 200-300 calories below this number is recommended. On the flip side, if you are attempting to gain muscle, eating 200-300 calories above this number is recommended.
- To lose weight, eat 200-300 calories below your TDEE
- To gain weight, eat 200-300 calories above your TDEE
Calculating your actual TDEE can be done roughly using a calculation.
Before getting into that, however, here are some general guidelines that provide a starting point:
- Males trying to put on weight: caloric intake = bodyweight (lbs.) * 15
- Males trying to lose weight: caloric intake = bodyweight (lbs.) * 12
- Females trying to put on weight: caloric intake = bodyweight (lbs.) * 14
- Females trying to lose weight: caloric intake = bodyweight (lbs.) * 11
However, finding your personal TDEE will require some fine tuning. Once you have calculated your expected TDEE using one of the calculations below, use a bodyweight scale to test and optimize your result.
For example, if you receive a calculation of 2,500 calories, eat that amount of calories for one week and weigh yourself every day at the same time. Do not pay any attention to analyzing your weight—simply record it. At the conclusion of the week, look at the bodyweight numbers recorded.
- If there is a change of less than .1 pounds, your TDEE is very accurate
- If there is a change of .5 pounds, subtract or increase weekly calories by 1,700 depending on weight goal
- For a change of 1 pound, subtract or add 3,500 weekly calories to lose or gain weight respectively; for every pound, add or subtract the same amount of calories
Continue to make adjustments by adding or subtracting calories until you find your true TDEE: the exact amount of calories you need to sustain yourself.
TDEE Calculator for Men
Calculating your TDEE first includes finding your basal metabolic rate (BMR): the rate at which you expend energy per unit of time while at rest. Then you must multiply your BMR by your activity level.
BMR = [height (centimeters) * 6.25] + [weight (kilograms) * 9.99] – [Age * 4.92] + 5
Now multiply your basal metabolic rate by your activity level. The more accurate you are in your self-assessment, the more accurate the final result will be (which means less time spent adjusting with the use of a scale like explained above).
- Little to no exercise: BMR * 1.2
- Exercise 1 to 3 days per week: BMR * 1.375
- Exercise 3 to 5 days per week: BMR * 1.55
- Exercise 6 to 7 days per week: BMR * 1.725
- Exercise multiple times daily and/or physically-demanding job: BMR * 1.9
This number will put you in the rough ballpark of your TDEE. From here, small adjustments with the use of a scale may be needed to hone in on the precise amount of calories burned daily and weekly.
TDEE Calculator for Women
Powerlifting women follow a different calculation based on their different physiology.
BMR = [height (centimeters) * 6.25] + [weight (kilograms) * 9.99] – [Age * 4.92] – 161
Multiply this number by your self-determined activity level. Attempt to be as accurate as possible to garner a more precise answer.
- Little to no exercise: BMR * 1.1
- Exercise 1 to 3 days per week: BMR * 1.275
- Exercise 3 to 5 days per week: BMR * 1.35
- Exercise 6 to 7 days per week: BMR * 1.525
Knowing your TDEE, you can then very easily create a diet and meal plan that caters to your specific goals. The TDEE is also referred to as your maintenance calories and macros—what you need to “maintain” your body’s current nutritional demands.
- If you are attempting to lose weight, 1-2 pounds is advised to maintain as much lean body mass as possible while altering body weight—a sharp decrease will lead to a large, steep decrease in lean body mass
- If you are attempting to gain weight, 1-2 pounds is advised—the slower you gain weight, the less fat you will accumulate along the way
- If you want to undergo a body recomposition phase, eat at your maintenance
Cycling: Best Option When Powerlifting for Fat Loss
There is evidence to suggest that either cutting or gaining weight in cycles is best and produces hormonal changes (benefits) that are not found with simply maintaining weight. There are several reasons for this.
- Gaining weight optimizes the muscle-gaining process but is also self-defeating: as more weight is gained, muscles’ sensitivity to hypertrophy-inducing nutrients (proteins for example) continues to decrease. As this happens, a point is reached when any gain in bodyweight produces a large amount of stored fat with little muscle.
- Cutting makes gaining muscle easier and more effective once a hypercaloric (surplus) diet is reintroduced. As the amount of nutrients present in the bloodstream decrease, the body becomes super-sensitive to them; muscles begin to utilize them more effectively. The decreased body fat also makes gaining muscle easier.
These two factors form the rational argument for an alternating cycle: losing weight efficiency with as little lean body mass as possible, followed by increasing weight in an efficient manner to accumulate muscle without excessive fat gain. By cutting down, the body becomes more sensitized to making gains in muscle mass.
It has been postulated that the most efficient body fat levels for muscle growth lie within a specific range:
- 10%-15% for male powerlifters
- 20%-25% for female powerlifters
Gaining muscle produces more benefits than simply an increase in strength and powerlifting competitiveness.
- More calories are burned in a resting state—metabolism increases as the body’s increased muscle burns calories at a rate three times faster than its fat
- Increased supportive structures: bone and supporting tissues like tendons and ligaments grow as muscle mass is increased
- Improved posture leading to various aesthetic and health benefits
- A better physique which is sometimes not as obvious because additional fat is being gained in the process that hides definition—look ripped or “toned” once you lose weight
This is much heated discussion about whether muscle growth can occur in a hypocaloric (low calorie) state. This is most clearly observed in beginners. When the body is first introduced to a new stimulus (training correctly and eating properly), changes will occur rapidly. This is commonly referred to as “noob gains”. During this time, substantial muscle growth and fat loss seem to coincide. If you are a novice with less than 6-18 months of training, you can expect swift results.
In trained strength athletes, however, the loss of lean body mass while cutting is much more common. Studies show this loss in lean body mass can be attenuated or reduced by consuming a high amount of protein relative to the other macronutrients and partaking in a resistance-based workout routine.
Therefore, if your goal is to lose weight while powerlifting, you should eat 200-300 calories less than you consume each day and maintain a high level of protein in your diet. The use of casein may also help by providing a slower-digesting protein source to further fight catabolism: the destructive metabolism and breakdown of muscle and other soft tissues.
If your goal is to gain weight and lean body mass while training, you should eat 200-300 calories above your energy expenditure. Eating in a large surplus (500+ calories) will lead to excessive, unnecessary fat gain while in a “bulking” phase.
These cutting and bulking phases do not need to last for a long time. A cut of 16 weeks or four months can be done, but the last one or two months will be incredibly stale. Furthermore, as the body becomes used to the diet-induced hypocoloric state, losing fat becomes harder and harder.
On the flip side, bulking for longer than five or sixth months lends itself to large increases of fat mass that work to slow hypertrophy. Explained above, at a certain point this fat gain vastly overshadows the small amount of muscle being gained.
By using shorter time periods, the entire process becomes less stale and more sustainable. Beyond just personal enjoyment, it is a more efficient way to make positive progress towards physique and strength goals.
Each person is different, but if starting out attempt a dieting phase of 6 weeks coupled with a mass-gaining phase of 12 weeks. This approach keeps things fresh and more sustainable, while still providing enough time to make substantial changes to strength, fat loss, and lean body mass.
Each macronutrient requires a specific amount in relation to your bodyweight. There are three primary macronutrients:
Studies show that a diet supporting muscle protein synthesis should contain 1.3-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight (.6-.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight). However, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) states a daily protein intake of 1.4-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight (.65-.9 grams/lb of bodyweight) “falls in a line within the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range published by the Institute of Medicine for protein.”
The ISSN also makes several other statements in their “Position Stand”:
- Higher protein intakes of greater than 3 grams per kg (1.4g/lb) may have help promote fat loss in resistance-trained individuals
- Ingesting 20-40g at a time is generally found to be best, though concrete recommendations are mixed and highly dependent on age and training stimulus
- Daily required protein intake should be ingested evenly throughout the day and consumed every 3-4 hours
- The consumption of casein protein (30-40 grams) before bed increases muscle protein synthesis during sleep without affecting lipolysis or the breakdown of fat
Additionally, it is well known that protein creates a higher metabolic disturbance and takes more energy to digest that the other macronutrients. Perhaps even more noteworthy, studies show eating an increased amount of protein helps to reduce the loss of muscle during a cut.
- Protein requires 20-30% of its caloric value to digest
- Carbohydrates require 5-10% of their calories to digest
- Fats require 0-3% of their calories to digest
Using a simple example, if you eat two servings of oatmeal (300 calories), 15-30 calories will be burned in the digestion process. On the other hand, if you eat one serving of steak containing 40 grams (160 calories) of protein, 32-48 calories will be spent on digestion. This hypothetical situation highlights an important point: protein burns many more calories when compared with eating carbs and fats.
If protein intake didn’t seem complicated enough, fats and carbohydrates are even less understood. Supporting science still needs to be done to develop a fuller perspective on the acute physiological effects of consuming fats and carbohydrates.
Eating enough fat is essential for maintaining optimal testosterone levels. However, a drop in testosterone levels does not directly equate to a loss of muscle and lean body mass. Furthermore, studies conducted on trained athletes have found that high protein, low fat diets that maintain a healthy amount of carbohydrates are more effective for preserving lean body mass than diets low in carbs and high in fat.
With that said, fat intake falls into two categories:
- 20-30% of calories should be fat if bulking
- 25-20% of calories should be fat if cutting
If cutting, studies show maintaining high levels of performance as well as insulin and insulin growth factors is more important for maintaining lean body mass than an increase in testosterone. Furthermore, eating a surplus of fat while cutting makes it difficult to digest an adequate amount of protein and healthy level of carbs required for hard training in the powerlifting gym.
This leaves us with carbohydrates. While they receive much hate by a large portion of the fitness community, science tells a different story. On top of helping to preserve muscle while cutting, they have several benefits while bulking:
- Carbohydrates lead to insulin secretion which further primes your body to release more growth hormone during sleep
- A high-carb diet removes the factor of food from efficient training; if you have a bad day at the gym you can be confident it isn’t because of the food
- Because they don’t store as readily as fat, carbohydrates are more likely to be used by your body
- Swelling within muscle cells has been shown to likely cause some level of hypertrophy, and the more carbohydrates present, the more that swelling can take place
The timing of carbohydrates is also important and should be situated around periods of exhaustive exercise (training). Furthermore, consumption of carbs composed of glucose (monosaccharides) and sucrose (disaccharides) should take place immediately during or following exercise with maltodextrins (polysaccharides high in starch—white rice, cord, potatoes, wheat) eaten shortly thereafter. Complex carbohydrates should make up for the remainder of carbohydrate needs.
Carbohydrates are the easiest to account for as they simply make up the remaining calories left over once protein and fat requirements are accounted for.
Caloric Values of Macros
Before reviewing final macronutrient recommendations, it is essential to be aware of the caloric value of each macro:
- Protein: 4 calories per gram
- Carbohydrates: 4 calories per gram
- Fats: 9 calories per gram
- Alcohol: 7 calories per gram
Alcohol serves zero productive purpose in the diet of a powerlifter or strength athlete. If you do drink, however, it is important to be aware of the caloric impact.
Knowing the recommended dietary ranges and caloric value of macronutrients, the final plan can be summed up easily.
- Protein: 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight
- Fats: 25% of total caloric value if bulking and 15% if losing weight
- Carbohydrates: remainder of available calories
Powerlifting Diet Plan: Example One
Consider a highly active 26-year-old male that is 178 centimeters (5’10”) tall and weighs 77 kilograms (170 pounds) that uses a 6 day workout routine (highly active: exercises 6-7 times per week) and is looking to put on muscle. With the calculations and scale provided earlier, and a firm grasp of optimized macronutrient levels, the following plan is constructed:
BMR = (178 centimeters * 6.25) + (77 kilograms * 9.99) – (26 years old * 4.92) + 5 = 1,758.81
Multiplying his BMR by his activity level (1.725) gives a TDEE of 3,034. This means to maintain his current weight, he should consume 3,033 calories daily. Remember that this is an estimate and should be adjusted by using the scale to fine tune as explained earlier. However, remember that he wants to put on muscle which means a caloric surplus is desired. This means, if his estimated TDEE is accurate, he should eat roughly 3,300 calories daily to put on muscle effectively.
Furthermore, this individual should eat macronutrients that satisfy that guidelines above:
- Protein: 1.5 grams per pound * 170 pounds = 255 grams of protein at 4 calories per gram = 1,020 calories reserved for protein intake
- Fats: .25 * caloric intake of 3,300 calories = 825 calories from fat intake with 9 calories per gram = 92 grams of fat
- Carbohydrates: remainder of calories = 3,300 – 1,020 – 825 = 1,455 calories reserved for carbs at 4 calories per gram = 364 grams of carbohydrates
If you are confused by the calculations, don’t forget the caloric values of protein (4), carbs (4), and fat (9) which are used to convert from calories to grams and vice versa.
Knowing his precise macronutrient needs and daily caloric intake, he now has everything necessary to formulate a meal plan. The last step remaining is simply finding food items to fulfill these nutritional needs. Using this nutritional outline, he can expect to gain 1-2 pounds of mostly lean body mass with gradually diminishing returns as body fat increases (explained earlier). A gain of weight any faster would lead to the accumulation of far too much fat in relation to lean body mass.
Powerlifting Diet Plan: Example Two
Take a look at one more example if you find it helpful. Consider a 23-year-old female who has started a powerlifting program for beginners that only includes three days of lifting per week. She is 162 centimeters (5’4”) tall and weighs 62.5 killograms (138 pounds) and wants to lose fat to qualify for the 57 kg (125 pound) powerlifting weight class.
Remember, because it is a female lifter, the alternative BMR calculation must be used.
BMR = (162 centimeters * 6.25) + (62.5 kilograms * 9.99) – (23 * 4.92) – 161 = 1,362.72
Multiplying her resulting BMR by her activity level (1.35) gives a total daily caloric intake of 1,840 calories. Assuming she has used the scale to check and the calculation was precise, her macronutrients can be calculated. However, remember that she wants to lose weight and should be in a caloric deficit of 300 calories, bringing her total daily allowance down to 1,540 calories.
- Protein: 1.5 grams per pound * 138 pounds = 207 grams of protein at 4 calories per gram = 828 calories set aside for protein intake
- Fats: .25 * caloric intake of 1,540 calories = 385 calories from fat intake with 9 calories per gram = 43 grams of fat
- Carbohydrates: remainder of calories =1,540 – 828 – 385 = 327 calories reserved for carbs at 4 calories per gram = 82 grams of carbohydrates
With her daily caloric intake established and the correct macronutrient profile, the only thing remaining is building a meal plan that caters to these nutritional needs. With a calorie deficit of 300, she can expect to lose 1-2 pounds per week while maintaining as much muscle mass as possible. Losing weight any faster would lead to a high rate of muscular atrophy.
Crafting the Final Powerlifting Meal Plan
Now that all of the details have been sorted, the final thing remaining is the creation of a meal plan that includes foods to meet the calculated dietary requirements for maximizing athletic performance—whether that be losing fat efficiently or gaining muscle in the most optimized way possible.
There is much debate on the idea of whether a “calorie is a calorie”. In other words, does it matter if you eat twinkies vs. plain oatmeal if you are still eating “within” your macros? One interesting study suggests the mere thought of IIFYM violated the second law of thermodynamics. This is simply because, as explained in the report, different metabolic pathways operate at different efficiencies. And as mentioned earlier for example, a gram of protein creates a larger metabolic change than a gram of carbohydrates—though both have the same caloric value.
With that said, a diet plan should be rigid enough to remain highly effective, while still allowing for enough flexibility to encourage adherence. If you are truly miserable with your daily food choices, it will be extremely difficult to maintain—and clearly so.
This also brings up the point of the hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation. In summary, this is the observed phenomenon of humans to return to a general baseline of happiness after a substantial positive or negative event in a short period of time. Consider moving into a new house or buying a new car. At first, it is highly rewarding and stimulating to the brain’s neural networks. Rather quickly, however, this “honeymoon” period wears off and the new car doesn’t seem like such a thrill anymore.
In the same way, after a negative change humans are quick to bounce back—or at least have the ability to. While coming back from a long vacation can be tough to manage as the day-to-day tasks of “normal” life don’t seem nearly as exciting, after a bit of time things return to normal.
The same thing is observed in dieting behaviors. After training your taste buds on the salivary goodness of sweet, salty, oily food, eating healthier options seems bland and tasteless. Give it time. As the body readjusts its hedonic set point, the healthy and macronutrient-dense food will become satisfying and you may even find yourself craving food items you would have considered bland in the past.
As you select from the food options below you will be able to gravitate towards the items you find most satisfying to finalize your powerlifting nutrition plan. It isn’t hard, it just takes a bit of effort and dedication—two things that any successful powerlifter is sure to have.
Those two words are what separate powerlifters and strength athletes from general gym-goers and lead to an absolute dedication to becoming the best you can be and maximizing your genetic potential. Consistency is the lifeblood of any major success—in any field of endeavor.
But you don’t have to be perfect—or even close to it—to make some serious progress. And this isn’t referring to the general trope thrown around about giving yourself a break every now and then (which does have its place).
Athletes (aka powerlifters) are driven by performance. This performance requires a high level of macronutrients (food). Take a look at Michael Phelps for example. He has been known to eat in excess of 10,000 calories per day while training intensely. It’s pretty hard to eat 10,000 calories in salad form—he was smashing pancakes and shakes and all sorts of other “bad” foods.
It’s important to understand that human performance and physique transformations don’t happen in a box. They are extremely dynamic processes that we have only—in the past 40 or 50 years—begun to try and understand.
But that’s where calculating your TDEE comes into play—these variables are assessed on an individual basis. Once you have that calculated, you have an actual number—a physical property—that you can use to base your nutritional behavior around, whether that is to eat more or less of any given food.
Ben Pollack, an elite strength athlete with a “powerlifting body” that is nothing short of chiseled and stout, says “don’t eat like an a-hole.”
In this, he means to approach it pragmatically. Choose from healthier food options that are less processed when you can. This will make it easier to control calories and maintain your TDEE goals. As an added bonus, these foods normally have higher levels of micronutrients and lack additives and some types of fats that can lead to a sluggish feeling in the gym.
The Pareto principle is at play…hard, when it comes to dieting. 80% of your results will come from 20% of the effort put in. It’s also known as the 80/20 rule.
What does it mean?
Don’t worry and stress about the minute details. Just focus on making concrete changes where they really matter most: eating the correct number of calories and macronutrients and opting for healthier food choices as much as possible. Let the minute details work themselves out.
And this comes from the simple fact that sustaining such levels of training and dieting is hard. You know what sounds miserable? Doing extensive meal prep to track every calorie after work because you hit the gym for two hours in the morning.
On the flip side, opting to toss chicken breast and rice in your shopping cart over a pizza and some chips is a choice that requires no mental effort. But over time, it’s simple choices like these that can add up to large physique and strength changes.
List of Food Items
The list of foods that follows is in no way exclusive or exhaustive. Any foods that satisfy your macronutrient and caloric goals are fair game (use common sense and stay away from processed foods as much as possible).
There’s also the myth that certain foods are inherently “bad” while others are “good”. This is false. A diet is made up of all of the foods one consumes. Throwing in the occasional donut or cupcake isn’t going to “ruin everything”. In fact, it’s actually a good idea to consume foods you enjoy in moderation. This makes long-term progress possible.
No one is going to stick with a miserable regimen, and even the most dedicated and driven bodybuilders and strength athletes know this. It’s why they allow themselves to “cheat” within reason. But the devil’s in the details as they say, and the “within reason” part is critical.
As long as the majority of your nutrition is comprised of foods dense and ripe with micronutrients (essential vitamins and minerals), enjoying yourself in moderation is perfectly fine. In fact, time and time again research has shown that dieters that are flexible in their approach are much more successful in achieving weight loss for the long term. The same goes for dieters looking to gain quality weight and put on lean body mass.
As a part in your nutritional journey, it is highly recommended that you acquire a food scale. They are affordable and provide a precise way to measure your food and thereby your progress. Failing to see any results simply because you ate the wrong amount of food can set you weeks behind and create unnecessary frustration during a process that is already a big change (adjusting what you eat).
Furthermore, by having both a food scale and bodyweight scale at your disposal, you can easily make caloric adjustments and track progress with high precision (example: noticing that you are gaining weight too fast and then removing some calories from your daily diet).
When considering supplements, avoid gimmicky products with un-verified claims that promote ridiculous “bro-science”.
Most people start out their weight loss or weight gain journey by looking for supplements that can power them through to their goals. The reason for this is obvious: people always want the easy, quick fix. And so, they venture down to their local GNC and ask the mid-30s overweight “expert” what can get them slim, fit, thick, and strong…and fast.
One GNC yearly membership and $200 later the poor sucker leaves with a bunch of useless junk that in reality won’t do anything, ultimately leaving him or her feeling even less motivated than when they started—and a whole lot more broke.
The key to breaking this negative mental schema is to understand that supplements are intended to “supplement” an already solid diet. But it goes further than that. If you aren’t capitalizing on your full potential in all fitness-oriented areas:
- If your diet it out of whack, you have no reason to use supplements
- If you aren’t truly training and following a structured program that consists of multiple days of lifting per week, you have no reason to use supplements
- If the ability to manage your weight, health, and overall fitness is outside of your current abilities, you don’t need to use supplements
With that said, there are some very basic supplements that definitely have their place once a base level of optimal nutrition has been laid out. The main supplements that you should consider are all backed by science and have mainstream adoption for their effectiveness:
- Protein Powder—simply a macronutrient source to help meet daily needs
- Creatine—a naturally-occurring substance found in red meet that turns ADP into ATP, thereby fueling cellular metabolism
- Multivitamin—aids in reaching daily micronutrient values
Luckily, all of these are affordable. Best of all, you can save your money and spend it where it really matters: food.
Before moving forward it is important to note that other supplements out there do exist that are positive and have been shown to help. Fish oil, theanine, and beta alanine are just a few of these. While these other supplements can help, changes in your diet will make a far bigger difference. Worry about fine tuning your “supplement stack” once you’ve got your diet completely optimized.
- Egg Whites
- Chicken Breast (Skinless)
- Ground Turkey
- Cottage Cheese
- Protein Powder
- White Rice
- Sweet Potatoes
- Cottage Cheese
- Olive Oil and Flaxseed Oil
- Fish Oil
- Peanut Butter
Before moving on, it’s important to demolish the myth that eating well racks up a large grocery bill. While it is true that some healthier food items can definitely cost more than their less-healthy counterparts, they aren’t all like that.
Food staples like rice, oats, greens, eggs, tuna, and potatoes are all reasonably priced and dense with nutritional value.
What people mean when they talk about “good food costing more” is actually something else entirely. Tasty “good” foods like filet mignon and wild salmon are expensive, sure.
But saying all “good” foods are expensive is just a cop out for not wanting to make sacrifices and setting down the frozen pizza for oatmeal and tuna.
Nuances of a Powerlifting Diet Plan
While, clearly, all aspects of proper performance nutrition apply to powerlifters, there are certain aspects of dieting that are unique to elite strength athletes.
- Reverse Dieting
- Circa-Training Nutrition (what to eat before, during, and after lifting)
- Carb Timing
- What to Eat on Meet Day
- Powerlifter Body Myth
A large challenge of dieting is that, beyond the structural changes made at the physique level, there are a large host of other hormonal changes that must be accounted for if one hopes to make long-term adaptations possible.
The most obvious one is post-diet hunger. After a substantial loss of weight, hunger levels will not match your new weight level. In other words, you will still be extremely hungry but simply won’t be losing any further weight. This is why, often times, lifters will put on 20 pounds over the course of a few days after a competition that required strict dieting.
To further make things worse, your hormone levels are primed to encourage you to regain the weight you just lost (or lose the weight you gained).
And that’s where the recommendation to stay at a maintenance level of calories for several weeks becomes so important to follow—it allows the body to reach hormonal homeostasis at the new bodyweight.
The term “reverse dieting” means increasing your calories so that you are at maintenance—instead of “normal dieting” which is decreasing calories below your maintenance (TDEE).
In practice, just add in 50-100 calories per day for a week and repeat. Do this until you find that your bodyweight is consistent and then use this to find your new TDEE.
The bottom line is simple: after dieting or gaining weight, stay at your new bodyweight for a month to allow your body to fully adapt—and actualize all of your hard work!
What to Eat Before Lifting (and Drink)
One of the easiest ways to instantly boost your results is to better address the nutrition surrounding when you train. A large majority of people don’t eat or drink anything prior to training—which is insane. While fasted training does have its benefits and applications while trying to lose weight, it must be done very carefully otherwise large amounts of strength and muscle will be lost. If you’re trying to put on muscle and gain strength, it’s a terrible idea.
There are two quick, BIG wins.
Time Your Carbs Before, During, and After Your Workout
Unless you are dieting to the extreme, getting in carbohydrates before, during, and after your lift is essential. Your body needs carbs to restore its glycogen stores.
“Carb loading” refers to eating carbohydrates before training to help fuel exhaustive lifting. This isn’t necessarily a bad strategy, but it misses a large part of the equation: intra-workout nutrition.
Over the course of 1-2 hours of hard lifting, the body’s glycogen stores becomes severely depleted—regardless of the carbs eaten prior to the workout. To combat this, easily-digestible carbs should be consumed during a training session. Honey, bananas, and sour patch kids serve three examples.
And of course, after a training session, carbs and protein should be consumed as quickly as possible.
Drink More Water
Much of the population, lifters included, is chronically dehydrated. What’s worse is that even a small degree of dehydration can significantly, negatively impact performance during a workout.
There truly is no excuse for being dehydrated—it’s an easy fix: drink more.
And drink more especially before you work out so that your body is fully hydrated and ready to train. As a rule of thumb for daily water consumption, aim for one ounce per pound of bodyweight.
Carbohydrate Cutoff Times
While carbs are essential surrounding a workout, are they outside of those time frames? For most, no. However, this is one aspect of dieting that is highly individualistic. Some can eat a large number of carbs and respond well. Others will feel depleted and sluggish, put on too much weight, have GI issues, and more.
And one way of avoiding excess carbs is simply to have a cutoff time for them. While it takes effort to write down and track macronutrients, simply cutting them out during certain times during the day is another easy win that requires no mental energy.
Pick a time, say 7 p.m., and then don’t eat any carbs past that time. If that doesn’t produce the results you want, move it up to 6.pm. or earlier. If you lift later in the evening, you may have to change these times and restrict eating in the morning.
The strategy remains: restrict yourself intake during certain times.
What to Eat on Meet Day
If you are dieting and preparing for meet day, you definitely need to be concerned with what you put into your body after weighing in.
The precise strategy and timing will depend on whether or not you have a 2-hour or 24-hour weigh in.
But the main points hold true.
- REHYDRATE—this point is #1 for a reason and also heavily relies on point #2 which says…
- To aid in proper rehydration, consume large amounts of sodium—chicken broth is amazing for this and is commonly used by MMA fighters going into fights for this exact reason
- Restore your glycogen levels by eating a large amount of carbohydrates—if it is a 2-hour weigh in focus on carbohydrates that are simple (monosaccharides) and easy to digest (sugary snacks, honey, etc.)
- Eat some form of protein and fat—a couple scoops of protein, oatmeal, and peanut butter mixed together is effective and easy to get down.
- Consider taking Imodium to prevent bowel movements—commonly used to treat diarrhea, it helps to slow down movement in the gut
- Drink or take caffeine
Powerlifter Body Myth
When the word “powerlifter” gets thrown around, many people think of an overweight guy with a monstrous gut throwing around serious weights.
While the last part is definitely true, is the monstrous gut part?
Why don’t we just take a look at some examples.
- Mike Tuchscherer
- Layne Norton
- Ben Pollack
- Jesse Norris
- Dan Green
These are elite powerlifters and none of them look fat. In fact, most would agree their physiques embody the epitome of human performance.
The age-old stigma of the “fat powerlifter” simply isn’t true.
Nutrition is complex and there’s no getting around it. Our bodies are complex and the fact that we even have the understanding that we possess is truly remarkable. We understand caloric intake. We understand macronutrients. We understand nutrient timing and bodyweight adaptations over time.
At our fingertips is true power. Armed with the pragmatic knowledge on how to fundamentally alter our physiques, we enjoy a tremendous competitive advantage over our ancestors.
All that remains is that we take advantage of it to further our goals towards healthier, stronger, leaner, more muscular physiques primed for powerlifting and strength performance.