How To Diet for Powerlifting

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Thus far in the powerlifting nutrition series, we’ve really outed the WHY and the WHAT behind powerlifting nutrition. Now that we’ve got those pieces in place, we need to put the big picture together before we can move on to the “how” of powerlifting nutrition. If you haven’t checked out earlier parts of the series, now would be a good time to do so.

The primary purpose of powerlifting nutrition is two-fold:
1) Performance Enhancement
2) Weight Management

In terms of performance enhancement, we know that we want to spend as much time as possible in a caloric surplus in order to build new muscle tissue, to be able to train more, recover more effectively from that training, and to keep our glycogen tanks on full. Even when we diet, we want to eat as much as possible while still achieving our weight loss goals because of the aforementioned performance enhancement benefits of food (and carbs in particular).

However, we must manage our body weight in order to maximize our competitiveness. Our goal is always to compete in the weight class that maximizes the amount of muscle we can carry relative to the weight class limit. In order to do this, we must use a combination of staying lean and cutting weight.

In order to stay lean enough, we will cut and bulk between approximately 10% and 15% body fat if we are male and approximately 18% and 23% if we are female. This puts us in a position to never be too far away, in terms of diet length, from being able to get to our competitive body fat level.

In order to determine our competitive weight class, we will calculate which weight class we can make when we combine our 5-10% water cut with our projected body weight at our minimal acceptable body fat threshold. If you can no longer make a weight class without going below your minimal acceptable body fat threshold and/or having to cut more than 5-10% water weight (depending on your weigh-in length), you need to move up a weight class.

Overview of the EatingToWin System

  • Maximize calories in the context of an appropriate diet
  • Cut and Bulk between 10-15% body fat if you’re male; 18% and 23% if female
  • Compete in the lowest weight class possible while staying above your minimum acceptable body fat threshold and cutting no more than 5-10% water weight (depending on your weigh-in length)
  • Repeat this process over time to slowly move up weight classes and become more and more competitive.

Now that we understand why we are doing what we are doing, it is time to examine the HOW of powerlifting nutrition.

The Nutritional Hierarchy of Importance

If you’ve ever tried to have a conversation with anyone about weight loss, dieting, or nutrition in general, you’ll realize that the vast majority of people are majoring in the minors. When my friends and family who are not very familiar with the fitness world ask me nutrition questions they almost always revolve around “which foods to eat” or “which supplements to take”.

I debated long and hard about whether or not to include a basic primer about nutrition in this series, but, in the end, I decided that it would be necessary to discuss at least some of the basics in order to make sure that we’re all on the same page.

As such, I’d like to introduce to you a concept I’ve adapted from work by Eric Helms and that is the Nutritional Hierarchy of Importance. When we’re talking about achieving our nutritional goals, here are the main factors we need to consider in order of importance in my opinion:

  • Energy Balance
  • Macronutritition
  • Meal Frequency
  • Nutrient Timing
  • Micronutrition
  • Supplementation

My goal here is that you walk away with a big picture understanding of how nutrition works when we’re talking about body weight management and performance enhancement for powerlifting purposes. I want you to see each piece of the puzzle in its proper place rather than giving undue consideration to areas which simply don’t matter as much.

Energy Balance: Why Calories are King

Regardless of what some nutrition gurus would have you believe, the sole determinant of whether or not you lose weight or gain weight comes down to whether or not you are in a caloric surplus or a caloric deficit.

Let me be very explicit about what that means.

If you are burning more energy than you’re consuming, if you are eating less calories than you’re using, you will lose weight. This is called a caloric deficit.

If you are consuming more energy than you’re using, if you are eating more calories than you’re using, you are going to gain weight. This is called a caloric surplus.

If you are consuming just as much energy as you’re burning, if you are eating as many calories as you’re using, you won’t see a change in body weight. This is called your caloric maintenance level.

You can eat all the chicken breast, brown rice, and vegetables in the world, but if you are eating too much, you will gain weight. Period. Likewise, if you budget your calories correctly, you can lose weight on McDonalds, cookies, and ice cream. This has been proven many times over by yours truly.

Let’s refocus here. If you’re trying to bulk and cut between specific percentages of body fat, the only way you’re going to be successful is if you’re consuming the right amount of calories on a daily basis. If you’re trying to cut weight on a caloric surplus, it just isn’t going to happen. Likewise, if you’re trying to gain weight, but it isn’t happening, you’re just not eating enough… PERIOD!

When you tip the balance towards the right side, you’re in a caloric deficit and when you tip the balance towards the left side, you’re in a caloric surplus. Photo:

When you tip the balance towards the right side, you’re in a caloric deficit and when you tip the balance towards the left side, you’re in a caloric surplus.

If you’re trying to gain weight, you need to be in a caloric surplus. If you’re trying to lose weight, you must be in a caloric deficit. I’m just reiterating this fact because it is truly of the utmost importance.

The Correct Caloric Intake

How can we be sure if we’re eating the right amount of calories on a day to day basis?

While there are many fancy formulas out there that endeavor to help you determine exactly how many calories you need to eat each day to gain weight or to lose weight, the reality is that everyone has a different metabolism. If you consider two people of the exact same body weight, one of them might gain weight eating 2500 calories a day whereas the other might lose weight consuming the same number.

The only way to be one hundred percent sure you are eating the right amount of calories per day is to weigh yourself regularly to make sure your weight is moving in direction you
intend it to.

Without a scale to gauge progress, you’re extremely limited in your ability to make accurate judgements regarding your caloric intake.

Without a scale, to gauge progress, you’re extremely limited in your ability to make accurate judgements regarding your caloric intake.

You have to adjust your daily caloric intake based on real world data. There is no other way. You can use the formulas if you want, but they’re just starting points. You have to adjust from the starting points until you’re seeing the correct changes in terms of your weight in the real world. Again, I cannot emphasize this enough: how many calories you should eat is determined solely by the real world results you’re seeing on the scale.

Calorie Counting and the Reality of Dieting

In previous section of this article, I discussed calories in a manner that paints them as rather absolute. You need to eat 3500 calories to make this happen or you need to eat 3400 calories to make that happen. Back in the real world, this isn’t a realistic way to approach calories.

Remember our discussions regarding accuracy and precision when it comes to body fat? Well, when we’re talking about diet the same rules apply. There is no way to know, with any true accuracy, the EXACT amount of calories you’re eating. Labels are only accurate within 5-10% most of the time.

What are the practical implications here? We don’t actually need to know the true, 100% accurate calorie number you’re consuming. We only need a fairly repeatable number that we can use as a bench mark to adjust over time. If you’re “supposed to eat” 2400kcal, but you’re actually eating 2600kcal, this doesn’t actually matter if you’re eating the same foods consistently. Why? Well, when you base your intake decisions off real world data, you’ll still get the result you’re looking for.

Follow my logic here. Let’s say you’re actually eating 3000kcal but you think you’re eating 2000kcal. This is a HUGE discrepancy and more than you’d ever encounter in the real world. It still doesn’t matter, though. If you’re not losing weight on your theoretical 2000kcal, you’re still going to eventually reduce the amount. Maybe the next week you’ll be eating a theoretical 1900kcal, but it is actually 2900kcal. Eventually, because you’re eating the same foods consistently, or you’re getting a consistent inaccurate measurement, you’ll be able to adjust downwards enough where you start losing weight. In the end, because of the real world results that you’re basing your decisions off of, precision and repeatability matter more than absolute accuracy.

Recommended Caloric Intake Starting Points

For males trying to gain weight, I’d recommend about 15x your body weight as a daily caloric starting starting point. For losing weight, males can use a caloric figure of approximately 12x their body weight. Females can use about 14x their body weight for gaining purposes and about 11x body weight for dieting purposes.

For example, a 200lbs male trying to gain weight would eat ~3000 calories per day (200*15). A 150lbs female trying to lose weight would eat ~1650 calories per day (150*11). Again, these values are starting points.

If you already know how much you need to eat in order to maintain your weight, you can use the general rule of thumb that there are ~3500kcal in a pound of fat. Therefore, because there are 7 days in the week, you’d need to create approximately a 500kcal calorie deficit per day to lose one pound per week. In the real world, this doesn’t work out so smoothly, but it is a decent place to start.

I must stress that you have to adjust these numbers based on what is actually happening in the real world. You have to weigh yourself and see what is going on. In my coaching practice, I have seen males who need 20-25x their bodyweight in caloric intake before they see weight gain. If that’s you, keep adding calories until you see the proper changes in weight you’re looking for. If your weight isn’t going up, you’re still not eating enough.

Absolute Calorie Values vs. Ranges

If you try to hit any calorie number exactly, you’re going to drive yourself crazy. This is nearly impossible to do in the real world. As such, I’d recommend that you actually give yourself a calorie range.

Sure, keep using the baseline estimates above as starting points, but convert them into ranges. I’d recommend a 100kcal +/- buffer. If you’re a 200lbs male, and you’re trying to gain weight, instead of trying to hit 3000kcal exactly, just consider any day that you fall into the range of 2900-3100 a success.

As we discussed above when it comes to precision, the exact amount of calories you eat each day doesn’t actually matter. As long as keep your calorie range moving in the right direction, your weight will also trend in the right direction as we make adjustments.

This calorie range not only helps keep you sane, but it makes it actually possible for you to be successful on a daily basis. Trying to hit a specific number each day is a recipe for guaranteed failure.

Proper Rates of Weight Gain and Weight Loss

The next thing we need to discuss is the proper RATE of weight change that we’re looking for when either gaining or losing weight.

Remember our good ‘ole friend P-ratio? Yeah, well, he’s about to make another appearance here. You see, if you’re losing weight too quickly, your body is much more likely to catabolize muscle protein stores in order to help make up the energy deficit. Likewise, if you’re eating far too much, well, you can only synthesize so much new muscle tissue each day. The rest of your caloric surplus is likely going to be stored as adipose tissue (aka fat).

You might gain muscle slightly faster with a larger surplus, but, most likely, you’ll just gain fat MUCH faster instead. I don’t recommend bulking at unreasonable paces. This picture does a fantastic job of displaying why drinking a gallon of milk a day isn't a great idea for everyone.

You might gain muscle slightly faster with a larger surplus, but, most likely, you’ll just gain fat MUCH faster instead. I don’t recommend bulking at unreasonable paces. This picture does a fantastic job of displaying why drinking a gallon of milk a day isn’t a great idea for everyone.

Weight Loss Rates for Powerlifting

In other words, there are ideal rates of weight gain and weight loss to shoot for. Specifically, if you’re losing weight, you should be aiming for anywhere from 0.5-1.0% of body weight lost per week. The leaner you are, the closer to 0.5% you should shoot for. The fatter you are, the closer to 1.0% you should shoot for. For most, somewhere right in the middle is best.

Weight Gain Rates for Powerlifting

In terms of weight gain, to minimize the amount of fat you gain, and thus elongate the time you can spend in a caloric surplus (one of our main goals), you should be aiming for anywhere from 0.5-1.0% of body weight gained… per MONTH. That’s right; muscle gain is a far slower process than fat gain.

The newer you are to training, the closer to 1.0% you should shoot for. In fact, rank novices, for a very short time, can gain even more than this. However, most of you would be best served by staying within the recommended bounds.

The longer you’ve been training, the less important trying to gain weight is at all. For trainees with more than five years of experience with proper training and nutrition, you might only gain 2-3lbs of new muscle tissue per year. As such, a traditional bulking period where you purposely gain one pound a month might not make sense. Even if everything breaks right, you’re still likely to gain mostly fat. In these cases, with very experienced trainees, the focus should be on eating as much as possible without seeing any major changes in bodyweight while still ensuring proper recovery and progression in the gym.

Let me be clear: most of you reading this have no business attempting the above strategy. You haven’t built your base yet. Bulking and cutting will still be highly effective.

Precision and Weigh-Ins

Some of you may be asking how it is possible to be so precise with our rate of weight change. After all, weight loss slows down after a period and people hit fat loss plateaus all the time. Well, again, this is why we don’t use formulas to determine our caloric intake.

The only way we can reach this level of precision in our rate of weight change is by measuring our weight every single week and adjusting our caloric intake accordingly. In fact, if you’re a committed competitor, I’d personally recommend that you take a running average of your weight every single day.

Weigh-in naked first thing in the morning after using the bathroom and before drinking any water. This practice is to minimize all variables. If you eat different meals, wear different clothes, or drink a different amount of water before you weigh-in, the results are less meaningful. You have too many other variables influencing the number.

At the end of each week, you can compare your average weight during the current week to your average weight last week. By using a running average, you can eliminate the impact of any fluctuations from unusual dietary or lifestyle circumstances. For example, if you sleep in really late one day, you will weigh less than usual due to more dehydration. Similarly, if you eat a meal really high in sodium, you’ll likely weigh more the next day than you usually do. By taking a running average, these fluctuations are smoothed out.

Making Caloric Adjustments

Let’s talk about how to actually make caloric adjustments based on the weight readings that you’re getting. For example purposes, we’ll assume you’re dieting.

If at the end of the week you find that you’ve lost between 0.5-1.0% of your body weight, you can keep your calories the same. If you’ve found that you haven’t lost enough weight, make a small adjustment and take away some calories from your daily intake range. If you’ve found that you’ve actually lost too much weight, make a small adjustment and add some calories to your daily range.

In terms of specific numbers, I’d recommend making ~50-100kcal adjustments each week when necessary based on what is happening with your weight.

While larger jumps can be attractive, weight loss and weight gain are not linear. That is, sometimes, adding or subtracting in small amounts can produce “whooshes” where you burst past plateaus. Despite the fact you made a small change in intake, a change that really shouldn’t produce big results on the scale, you’ll often see disparately large changes in weight.

When you indiscriminately slash or increase calories, often times you can produce a rate of weight loss that is far too drastic or, on the other hand, gain weight too quickly. Simply be patient and make small adjustments to your caloric range. This way, you know that you’re eating absolutely as much as possible while still achieving your goals.

If you decrease too fast, you run the risk of losing muscle and hurting your progress in the gym. You also might leave yourself in a place where there simply isn’t very much left to take away from. If you increase too fast, you’ll gain unnecessary fat and have to dial the calories back anyways. Stick to the process of slow adjustments to your caloric range.

Reversing Diet Direction: From Cut to Bulk or From Bulk to Cut

Before I give you my personal rules for adjusting caloric intake, there is one more aspect of dieting that I want to discuss conceptually: reversing diet direction. This entire article, for the most part, has been approached from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know what their current caloric intake is or doesn’t know exactly what is happening to their body weight with a given intake.

However, let’s say you actually succeed in following this whole process, and you cut down from ~15% to ~10% body fat. Both the Navy Method and your pictures are suggesting it is time to transition back into bulking. What should you do?

Should you try to calculate the appropriate calories for bulking and jump straight to the larger intake? Should you “spend a few weeks at maintenance” before slowly adding more calories? Should you “reverse-diet” and spend months slowly adding calories to get out of the deficit?

“ Reverse Dieting ”

Recently, the protocol for reversing diet direction has received a lot of attention. Dr. Layne Norton, in particular, brought the concept of “reverse-dieting” to the forefront of discussion. In order to understand reverse dieting, you first have to understand what we’re trying to accomplish when we end a diet.

One of the biggest problems with dieting, in general, is that dieting significantly alters a whole host of hormones that control metabolism and hunger. When you first finish a diet, a disparity will exist between your hunger levels and the amount of food you need to maintain your body weight. In some instances, bodybuilding competitors have been known to put on 20lbs within weeks after completing a competition style diet. In addition to hunger issues, your metabolism itself will be depressed by potentially as much as 15%. In simple terms, virtually every hormonal system in your body is primed to help you put back on the weight you just lost.

Traditionally, to help avoid this massive post-diet “rebound”, as it is called, many nutritional authorities advise that you spend a few weeks at caloric maintenance before returning to a caloric surplus. This allows time for important regulatory hormones such as thyroid and leptin to return to normal. Frankly, it allows you some time to return to normal psychologically as well.

Reverse-dieting is just a form of returning to maintenance for a few weeks before transitioning into a surplus. Instead of jumping straight to maintenance, the diet process is “reversed”. That is, you might add 50-100kcal per week to your calorie range until you’re at maintenance – very similar to how you took out 50-100kcal per week on the way down, but just in “reverse”.

Much of the recent controversy surrounds the “length” of the reverse-diet. As far as I can tell, there is very little support in the literature for lengthy reverse diets. You can probably maximize all the hormonal and psychological benefits of the reverse-diet process in 2-4 weeks. You most likely do not need a lengthy period before returning to maintenance.

Why Does Anyone Recommend Long Reverse-Diets?

Lengthy reverse-diets are only occasionally recommended because some athletes cannot stand the inevitable and necessary bodyweight and body fat rebound that accompanies the end of any diet. No matter what you do, you’re going to regain some fat after you end a diet. You’ll never be as lean as you were at the end of a diet while in a caloric surplus. That’s not how this works. That isn’t the goal of the reverse-diet.

The goal is to get you back to something resembling semi-normalcy both psychologically and hormonally without you having massive binges post-diet. As I said, this really only takes a few weeks – although you may take quite a while before you feel “normal” again depending on the length of your diet.

My “Reverse-Diet” Protocol

When either transitioning out of a bulk or a cut, I prefer to “reverse” diet. The smaller changes on a weekly basis are less invasive to your life style, easier to comply with because they’re so similar to what you’ve already been doing, and, as discussed above, there may be some hormonal and p-ratio benefits to allowing your body weight to “stabilize” before each transition.

In order to control the length of the reverse diet, and keep it reasonable, I simply take bigger jumps than usual when heading the opposite direction. I’ve previously recommended ~50-~100kcal changes to your daily range, but, while reverse-dieting, I’d recommend something more like ~200kcal changes. This ensures that you’re back to maintenance within 2-4 weeks of ending a diet and/or bulk.

While cutting, this practice minimizes unnecessary fat gain while your hormonal levels are recovering and, while bulking, this practice allows you to begin your diet with the absolute highest effective amount of calories possible. In other words, the conservative, patient approach that “reversing” represents improves dietary outcomes in my experience and in my opinion.

My Personal Caloric Adjustment Rules

While these numbers are not the end-all-be-all, nor are they hard and fast rules, here are the numbers we’ll employ for the EatingToWin system:

During A Cut:

  • Lifter gained weight; subtract 200kcal from daily intake range (use this value for “reversing”!)
  • Lifter lost less than 0.5% body weight; subtract 100kcal from daily intake range
  • Lifter lost between 0.5%-0.6% body weight; subtract 50kcal from daily intake range
  • Lifter lost between 0.6%-0.8% body weight; keep daily intake range the same
  • Lifter lost between 0.8%-1.0% body weight; add 50kcal to daily intake range
  • Lifter lost more than 1.0% body weight; add 100kcal to daily intake range

During a Bulk:

  • Lifter lost more than 0.5% body weight; add 200kcal to daily intake range (use this value for “reversing!”)
  • Lifter lost ~0.5%-~0.1% body weight; add 100kcal to daily intake range
  • Lifter less than ~0.1% body weight; add 50kcal to daily intake range
  • Lifter gained ~0.1-0.3% body weight; keep daily intake the same range
  • Lifter gained ~0.3-~0.5% body weight; subtract 50kcal from daily intake range
  • Lifter gained more than ~0.5% body weight; subtract 100kcal from daily intake range

Remember, as a powerlifter, food is fuel. Don’t cost yourself progress in the gym because you were in too big of a hurry to decrease or increase calories. With small adjustments, you can keep progressing smoothly throughout your entire diet or bulk.

Did you enjoy the Powerlifting Nutrition Series?

If so, I highly recommend you check out our eBook: EatingToWin. The book contains absolutely everything you need to know about how to set up the optimal diet for YOU personally as a powerlifter, how to identify the right weight class to maximize your competitiveness, how to cut weight like a PRO so that you can drop a weight class without performance loss, and, of course, an entire section on recommended supplements with the supporting evidence behind each recommend. Grab your copy now!

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    Table of Contents

    Powerlifting Nutrition: How To Pick Your Weight Class
    Powerlifting Diet: Cutting and Bulking
    The Best Way To Measure Body Fat For Powerlifting
    When To Move Up A Weight Class
    How To Cut Weight For Powerlifting: 24 Hour and 2 Hour Weigh Ins
    How To Diet For Powerlifting: Calories, Reverse Dieting, and More
    Setting Up Your Powerlifting Macros
    Meal Frequency and Nutrient Timing in Powerlifting
    Eating Healthy for Powerlifting
    Best Powerlifting Supplements