26 December 2019

Nutrition For Powerlifters: PART 1 – Common Nutrition Mistakes

by Stacey Rogers 0

When you think of a ‘powerlifter’, what images come to mind? 10 or so years ago and images of the stereotypical powerlifter was a large, overweight, male with some seriously jacked up testosterone and blood pouring from his nose. Fast forward to the modern fitness landscape and the archetype of a powerlifter embodies a far…

When you think of a ‘powerlifter’, what images come to mind?

10 or so years ago and images of the stereotypical powerlifter was a large, overweight, male with some seriously jacked up testosterone and blood pouring from his nose.

Fast forward to the modern fitness landscape and the archetype of a powerlifter embodies a far more diverse looking athlete with features and characteristics that are far more appealing to the eye…

Although powerlifting is not a diet-centric sport, value must be placed on nutrition if athletes wish to excel in their lifting and reach their strength potential. Fortunately, many competitors are now aware of the importance of nutrition and thanks to greater accessibility of information on the interwebz, are placing greater emphasis on their diet.

It should be obvious that nutrition alone won’t add kilos to your total, however a ‘sound’ nutritional approach can definitely aid an athletes training efforts.

Sub optimal diet practices can only be swept under the rug for so long before it trips up an athletes performance and recovery. For lifters serious about the sport, it is imperative to ensure that no stone is left unturned, diet included.

You may not want to be an elite powerlifter, but I am sure you definitely want to get the most out of your efforts in training and on the platform and hopefully this article will help you squeeze the most out of your efforts in the gym…

Like most topics online, divergent opinions on what/how to approach nutrition for the powerlifter make deciphering information time consuming, confusing and at times overwhelming – an unfortunate reality of living in the digital era…

The consequence for the well intentioned powerlifter or coach that consumes misinformation or even applies ‘evidence based’ recommendations inappropriately is a frustrating journey of diet related blunders, which can ultimately detriment the athletes performance and long term development.

In Part I of this two-part article we will take a look at five of the common nutrition mistakes powerlifters make and provide some tips to ensure you avoid or remedy these dietary blunders.

1.  Dieting All The Way Into A Meet

Before we dive into things, I think defining what dieting is would be a good place to start. In the context of the strength athlete, powerlifters are required to compete in certain weight classes. This means not only does dieting refers to the practice of eating in a regulated manner to enhance recovery, training and competition performance or to optimise health, but in many cases athletes will need to manipulate body weight via decreasing, maintaining or increasing body weight.  

In order to manipulate body weight, we must consider calories and energy balance. This is the cornerstone of regulating body mass and is known in physics as the law of thermodynamics – Read more HERE.

What are calories and why do they matter for powerlifters?

Calories are those tiny units of energy we consume through our food and drink and are the means of providing the body energy to sustain life and performance. This is otherwise known as the energy IN side of the energy balance equation, with our total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) making up the energy OUT side of this equation..

Energy Surplus – When calorie intake exceeds TDEE weight gain will occur.

Energy Deficit – When calorie intake is below TDEE weight loss will occur.

Energy Balance – When calorie intake and TDEE are equal, calorie balance or maintenance has been achieved and weight will remain stable, all else being equal.

Whilst there are methods to rapidly lose body mass such as water loading, carbohydrate depletion, lowering food volume and electrolyte manipulation, these strategies will only lead to acute changes in body weight. It is recommended that a rapid cut should seek to shed between 3-5% of body weight in order to preserve strength and minimise the risk of adverse consequences.

That being said, a rapid cut will only change body mass acutely and for long term strength development, improving overall body composition (fat mass: fat free mass) will provide more long term performance improvements and easier management of weight.

Why energy deficits during a meet prep suck!

With this primer on energy balance out of the way, I am now going to discuss the first mistake many powerlifters make – “dieting all the way into a meet”. For context, we can assume that a lifter committing this blunder would be someone with the goal of decreasing their body weight to meet their weight class in competition. 

For example, if under 64 kg female lifter is weighing in at 70kg and is 10 weeks out from her next meet she will have to lose 6kg of body weight in order to make weight. This is more than % of her bodyweight, meaning that at least some of this weight must be lost prior to meet day. Thus,  this lifter would need to begin an energy restricted diet and begin consuming less calories than she is expending to elicit weight loss and be within proximity of her target weight.

Obviously there are many factors beyond the time frame and target body weight that influence how to approach a diet for weight loss and the  magnitude and duration of an energy deficit. 

Some of these factors include:

  • Body fat levels;
  • Lean mass;
  • Previous dieting history;
  • Current caloric intake

For argument’s sake and to keep things simple, let’s assume that this lifter begins dieting for the duration of her prep leading into this meet, as most new competitors do. With this comes a few rather notable downsides which have the potential to impact performance both in training and on the platform.

Firstly, the need to diet all the way into a meet is heavily influenced by how much attention you paid to your nutrition during your off-season. Something frequently overlooked and the result being overweight (beyond 5% of your target competition weight) and excess body fat gain. Ultimately involvement in a strength sport is a year-round endeavor. There are times when you are going to have to be somewhat more rigid in your nutrition approach however not paying attention to your nutrition to the point that you are getting heavier than is desired may require you to diet for extensive periods and reduce calorie intake during a competition preparation. 

This is far from an ideal situation. 

Body fat is non-contractile tissue, meaning it doesn’t help you lift weights. Therefore, if you have gained unnecessary body fat in the off season and find yourself well and truly outside your weight class, you are up shit creek without a paddle. Not good, unless you have a paddle! 

In such situations, a knee jerk reaction aka drastically cutting calories is the approach for most athletes, resulting in a host of problems, such as:

  • Higher fatigue levels;
  • Increased stress (diet induced)
  • Slower recovery rates
  • Decreased adaptive potential 

Take a moment to think about the aforementioned consequences of dieting into a meet. 

If you are gearing up for the hardest training cycles or a peak, but are consuming low calories and constantly fatigued due to being energy restricted, it is hard to imagine how this would benefit performance with high training volumes and intensities. 

I hope I have convinced you that dieting at this time is likely not the best idea… 

A better time to lose weight…

In order to manage body weight and reduce fat for the strength athlete, dieting phases where calories will be restricted should be planned for the off-season or further away from competition. This is a time for focusing on body composition changes as not only will training with higher volumes preserve muscle better, but there is less performance related stress/pressure due to being further out from competition. 

Try the following tips:

  • If you have to diet into a comp, give yourself sufficient time and plan ahead.
  • Avoid starting a cut on excessively low calories to minimise performance decrements 
  • If you are dieting solo, use THIS calorie calculator to determine your calorie/macro targets for fat loss.
  • Seek help from a nutrition professional who will work with you to develop the best approach for you.

2. Poor Distribution of Calories Through The Day

Life can get in the way sometimes, I hear this. You had to work overtime, didn’t get a lunch break or simply forgot to eat (I can’t believe people actually forget to eat!!). It comes time to train in the arvo, you haven’t eaten since breakfast some 7 hours ago, you have next to no energy, the weights feel harder than they should and you cut the session short. Definitely not ideal. 

How you distribute your calories over the day and week can play a large role in your performance levels during training. By scheduling regular meal times that best suit your schedule and preferences as well as fuel your training performance, you may be able to eek out a few more kilo’s or reps in the gym. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that any performance improvements should be the goal, and calorie distribution is an often overlooked component of diet for the strength athlete.  

Try the following tips:

  • Start your day with some fuel in the tank. Eat breakfast! A lack of calories in the early part of the day leads to a backlog of calories at the tail end of the day and potentially poorer food choices if you are playing ‘calorie catch up!’
  • Evenly space your meals over the day at regular time intervals. This not only ensures you are adequately fueling your performance, it will also assist with regulation of your appetite over the course of the day.
  • Distribute your protein over the day. Aim for 0.4g protein/kg body weight/meal.
  • Structure your carbohydrate intake around your training. The amount is individual dependent, however carbohydrates 1-2 hours before your session and in the meal following will aid both performance and recovery.
  • Planning is the key to success!

If you are looking to maximise your performance, calorie distribution throughout the day is something you need to pay attention to, however many lifters overlook this.

If you are someone who skips breakfast, has a child sized lunch, trains, and then loads up on poor quality calories at the tail end of the day, chances are you are not performing at your best. Depending on when you train in the day will dictate how you structure your meals. The number of meals will depend on what works best for you.

There is no one “right” way to eat, but when you eat can have a big impact on your performance.

Adequate protein spread through the day and centering your carbohydrate intake around your training will ensure sustained energy throughout and will complement your recovery.

Planning is the key to success here!

3. Chopping and Changing Nutrition Plans 

With endless nutrition information, plans, regimes etc. at our fingertips, the temptation to implement the latest nutrition approach is real. In their quest to maximise performance or make weight for their next comp many lifters change their nutrition plan as frequently as they change their underwear! 

Chopping and changing nutritional approaches is a recipe for getting nowhere. Far too often I hear lifters changing out their nutritional strategy on a weekly basis as they chase a quick fix or to feed their fear of missing out on something. Your body does not respond to this approach. Don’t be fooled by overnight scale drops. Sure, this does happen, but to truly assess quantifiable  changes in fat or muscle you need to look at trends over time.

Before changing out your nutritional approach you need to assess whether the current strategy is working! 

Try the following tips:

  • Avoid chopping and changing nutrition plans. Commit to an approach, assess whether it is working and then take action (if needed) from there.
  • There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Everyone is different so find what works best for you. 
  • Don’t focus on overnight scale drops. Look at trends over time to assess whether progress is being achieved.   

4. Dropping Carbs Too Quickly or Completely Avoiding Carbs

Carbs for many people, lifter or not, are frequently viewed as being the enemy. This is definitely not the case. Carbs are generally the first thing to get the chop when an individual wants to lose weight. In some cases this may be necessary, however many implement drastic reductions in their carbohydrate intake at the detriment of their performance.

Drastically reducing carbs would have to be one of the things I see most among lifters and probably one of the biggest mistakes. Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of energy and the predominant energy powering your performance.

If you are cutting carbs to lose weight I would suggest taking a different approach if maintaining performance and optimizing recovery is important to you. An idea would be to try reducing your fats first as they serve less of a role in anabolic/strength process.

Start your diet early, bring down your fats slowly and you will still have the energy and recoverability to continue to perform at your best!

At some point your carbohydrates may need to be adjusted, however it wouldn’t be my first port of call when dieting in a performance based sport.

Try the following tips:

  • Before cutting carbs, try reducing your fat intake. Fats serve less of a role in the anabolic/strength process. Fats are also more calorie dense, meaning a small drop in your fat intake will equate to a greater drop in calories when compared to carbohydrate. 
  • Be mindful of your carbohydrate choices. If you have decreased your fat intake and get to the point where your carbohydrate intake is on the lower side, choose high volume, nutrient dense carbohydrate choices (eg. green vegetables, fruits, pumpkin, popcorn etc) over calorie/carbohydrate dense options. 
  • Start your diet early. I can’t stress this one enough! Starting early allows you time to gradually make adjustments over time while preserving energy levels and promoting recovery so you can continue to perform.

5. Poor Food Choices On Meet Day

Both the quality and types of foods consumed on comp day, I believe, have the potential to impact an individual’s performance. Foods lacking the specific nutrients needed to fuel the muscles and brain or foods unfamiliar to the lifter could become problematic. 

Food choices on the most important day of the training cycle can, at times, be comical. Many lifters get to meet day, make weight and then see it as an excuse to eat all the foods they have not been eating just before they are due to lift!

There are a few things wrong here…

Firstly, just like you wouldn’t try out a new belt on meet day, why would you eat foods you are not accustomed to just before you lift?

Stick with what you know, don’t go introducing new factors into the equation because you don’t know how it will end.

Secondly, filling up on low quality food is likely to equal a low-quality performance. Save them for after the meet when energy levels, gut mass and performance are less of a concern.

To optimise performance on meet day, your best bet is to consume some form of carbohydrates for energy that are low in fibre and is quick to digest. The last thing you want is to have a heap of food sitting in your stomach ready to surface when you exert yourself on the platform.

Try the following tips:

  • Avoid eating new or unfamiliar foods on meet day. Stick with what you know!
  • Fuel your body with good quality carbohydrates. Limit low quality, processed foods. Save these for after the meet.
  • Aim for foods low in fibre and quick to digest to avoid the feeling of food sitting in your stomach while you lift. 

Rounding out Part 1…

At the end of the day there is no magic formula for powerlifters that makes their nutrition overly different. If the lifter views themselves as an athlete, they should invest in their nutrition to ensure they are getting the most out of their training and recovery. Ultimately find what works best for you, your performance and your ability to adhere.

Now we have got what powerlifters don’t want to do when it comes to nutrition out the way, in Part 2 of this article I will look at some of the things they should be doing to complement their performance through nutrition. Stay tuned for more!

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