In the 1950s when I started bodybuilding, most guys believed all you had to do to develop your body was lift weights. They didn’t think what you ate really mattered. Now we all know differently.Frank Zane
Can you even imagine a bodybuilder who didn’t think diet mattered when building a better physique? Probably not — but many, maybe most, powerlifters think that diet doesn’t matter when building a stronger one. In reality, if you’re eating suboptimally, you’re also lifting suboptimally. And even if you never want to become an elite powerlifter, you probably want to look good with your shirt off, so diet matters to you, too.
Personally, I’ve been pretty lucky. I have a fast metabolism and don’t have a sweet tooth, so most diet-busters aren’t very appealing to me. And I’ve eaten clean foods for so long that it’s become a habit. But fortunately, even if your metabolism is closer to sloth-paced than cheetah-fast, a few easy dieting strategies can make a big difference in your recovery, in your strength, and in how you look.
RememberEveryone is different! This article is designed to help you find what works for you — not teach you how to copy me. I’m also not formally trained as a nutritionist; this article is based on what I’ve read and my personal experience.
This article doesn’t cover the very basics — if you don’t know the difference between macro- and micronutrients, or have never heard of the glycemic index, you might want to start with some introductory articles, like this or this. But if you’re pretty well-versed in diet vocab, and are just having some trouble putting together a meal plan appropriate for powerlifting, this might help.
Step 1: Eating Clean, Staying Lean, and Never Weakening
When Jack LaLanne was young, he said, “I was psychotic… I was a sugerholic. It made me weak and it made me mean. Little girls used to beat me up. My life was hell.” Actually, Jack didn’t have it all that bad — he was a good-looking guy, with obviously great genetics for bodybuilding, strength, and endurance. But he didn’t realize any of that until he started eating clean. Once he gave up the sweets and sugar, and started eating more fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains, his whole life changed. Later, as a trainer, he’d tell his students the same thing: “If man made it, don’t eat it.”
That’s a little oversimplified, but the idea is a good one: the first step for a powerlifter looking to drop bodyfat should be to cut back on the processed foods. Too often they’re prepared with added fats and sugars that can detract from a physique. There’s no need to go overboard; hitting McDonald’s once a month or something won’t kill you, but try to limit those kinds of foods.
At the same time, though, processed foods have one big advantage for strength: they bring the bloat, and bloat brings big numbers. So if you’re cutting back on processed foods, there’s a couple of steps you need to take to make sure that you can continue to train heavy.
- Make sure to get lots of salt. Salt’s a big deal for a lifter: it will make your body retain water, which can help protect your joints and give you a bit of increased leverage for your lifts. At the same time, when you want to cut some weight (whether for the platform or the beach), it’s super simple: increase your water intake and drop your salt intake. The weight will fall off in a day or two.
- Make sure to drink — a lot. I try to drink half a gallon of water before I lift, and another half-gallon while I train. Staying hydrated helps prevent injury, and that’s important — very low body fat percentages might increase risk of injury. On the flip side, dehydration can negatively impact performance.
- Get lots of carbs around your workout. I’ll eat my biggest meal of the day about 1.5-2 hours before I train, and make sure to get plenty of complex carbs from things like oats and sweet potatoes. When I get to the gym and start warming up, I’ll eat a banana and drink my preworkout blend (see below). Immediately after my workout I’ll have my super-secret postworkout shake and then, an hour later, eat another high-carb meal. I try to limit my carbs a bit for the rest of the day. This way, I have the energy I need to train and recover but don’t take in too much excess.
- Use supplements. When I train, I’ll sip on a mix of BCAAs and creatine, and sometimes a good preworkout product if I need a boost. I also take about two tablespoons of glycerol before I lift. Glycerol helps with hydration and improves “the pump” — not crucial, but often a nice bonus!
Step 2: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Some bodybuilders make a big deal about nutrient timing, food combinations, carb sources, and hundreds of other particulars. Others count and calculate every calorie. In my opinion, neither extreme is good. A reasonable macronutrient profile and healthy food choices make up the vast majority of a good diet. For a powerlifter, the little details are usually more trouble than they’re worth; and fancy schemes like intermittent fasting or carb backloading are usually just an excuse to binge on junk food at night.
If you’ve cut back on processed foods, then, the next step is to set your macros. One gram of carb or protein is 4 calories; one gram of fat is 9. (A gram of alcohol has 7 calories. Don’t get wasted.) Here’s how to do it:
- Know what you’re eating. Write down everything you eat for about three days. Record it in a free program like Fitday.com. Average the three days, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of how many calories you eat each day.
- Figure out what you need. If you want to lose weight, subtract 250 from the number you get in step 1. If you want to gain weight, add 250.
- Plan your macros. Your particular macro breakdown will depend on your own body and preferences (check the next section), but if you’ve never even tracked your macros before, start with a 40/30/30 breakdown.
- Make small changes. Aim to get close to these macros each day. You don’t need to be perfect, but if you need 200 grams of protein a day and you’re only getting 100, make sure to choose more high-protein foods. If you’re eating way too many carbs, replace some rice or oats with green veggies. Start with one change at a time, so you can figure out if it works for you!
- Keep improving. Check your weight each week. If it’s not moving in the right direction, make another change — or reverse the last one you made. Don’t worry about daily fluctuations — it’s fine to record them if you love data, but weekly trends are usually a more stable indicator of progress.
Calculating MacrosTo get from calories to macros, multiply by the percentage and divide by calories per gram. So, if you eat 2,000 calories per day, you would need about 2,000 × 40% ÷ 4 calories per gram = 200 grams of carbs per day.
Stop!If you haven’t gotten this far with your diet, don’t A) complain that you’re not ripped and B) don’t even think about messing with carb cycling or expensive supplements.
Step 3: Getting AdvancedPersonally, I prefer to cycle my macros. On off days, I eat fewer carbs and more protein and fats, and fewer calories overall. That helps me stay lean pretty much all of the time. On training days, I eat more carbs and fewer fats, so that I always have plenty of energy to train and recover.
Keep in mind that I only keep loose track of my macros. If I eat a cup of oatmeal, for example, I’ll only worry about the carbs, not the trace fats and protein. Same if I eat a chicken breast — it probably has some fat, but I’m not going to count that. It’s not worth the effort!
You’ll have to experiment to find out the ideal macros for you. Everyone is different. My macros probably won’t work for you. A good place to start, if you’re eating 40/30/30, might look like this:
- Training days: 55% carbs/30% protein/15% fat
- Off days: 20% carbs/ 40% protein/40% fat
From there, you can make small (~5%) changes in your macro ratios each week or so until you find a balance where you feel the best!
Step 4: Supplements
Supplements are just what they sound like — they’re extras. Definitely don’t think about supplements until you’ve done steps 1 and 2. Then you can think about adding them in. If you’ve done step 3, definitely experiment with some supplements, as they can be a nice bonus if you can afford them.
The one exception is creatine. Creatine is proven to safely and effectively increase strength and weight and is absolutely necessary for a powerlifter. I take 15-20 grams of creatine every day, split up into two doses to avoid stomach problems. Most studies suggest that only 5-10 grams of creatine are necessary, but I have found that a higher intake produces much more noticeable results. There are many, many different forms of creatine available, but the “standard,” creatine monohydrate, is just as good as any of the fancier variations, and much less expensive. I don’t cycle creatine.
When I REALLY need a boost, I’ll take half a scoop of Big J’s Intensity. It’s my favorite product because it provides a huge dose of caffeine without any “proprietary blend” BS. However, if you want a preworkout, I encourage you to try a few different products. If you find one that works, stick with it!
Hopefully this article gave you some new ideas about how you might improve your nutrition for powerlifting. If it did, let me know in the comments section — and if not, tell me how I could improve. Or suggest some topics for future articles. We’re just getting started, so any feedback is appreciated!
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