Why body composition is under-rated for Powerlifting

I rarely see body composition being talked in Powerlifting. Sometimes it’s even discarded completely. How fat one is seems to be considered largely irrelevant, and all that matters is how much weight you can lift. That’s all well and good, if you’re a Super Heavy Weight, which is over 120-140kg (265-308lbs) depending on the fed. For everyone else, you should get as strong as possible, but within the weight class that makes you the most competitive. And that might mean you need to lose some fat.

Even though this is Eddie Hall, a Strongman and not a Powerlifter, this is often the physique associated with Powerlifting. Very muscular, but with a lot of fat as well. However, this build is rare at the high level unless it's SHW, which is a small portion of the sport.

Even though this is Eddie Hall, a Strongman and not a Powerlifter, this is often the physique associated with Powerlifting. Very muscular, but with a lot of fat as well. However, this build is rare at the high level unless it’s SHW, which is a small portion of the sport.

A lot of my clients that compete in Powerlifting get a bit confused when I recommend they should try to lose some fat if they’re a bit overweight. Powerlifting is a sport of strength, why does it matter if I have a bit of extra fat? In fact, despite being more stereotype than anything, Powerlifting is said to be a sport where you can be fat and not worry about it. There’s even an old joke that if you can’t be lean enough for bodybuilding, you can just do Powerlifting and have an excuse to be fat.

The problem with this thinking is that Powerlifting is a sport with weight classes. Necessarily, you will compete with people of a similar weight to you. The strongest among that group will win. The reason why your body composition (and therefore your weight) matters so much is due to the fact that you’re competing with people of similar weight. So if you’re fat and your competitor is lean, since you have a similar weight, by default, he will have more muscle than you. And muscle is a very big determinant of strength, especially since you can assume all competitors have at least decent technique and neural-efficiency.

Dan Green, Jesse Norris, Konstantin Konstantinovs, and Zahir Khudayarov. All highly competitive powerlifters.

Dan Green, Jesse Norris, Konstantin Konstantinovs, and Zahir Khudayarov. All highly competitive powerlifters.

Take the following example. Let’s say you’re competing in the 165lb class (75kg). Let’s say you’re 18% bodyfat, and you have someone in your weight class competing against you, and he’s 12% bodyfat. You have 135lbs of Lean Body Mass (which means anything beyond fat), while your competitor has 145lbs, 10lbs more than you. Assuming everything else is equal, because he has more muscle than you, you will lose.

There’s also the idea that fat makes you stronger, so it’s fine to have extra bodyfat. We all know that it’s easier to get stronger if you’re gaining weight, even if that’s mostly fat (like the typical dirty bulk). So that must mean fat makes you stronger too right? Well, not really. Fat doesn’t contract, and it can’t contribute to force production, so it doesn’t really make you stronger. However, you do feel stronger, so what’s the deal here? It has 2 main reasons:

1) More food. You have an easier time getting stronger because you’re simply eating more food. It’s not that fat itself that is helping, but in order to gain that fat, you need to consume more food, which fuels training. More food will also make you hold more water, which improves leverages.

2) Bigger belly. If you’re very fat, your gut might help your squat by rebounding out of the hole, because it compresses against your thighs. It may also help with the bench press, since a bigger gut will mean a reduced range of motion if you touch low enough.

The 2nd point usually doesn’t apply for most people, however the 1st does. Getting fatter, even if it’s not from the extra fat itself, usually make you get stronger easier. However, as already mentioned, since Powerlifting is a sport with weight classes, it’s never worth it because you’re also increasing your bodyweight, and the net balance is almost always negative unless you manage not to move a weight class.

That’s why, as a general guide, you want to be the most muscular and yet the leaner you can get. It’s not to be taken literally, as you obviously don’t want to just do hypertrophy work as a Powerlifter, and you obviously don’t want to get leaner as possible like in Bodybuilding, but it’s a simple expression that means you need to “fill” and use your weight class to the fullest. If you’re fat, you’re just wasting weight. You could potential be a weight class down (or more), and you’d be a lot more competitive. The lighter your weight class, the more competitive you will be, just by literally being lighter.

For example, when looking at the results of IPF Worlds in 2015, the average total of the top 5 in the 93kg, 83kg and 74kg class goes from 796kg (1751lbs), to 721kg (1586lbs), to 691kg (1520lbs). That’s a massive difference.

Also a study in 2013 (1), showed that increasing 1kg of muscle mass is comparable to improving 5-8 kg for the Squat and Deadlift and 3-5 kg for Bench press in male powerlifters. This all confirms what is already obvious. The higher the weight class, the higher the strength standards, and vice-versa. That’s why being lean and the lowest weight class you can is a good idea.

However, this obviously has some limits. If you get too lean, you will feel like shit. Your hormones might start to get affected, your mood will be crap, your sessions will start to suck, etc. So you obviously don’t want to reach that point. The level of leanness where this starts to happen is different for everyone, but as a general guideline, it often happens at 10-15% bodyfat. This has mainly to do with your set point, which might be somewhat flexible, but that’s another article by itself. Basically you just want to get as lean as you can but while still feeling good. However, an important detail is that “feeling good” has to be measured AFTER you have dieted down. Dieting will almost always make you feel worse than usual, that doesn’t mean you’re getting too lean, it’s just what dieting does. You know you’re too lean for Powerlifting purposes, when you don’t feel good, but you’ve already dieted down to your current weight, you’re now maintaining it for a good while, but you still don’t feel as good as you used to and your training doesn’t seem to go as well. And remember that the point of getting leaner is so you can move down a weight class. If you can’t lose enough weight to drop to the next class, then it defeats its purpose.

Despite being lean being a good idea, you obviously don't want to be too lean, as a bodybuilder or fitness model would for example. That would greatly effect your performance, leading to being less competitive, the opposite of what we want.

Despite being lean being a good idea, you obviously don’t want to be too lean, as a bodybuilder or fitness model would for example. That would greatly effect your performance, leading to being less competitive, the opposite of what we want.

But even if you can drop a weight class and be more competitive, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. Dieting by itself is already tough from the food perspective, and now it becomes even tougher because of training. Most people have a very hard time progressing while dieting unless they’re new to training or they have a very large amount of weight to lose. They either can’t get stronger, or have a hard time to just maintain what they already have. This seems to vary greatly between individuals. How you diet obviously affects it, but even with a reasonable approach, most people have to fight to hold their current strength or end up losing a tiny bit regardless of what they do. Some just can’t really maintain, and lose a significant amount of strength. And then a small minority of lucky people doesn’t even seem to be affected by dieting at all, assuming it’s not extreme. I have no idea what causes this big variance between individuals, but it happens. There’s several things that seem to help, but nothing really “fixes” it. Here’s the things that seem to help the most:

  • Keep your carb intake high. Reduce mostly fat intake to achieve your caloric deficit. Eventually you might need to cut carbs since fat can only get so low, but that should be your last option. Carbs are important for performance, doing a low-carb diet is not a good idea if you want to maintain as much strength as possible.
  • Put the majority of your carbs around training time. This usually doesn’t affect it that much, but probably worth doing or at least experiment with. Some notice a difference, some don’t. Likely depends how low your carbs are.
  • Don’t rush your diet. Lose weight slowly. For most people, around 0.5kg (1lb) per week is a good pace. How fast you diet significantly affects how well your strength holds. You might go even slower, to about 0.25kg (0.5lbs) per week, which usually makes even easier. The slower you lose, the better performance will hold. The problem is that the slower you diet, the longer the diet has to be, and the longer you’re making little or no progress in the strength department. That extra time you spent because you dieted slower, it could have been a time where you were no longer dieting and setting PR’s again. How you balance the 2 out is your decision and depends on the situation.
  • Get the appropriate amount of volume. Some people immediately drop the majority of their volume when dieting, hoping the higher intensity will help maintain strength. Bad idea. Volume is a big part of creating and maintaining adaptations. Don’t drop it randomly. Some people also don’t change the program at all, and refuse to drop volume with fear they will get weaker. Also not a good idea. When you’re dieting your ability to recover won’t be as good, and therefore the amount of volume you can tolerate will be reduced. If you keep insisting on maintaining volume, you will likely reach a point where you’re doing more than you can recover from, and start to over-reach. This is usually already bad by itself (unless it’s planned, usually called functional over-reaching), but while dieting, it’s a recipe for disaster. Keep your volume the same initially, and adjust/reduce it as needed.
  • Don’t drag your diet forever in a single go. The longer you diet, usually the more muscle you will start to lose, and dieting just gets harder overall. It’s a good idea to do some diet breaks (eating at maintenance) every couple months or so, even if just for a week or two (you can certainly do more) . You will find it helps tremendously. When you start dieting again it will go smoother, and also allows a bit of time for your lifts to catch up a bit while you’re not in a deficit.

But again, I emphasize, even while doing all this, many people will still not be able to gain strength, or even hold their current lifts. One of the most appreciated things about Powerlifting is being able to see your progress so clearly and objectively. You squatted 365 for 5 last month, now you did 385 for 5. It’s a great feeling. While dieting, not being able to do that, and see your numbers the same or even decreasing, it’s a huge killer on your motivation and ego.

A good way of countering this suggested to me by Greg Nuckols is keeping track of your Wilks score. Let’s say you’re 180lbs. Your total used to be 1215 and you had 372 Wilks. You lost 10lbs. You’re now 170lbs and your total decreased 15lbs, you’re probably feeling pretty discouraged. However, you now have a 381 Wilks! That’s an extra 9 points. To increase your Wilks that much while saying at 180, you’d have add 30lbs to your original total. Even though you lost strength, your Wilks improved, that’s progress. You’re heading in the right direction, that’s what matters.

Don’t forget this is a long-term game. You won’t diet forever. Eventually, the diet will end, and once you’re eating normally again, most people can get back to where they were in a flash. So while it’s a hard punch to take, keep your head up, it will pay off.

So to sum up:

– In general, you want to be in the lowest weight class possible so you can be the most competitive.

– That means you want to be relatively lean. If you’re a bit overweight, you can likely drop a weight class without too much hassle.

– Dieting might make it hard to get stronger, but suck it up, do whatever you can to fight it, and once you’re done with dieting, you can easily get back to where you were. By then you will be a sexier and more competitive Powerlifter.

1) http://www.minervamedica.it/en/journals/sports-med-physical-fitness/article.php?cod=R40Y2013N04A0409

 

 

Written by Tiago Vasconcelos, 2016 

2 Comments

  1. Great article ! One question : what would be an “appropriate amount of volume” ? I know it will greatly vary from person to person, but do you have a general guideline? Thanks

    Reply
    • The highest volume you can tolerate, while still progressing at a good rate. Mike Israetel has some good resources on this topic, search for MRV.

      Reply

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