All too often, powerlifters trying to make weight will sacrifice strength by dieting away hard-earned muscle along with body fat. It's no wonder, considering all the fad diets and cardio programs that somehow make their way into a weight loss program that was never intended for athletes who depend on strength and power.
My first experience with this phenomenon was back in the early 1990s, when I was training offensive and defensive linemen for the University of Oregon football team, as well as professional boxer Joe Hipp. Like many athletes, they have a nasty habit of packing on unwanted pounds in the off-season that slow them down on the field or in the ring. Invariably, their coach tells them to drop weight - and fast - or stay home. And that's where the problem begins. Not knowing much about nutrition, these athletes typically adopt some drastic, calorie-cutting diet they overheard from a pencil neck personal trainer at the local fitness club. Next thing you know, they cut back to somebody's idea of a bodybuilding diet, eat only two or three meals a day consisting of a can of tuna and some rice cakes, and start up a long distance, muscle burning cardio routine. They they get so weak and tired that they just get knocked all over the place.
Learn to Count Calories
The first question athletes ask me is, "How many calories do I eat?" The answer is different for every individual since we all come in different shapes and sizes, and have different basal metabolic rates and workloads. But the frequency and types of foods are the same for feeding muscles. Once the basics are implemented then we can adjust the quantities to achieve the desired, gradual fat loss without burning up valuable muscle.
In order to properly feed the muscles, you need to eat frequently throughout the day. Ideally the diet begins with six daily meals spaced about three hours apart.
The muscles also need high quality protein the body won't burn in 30 minutes, leaving them wanting. This is why I always include lean red meat in each meal, such as top sirloin with the fat cut off. In addition to being an excellent protein source, red meat has creatine and is high in iron and B Vitamins. It also digest slowly, which provides your muscles with a constant source of protein - unlike eggs, milk, and protein powders, which are good quality proteins but burn up too quickly.
Should You Cut Fat or Carbs?
The next question I'm asked is, "Should I cut out fats or carbs to drop fat?" The answer to this is NEITHER! Strength and power athletes need nutrients from all the sources to maximize performance. I never cut out carbs or fats, nor do I drastically reduce them.
Besides, an honest assessment of the foods being consumed in comparison to the diet I suggest most often demonstrates that fats in a powerlifter's diet are well over 50% of total calories consumed. And, carbohydrates are usually from undesirable, simple sources such as sugars, sodas, or white flour products like pancakes, which affect insulin levels and lead to excessive fat storage.
I initially shoot for 40/30/30 distribution of proteins, fats, and carbs, then make adjustments based on body type, workload, and results. Here's a general guideline to get you started:
I would start a 250-lb. athlete on 5,000 calories a day. Let's start with 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. A 250-lb. person would take in 500 grams of protein, about 2,000 calories, and that would make up 40% of your total caloric intake in a 40/30/30/ split. Fats would make up about 30% of the diet, or 1,500 calories (which is approximately 150 grams of fats). Carbs would make up the other 30% of the diet, or 1,500 calories, which is 375 grams of carbs.
In this diet, the proteins come mostly from lean red meats, such as top sirloin steak, but can also include chicken and fish - but not exclusively. Fats are already present in the meats so they don't have to be added. Carbohydrates consist of rice, potatoes, oatmeal, and other complex carb sources.
The first thing athletes discover is that it is a lot of food to eat.
The reason it's more food but fewer calories is because it consists of less fat than was being consumed on the typical powerlifter's diet, and fats have more than twice as many calories as proteins and carbs. But it's clean, high quality food and will feed the muscles and starve the fat, allowing athlete's to slowly lose body fat without losing strength.
What About Cardio?
Let's also take a minute to talk about cardio. As I mentioned earlier, many athletes assume that going for a jog will help them lose weight. While that might be true, it's mostly muscle they will lose. I never incorporate long jogs or aggressive treadmill work in a strength athlete's program; it's simply contrary to what the athlete is trying to achieve.
Distance runners jog, powerlifters lift. It's that simple.
In recent years most of the best trainers in the country have recognized that explosive strength athletes do not benefit from lengthy cardio sessions and instead incorporate HIIT (high intensity interval training) for optimal results. Football, sprinting, powerlifting and many other sports are a series of brief, explosive power movements, not two mile jogs.
I remember training two collegiate sprinters and football players who went on to play pro football, and one even ran in the Olympics. The first thing I told them is that they would have to add muscle if they wanted to get faster. Remember, this was about 15 years ago (article written 2009), so imagaine the feedback I got from their coaches when they heard I wanted to make their sprinters bigger! You see, speed is a byproduct of strength. Now you're starting to see why this is important to powerlifting. Explosive strength, power and speed are important when implementing and completing a lift.
I told two collegiate athletes not to jog two miles with the team for warmups. It was making them smaller and weaker. One of their coaches actually chastised an athlete in front of the whole team, calling him selfish and accusing him of letting down the track team to focus on football. But we held firm and instead only trained with sport specific, explosive movements and multi joint strength exercises. The coach made a public apology when, three months later, this athlete (with 15 lbs. more muscle) ran a personal best 100 meter dash and took second in the PAC-10 championships. He went on to set records for most yards and most touchdowns that fall as running back for the football team and that team went to the Rose Bowl that year.
I hope I'm getting my point across. Don't let anyone start you on some lengthy cardio program. Those with significant body fat to lose can slowly walk on the treadmill for 30 minutes daily, but should keep their heart rate low. It's preferable to use sport specific training and diet to shed fat and hold on to muscle.
Now you know what to eat and how to train to lose fat weight and not muscle weight so you can make that weight class and still be able to put up big numbers. Remember to start well in advance of the competition and lose the body fat slowly, so as not to get behind on your goal and find yourself excessively reducing calories or jumping on the treadmill and burning up muscle. You might as well stay in the heavier weight class and lift bigger weights than diet wrong or diet fast and lift little, teen weights.