Firstly, I’m not any kind of licensed medical professional or dietitian. I’m just a lifting nerd who happens to take an interest in these things and tries to educate himself in his spare time. I’m just trying to provide some basic advice and structure for someone who is totally new to the concept of nutrition for sport performance. So please, don’t take any of these things for gospel, and if you have any symptoms relating to an actual medical condition, please seek advice from a medical professional.
Secondly, your mental health is always more important than anything I’ll say later on on this page. Some people find tracking and being conscious of their food intake can quickly slide into becoming obsessive. If this happens, take a step back. Eating well will certainly help your performance, but that doesn’t mean that everything will go down the tank if you don’t weigh out every gram of protein. None of this is a requirement for powerlifting, it’s just here for people if they wish to try to do everything in their power to make the best progress possible.
In terms of body image, I like to think that powerlifting in general can be a positive influence - it’s a sport that focuses on performance rather than how you look, and which generally encourages you to put on weight in a healthy, productive way. However, I’m aware that weighing yourself regularly, and having times where you are going on “cuts” to try to get “lean” may end up having a negative impact. Keep in mind that the focus here is not on how you look, but purely your long term progress in powerlifting. We only “cut” so that we are lean enough to be carrying around as much muscle as we can at a competitive body-weight, not to reach some ideal beauty standard. If you have any history with eating disorders, please feel free to avoid this advice if it does not conform to whatever is best for your mental health.
Lastly, I’m going to be focusing on nutrition for performance in powerlifting. This overlaps greatly with, but can be a subtly different thing to, nutrition purely for health. For example, while it’s not bad for your health, few people would say it’s necessary to consume quite this much protein if your sole goal was living as long as possible, and you may focus much more on things like cholesterol intake or what percentage of your fats come from animal vs vegetable sources. Don’t get me wrong, this advice and just being more conscious of food intake in general, will probably also make you healthier, but sometimes the focus is on slightly different areas.
Tracking your food
Most of the advice I’m going to give will require you, at least at some point, to track your food intake. I know this is tedious, but I think it’s the only way initially to have any kind of an idea of what your nutritional intake is. It also helps you to self-educate. For example, it’s easy to put out blanket statements like “eat more protein” or “eat more calories” or “get loads of veggies in you! It would be very easy for you to think you’re doing this sufficiently, but then when you start tracking you realise “holy moly - THAT’S how much protein I need? THAT’S how many calories I have to get down to gain weight?”. I personally remember being surprised at where a lot of my calories were coming from.
If you track your food for a period of time, I think you will start to gain an implicit understanding of what you need to be eating in what proportions, and after that you might well be able to stop tracking and simply eyeball your food, especially if you are at a stage where you are just maintaining body-weight. However, initially at least, I would recommend giving tracking a go if you want to improve your nutrition for strength.
The app I personally use and would recommend is MyFitnessPal. It comes with a few ads, but it allows you to scan package barcodes to track food much more easily (and has the largest food library out there), track your weight, save meals to reuse them, see your daily macros etc. and it is totally free! There is a paid version but you can absolutely do everything you need to do on the free version.
Another App that produces amazing results is the RP (Renaissance Periodization) Diet App. This is an app which essentially acts as a diet coach in your pocket and tells you exactly what to eat and when - so then you don’t need to think about it at all. I’ve heard it’s really fantastic, but it does cost money - about £12/month. There is a free 2 week trial on offer if you want to give it a go.
If you’d rather watch than read
A really good source of information on nutrition for strength sports, and the main one I will be using as a structure for this page, can be found in the YouTube video series “Muscle & Strength Nutrition Pyramid” by 3D Muscle Journey where Eric Helms goes through the principles of nutrition, in order of importance (below). He’s since written a book on the topic which dives into much greater detail. I’m aware these videos are a bit old, quite long, and a touch lacking in cinematography, but I implore you to stick with them because the information is gold!
Remember at all times the order of importance here! That means that you should never totally miss your calorie mark for the sake of micronutrients, supplements or even macronutrients. In practice, I think if you simply get calories right, and macros roughly where they need to be, that will take you almost entirely to where you need to go for the purposes of Powerlifting. Unless you’re world class competitive and this is your job, I wouldn’t sweat tracking your micronutrients. It’s simply good to know the principles so that you don’t take an extreme “if it hits my macros” approach but all you’re eating is pizza, ice cream and protein shakes and you’re really missing out on a lot of good nutritional value.
Level 1 - Energy Balance
When you’re concerned about regulating your body-weight, it all comes down to energy balance I.e.: Calories in - Calories out. How do you lose weight? Either reduce your calorie intake and or increase your energy expenditure by doing more cardio. If you wanna gain weight, increase your calorie intake. It’s painfully obvious, but this is often over-complicated. All fancy diets that try to use “tricks” to lose weight, if they are successful, are only so because at the end of the day, they put you in a calorie deficit.
So how many calories do you need? That depends. There are estimates out there you can use in order to gain an idea of roughly what your maintenance calories should be given your body-weight and a rough approximation of your activity level:
Maintenance Calories = Body-weight (kg) x 22 x Activity Multiplier (1.3 if very inactive -> 2.3 if very very active)
So for an 80kg male who is moderately active, you can expect maintenance calories in the rough ballpark of 80 x 22 x 1.7 = 2992 calories
Keep in mind that in reality, since your body will resist weight change to an extent, your maintenance calories will be a range, sometimes as large as a few hundred calories. So our 80kg male may well be able to eat anywhere from 2700-3200 calories and keep his weight stable. Also, there is a HUGE amount of variance here and personally I think it’s very difficult to accurately estimate your activity level compared to the average.
Personally, the approach I would use is essentially trial and error. If your body weight is currently stable, simply track your food without changing anything for a couple of weeks, while weighing yourself at the same time of the day, every day or two. At the end of those two weeks, if your body-weight is roughly the same as when you started, simply take the average of how many calories you ate per day over those two weeks and there’s your maintenance calories!
Of course what is maintenance will change depending on your current activity levels, but as long as you track your food and weigh yourself regularly, you will be able to see any changes in your weight and adjust accordingly.
So, we have our maintenance calories. What now? That all depends on what phase of training you’re in, and I’ll explain how this should fit into the wider context of your training later on. But essentially, you’re either going to want to lean bulk, maintain weight, or cut weight, where the goal is to get leaner while maintaining as much muscle as possible. Of course, if you are maintaining weight, simply keep your calories at or around maintenance, but I’ll explain a bit more on what to do for the other two scenarios. In both of these cases, I would recommend primarily working via aiming for a particular rate of weight gain and adjusting from there
When lean bulking we are doing just that. And unfortunately that sometimes requires a painfully slow rate of weight gain. However, even with the best training in the world and a perfect diet, there is a maximum rate at which one can put on muscle. Bulking too much faster than this rate will simply mean more fat gained for probably little or no more muscle. Fat in itself isn’t such a bad thing, but if your goal is to remain at a competitive body-fat percentage, it may simply waste time as you then have to diet more later to lose this fat.
The goal rate of weight gain in a lean bulk is approximately 1% of your body-weight/month - so about **0.25% of your body-weight/week. **
For our 80kg male, this comes out to only about 0.2kg/week. For a 60kg female, this is about 0.15kg/week. This does sound slow, but that’s about 0.8kg gain in muscle/month which, if you bulk for 6 months out of the year, is nearly 5kg of muscle over that year. So using this approach, you can move up a full weight category over ~1.5-2 years of lifting, while only bulking half the time, and almost all of that should be muscle!
This slow rate of weight gain can even be hard to track over the course of a week, and so it’s worth weighing yourself every day and trying to average out the fluctuations. This recommendation is of course also only a generalisation. It may well be that for total beginners, a slightly faster rate of weight gain may be possible (say, 0.3-0.4% of body-weight/week). Women should also err on the slower side of rate of weight gain as the maximum rate they can put muscle on tends to be lower than men.
How would you go about doing this? Well, there are those that say a change in daily calories of ~500 **will correspond to a change in weight, either up or down of **~0.5kg/week, so that’s about 200-250 calories excess for our 80kg male gaining 0.2kg/week (and I mean this many calories above the UPPER end of your maintenance calorie range). However, again, this is a generalisation and will vary, not only between people but also at different stages of your diet. As you push your body-weight into uncharted territory, your body undergoes metabolic adaptation, primarily by modulating your Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT), to resist further weight change. So you might find that you need to adjust the size of your calorie excess/deficit by week 8 of a diet compared to week 1.
So, again, first time you do this, I would personally recommend an approach of trial and error - increase your calories by a small amount, say about 200-300 calories/day, weigh yourself for about a week or two and see if there is any change in average body weight. If not, adjust the calories by another 100-200 calories and repeat. With experience, you will start to gain an idea of what your bulking and cutting calories are and you can adjust straight to those numbers, but always keep an eye on rate of weight change and adjust as needed!
While losing weight, the same principles apply but in the opposite direction - take calories away rather than adding them. The only difference is, you can lose weight faster than you can gain weight as it’s much easier (in a physiological sense) to lose fat than put on muscle. However, you still don’t want to lose weight too quickly, or you could risk losing some of your muscle along with it.
I would recommend a rate of weight loss of ~0.5-1% of your body-weight/week.
This is a bit easier to track and adjust for, luckily. This also means that, especially since most lifter’s goals when they start out will likely be to gain weight and put on muscle, you should be spending a lot more of your time bulking than cutting when you start off!
Trying to undergo recomposition (recomp-ing) by maintaining the same weight but gaining muscle at the same time as losing fat is certainly possible for beginner lifters but I generally wouldn’t recommend it as your sole strategy. There will be lots of times in your training where you are maintaining weight and if you can manage to undergo a bit of recomp then, great! But generally, going through cycles of longer, slower lean bulks, and then the odd, shorter cutting phase to get rid of any fat you put on will achieve the same goal but much more efficiently.
This is because, while this is a gross over-simplification, your diet will dictate your body’s net hormonal state at any one given time, which will be largely either on the anabolic (building muscle, laying down fat) or catabolic (breaking down muscle, losing fat) end of the spectrum. Therefore trying to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, for anyone but the most beginner lifters who are super sensitive to muscle growth, is likely to cancel itself out and lead to very little of both. If your goal is to gain muscle, give your body the best conditions in which to do so and make sure you’re in a calorie surplus!
I sometimes meet people who are very lean, claim their goal is to gain muscle and yet at the same time are not aiming to gain weight. These are two contradicting goals!. If you’re already quite lean (and I’m talking 10-20% bodyfat for men, 20-30% for women), how do you expect to put on muscle without gaining weight? Muscle will weigh something and so that weight has to go somewhere! So if you’re skinny and want to gain muscle, accept that this will necessarily also come with a gain in weight.
Level 2 - Macro-Nutrients
There are 3 classical macro-nutrients - Protein, Fats and Carbohydrates. Protein and carbs contain 4 calories/gram and fats contain 9 calories/gram so fats are more dense in calories. Technically a macronutrient is anything that is consumed in large quantities, and so also include fibre and water.
The most important of all the macro-nutrients when it comes to muscle and strength, protein is the main macro-nutrient you should make sure you are getting enough off!
The recommendation is approximately 2-2.2g/kg body-weight/day. For our 80kg male, this is 160-176g/day, and for our 60kg female this is 120-132g/day. If anything, this recommendation should be even higher during a cut, since you need to work harder to resist muscle loss. Essentially, proteins are the building blocks for muscle. Not only do you need protein (especially certain essential amino acids) present to actually construct your muscle out of, but consuming a protein bolus will activate a whole bunch of cellular signalling cascades such as mTOR, which activate protein synthesis and put you in a more anabolic state.
So, the more protein you have up to about 2.2-2.4g/kg body-weight, the more anabolic signalling you will have and the more muscle you will build, providing you are also doing weight training. Above ~2.4g/kg body-weight, more protein won’t do you any harm, but you’ve probably reached a point of diminishing returns and so it won’t get you any more benefit either. At this point, more protein would just serve to take up calories that could otherwise be used for fats and carbs (and going to the toilet will get pretty uncomfortable!).
The normal national guidance for protein intake is only about 0.75g/kg body-weight (only ~60g for our 80kg male), so my guidance to you is a LOT of protein! It can be hard to get this much in. Since meat is relatively expensive and filling, it’s a good idea to buy some kind of protein powder (e.g: whey impact protein from MyProtein). If you have a 1-2 scoops of protein powder a day, it’ll make your life a lot easier.
It’s also a good idea to get the vast majority of this protein from animal sources (lean meat, eggs, milk, high protein yogurts (skyr), whey protein) if you can, which tend to be more anabolic/gram of protein. So much so that if you’re purely getting your protein from plant sources, you need to approximately double this recommendation in order to get the same anabolic effect. I discuss the implication this has for vegan powerlifters later on.
Fats are not particularly useful in themselves for building muscle, so the recommendations for fats tend to be on the lower side. It’s also more calorie dense and fat sources don’t tend to fill you up much, so if you’re on a calorie deficit, you’d be making life much harder for yourself if you’re getting more than 40% of your calories from fat. However, if you chronically drop below a minimum fat intake/day you will start to encounter some problems, particularly in terms of falling levels of steroid hormones - you’ll feel fatigued, always hungry, experience a loss of libido… in extreme cases women can even lose their menstrual cycle.
So, a minimum recommended fat intake to feel your best is probably ~0.6g/kg body-weight. For most people, I would recommend having 20-30% of your calories from fat, for the most part. I would go on the lower end of this in a cut, and on the higher end or even above in a bulk to make it easier to get down that many calories. Try to make sure most of these are unsaturated fats, ideally from healthier sources like nuts, avocados, olive oil, fish etc, and a smaller amount from animal fat, cheese, butter etc.
Carbs are great for muscle recovery. They’re essential to most effectively replenish muscle glycogen stores between workouts, and they are the most effective macro-nutrient at stimulating an insulin response, which will keep you in an anabolic state. My recommendation for carbs is simply to work out your protein and fat intakes, then fill up the rest of your calories with carbs. This necessarily means that your carb intake is the main thing that changes when going from cutting to bulking.
The majority of this should be from long acting, complex carbs (rice, potatoes, bread, oats, pasta, veggies etc), especially those which also come with a lot of fibre (leafy green veggies, fruit, bran etc) with a minority from short acting, simple carbs (sugar, syrups, fruit juices, foods with added sugar). Fruits also contain simple carbs but of course you’re fine to get plenty of them as it’s mainly fructose rather than glucose that they contain. They’re also low calorie and come with tonnes of great vitamins.
Putting all this together, we come up with a ROUGH recommendation of:
Remember again, however, to always adjust based on your actual rates of weight loss/gain, based off multiple daily weightings. Please take these numbers with a large grain of salt.
Fibre is a plant based carbohydrate (e.g: cellulose) that humans can’t digest in their small intestine.
Fibre is really important for gut health, and is particularly important when you’re eating a tonne of protein. Lots of protein tends to make you constipated, and makes your bowel movements a lot more frequent. Going a bit above and beyond with your fibre intake can help to mitigate some of this. Another benefit to tracking your fibre is that it will force you to eat lots of fibrous vegetables, which are great for a whole bunch of reasons.
A good recommended minimum for Fibre intake is about 20g for females and 25g for males. It is possible to have too much fibre and the maximum recommended is around 20% of your carb intake - so you’re talking about 80g for our 80kg male and about 60g for our 60kg female at maintenance calories.
Fibre is found in fruits (especially apples!), vegetables, oats, barley, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, corn and most beans and peas. If, after stuffing in as many fibrous vegetables as you can stomach, you’re still struggling to get enough fibre in, an easy way to boost it is to use a bran cereal. One of these can have up to 10g+ of fibre in a single serving. If you’re still not there, making some substitutions like brown, granary or seed breads, brown rice and brown pasta can help too.
Proper hydration is really important. It probably won’t affect your body composition directly, but if you’re dehydrated, you’re going to feel rubbish, and have rubbish workouts. By the time you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated, so it’s a good idea to be proactive with your fluid consumption.
A good, rough recommendation for daily fluid intake (counting all fluids except alcohol and arguably coffee), is roughly 0.04-0.05 x Bodyweight (kg) = Fluid Intake (Litres). This comes out to about 3.5-4L for our 80kg male and 2.5-3L for our 60kg female.
However, water requirements will vary massively from person to person - most notably influenced on a day to day basis by sweating. So another good recommendation by Lyle MacDonald is that you should have at least 5 clear-looking pees each day.
It’s especially important to get enough water in and around your workouts, so always bring a water bottle to the gym, sip it constantly and keep refilling it. You should also aim to get in about 500ml/hour during and just after your workouts to replace sweat that you lose. Honestly - it really will make a big difference to your performance!
Try not to have too much of your water right before you go to bed, as it might cause you to wake up during the night to pee, which will disrupt your sleep.
Level 3 - Micronutrients (Vitamins and Minerals)
Micronutrients are the next important part of our diet to consider. They’re essentially the reason why you shouldn’t just purely take a “if it fits your macros bro” approach to food. Micronutrients include all the nutrients you need in your diet, but only in very small (often measured in milligrams) quantities. As a quick run down, micronutrients in your diet include:
- Macrominerals - In order of importance: Calcium, Phosphorous, Potassium, Sulphur, Sodium, Chlorine & Magnesium
- Important Trace minerals - In order of importance: Iron, Cobalt, Copper, Zinc, Molybdenum, Iodine and Selenium.
- Fat soluble - Vitamins A, D, E & K
- Water Soluble - the 8 B Vitamins (B1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 & 12), and Vitamin C * So as you can see… that’s a whole lot of things to try to keep track of! They each have their different functions, recommended daily intakes, and foods they are found in. To try and go through each one would be outside the scope of this page, and would probably make you massively overthink your diet to the point that you simply won’t adhere to it any more.
Unless you have a medical condition, with any roughly “normal” diet, it’s hard to become dangerously deficient in any of these micronutrients. If you do become a bit deficient in a few of them, you’ll probably still be able to achieve your body composition goals just fine, but you might feel kinda rubbish while you do it, and that could impact your performance. Remember - a healthy diet built for performance should make you feel better, not worse. If after starting your diet, you’re constantly lethargic, your sleep is poor, your hunger is off the charts even though you’re eating plenty, your skin is looking more pale… then maybe you’re running into some issues with micronutrients.
The good news is, you don’t necessarily need to be tracking all of the micronutrients to be pretty confident that your diet won’t make you deficient in any of them. The 2 scenarios in which people in the health and fitness community, while putting lots of effort into their diet, tend to run into problems with micronutrient deficiencies are these: 1) people becoming too restrictive - e.g: taking an old school, “Bodybuilding diet” approach with very little variation in their diet - essentially they’re just eating plain chicken breast, broccoli and rice, and 2) people taking an extreme “if it fits your macros” approach and eating lots of junk food, which has very little micronutrient value.
There’s 2 ways to combat this: Firstly, take an inclusive approach to your diet. Your diet shouldn’t be overly restrictive. There is no “bad food”, simply foods that are best had in moderation. Rather than cutting out loads of food types because they’re “not clean”, try to include as many different types of foods you can while hitting your calorie and macronutrient goals. Not only will this hopefully ensure you’re getting enough micronutrients, but it should also make your diet a whole lot more enjoyable as well.
Secondly, try to ensure you’re getting enough fruits and vegetables. If it fits your macros, you can have some junk food, provided you ALSO have enough micronutrient dense foods like fruits and vegetables. To be honest, the old adage of “5 portions of fruit and veg a day” is useful here - although I would view that as a minimum. If you can get up to 8 or 9 portions, that’s probably even better. If you follow the calorie and macro guidance, have a generally inclusive diet, and get plenty of fruits and vegetables in, you’re almost certainly getting a good range of micronutrients.
The last thing you can do, if you just want to cover your bases, is have a multivitamin supplement every day. This shouldn’t replace fruits and vegetables, but it can be a helpful (and cheap) way to ensure this box is ticked.
Level 4 - Meal Timing and Frequency
Optimising your meal timing and frequency can help to really get the most out of your diet, but is not an essential component. Remember, this is level 4 now. Don’t sacrifice your calorie or macro targets for the day just for the sake of meal timing. Meal timing probably only accounts for about 10% of the variance in results on a diet, and most of this difference can simply be achieved by not really messing up your timing (like taking whole days off eating). However, 10% can still be quite a lot! And can be the difference from “pretty lean” to “shredded bruh” or, more crucially, from 10th place to 3rd place at a competition. So, this section is still important to discuss and consider.
Meal frequency refers to how many meals you should have per day. Generally, having more, smaller meals, spread out throughout the day is better. This ensures that your insulin response is more consistent, and therefore helps to keep you in an anabolic state for as much of the day as possible. Generally at least 3 meals a day is recommended, but 4-6 meals is probably optimal while still being reasonable for most people’s lifestyles.
These meals should be roughly the same size but don’t need to be exactly the same size. In practice, this could look like 6 meals/day with: 1) breakfast, 2) mid-morning snack 3) lunch, 4) mid-late afternoon snack, 5) evening dinner, 6) pre-bed protein shake. If it’s a training day, you could make the mid-afternoon snack your pre-workout meal and also throw in some intra-workout nutrition.
These meals should be roughly evenly spread throughout the day. When you wake up in the morning is when you’ve just spent the most time fasting, so don’t skip breakfast!
The implication of this is that intermittent fasting (the relatively recent trend of having all your food in one 4-8 hour window in the day) is probably not the most optimal approach all in all for your diet. Intermittent fasting is generally good for losing weight as you spend a long period fasting, but this long fasting period, in which you become quite catabolic, tends to lead to a slightly higher ratio of lost muscle to fat. That being said, some people find that intermittent fasting works well with their lifestyle, or helps them to better adhere to their diet. If this is the case for you, by all means go ahead! The difference the meal timing makes is relatively very small compared to adherence, and it’s absolutely still possible to reach your goals with intermittent fasting.
The concept of carb cycling is when you have a higher carbohydrate intake on some days compared to others. These days should be your hard training days, as those extra carbs can help to fuel your workouts. This tactic can be particularly helpful during a cut to maintain the quality of your workouts while in a calorie deficit.
Keeping your other macro-nutrients constant, this will also necessarily mean that your calories increase on hard training days as well, and decrease on rest days. An example might be, for someone wanting to have an average daily caloric intake of ~3000 calories, to have 3200 calories on the harder training days (with ~50g more carbs), 3000 calories on medium-light training days, and 2800 calories on rest days (with ~50g less carbs).
This handy tool can make a BIG impact on the quality of your workouts!
Meal Composition & Peri-workout Nutrition
The next question to consider is, in which meals of the day should you consume your protein, carbs and fat.
It’s a good idea to space your protein out evenly throughout the day. Like with the meals, this helps to ensure a steady, constant increase in your muscle protein synthesis (MPS) response. Another reason to spread your protein out is that your body is less effective at utilising high intakes of protein all at once for MPS (beyond about 20-40g/meal). You should be aiming for approximately this dose of protein every 3-4 hours. Protein post workout tends to be particularly effective, so it’s a good idea to have one of these protein feedings an hour or two after your workout. However, this “post workout anabolic window” doesn’t seem to be nearly as important (or nearly as small) as we used to think (or as T Nation articles used to make it seem).
On a rest day, it’s probably also a good idea to separate out your carbs evenly across your meals. However, on a training day, it’s recommended to cluster more of your carbohydrates around your workout. Having a high carb meal (~1g carbs/kg bodyweight) 1-2 hours before your workout will help to ensure that your muscles have sufficient glycogen replenishment for the workout. Some fast acting carbs (~0.5g carbs/kg bodyweight from lucozade, a banana or some sweets) during a workout will keep your blood sugars up and benefit the quality of your workout IF it’s very long (2-3 hours +). Finally, carbs an hour or two after your workout will again, help with glycogen replenishment and recovery.
If you’re on a rest day, again, fat timing makes very little impact, so a reasonable suggestion should be to spread your fats evenly throughout the day. If you’re training, it’s a good idea to have your fats further away from your workout. This is partly so that more of your calories can be reserved for carbs around your workout, and partly because fats will reduce the rate of absorption of carbs in that pre-workout meal.
Putting this all together, your meal timing/composition on a training day where you workout in the late afternoon/early evening may look like this:
In the muscle & strength pyramids video, Eric Helms also discusses the concept of calorie cycling. This refers to either week-long diet breaks or day-long refeed days. These are periods of time during a cut when you return to maintenance calories. This is very similar to carb cycling (and indeed, refeed days should occur on hard training days and this will overlap with carb cycling), but has a slightly different intention behind it. When you undergo a long or aggressive cut, the body undergoes metabolic adaptation. Metabolic adaptation means that the body reduces its calorie expenditure to resist further weight loss. The main way it does this is through a reduction in NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis). This refers to calories burned through subconscious movement throughout the day (e.g: fidgeting, pacing around etc.). This does not include intentional exercise.
The idea behind diet breaks and refeed days is to reset your metabolism and reduce this metabolic adaptation. It may also help with psychological burnout and adherence. However, a couple of caveats exist here. Firstly, a refeed day is not a “cheat day”. It DOESN’T just mean stop tracking, eat junk food and undo all the hard work you did in the week. It does mean increase your calories by just a few hundred to get yourself back to maintenance calories.
Secondly, while calorie cycling can be a useful tool for bodybuilders at the tail end of a 20+ week cut in their quest to get down to ungodly bodyfat percentages, powerlifters don’t need to get nearly this lean, and so our cuts are never going to need to be as long or as aggressive. For this reason, I would personally say that while refeed days & carb cycling is very useful to maintain the quality of your workouts, week-long diet breaks are probably not necessary 99% of the time for powerlifters, and may simply serve to slow your progress.
Level 5 - Supplementation
Ah supplements. The one quick trick to get yourself jacked and shredded. All you need to do is load up on creatine and you’ll be swole in no time, no matter what your adherence to your diet, sleep, and training is like, right?
There’s a reason why supplements are called supplements, and why they are level 5 in our pyramid. Supplements will make up at most, only about 5% of the variance in results. They are the cherry on top, that you should only really concern yourself with once you’ve already got all the other pieces in order. However, there are some that can make a small, but meaningful difference to your results and/or general health, so they are worth discussing.
Unfortunately, there’s a serious lack of evidence for a lot of the supplements out there. By default, I would adopt a sceptical mind when people start talking about how this new supplement you’ve never heard of changed their life. So it’s definitely worth knowing what supplements are actually legit, and that’s what I’ll go through now. Also, if you do want to buy supplements, I would advise that you get them in a pure form, from a trusted source, like MyProtein, Proteinworks or BulkPowders. You can also look for the informed-sport logo on your supplements. Tainted supplements are rare but do exist, and you don’t want to be that person who’s popped at a regional comp for having dianabol and cocaine in their urine - which was unfortunately slipped into their METALHEAD JACKED POWER XXXtreme pre-workout.
I’ll organise this section into the 3 top tier supplements, which actually have a lot of evidence for their benefits when it comes to strength training, and 2nd tier supplements, which are either worthwhile from a health standpoint but probably don’t help your lifting, or those which may directly help your lifting, but only slightly and only in certain circumstances.
Top Tier Supplements
Protein Powder - Ah protein powder… you can always tell that someone lifts when all they can talk about is pounding down ‘tein shakes. Arguably more a part of your diet than a true supplement, the most common types of protein powder are Whey and Casein. Both of these are found naturally in cows milk. Casein is slower digesting and so arguably a better choice right before bed, although in most aspects the two are roughly equivocal, and a mixture (or just having whey protein with milk) throughout the day is probably best.
Protein powder is an incredibly convenient way to help you get enough high quality protein in, with regular protein feedings. It can be difficult and expensive to buy the amount of meat/dairy you’d need otherwise, and it also helps when you need to keep a very high protein:fat ratio (especially the case when cutting). For this reason, I would recommend protein powder to anyone with strength goals. However, beware - they come in loads and loads of flavours which is kind of like bertie box every flavour beans except in this case if you choose badly, you’re stuck with your terrible decision for months (always check the reviews for flavour advice kids).
It’s also worth reiterating that a high protein diet, nor protein shakes themselves, harm the liver or kidneys, unless there is pre-existing damage.
Creatine - Creatine is one of those few sciencey-sounding powders out there that actually really works! There have been over 700 studies looking into creatine, so it’s efficacy is well supported. There’s also no negative health effects that have been detected - again, it does not harm the kidneys provided there isn’t pre-existing damage. The only side effect people sometimes notice is a bit of bloating, since it causes water retention, which usually goes away with continued use. Also, since most creatine is stored in your muscles, that’s where the most water is retained as well - which can actually make your muscles look bigger, so this can be a bonus!
Creatine is naturally occurring in the diet in foods such as red meat and fish. In the muscles, creatine monophosphate acts to donate a phosphate group to adenosine diphosphate (ADP) to convert it back to adenosine triphosphate (ATP) - the “energy currency” of the cell. What this means in regular speak is that creatine helps to increase the short term energy supply in your muscles. And it’s precisely this energy system that is used when we lift weights. So in a practical sense, it will directly enhance your strength and strength endurance in workouts. It probably also has other indirect positive effects on muscle protein synthesis and body composition.
You should have about 4-8g of creatine per day - you can just mix it into one of your daily protein shakes. You don’t need to specifically take it pre-workout - it accumulates into your muscles over weeks until it reaches a saturated, steady state. It used to be said that you should “load” creatine by taking 20g/day for 4 weeks so that the muscles reach saturation more quickly. This is not harmful, but it’s probably unnecessary - if you take that much you’ll just pee almost all of it out.
There is such a thing as “creatine non-responders” so it could be possible that you don’t get much out of it. It might be that you already get plenty of creatine in your diet and so supplementing extra doesn’t add much. Or it could just be that the effects are small compared to other larger factors like sleep, diet and training, so it could be hard to detect. But the way I see it, it’s cheap as chips and perfectly safe, so you might as well give it a go.
Caffeine - an oldie but a goodie. Taking caffeine ~60 minutes before your heaviest set not only increases your alertness and focus, but if you take enough, it directly enhances power output and work capacity while suppressing fatigue. There’s also some evidence that it increases testosterone levels. And it still enhances performance even when you’ve had plenty of sleep.
However, in order to get these direct effects on power output, you need to take quite a hefty dose - we’re talking about 250-300mg. That’s 5-6 Proplus tablets or about 3 cups of coffee. And since the half life of caffeine is 5-6 hours, if you workout in the evening, that’s gonna disrupt your sleep that night. L-Theanine may be a redeeming sandman here as it appears to partially reverse caffeine induced sleep reduction.
Additionally, you develop a tolerance to caffeine - meaning that if you use it regularly, you’ll need to take a higher dose to get the same effect. For these reasons, I wouldn’t recommend using high doses of caffeine before every workout. I would save it for the really important, max out workouts and competition day. In between these times, you can reduce your caffeine intake to re-sensitise yourself to it’s effects.
Note as well that it is very possible to overdo the caffeine, which can then make you jittery and anxious, and have a negative impact on performance. Some people are significantly more sensitive to caffeine and may find the dose they’d require to enhance their performance is above the dose that makes them jittery. If this is the case with you, unfortunately this one isn’t for you and you should either lower the dose, or simply stop taking it before workouts.
2nd Tier Supplements
Multivitamins, Vitamin D & Fish Oil - These probably won’t help your training, but they will have a positive effect on your general health in the long term. While you should still endeavour to get plenty of micronutrients from a varied diet, they’re a good way to ensure that you’re ticking the micronutrient box of the diet pyramid. Fish oil is also very beneficial for your cardiovascular health. Try to go for a multivitamin with a good range of vitamins, and one that includes Iron if you can. Just take one of each, once a day. In the winter months in the UK (October - April), it can be helpful to take a calcium & vitamin D supplement for bone health as well, especially if you have darker skin and/or you don’t get outside much in that time. You should aim for ~4000 IU/day Vitamin D for one month, and 1000 IU/day for the months after.
Citrulline malate, Beetroot juice & Nitric oxide capsules - Nitric oxide is naturally occurring in your body and acts to dilate your blood vessels. The theory is that if you take nitric oxide supplementation before a workout, it can increase blood flow to your muscles, enhancing performance and recovery. It will also enhance the “pump” experienced during a workout, as may itself be an independent signal for muscle growth. Beetroot juice is naturally high in nitrates and Citrulline malate acts in the same way as nitrates, as L-citrulline is converted to arginine, which is then converted to nitric oxide.
There’s human research to suggest that citrulline malate can increase your strength endurance and help you to get another one or two reps across multiple high rep sets. It seems to work best with higher volume workouts, and probably won’t increase your 1 rep max, but may help you get a touch more out of your bodybuilding-style ‘pump’ work. From experience, I can say that at the very least it definitely increases the subjective feeling and look of a pump, which is nice. The pump itself may also be an independent signaller for muscle hypertrophy, so that’s another reason to suspect that this supplement may be beneficial.
If you want to start taking citrulline malate, take 4-10g ~1 hour before your workout. One thing I should warn you about is that it is REALLY sour, which some people love, but could definitely ruin the taste of your protein shake if you put it in without realising!
Beta-alanine & Sodium Bicarbonate - Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid, which is used to produce carnosine, which is then stored in the muscles. Carnosine helps to reduce lactic acid accumulation during exercise. Sodium bicarbonate acts in the same way, by neutralising lactic acid. This should reduce fatigue build up in the muscles, leading to improved athletic performance.
However, Beta-alanine is the lowest on my list of supplements on this page, for pure powerlifting performance. That’s because it’s extremely rare that we’re ever genuinely limited by lactic acid build up in our training, even when doing hypertrophy work. However, Beta-alanine has been shown to increase the time to exhaustion in cyclists and high intensity interval training, and so is certainly beneficial in high intensity, aerobic sports such as cycling or rowing. If you want to start taking it, take 3-6g daily to build up carnosine levels in your muscles. It may be best to consume it before your workout on training days.
One thing to note with Beta-alanine is that is has a strange side effect of giving you a tingling, pins & needles sensation for a short time after you consume it. Be reassured that this is completely benign, but can feel a little odd.
So that’s supplements! This is by no means an exhaustive list but it does include the best supplements, with the most evidence to back their efficacy. Please try to avoid getting too sucked into the supplement hype - check the evidence to see if it really works, and if it doesn’t, save your money. And finally, always remember that supplements are, as in the name, supplementary - proper adherence to training, a good diet and good sleep will always have a much larger impact.
Long Term Diet Structure
When discussing calorie balance, I mentioned that later on I would talk about how to arrange the process of bulking, maintaining and cutting in the long term structure of your training. Well, here it is.
There’s a few principles I will discuss first, before I get into the nitty gritty of giving you an example 8 month plan of training.
When thinking about where to place a lean bulking phase, we should consider that the intention of this phase is to gain as much muscle as possible. Therefore, to maximise the effect, we should try to coincide our lean bulking phases with our higher volume, hypertrophy style training (e.g: predominantly sets of 8-12 reps and high total set numbers). This, naturally will fall further out from a competition.
For going on a cut, perhaps counter-intuitively, this is also ideally done in a high volume phase of training. Why is this the case? During a weight-loss phase, the main challenge is not losing muscle, so by doing a cut during a high volume phase of training, we give ourselves the most anabolic stimulus we can, and therefore the best chance of retaining as much muscle as possible. A higher volume phase will also burn more calories, which can aid the process of a cut. Finally, since a cut can also affect our strength, we ideally don’t want to be going on a cut close to competition, and higher volume phases will naturally fall further out from competition.
Another principle to consider is that we probably don’t want to go on a cut immediately after a lean bulk. This is because muscle we have just gained is the easiest to lose, so if you go on a cut straight away, you run the risk of losing all that muscle you just worked so hard to gain and going back to square one. The longer that muscle has been on your frame, and the more your body gets used to sitting at that new bodyweight, the harder it is to lose. We can therefore use a strength block, during which we maintain weight, to split up our bulking and cutting phases. The same is probably true for the other way around - immediately after a cut, you will be more sensitive to fat gain and so should probably avoid going on a lean bulk.
So if we’re both bulking and cutting during high volume phases of training, further out from competition, that means that we should be choosing the maintain weight during our strength (e.g: sets of 4-6 reps. Moderate total set number) and peaking phases (e.g: sets of 1-3 reps. Low total set number). If you try to gain weight during lower volume phases, you’ll probably just put on fat and not a whole lot of muscle (unless you’re a beginner), and if you try to lose weight, you run the risk of not having enough volume in your training to avoid losing muscle. This ends up working out quite well, as you ideally don’t want to be mucking around with your body composition too close to competition, which is also when you have the most strength and peaking blocks.
Putting all this together, I’ll create an example macrocycle plan for an athlete who is at the top end of their weight class and just wants to roughly recomp over the next 8 months while prepping for competition. Assuming he/she has 4 week (1 month) long blocks of training, we can come up with a rough plan of:
Of course, this is just a suggestion. Keep in mind that this will look different depending on an athlete’s goals. An athlete who is looking to fill out their weight class may just lean bulk while doing high volume training for the first 4-5 blocks, then do strength work while maintaining there-after, or just throw in the odd 1-2 week minicut for if their bodyfat % creeps up higher than they would like. Beginners may be able to get away with bulking and cutting during higher volume (e.g: sets of 5 or 6 reps) strength blocks, and tend to undergo more rapid changes in body composition. It can also depend a lot on how many competitions you have. Ideally, only 1-2 competitions a year with long off-seasons allow for the best long-term body composition progress.
A Word on Veganism
This is a controversial topic, I know, and I sincerely don’t want to say anything that might offend someone, but I think it bears worth mentioning. If you chosen to become vegan for ethical reasons, I completely support you - you’re definitely doing the world some good. It is also absolutely possible to be a very successful vegan powerlifter, if it’s done correctly. However, it’s important to understand that this can pose some extra challenges when it comes to setting up a diet for strength and size goals. This section is not meant to discourage anyone from becoming vegan, but instead to help those who are vegan get the most out of their diet and avoid and potential extra pitfalls they may face.
Firstly, of course, is the topic of protein. We’ve already discussed the importance of protein, and the protein target for optimising strength and size is substantial. It’s hard to get this much protein in as an omnivore, yet alone on a vegan diet, where there are far fewer protein-dense foods available to you. The types of vegan foods which have a decent amount of protein are of course seeds, beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu and mycoprotein (like quorn) etc.
However, also bear in mind how many calories some of the vegan protein sources have, compared to how much protein they have. People tend to think that nuts, for example are a great source of protein, but for example, you’d have to eat 450 calories of peanut to get 20g of protein, and ~75% of those calories some from fats. This would clearly not be the best idea, therefore, if you’re trying to get 180g of protein in on only 2500 calories. Quorn fairs much much better, at only 150 calories for 20g of protein - with 62% of these calories coming from protein.
Another caveat for vegan lifters is that the “quality” of plant-based protein is generally significantly less than for animal-based proteins. What nutritionist mean by quality in this context relates to the amino-acid profile of the protein - most importantly the amount of leucine, which is a key trigger for muscle protein synthesis (MPS). It’s recommended to have about 2.5-3g of leucine per 20-40g protein feeding to maximise the MPS response. While you can get this much leucine from a single scoop of whey protein shake, containing 20g of protein, you’d need about 300g of quinoa to reach 2.5g of leucine, which is 1,100 calories and 42g of protein. Therefore, not only is it harder to get protein in, but you also need about DOUBLE the total protein intake on a vegan diet to get the same MPS response as someone getting their proteins from animal sources.
So, my recommendation is to focus your calories on protein sources that are relatively higher quality for vegan protein (maize does a bit better in this regard), and those with lower calories/gram of protein (such as quorn). But practically, I would strongly, strongly recommend you buy a vegan protein powder (ideally one with a higher leucine content if you can find it), and lean on this heavily, using it to allow you to aim high with your total protein intake (way above the 2-2.2g/kg recommendation I gave before if you can manage it). Also, buy a vegan L-leucine powder and have a few grams of this with your meals to supplement your leucine intake.
The second main area that can be tough for vegans is that of micronutrients. There are certain essential micronutrients which are found almost exclusively (or in much higher quantities) in animal products - most notably these include Iron and Vitamin B12. If you miss out on these for long enough you can end up anaemic, which is common in vegans and would definitely hinder your training, and a severe enough B12 deficiency can even cause neurological damage! While I’d recommend a multivitamin to anyone, because they’re cheap and helpful to tick that micronutrient box, I would recommend it doubly to vegans, and I would say to make sure it includes Iron. Many multivitamins include B12 but it can be helpful to also buy a B12 supplement, which can come in tablets or an oral spray - this will allow you to be in extra control of your dosing. A creatine supplement may also be extra-beneficial for vegans, since they are more likely to have a lower creatine intake in the rest of their diet.
So that’s my overview on nutrition for performance in powerlifting. I know it’s a lot of information, but it is a huge topic - and this is just an over-view of the most important basics to know. If you’ve made it this far - I commend you and I admire your dedication to the sport! Let me know if there’s anything important you think I’ve missed or got wrong. I hope it’s been helpful to all of you out there.