Amanda Dvorak - Science-based Fitness Writer | Last modified on March 29th, 2023
If you’re a powerlifter who wants to optimize your training and recovery, eating enough calories is essential. At the same time, you don’t want to overeat because you may have trouble staying within your weight class.
Furthermore, eating adequate amounts of protein, carbs, and fats can help you reach any fat loss or muscle-building goals you wish to achieve through your powerlifting training.
To help you optimize your powerlifting nutrition and level up your performance on the platform, I’ll cover the following in this article:
How to determine the number of calories you should eat
How to calculate your ideal carb, protein, and fat intake
The best carb, protein, and fat sources for powerlifters
How to schedule meals around your workouts
Supplements to add to your powerlifting diet
How to eat during a powerlifting meet
There are three ways to calculate your calorie requirements as a powerlifter: manual calculations, online calculators, and mobile apps. All of these methods take your current body weight, workout frequency and intensity, and lifestyle outside the gym into consideration.
Regardless of your chosen method, remember that the initial calorie requirements are estimates. You’ll need to track everything you eat using a food journal or calorie-counting app and your body weight to determine if the calorie goals are right for you. Do this for at least two weeks, then evaluate your diet and weight trends to see if you need to adjust.
For example, let’s say you weigh 185 pounds, determine that you need to eat 2,500 calories per day, and want to maintain your weight. If your weight stays around 185 pounds for two weeks (not counting minor fluctuations due to things like sodium intake and, for women, the timing of your menstrual cycle), 2,500 is a good number.
But if you want to lose or gain weight, you’ll need to adjust your calories up or down. Start by increasing or decreasing your daily calories by 200-300 for another week or two, and reassess your diet and body weight trends again. You may need to continue following this pattern until you find a calorie intake that puts you on the right path toward your goals.
BMR stands for basal metabolic rate. This is the number of calories your body burns each day through life-sustaining functions such as pumping blood. The formulas below are based on the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation, which many consider one of the most accurate calculations for determining your BMR. (1)
Men should use this formula:
BMR = (4.536 × weight in lbs) + (15.88 × height in inches) − (5 × age) + 5
Women should use this formula:
BMR = (4.536 × weight in lbs) + (15.88 × height in inches) − (5 × age) − 161
If you’re a 30-year-old, 5’10 male who weighs 190 pounds, your equation will look like this:
(4.536 x 190) + (15.88 x 70) - (5 x 30) + 5
Your BMR is around 2,128 because 861.84 + 1,111.6 + 150 + 5 equals 2,128.44.
Your expenditure is how many calories you burn through exercise. It is assigned a number based on how frequently and intensely you work out. You will use this number as a multiplier to multiply by your BMR in the following step.
Use 1 if you perform little to no exercise.
Use 1.1 if you perform easy exercise or train one to three days per week.
Use 1.2 if you perform moderate exercise two or more days per week.
Use 1.4 if you perform intense exercise three or more days per week.
Use 1.6 if you train twice or more a day.
This number may vary based on where you are in your powerlifting training cycle and how much volume you do on any given day. For example, if you’re on a deload week and only spending 30 minutes in the gym, you may use 1.1 as your multiplier, meaning your calorie requirements are slightly lower for that week.
Multiply your BMR from step one by the number from step two that best aligns with your training frequency and intensity. That number is the minimum number of calories you need each day.
Let’s say the male example from step one performs powerlifting workouts four days a week that he considers intense activity. He would multiply 2,128 by 1.4 and get 2,979. Therefore, he could use 2,979 as a baseline for the number of calories he should eat.
There are many online calculators that estimate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), or the number of calories you burn daily through exercise and non-exercise activities.
This simple TDEE calculator is a good starting point if you don’t want to do the calculations manually.
The below mobile apps are calorie-counting apps, but they require you to input data such as your gender, weight, body fat percentage, activity levels, and goals to determine an initial calorie requirement.
However, in the following section, we’ll discuss how to calculate your macro requirements as a powerlifter. If those calculations don’t match what the mobile app tells you, you can usually override the app’s recommendations and insert your own macro targets.
Some of the top calorie-counting apps include the following:
MacroFactor - This app requires a paid subscription, but it’s like having a nutrition coach in your pocket. It uses AI to determine your calorie needs and then automatically adjusts them up or down each week based on how you are progressing toward your goals.
Avatar Nutrition - Avatar Nutrition is another paid app that works similarly to MacroFactor. An added benefit of Avatar, though, is that you have the ability to communicate with a coach through the app. This may be a better option if you prefer more one-on-one guidance with your diet but don’t have the budget to pay for an in-person nutrition coach.
MyFitnessPal - MyFitnessPal was one of the first calorie-counting apps to hit the market and is still one of the most popular options today. Many of its features require a paid subscription (such as a barcode scanner to log food items). But you can still use the free version to get an initial calorie estimate and track your body weight.
Once you know how many calories you need to eat, you’ll need to determine the ideal breakdown of protein, carbohydrates, and fat to support your powerlifting training and recovery. If you also have fat loss or muscle-building goals, eating the right amounts of each macro can help you achieve them.
Just like there are online calculators that can provide an initial calorie estimate for you, there are online macro calculators that calculate your daily macro breakdown. Precision Nutrition and IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) are two excellent choices. The mobile apps listed above do the same.
But if you want to calculate your macro targets manually, follow the guidelines below.
The first macro to prioritize as a powerlifter is carbohydrates. Carbs give your body energy and help replenish glycogen (the stored form of glucose in the body) after training. Prioritizing carbs can help you stay energized during a long powerlifting workout and prevent fatigue and muscle soreness afterward.
For strength athletes, the recommended amount of carbs per day is 4-8 grams per kilogram (1.8 to 3.6 grams per pound) of body weight. (2)
If our male example from above wanted to consume 1.8 grams of carbs per pound, he would need to eat 342 grams per day. Carbs have four calories per gram, so this equals 1,368 calories.
Protein is the second most important macro for any strength training diet. It’s necessary for building and maintaining muscle mass.
There are complete and incomplete proteins. Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids that the body can’t produce on its own but needs to build muscle. All animal-based protein sources are complete proteins.
Incomplete proteins are missing one or more essential amino acids. Most plant-based proteins are incomplete proteins. Some people consider them inferior to complete proteins for strength athletes, but incomplete proteins still do a good job supporting muscle and strength gains. (3)
For powerlifters, a daily protein intake of 0.64-0.90 grams per pound is ideal. Continuing with our male example from above, he would need to eat 171 grams of protein per day if he wanted to consume 0.9 grams per pound. Protein also has four calories per gram, so this equals 684 calories.
Fat is necessary because it regulates hormone production, protects your organs, and supports cell growth. There are two types of fats: unsaturated and saturated. Within the unsaturated fat category, there are polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats are considered healthy fats because they can help prevent inflammation and support heart health. (4)
Around 30% of a powerlifter's daily calorie intake should come from fat. (5) This means our male example, who consumes 2,979 calories, would have to eat around 894 calories from fat. Because fat has nine calories per gram, this equals 99 grams.
Examples of high-quality carbohydrate sources for powerlifters include:
Whole-grain bread and pasta
If you need fast-digesting carbs to eat during a workout, you can try things like candy or dextrose powder. Some processed carbs like breakfast cereals are also suitable if you require a high carb intake and can’t reach it with whole foods alone. However, most of your carbs should still come from the foods listed above, as they will provide more of the nutrients your body needs for overall health.
Examples of proteins to include in a powerlifting diet are:
Poultry (turkey or chicken breast)
Lean ground beef
Lean cuts of steak (sirloin, eye round, top round)
Eggs and egg whites
Fish and shellfish
Protein powder (whey, casein, or plant-based)
If you follow a plant-based diet, you can also consume foods like quinoa, chickpeas, and lentils for protein. However, these foods are also high in carbohydrates. When tracking your macros, you’ll need to pay attention to both the protein and carbohydrate content.
Some of the best fat sources for powerlifters include:
Nuts and seeds
Full-fat dairy products
Vegetables contain vitamins and minerals that help keep your body functioning properly, which is necessary if you want to boost your longevity in the sport.
Leafy greens (kale, spinach)
Meal frequency is individual and depends on your daily schedule and how often you like to eat. Some people prefer to eat fewer, larger meals throughout the day. Others feel better eating smaller meals more often because it helps them control their hunger levels. But at the end of the day, eating enough calories is more important than how often you eat.
That said, nutrient timing is important to consider as a powerlifter, as it can affect your workouts and recovery.
A high-carb, moderate-protein pre-workout meal around one to three hours before training can give you energy and start muscle protein synthesis (the process of building new muscle). Common recommendations are 0.25 to 0.4 grams of carbs per pound of body weight and 20-30 grams of protein before training.
If your powerlifting workouts last more than 90-120 minutes, an intra-workout drink with fast-digesting carbs such as dextrose can prevent you from fatiguing too quickly. The carb content of your intra-workout beverage can range anywhere from 15-75 grams, depending on the length and intensity of your workout.
Carbs and protein are also important to prioritize after working out because they help repair muscle damage and replenish glycogen stores.
You may have heard of the anabolic window — the post-training window in which you should consume nutrients to help with muscle growth. People previously believed this window was just 30-60 minutes after training. However, recent research suggests that it may actually be several hours. (6) So, you don’t have to stress about losing your gains if you can’t eat a post-workout meal right away.
The only exception to this is if you work out first thing in the morning without eating beforehand. In that case, eating immediately after training can help prevent muscle tissue breakdown. (7)
While individual needs vary, research suggests that at least 15-25 grams of protein and 0.4-0.7 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight are optimal post-workout. (8, 9)
The fitness industry, as a whole, loves to convince people that they need multiple supplements to support their athletic performance and overall health. But the truth is, if you’re a powerlifter whose diet is already full of nutritious whole foods, you only need a few supplements.
The three most beneficial supplements for a powerlifting diet are protein powder, creatine, and caffeine/pre-workout.
As a powerlifter, you have higher protein needs than a non-active individual. Because of that, you may struggle to hit your protein targets through food alone. Protein powder can help you hit your protein goals when you can’t stomach whole food sources of protein.
Whey isolate protein powder is best because it’s highly filtered to remove the fat and sugar content, leaving behind mostly protein. However, whey concentrate is still a viable option, especially if you’re on a budget, because it’s cheaper than whey isolate.
Casein protein is a slow-digesting form of protein powder that’s ideal to take before bed. It can help aid recovery and prevent muscle breakdown as you sleep.
If you are vegan or can’t tolerate dairy, there are many plant-based protein powders available.
Creatine is an amino acid found naturally in the body and in various food sources, such as red meat. It’s known for its positive effects on strength and muscle development in athletes. (10)
The recommended dose of creatine is 3-5 grams per day. (11) The body doesn’t produce this much on its own, and you’d need to eat significant amounts of creatine-rich food sources to reach this amount.
Therefore, creatine supplementation is beneficial for powerlifters. There are many forms of creatine, but creatine monohydrate is recommended most often. It is the most widely researched, and its efficacy has been proven in many research studies.
Some studies suggest taking creatine immediately after training to help boost recovery. (12) Others recommend taking it before working out because the body’s creatine levels deplete rapidly during exercise, and pre-workout creatine consumption can delay that process. (13)
In general, though, taking creatine consistently over the long term is more important than when you take it during the day.
Caffeine can help give your body the energy it needs to get through a hard powerlifting session. It’s also known to enhance muscular endurance and improve power output. (14) For best results, take caffeine about 60 minutes before training.
Common forms of caffeine are coffee, pre-workout supplements, and caffeine pills. Dosages of 3-6 milligrams per kilogram (1.4-2.7 milligrams per pound) of body weight appear to be the most effective. However, it’s important not to exceed 400 milligrams per day, as this can lead to side effects such as heart palpitations, increased anxiety, and jitters. (15)
If you are sensitive to caffeine or work out at night, look for a stimulant-free pre-workout. It can help boost your focus and concentration, but it doesn’t contain caffeine, so it won’t cause unwanted side effects or keep you awake at night.
Many powerlifters find it easy to eat properly leading up to a powerlifting meet but struggle with meet-day nutrition. Several variables can affect how you eat on competition day, including the timing of your weigh-in and whether you had to cut weight to compete in your desired weight class. But there are some general guidelines to follow to ensure success on the platform.
Keep your meals light before your weigh-ins. This is especially important if you had to cut weight to fall into a lighter weight class or your body weight is already close to the upper limit of your weight class. The contents in your stomach can affect your scale weight, and eating too much before weighing in can cause you not to make weight. If your weigh-in is first thing in the morning, you may want to wait until afterward to eat your first meal. If your weigh-in is later in the day, you may choose to eat one or two small meals before to begin fueling your body.
Don’t introduce new foods. Stick to foods that you know won’t cause digestive issues. Ideally, you’ll know what foods you can tolerate because you have already experimented with them in training. If you try foods at a competition that you don’t normally eat during your workouts, you may experience stomach cramps, nausea, or other unwanted side effects.
Prioritize carbohydrates. Carbs are essential on meet day. A high carb intake can give you the energy you need to max out on the platform and aid recovery between attempts.
Keep your protein intake moderate. Protein is necessary for muscle growth and repair, but that’s not the priority during a powerlifting meet. It can prevent you from feeling hungry since it's a satiating macronutrient, but you don't want to feel so full that you can't eat enough carbs.
Limit your fat and fiber intake. Fat and fiber can slow the digestion of other nutrients, making it difficult for your body to get the carbs it needs to fuel your performance. They can also make you feel sluggish or bloated, which can affect how you feel during your attempts.
Stay hydrated. Sipping on water and sports drinks during your meet helps prevent dehydration, which can negatively impact your performance. The electrolytes in sports drinks also help replenish what you lose through sweat.
Powerlifters prioritize nutritious foods, such as lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats, so they can stay within their desired weight classes and optimize their training and recovery. They may eat sugary foods like candy to provide immediate energy during training or enjoy fast food occasionally, but those foods do not make up the bulk of their diets.
Powerlifters, like bodybuilders, eat high amounts of protein and carbs for muscle growth, energy, and recovery. However, powerlifters eat more for performance, while bodybuilders eat more for aesthetics. As such, powerlifters may eat more than bodybuilders and be more flexible with their diets. Bodybuilders tend to be more strict with their daily calorie and macro targets.
Powerlifters do not eat whatever they want. They may have higher calorie requirements or be more flexible with their diets than bodybuilders, but it’s still important for them to eat nutritious foods. A well-balanced diet with lean proteins and high-quality carbs and fats can boost their performance and aid recovery. A proper diet is especially important for powerlifters who have to cut weight to compete in a lower weight class.
Powerlifters require a higher protein intake than the average person. Lifting weights induces muscle tissue damage, and protein helps repair it. It’s generally recommended that powerlifters eat 0.64-0.90 grams per pound of body weight per day.
Nutrition for strength training can be tricky, but following the guidelines above can help you power through your workouts and perform your best in your next powerlifting meet. Remember to track your diet and body weight to determine if your diet is working for you, and don’t be afraid to experiment with the macro breakdowns that work best for you.
You may have your nutrition dialed in, but you’re still struggling to make progress in your training. We partner with world-class coaches (not fitfluencers) like Dr. Eric Helms, Bryce Lewis, Greg Nuckols, and Jonnie Candito to create programs for powerlifting and bodybuilding. Download the Boostcamp app today to gain access to powerlifting programs that have helped thousands of athletes get stronger and overcome plateaus.
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