6 Factors Powerlifters Should Consider to Maintain Strength During a Cut

Have you ever wondered why most powerlifters don’t look ripped? There is definitely a stigma on our sport that we are the “overweight”, and even sometimes lazy group of athletes. I mean, it makes sense when some of us are spending seemingly more time eating Sour Patch Kids between sets instead of the time actually spent lifting.

Just the other day, I was asked on my opinion on whether someone should give up powerlifting to achieve better aesthetics. This person, too, got this same impression that looking good and powerlifting just don’t go hand-in-hand.

Being strong is empowering, but admittedly, looking and feeling bomb is also pretty cool. This person was not the only one hoping their abs would make an appearance for summer, but why give up the sport itself if its something you truly enjoy just for a summer of looking good?

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

In an attempt to encourage the idea that you don’t have to give up powerlifting to look good and stay lean, here’s my best advice on how to lower your body fat while maintaining strength.

Absolute Strength Vs. Relative Strength

The reason why these two things don’t seem to go together is because it’s simply just not optimal to be your leanest while also being your strongest.

Maintaining a slightly higher body fat percentage is beneficial when it comes to absolute strength, but not necessarily relative strength.

Absolute strength in the fitness world refers to the amount of strength someone has, disregarding body weight or size. For example, if you have a 220 pound male squatting 400 pounds and a 150 pound male squatting 350 pounds, the 220 pound male has more absolute strength. What if this 220 pound male wanted to cut down to 150 pounds? This scenario is unlikely, but let’s imagine.

[New to cutting? Check out our strength athlete’s guide to cutting weight!]

Now that both athletes weigh 150 pounds. Let’s say the original 150 pound male is still squatting around 350 pounds and now the one who just cut down from 220 pounds can only squat 300 pounds. Because the two of them are now the same weight, their strength is more comparable to one another. Technically, the original 150 pound male is stronger when it comes to relative strength.

Relative strength could be defined as strength in comparison to the athlete’s weight. As you continue gaining more weight (including a certain amount of body fat), you tend to get stronger. In most cases, there is a sweet spot as far as body fat percentage goes that allow you to be your most optimal in strength. That body fat percentage will not be at your leanest weight. That being said, body fat is not what makes you strong. Muscle, technique, and killer programming is what makes you strong; body fat is just another factor that plays into it.

The fact that being lean is not always optimal for strength doesn’t mean its a bad idea. There are several competitive powerlifters who maintain a relatively lean body fat percentage year round.

When Should You Cut?

The best time to start cutting for a non-competitive goal is when you’re in your off-season, or don’t have a competition planned within the next 3-4 months. If you’re looking to get lean for summer, I would recommend to start cutting around 12-weeks out; more or less depending on certain factors such as body fat percentage.

And take this all with a grain of salt; there are some people who have gotten down to a leaner weight, went down in a weight class, and had a more competitive strength total in that class. It all goes back to relative and absolute strength. This won’t work out for everyone, but it definitely shows that every situation is different and body fat percentage is only a factor that plays into what makes a great athlete.

If cutting feels right for you, then don’t sit on it for too long; just go for it. You can always go back up a weight class whether in your competitive or non-competitive season.

The 6 Important Factors To Consider When Cutting

One of the tricks to being strong and lean is in the details of the programming.

When you’re maintaining or gaining weight for powerlifting, it’s much easier to get away with not being strict with certain performance factors such as macros, meal timing, session frequency, and even volume. Below are six factors that can play into strength when in a cut.

Caloric Intake

No more unlimited Sour Patch Kids in-between sets; this doesn’t mean you have to cut them out completely though, now you just have to make sure that you stay in a controlled deficit. I recommend starting out slow in order to maintain strength and performance. Cutting your calories by 150-200 is where I would start most clients, although this will depend on the individual.

Macros

Not only does the caloric intake matter to keep you in a deficit, but the macros matter a bit more now too. You have a limited amount of calories to hit your goals and, chances are, you can’t get away with winging the details anymore. You have to know how many carbs you’re eating, make sure your protein is in check, and avoid overdoing the fats. For example, one tablespoon of peanut butter really means one measured tablespoon of peanut butter.

Again, your cutting macros will depend on you personally, but I’ve found that keeping your percentages the same as you were at maintenance usually feels the best performance-wise for most people. Typically, I would suggest not cutting carbs too quickly to keep performance high, and to keep protein relatively high as well for muscle maintenance.

Meal Timing

While maintaining or gaining strength, I personally don’t pay too much attention to meal timing and frequency, but when you cut, I recommend making sure that your carb-heavy meals are structured around your lifting sessions. Eat your carbs 1-3 hours before and after your training sessions. You can also use simple carbs you normally consume as an intra-workout snack to refuel while you’re lifting.

Training Volume

It’s important to find your sweet spot when you’re training. Paying attention to your maximal recovery volume (MRV) is going to be key. You won’t be able to recover as quickly with high volume. Many people try to maintain the same amount of volume as in their surplus, but with this logic you can risk overtraining and not recovering from your sessions, which can eventually set you back.

That being said, you don’t want to completely drop your volume down unnecessarily low.

A good way to read your MRV is to listen to your body. Pay attention to the signs of overtraining: extreme fatigue, decrease in performance, injuries from training, feeling moody/depressed/stressed, and becoming ill. If you start to notice some of these signs, it’s important to lower your training volume. Sometimes you only need to do this temporarily (ex: if you just suddenly had a lot going on in your life outside of fitness), but other times this is a sign that your training volume is just too high for you to be able to recover properly.

Cardio

Word is, cardio isn’t necessary for cutting body fat. While this is true, you also have to keep in mind that most powerlifters are already efficient at their sport, so lifting simply won’t be as effective for fat loss as introducing a new stimulus would be. You won’t burn as many calories as a beginner would if they started weight training because they aren’t efficient with the sport just yet. That being said, including a different form of training while you’re cutting would be beneficial to most people.

While forms of training like high intensity interval training (HIIT) would be great for the average person who only wants to lose weight, its not optimal for us powerlifters. The reason for this is because, no matter how great HIIT is for saving time, it also takes much longer to recover from if you’re doing it right.

That being said, there are some forms of HIIT that are slightly easier to recover from and those would be plyometrics and sled work. I would only incorporate these into your training a couple times a week, and only if you notice that you’re still feeling great during your cut.

Otherwise, you should be incorporating low impact steady state cardio (LISS) in your program to keep your recovery high. Some of these forms of cardio could be brisk walking, jogging, swimming, or rollerblading. You can include cardio 4-5 times per week on average with these styles of cardio.

Recovery Time

Many of you who are in your off-season may be having fun with your lifts and sacrificing some sleep to play Fortnite. With your new goal of cutting, you’re not only trying to maintain strength, but you’re also putting additional stress on your body by trying to lose a certain amount of body fat on top of it.

This requires that you continue to train just as hard, but now eating less and incorporating potentially more cardio. Imagine how your body is going to feel. You’ll need to give it more time to recover by getting a full night’s sleep of around 8 hours.

If you use these six factors as a guideline for your cut, you’ll be on your way to making the best progress for your summer cut.

Feature image from @lexesohare Instagram page. 

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Lexes is a certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist. Her primary focus with her athletes and clients is strength, nutrition, and physique transformations. She runs a blog called Flex Club where you can find helpful tips and motivation to begin your journey into fitness. Her competitive side of fitness was introduced at age 3, when she began bowling in league. By age 8, she was winning scholarships in state and junior nationals and at 18 began competing in USBC Women's Championships. She first picked up a pair of dumbbells at 17 and, soon after, competed in her first NPC bikini show. After developing binge-eating disorder, she began doing more reseach on the mental aspects of fitness and nutrition. At age 22, she re-discovered the fun and competitive side of fitness, where she got into powerlifting and marathon running (the full 26.2). She has been personal training and online coaching since 2014, using her past experiences to help current clients.