The Case For Being A Lean Powerlifter

WRITTEN BY Michael Hewitt

In fitness circles, the stereo-type of the powerlifter is unmistakeable: bearded and gigantic, with muscle densely packed underneath a comfortable layer of padding, he is surely strong but nothing impressive at the beach.

The more I learn about nutrition and training, the more I realize that powerlifters ought to be the most jacked of all specimens. After all, they train type-II/fast-twitch muscle fibers for hours on end at high volume with heavy weights. With vast slabs of muscle packed onto their skeletons, they are primed to reap the aesthetic benefits of their training.

The more muscle mass you have, the easier it is to get ripped and stay ripped. But wait-powerlifters don’t want to be ripped. They want to be strong? So why focus on low-body fat?


Well, the higher the weight class, the stronger the competition (literally and figuratively).

So what if a powerlifterlean powerlifter could drop 1, 2, even 3 weight classes?

He would likely see a small dip in overall numbers, but he’d be at a tremendous advantage over his new competitors.

They’d never be accustomed to the weights moved in higher weight classes, so this lean, mean lifting machine would tower over them like Hercules amongst boys.

Now, because powerlifters train so hard AND have so much muscle mass (both to build and maintain) their caloric requirements are much higher than the average trainee.

 This allows them to eat vast quantities (and qualities) of food, and not suffer any consequences. Powerlifting training is incredibly detailed. Macro-cycles and micro-cycles are planned out to a T, leaving no muscle un-stimulated, and timed just so to bring athletes into peak weak feeling fresh and strong.

Consider this: what would happen to an athlete who puts as much focus into his work in the kitchen as he does his work on the platform?

Aesthetic effects aside, his performance would drastically improve.

Forgetting the obvious-that too much food will make you fat and put you out of your optimal class, and too little food will leave you feeling weak and under performing-what if you recovery were faster, aches and pains reduced (or gone), and your body functioned more efficiently?


lean powerlifter For example, take one of the most pervasive ingredients in our Western diet: sugar.

Sugar is known to cause inflammation in the body. Almost everything that it is found in is terrible for humans, high-performance athletes or otherwise.

By simply eliminating sugar from your diet, you would eliminate all refined carbs (which often come with trans-fats, the kind of fat you must avoid), and more or less, optimize your diet.

What’s a major effect of chronic inflammation?

Poor sleep.

As is universally trusted, lifting hard, eating right, and SLEEPING DEEPLY are the keys to packing on mass and strength. So, if you get your nutrition in line, deep and gainful slumber will follow.


So, what does all this look like in practice?

First and foremost, calorie control. Every day, just by existing, your body requires a certain amount of energy just to maintain itself. This number varies from each individual, and is affected by muscle mass, gender, and activity level. This number is your Basal Metabolic Rate. To find your Basal Metabolic Rate (or BMR), there are several formulas available, but I prefer the Katch-McArdle Formula.

  • BMR=370+(21.6xLean Body Mass in KG)
  • Lean Body Mass = (Weight in KG x (100-(Body Fat)))/100

Your lean body mass is your bodyweight less the weight of your body fat. For example, I currently weigh 200 lbs and am 15% body fat. Therefore, I have 170 lbs of muscle. My formula looks like this:

  • 370+(21.6×77.2)=2039

2000 is a miniscule calorie count for me, all things considered. I strictly adhere to it when I decide to get really lean, but normally, I stay at ~3,000 calories ( a little less than three Chipotle burritos) per day.

So why, then, am I getting this BMR calculation of only a few thousand calories? Because I have yet to factor in my activity level. Katch-McArdle has recommended multipliers for your activity level, which you use against your calculated BMR. They are:

  • 1.200 = sedentary (little or no exercise)
  • 1.375 = light activity (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week)
  • 1.550 = moderate activity (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week)
  • 1.725 = very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week)
  • 1.900 = extra active (very hard exercise/sports and physical job)

I exercise moderately, all things considered, a few times a week, so: 2039×1.550=3,160 calories= Total Daily Energy Expenditure or TDEE From there, decide whether your goal is to cut weight (enter caloric deficit), maintain weight, or gain weight (enter caloric surplus).  

If you want to cut or gain, subtract or add 3-500 calories per day to your TDEE. How little or how much depends, ultimately, on how much fat you want to gain with your muscle (surplus) or how much muscle you’re willing to lose with your fat (deficit).

The way your macros are affected by these changes depends on you. There is no one diet for everyone. Some people can eat tons of carbs and stay lean and strong as hell-like Layne Norton-and others eat almost no carbs, like Jamie Lewis.

If you’ve never counted macros before, I highly recommend you simply start by breaking your daily calories down into thirds: 1/3 fat, 1/3 protein, 1/3 carbs. From there, you can tweak the numbers a bit to see how your body responds: cut your fat in half and redistribute those calories amongst carbs and protein for two weeks and try that out; Eat 1/4 of your carbs, and redistribute those calories between your fat and protein; try eating 2.5 grams of protein per pound of body mass, and have the rest of the calories in your carbs/fats. lean powerlifter


Your trial and error will pay dividends. Why? Because no longer will you follow old bioscience nutrition principles, but rather, you will know exactly what kind of fuel your body runs best on.

To do this, you need to assess your carb tolerance. Consider carbs and fats as two types of fuel for your body. In some people, carbs act as premium fuel for their activities, while another person might have a similar response to a diet higher in fat.

Pay close attention to your energy levels after a high-carb meal and after a low-carb meal. If, after the high-carb meal, your energy levels are stable and you don’t experience any hunger, congratulations-you’re carb tolerant. If, however, you feel knocked out (brain fog, sleepiness, etc.) after the high-carb meal, you’re likely not carb-tolerant.

Generally, the more muscle you have, the better your carb tolerance, because you will likely have a higher insulin sensitivity. If you’re overweight, avoiding carbs is not a bad idea. This idea is heavily pushed by Charles Poliquin, strength coach to several dozen Olympic medalists.

It’s worth-noting: the only variable in this experiment should be the macro-nutrient distribution of the meal. Everything else-time of day, relation to training (before/after workout, during a cut/bulk, satiety index of the foods being compared) needs to be the same.

Simply put, the more aggressive your deficit/surplus, the greater the consequences. The further out from the big day you begin this planning, the more room for trial, error, and ultimately, success, you’ll have.

The time is going to pass anyway – why not get after it?

Author: Michael Hewitt
Michael is a professional opera singer with a 405lb squat, 505lb deadlift, bodyweight military press, and Precision Nutrition certified in Exercise Nutrition.
You can find Michael Hewitt at

Get your hands on my cheat sheet for setting up training programs that took a 132lbs. skinny weakling from not being able to bench the bar to deadlifting 3x his own body weight and winning silver at the nationals.



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