Dietitian, Nutrient, Nutrition, Powerlifting, Uncategorized

The Powerlifter’s Diet – Protein


Diet is an important part of any physical preparation programme your nutrition is one of the main contributors to your ability to recover from training and to perform in training and competition.  Nutrition advice for powerlifting tends to amount to such cutting edge advice as “eat more phaggot” or “you’re too skinny have some gainer shakes and eat more pizza”.  From these recommendations we can infer that calories and body weight are generally perceived as being important for performance in the sport of powerlifting.

I have written in the past about calorie requirements and how to work out your own requirements for weight loss diets.  In this series I will cover calorie requirements for powerlifting based on goals this will come towards the latter part of the series.  We will begin by taking a closer look at the three macro-nutrients.

Macronutrients make up the vast majority of the energy content of your diet.  There are three macronutrients protein, carbohydrates and fat these not only provide energy for the body but play important roles in the body from  cell production/repair, acting as enzymes or providing building blocks for hormones amongst a host of biological functions.  For the purposes of this article series we will only be concerned with the practical implications of these macronutrients and what they mean for you as a powerlifter.


Protein’s Role in a powerlifter’s diet.

Protein had two main roles within the body repair and replacement of old cells (key in the recovery process from resistance training) and being oxidised for energy.  Having adequate protein in your diet as a powerlifter is extremely important to allow optimal recovery and also for hypertrophy of the muscles involved with training.  Hypertrophy of muscles isn’t just about looking super jacked or getting hench increased cross sectional area (bigger muscles) is one of the most important factors that affects the strength of a muscle.  As such the size of the prime mover muscles (muscles involved in the actual exercises squat/bench/deadlift) is one of the main limiting factors when it comes to performance in powerlifting.

Through diet and exercise if our goal is to become as proficient at the three competitive lifts as we can then we need to consider how to maximise specific protein turnover.   Protein turnover refers to the pay off between protein breakdown and protein synthesis if the amount of protein synthesis outweighs the breakdown then we are in a state of anabolism or getting bigger/stronger.


When I say specific protein turnover we need to be focusing on the muscles directly involved in the performance of the three competitive lifts as I have mentioned before.

So I think we can all agree that protein is an important macro nutrient for a power lifter and it is something you should be looking at seriously when it comes to your training/nutrition planning.  There are a number of considerations you need to be aware of when it comes to getting the protein aspect of our diet as good as it can be.


Factors affecting protein turnover and synthesis.

These factors are a team there isn’t one superstar that we need to prioritize over all others they all act in unison to increase our protein turnover.  Through this section of the article I will discuss each of the six factors, their effect on protein turnover and practically how you can best influence them in your own nutrition.

Amount/Total intake

The first factor to consider when it comes to protein intake is just how much you need in your diet if you read a lot or watch a lot of videos on youtube then you have probably heard a lot of ridiculous recommendations such as 2g of protein per lb of body weight (4.4g per kg of body weight) these recommendations are normally pushed surprisingly enough by supplement companies or bodybuilding websites that are attached to supplement companies.  Most research would reccomend/suggest a protein intake of 1-2g per kg of mass us more than sufficient to keep subjects in a positive protein turnover as evidenced by the Journal or International sports nutrition statement on protein intake (2007)

JISSN Position Statement

The following seven points related to the intake of protein for healthy, exercising individuals constitute the position stand of the Society. They have been approved by the Research Committee of the Society. 1) Vast research supports the contention that individuals engaged in regular exercise training require more dietary protein than sedentary individuals. 2) Protein intakes of 1.4 – 2.0 g/kg/day for physically active individuals is not only safe, but may improve the training adaptations to exercise training. 3) When part of a balanced, nutrient-dense diet, protein intakes at this level are not detrimental to kidney function or bone metabolism in healthy, active persons. 4) While it is possible for physically active individuals to obtain their daily protein requirements through a varied, regular diet, supplemental protein in various forms are a practical way of ensuring adequate and quality protein intake for athletes. 5) Different types and quality of protein can affect amino acid bioavailability following protein supplementation. The superiority of one protein type over another in terms of optimizing recovery and/or training adaptations remains to be convincingly demonstrated. 6) Appropriately timed protein intake is an important component of an overall exercise training program, essential for proper recovery, immune function, and the growth and maintenance of lean body mass. 7) Under certain circumstances, specific amino acid supplements, such as branched-chain amino acids (BCAA’s), may improve exercise performance and recovery from exercise. JSSIN 2007

There is very little evidence to suggest that strength athletes, powerlifters or weightlifters require anymore than the upper limit of this suggestion.  One study done on elite weightlifters in 1988 by Tarnopolsky showed they required a protein intake of 3g per kg of body-weight to stay in positive nitrogen balance this however isn’t really applicable to most people reading this article as you are probably not one of these three things:

  1. An elite weightlifter training full time on a national programme.
  2. Using steroids
  3. Training 2x per day 6 days a week.

These three factors aligned with the huge methodological issues that are inherent with nitrogen balance studies and we can pretty much forget about this study.  Most recent data using more accurate methods such as amino acid tracing have shown protein intakes of 1-2.2 g of protein to be sufficient for most populations of strength trained individuals.

To be on the safe side we can aim for the higher end of the spectrum and look to ingest 2 g of protein for every kg of body weight every day this can also be done as a percentage of calories 15-20% of energy intake.


Body weight in KG x 2 = protein requirement


Calorie intake x 0.15 – 0.25 = protein requirement

Some considerations – those in a calorie deficit or cutting will require a higher amount of protein intake to help maintain lean mass (2.5-3 g per kg of bodyweight as a ball park) and older athletes/lifters will again require a higher protein intake to encourage lean mass retention a slightly less increase should be sufficient (2.2-2.5 g per kg of body weight).


Protein Source (leucine content)

Now that we have looked at total protein content on a daily basis for powerlifting we need to look at where is the best place for that protein to come from.  The main way that we measure the quality of a protein is by it’s bio-availability this basically is a measure of how much of the nutrient actually makes it to your blood stream after you ingest and digest it.  The higher the bio-availability of a protein the more of it will can be utalised by your body for tasks such as muscle repair.  Below you can see a table with 15 different protein sources and how they measure in bio-availability the higher the value the better.


Ideally you should be looking to get the majority of your foods from sources with a high bio-availability as we will discuss later the importance of pulsing or eating your protein intermittently the sources of your protein become more relevant.

After people discover this knowledge they are quick to use it to reaffirm their bias that a meat eating diet is superior for the gainz.  However fear not veggies or lactose intolerant people simply by supplementing leucine with a meal you can hugely increase the bio-availability of proteins such as soy, wheat, beans or peanuts.  Leucine appears to play the most significant role in switching on protein synthesis out of all the amino acids.  It has been shown that by simply adding leucine to wheat protein you can greatly increase the bioavailability of a meal.

Here is a quick cheat sheet on good options for protein sources during your daily meals (chart?) – 


Required – fast acting proteins with a complete amino acid profile and high nutritional content (vitamins, minerals, calcium and fats).

Sources with high bio-availability and required nutrients – salmon, eggs, greek yogurt and milk.

In between meal Snack – quick acting protein, convenient to carry/consume

Sources – whey protein, milk or soy/pea protein isolate paired with leuicne. If post training consume with some carbohydrates (for example some fruit)


Required – fast acting proteins with a complete amino acid profile and high nutritional content (vitamins, minerals, calcium and fats).

Sources with high bio-availability and required nutrients – beef, chicken, turkey, pork, cheese or beans supplemented with leuicne.

In between meal Snack – quick acting protein, convenient to carry/consume

Sources – whey protein, milk or soy/pea protein isolate paired with leuicne.  If post training consume with some carbohydrates (for example some fruit).


Required – fast acting proteins with a complete amino acid profile and high nutritional content (vitamins, minerals, calcium and fats).

Sources with high bio-availability and required nutrients – beef, chicken, turkey, pork, cheese or beans supplemented with leuicne.

Pre-Bed snack – slow acting protein.

Source – Casein, beans or peanuts supplemented with some ZMA.


Protein Synthesis (elevating it with non fatiguing volume)

Protein synthesis is the term used to describe the process of turning dietary protein intake into a cells such as muscle and skin.  As powerlifters we should be mainly interested in practically influencing the protein synthesis to make a muscles bigger (hypertrophy) or on the very rare occasion in a human adding a new muscle cell (hyperplasia).

The ins and outs of the physiology underpinning muscle growth is of little relevance to us from a practical point of view so I will spare you the lecture.  Basically the more we can keep protein synthesis elevated the more likely we are able to induce hypertrophy to encourage protein synthesis are two main things we can do practically

  1. Stimulate protein synthesis through resistance exercise if we are training for hypertrophy than the volume of exercise is by far the most important factor.
  2. Ensure a regular circulation of amino acids in the blood stream to achieve this regular feedings of 20-40g of protein every 2-4 hours is ideal (as discussed the amount of protein you should ingest per sitting is mainly related to the amount of muscle mass you have).

We have probably already covered the timing of protein intake a factor however that is maybe not discussed as regularly when it comes to powerlifting is the use of assistance exercise to elevate protein synthesis specifically in the muscles utilised in the three competitive lifts.

The more regularly we can elevate protein synthesis via exercise throughout the week coupled with a diet that has sufficient protein intake spaced throughout the day the better an environment we are going to be in for creating the cross sectional area of the muscles involved in competitive lifts.  The most preferential way of achieving this goal would be a more frequent use of sport specific volume at relative intensities (squat, bench press and deadlift at 75-100% RM) an approach similar to the Norwegian powerlifting training approach (in a study of powerlifters they showed that the same programme with the same volume if given a higher frequency lead to better 1RM Results) this could be partly explained bt a greater elevation of protein synthesis in the prime movers leading a larger cross sectional area giving them a bigger capacity for force production.


For a lot of powerlifters the concept of doing squat, bench press or deadlift even twice a week is a mind bending proposition.  As a natural lifter however you should realise that one of the biggest advantages for enhanced lifters is their hugely elevated levels of protein synthesis supra-physilogical doses of testosterone have been shown to increase subjects muscle mass without any resistance exercise.  A of routines you will see online will be used by elite lifters who are enhanced if you observe the training of powerlifters who compete in tested federations (this of course doesn’t mean they do not take steroids just that they get tested) you might see a larger trend towards higher frequencies of training the competitive lifts.

However if you are dead set on only training squat, deadlift or even bench press once a week then you can utilise assistance exercises to get a similar effect although probably less specific to the lift.  For example you might perform leg press and kettle bell swings twice a week on your bench press workouts this will help to elevate the amount of protein synthesis in the quads, gluten, low back and hamstrings which could help support your squat and deadlift training.

To make sure that this assistance exercise is assisting and not hindering your progress you can adhere to the following guidelines

  • Train the muscles you are looking to develop in the same plane of movement as you want to utilise them in squat, bench press or deadlift.
  • Volume is far more important than intensity when it comes to hypertrophy so train your assistance frequently and with sufficient volume (2-4 sets of 6-12 reps) whilst utilising an intensity that will not require a great deal of recovery (60-80% RM).
  • If possible utilise similar grips and stances as you use in the lift you are trying to develop.

strong woman


Post workout nutrition, peri workout nutrition and pre workout nutrition you name it some supplement company somewhere has made a product for it or made an entire workout programme for it (I’m looking at you bio-test).  Despite the back and forward in popular diet culture between intermittent fasting, low carb diets, if it fits your macros or whatever gimmick someone is going to be pushing next the research on protein intake is becoming increasingly clear on these three factors –

Where does timing come into the powerlifters diet?  If we look at what we have discussed so far in this article we need to time it so we are having frequent intakes of protein (20-40g in size),  make sure we are spacing our training out trough the week to provide spikes in protein synthesis caused by resistance training and we need to make sure we are getting our protein from high leucine containing sources and if we are eating lower biologically available or lesser qualities proteins such as wheat/pea/soy then we should look at supplementing with BCAAs or Leucine around these meals.

When timing our meals we should be looking to eat every 2-4 hours and quite possibly looking to increase our intake during training days and rest days immediately following training days to try and take advantage of our increased protein synthesis.  During a planned break period (2 days of rest or more) it may prove prudent to decrease total protein intake as we will probably not utalise the extra intake since our protein synthesis levels will return to normal.

Some extra considerations

  • When cutting weight either to make competition weight or to drop a weight class or even just for aesthetic reasons it would prove prudent to ingest a larger amount of protein than you would during a normal diet as the extra protein has been shown to have a muscle sparing effect.  And muscle is pretty important for performance as a powerlifter.
  • Older lifters should also look at ingesting larger amounts of protein especially post training as larger doses (40g vs 20g) have been shown to increase protein synthesis post resistance training.  A finding that has not been replicated in younger subjects.



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