The sport of powerlifting focuses on the amount of weight you're able to hoist in just three barbell lifts: the deadlift, squat and bench press. It differs from bodybuilding, which is based on how you look, and the Olympic sport of weightlifting, which involves a maximum-weight single barbell lift. You can achieve your goals in the sport with progressive training and a quality diet. Protein plays a critical role in a powerlifter's eating plan as it supports efforts to build strength and helps your body recover from tough sessions.
The Importance of Protein to a Powerlifter
Protein exists in every cell in the human body, so everyone needs a minimal amount daily to support tissue maintenance and growth. Protein is made up of amino acids. Complete proteins contain all the essential amino acids -- ones that the human body cannot produce on its own -- in the ideal ratios to support muscle growth. Examples of complete protein are eggs, meat, poultry, fish, dairy and soy. Incomplete proteins are missing one or more of these essential amino acids. Most plant sources of protein are incomplete, including beans, nuts and grains. By eating a variety of plant proteins daily, though, you get all the amino acids you need.
The average person needs around 0.36 gram of protein per pound of body weight daily for good health. More active people need more to assist with tissue cell maintenance and creation, notes the International Society for Sports Nutrition. Endurance athletes, such as marathon runners or century cyclists, benefit from 0.45 to 0.73 gram of protein per pound of body weight daily. Strength athletes, including powerlifters, need even more -- between 0.73 and 0.91 gram per pound of body weight daily. If you are a 180-pound powerlifter athlete, you should aim for between 131 and 164 grams of protein daily.
This elevated protein intake does not endanger the kidney function or bone quality in healthy people, but it might cause problems if you have an underlying health condition -- check with your doctor to make sure it's safe for you.
Dividing Protein Portions for a Powerlifter
Divide your protein intake out over the course of several meals and snacks. You may find it easiest to eat 20 to 40 grams of protein at each meal and slightly smaller portions at two or three snacks. To give you an idea of how much food this requires, know that a 3-ounce serving steak contains about 23 grams of protein, 1 cup of white-meat chicken contains 38 grams and 1 cup of cubed, soft tofu contains 16 grams.
Do your best to get protein from whole foods as often as possible, instead of from supplements. Whole foods provide other vitamins and minerals to bolster health. For convenience and to get your optimal intake, you may have to occasionally reach for supplemental protein products. Whey protein, casein powder, egg white powder and soy protein are high-quality sources.
Powerlifting Workouts and Protein
When planning your diet, include proteins, especially ones that are high in the branched-chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine -- known as BCAAs -- around the time of your workout. These particular amino acids are instrumental in recovery and restoration of glycogen, the energy gleaned from carbohydrates stored in your muscles. Whey protein is particularly rich in BCAAs, for example.
A 20- to 40-gram portion of complete protein consumed before and after a heavy powerlifting workout helps maximize muscle protein synthesis, the process by which muscles grow. Protein consumed around the time of your workout also helps the muscles to heal faster so you experience less soreness.
Consume these meals at about 90 minutes before your workout and within 90 minutes after for maximum benefit. Include some quality carbohydrates, such as whole grains, starchy vegetables or fruits, to provide energy for the workout and to restore your glycogen stores after the workout. Carbohydrates consumed after a workout may not notably improve muscle protein synthesis, but the carbs do help you meet your total daily need for this macronutrient.
Examples of preworkout fuel include eggs with a bowl of oatmeal, potatoes with ground beef or a banana with whey protein. After a session, whey protein mixed with milk and berries or brown rice with tuna and broccoli are good choices.
Powerlifting Requires More Than Just Protein
Powerlifters fall into different weight classes, and the biggest competitors are known for calorie intakes that exceed 10,000 calories per day. Even with such a high calorie intake, good nutrition is important. Working out intensely doesn't exempt you from the possible health complications that can occur from eating too much sugar, saturated fat and refined grains, such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In addition to protein, include fresh vegetables, whole grains, dairy and fruits at meals. A cleaner diet provides you with optimum nutrients so you feel and look healthy.
Healthy fats should also be part of a powerlifter's diet. Unsaturated fats, found in nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado and fatty fish, boost your daily calorie intake and provide energy. Avoid saturated fats, found in full-fat dairy and fatty cuts of meat, or trans fats, man-made versions used primarily in processed and fast foods. Too many calories from saturated and trans fats endanger your heart health, regardless of how strong and active you are.
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; McKinley Health Center: Weight Training Guidelines and Programs
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and Exercise
- MedlinePlus: Protein in Diet
- Healthaliciousness: Steak, Chicken, Tofu
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: Nutrient Timing Revisited: Is There a Post-Exercise Anabolic Window?
- Precision Nutrition: Under the Bar With Dave Tate