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Optimal Body Composition Strategies for Weightlifting - By Nick Shaw

Danny Lehr

At any given weight class, it seems that the more muscle and the less fat you have will give you the best chance at being as strong as you can be. By being at a respectable body fat percentage in your specific weight class, you can maximize the total amount of muscle you have and thus increase your chances of being as maximally strong as you can. A respectable body fat percentage for weightlifters is likely to be around 8-10 percent body fat. Much more and you likely do not have as much muscle as you could otherwise have and too much lower than that range and you run the risk of having to diet or reduce calories too low while trying to make weight. Cutting your calories too far down could risk impacting your strength or performance on the platform. Being around 10% seems to give an athlete the best chance at having a lot of muscle while not sacrificing calories too much in order to promote strength gains and recovery We’re also going to assume here that an athlete should be about 1-3% higher bodyweight than their weight class to quite easily water drop into their class with minimal impact on their performance. An example here of a weightlifter truly filling out their weight class would be an 85 kg lifter at about 10% body fat weighing 87 kg a day or two before their competition.

               This article will help you figure out how to go about maximizing your potential in any given weight class. We’re going to start with going over the different dieting stages that an athlete should go through at some point in order to optimize body composition for their weight class. If an athlete is too light for their class, they need to gain weight (bulk phase). If an athlete is too heavy or has a bit too much body fat, then they need to diet down (cut phase). There is a third phase that occurs as well that can be referred to as a maintenance phase (in which the athlete stays at their current weight for an extended period of time).

               The goals of the mass phase (bulking up) are quite simple; they are to put on weight and to hopefully improve your strength. This may seem like everybody’s dream to eat whatever you want and to gain weight, but that’s not quite the case. The goal here is to gain about 1-2 lbs/week for most cases. A bit less if you’re a lighter athlete of .5-1lbs/week and perhaps upwards of 2 lbs/week if you’re a trying to become a true superheavyweight. There is a trade off in gaining too much fat if you attempt to just put on weight in any way possible, that’s why we set goals for each week to ensure weight is being added but not at the expense of excess fat. Some recent research presented at the 2014 NSCA Conference showed that gains in strength were not much more with a 2,000 calorie surplus/week compared to just an 800 calorie surplus/week, thus eliminating the binge eating that is commonly associated with the mass phase.

               The goals of the cutting phase are almost the exact opposite of the mass phase. You want to lose weight (body fat) while holding onto your current LBM and strength. The same rules apply here for losing weight as you want to aim for about 1-2 lbs/week of weight loss. The same percentages would apply for really light athletes and for true superheavyweight lifters. A caloric deficit (eating less than you are burning) of 500-1000 calories/week is the goal to get you the 1-2 lbs/week of weight loss.

               The other phase, the maintenance phase, is used less often than our mass and cut phases. The maintenance phase typically comes into play after gaining weight in order to help one’s body adjust to the new heavier weight instead of going immediately into a cutting phase. It can also be used to serve as a buffer if an athlete has a very large amount of weight to lose. A good example would

be if an athlete has to lose more than 30 lbs. or so. This is typically quite difficult to achieve in the span of a typical diet (12 weeks or so) without losing strength and/or muscle. What an athlete can do is split that diet into halves or shorter periods of cutting and then have a month where they maintain that new weight in order to give the body a break from excessive dieting. It should also be noted that if an athlete has already achieved their desired body composition in a given weight class, they are more or less in a permanent maintenance phase with their bodyweight.

               Now that we have the three phases defined and broken down we can talk about when those phases are necessary. Here’s a good rough breakdown in terms of body fat percentage:

               15% body fat or higher – start with a cutting phase

               10-14% body fat – either phase is fine, perhaps with an emphasis on a cutting phase (if the end goal is to ultimately be fairly lean)

               Sub 10% body fat- start with a bulking phase

After determining which phase you need to start with, it’s also important to stress that if you need to cut weight it should be done as far away from your planned competition as you can. This is unless you are only cutting 1-2% of your total weight via water manipulations. Dieting to lose more than say 3% or so of your total body weight can be detrimental to your performance. Depleted glycogen stores and elevated fatigue from a hypocaloric diet (expending more calories than you are consuming) can lead to less than optimal training sessions. Less than optimal training sessions will likely see decreases in your total at your next planned meet.

Hopefully these strategies and concepts can help weightlifters address their body composition goals and properly fill out their desired weight class. By adhering to these general guidelines, weightlifters can improve their body composition without sacrificing their total and performance on the platform.


Nick is the Founder and CEO of Renaissance Periodization, a training and diet services company for world class athletes. Renaissance Periodization has worked with some of the top strength athletes in the world including several top weightlifters in the country, Professional Strongmen, all-time world record holders in raw powerlifting, numerous Elite level powerlifters both raw and equipped, some highly ranked CrossFit athletes and nationally qualified physique athletes (bodybuilding, figure, physique and bikini). Nick is also a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder. Nick holds a B.A. from the University of Michigan in Sport Management. Nick currently resides in Manhattan with his wife and two kids.