When I first introduced my friend to Powerlifting, one of the first things she asked me was “why are powerlifters fat?”. She asked this of me, a powerlifter, who by most standards, would be considered quite lean, “why are powerlifters fat”.
It left me scratching my head for a while but it’s actually a very common question, and the last thing I want is for someone to discount Powerlifting because they think it might make them fat when this is not true.
Therefore, I decided to write this article to hopefully educate and alleviate any concerns on the subject.
It’s a common preconception that all powerlifters are fat, however, it is simply not true. Indeed, some powerlifters can be fat but this is generally only seen at the highest weight class.
Being as big as possible provides a competitive advantage in many strength sports, not just Powerlifting, so a powerlifter will always aim to be as heavy as the rules allow for their weight class.
In weight classes with an upper limit, it makes sense for a Powerlifter to use their weight wisely, so the majority will be muscle with only a healthy amount of fat required to reach the weight limit. In these weight classes, powerlifters are generally not fat.
In the highest weight class, however, there is no upper limit, so once a powerlifter has reached their genetic potential for muscle growth, the only size advantage they are able to gain is through fat. In this weight class, it is a lot more common to see ‘fat’ powerlifters.
Let’s look at this in more detail.
Does Powerlifting Make You Fat?
Firstly, let’s get this one out the way.
No, Powerlifting does not make you fat. Eating significantly more calories than you burn makes you fat.
I believe this is the root cause of why people are interested to know why Powerlifters are fat. They are simply worried that if they start Powerlifting that they, too, will become fat.
Still don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at some of the best powerlifters in the world.
In the below video we have Taylor Atwood, arguably one of the best Powerlifters currently in the 74kg weight category. As you can see, he is perfectly lean and carries a healthy amount of body fat.
And for all you females out there, here’s Jessica Buettner competing in the 72kg weight category. Again, she has a healthy, athletic physique and is by no means ‘fat’.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that powerlifters are never ‘fat’. Most people who claim that Powerlifters are fat will point to individuals like Ray Williams as proof.
Ray is a big dude, no doubt about it, but this is likely a strategic and intentional fat gain on his part rather than a symptom of Powerlifting.
And make no mistake, Ray is packing some serious muscle under the fat he carries, which probably makes him look fatter than he really is. Based on fat percentage alone, I would estimate that he’s not much over 25%. Not exactly lean, but by no means obese.
Let’s look at why some Powerlifters choose to be larger, while others don’t.
Why are Some Powerlifters Fat?
In the sport of Powerlifting, there are weight classes. This is a common practice among many strength sports, as quite simply, 9 times out of 10 a 200lb individual is going to be much stronger than a 100lb individual.
This correlation between size and strength has been proven countless times, for example in a study by A. Gill et al it was concluded that, in an absolute sense, heavier people tended to be stronger as well.
I have observed this myself, anecdotally. When I was at my heaviest I was able to lift more than what I can now. Of course, there are so many factors that come into it that it’s not as black and white as ‘get bigger, get stronger’ but for the sake of answering why some powerlifters are fat, it’s a reasonable generalization.
Now, in the heaviest weight class in Powerlifting (120kg+ for men and 84kg+ for women as of 2021 IPF rules), there is no upper limit on how much a competitor can weigh, which leaves them free to put on as much mass as possible to gain a competitive advantage.
Of course, this mass gain isn’t uncontrolled, and any serious powerlifter will be on a meal plan tailored to increase muscle mass above fat mass. But what do you do when you’ve reached your genetic limit for muscle mass? Once a lifter is close to or has reached the point where they simply cannot grow more muscle, the only way to add size is through fat!
So, in the heaviest weight class, where there’s no weight limit and a lifter has presumably built as much muscle as they are going to build, they may decide to add bodyweight through fat mass to make themselves more competitive.
When Powerlifters are not Fat
Powerlifters in lighter weight classes, which have a weight limit, will almost always have a muscular or athletic appearance.
This is because they have no real reason to ‘top-up’ their weight with extra fat mass. It is much more economical for them to have a higher percentage of muscle mass per overall weight.
For example, let’s say two powerlifters are competing in the 74kg weight class. They know that to be as competitive as possible, they need to get as close to the 74kg cap as possible.
Now let’s say that Powerlifter A has a higher percentage of muscle mass and Powerlifter B has a higher percentage of fat mass, who do you think will win? All else being equal, it is safe to presume powerlifter A has the advantage.
So, it’s clear that there are examples of fat Powerlifters and examples of lean Powerlifters.
The crucial point to remember, though, is that taking part in Powerlifting will not make you fat.
The reason that some Powerlifters are fat, is purely to gain a competitive advantage and is largely (pun) only seen in the top weight category, where they are free to get as big as they want.
In the remaining categories, where a weight limit exists, Powerlifters are generally much leaner as their weight is predominantly taken up by muscle mass, and gaining excess fat would not be beneficial.