Deciding which weight class to compete in as a powerlifter can be a tough decision to make.
As powerlifting is a weight-based sport, it may seem logical to try to fit into the lightest category possible to be the most competitive. While this may benefit some advanced lifters fighting to win a national competition or break a record, it can hold back many lifters from growing to their full potential.
One of the biggest mistakes that new and experienced powerlifters make is cutting weight to be in a weight class that isn’t right for them and delivering a sub-par performance.
When is it time to change weight classes?
Along with making the tips provided below, consider your body composition, training age, lifestyle, stress management and support system.
For relatively lean and experienced lifters that are highly competitive in their weight class, often the focus is to stay in their current weight class, while improving through a series of dedicated cutting and bulking phases.
Some lifters with higher bodyfat percentages benefit from focusing on getting leaner and moving down to a lower weight class to improve competitiveness.
While being leaner can allow you to have a competitive advantage, it’s important to think about whether it fits in with your lifestyle, goals and preferences. If being in a certain weight class requires you to sit at a particularly low body fat percentage for an extended period of time and that is something you are struggling to do, letting yourself grow into the next weight class may benefit your performance and recovery.
It may also allow you to have better mental clarity, energy levels and reduced injury risk which carries over to better performance and execution on the platform and in training, in addition to optimally recovering from training sessions.
When to go up a weight class
It makes sense to go up a weight class if you are meeting the below criteria. Keep in mind these are just guidelines and not strict rules, but they can be relevant for a lot of people.
- You spend more than 4 months a year dieting (or you have to diet particularly aggressively) or your total hasn’t changed in a few years.
When it comes to building muscle, it takes time and energy. If you are spending more than a third of your year in a deficit, how long are you actually spending growing muscle?
Are you adequately fuelling your training sessions AND recovering? Chances are that if you spend a big chunk of your year in a caloric deficit just to maintain your weight, you’re missing out on some serious muscle and strength gains.
- You have to do large water cuts for every competition.
If you find yourself find yourself in this situation for the last few competitions, it is likely a good indicator that you are struggling to maintain your weight within your weight class. It may be a case of inappropriate management in the off-season or you’ve simply outgrown this weight class. While water cutting affects every individual differently, it is common to see decreased strength and performance. For tips to minimise this risk and and effectively cut weight, refer to this article.
- You are new to the sport or are a young lifter (sub-junior or junior).
At this age, you are likely going to continue to grow and gain muscle rapidly. Relatively new lifters also have more potential to gain muscle rapidly than more experienced lifters. It’s perfectly normal and expected to go up in weight classes within the first few years of competing.
- How to prepare:
Accept you may temporarily be less competitive at this higher weight class as you slowly fill it out but enjoy the extra flexibility and energy to fuel your training sessions. Powerlifting is a long game. The lifters that have the patience to make decisions that make them the most competitive for the long-term come out on top. Remember that even as you gain weight, diet quality still matters for your health and performance.
When to Maintain Your Weight Class
- When you want to focus on getting stronger at your current bodyweight.
It is also important to note that changes in technique and your ability to express your strength affect your total and Wilks/IPF score. You don’t need to move up or down a weight class to be more competitive or stronger.
- You’re in the lower-mid range of your weight class and have the space and opportunity to fill out your weight class over time.
- You are comfortable and competitive in your weight class. You spend the majority of your year at maintenance and continue to hit personal bests.
- You are recovering from injury and want to maintain as much lean body mass as possible while minimising fat gain.
How to prepare:
Regularly check-in with your weight to ensure it stays within the range of your weight class.
When to Go Down a Weight Class?
- You have fat loss goals. Whether it be for improved health or aesthetics, sustainable weight loss requires some nutrition knowledge (or willingness to learn), mental bandwidth and support to go down a weight class.
- You want to break a record or want to be more competitive at a high-level competition (e.g. national or international competition).
Depending on how far above your desired weight class you are, this may be achieved through a temporary weight manipulation of carbohydrate, fibre, sodium or water. Alternatively, you can choose a more long-term approach to reduce body fat so that you can be at a lower weight class year-round.
- Your first comp is done and dusted. If you are hoping to compete, come as you are to your first competition. While it is tempting to cut weight to be more competitive right out of the gate, you’d have a much more enjoyable and less stressful experience if you compete at your current weight. Experience the atmosphere, focus on learning the ropes and having a good time as you decide if it’s the right sport for you.
- How to prepare:
Realise that it will require consistency and commitment. Be honest with yourself about what you are prepared to do and don’t be afraid to reach out to a dietitian and coach to help you make sustainable and effective changes.
The right weight class for you may evolve over time. You may compete at a higher weight class initially and lean down to be more competitive. On the other hand, you might find yourself competing at a lower weight class and growing into a bigger over the years as you gain more muscle. As a rule of thumb, most individuals are most competitive when they are relatively lean and carry a lot of muscle. Its takes time to get to that stage, with most individuals benefiting from spending the first few years of their lifting career focused gaining as much muscle as possible.
Valentina Duong is a Sydney-based Registered Dietitian and international powerlifter who specialises in performance nutrition, weight management and body composition. She helps everyday and elite athletes build sustainable habits to reach their health, fitness and performance goals. Her background in psychology and non-judgmental approach takes the confusion and anxiety out of nutrition, so that you can fuel your performance and feel your best.