A few weeks ago, someone asked me what the difference was between “cutting” and “dieting” in powerlifting. I’ve been thinking a lot about that on several levels, so I want to address that question and why it matters if you are a powerlifter, or just a person trying to look a little bit better and drop a few pounds.
First, it’s important to understand that in the sport of powerlifting there are weight classes. People compete against other people in their weight class. Who cares? Well, if I weight 100 pounds and I’m competing against someone who weighs 200 pounds I’m at a clear disadvantage. For the purpose of this post, we are going to use my weight class: 72kilograms, or 158.9 pounds. I have to weight that or under to compete against other women in that class. If I come in at 72.1KG, I compete against women in the 84KG class… I’d be at a clear disadvantage.
In strength sports, the general reality is that the bigger you are the more weight you can lift. Why? Well, in an ideal world your weight would be pure muscle and that’s what moves iron. So, in my ideal situation I want to train at 72 kilograms, not 64 kg (the next weight class down). My goal is to be at that higher weight when I train and compete… but not over it.
Here’s the challenge… when you consider your body composition things get way more complicated. There are three macronutrients that we use to build and fuel our bodies: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. We need them all to function, and strength athletes particularly need protein to build muscle and carbs to fuel (give you energy) to make it through training. Fat is the third wheel here. You need it to regulate hormones (really critical for all athletes, but especially women), and your body loves it… but it’s the thing most of us have in excess… it’s the place we can and want to lose weight.
So, dieting is a restriction of calories (caloric deficit) to lose mass through fat. That’s it. We look at macros to figure out how we lose that mass. If you don’t eat enough you will not increase your muscle mass, which is the goal. You need a certain amount of protein to build muscle, and carbs to fuel your workouts (and life in general). So, if you aren’t also losing fat you will just gain weight. No harm, no foul. Just move up a weight class. That’s why we powerlift right? Eat all the donuts. We love you. I love you. Please give m a doughnut.
However, if you are like me you live at just around 160 pounds, about two pounds away from the 72KG class. That’s where I want to compete. That means as I gain muscle mass through training, I need to lose it somewhere else… fat’s the only option here.
If you go have a body composition scan done you will find out your percentages of fat, muscle and bone. The generally accepted “healthy” fat ratio is under 25% of your total weight in fat. Anything over that and you are considered obese. And who cares… those are just numbers based on averages… screw that. But, if you are trying to compete at a certain weight, and you are increasing muscle mass, you have to cut your fat to make that weight class. That’s the only option.
That is why you diet… to get rid of fat. Dieting is a long-term process. You need to understand the amount of calories your body needs to maintain your present weight, and what it needs to lose weight. That is a moving target because as you increase your muscle mass, you will increase weight.
Dieting is an art. It requires you know what your body needs, and you can adjust that as your body composition changes over time. I know that if I do the standard macro calculation it will tell me to eat 2,800 calories a day. I also know that as a 49-year-old woman I am not going to cut fat if I do that. I know that because I have tried. I also know that at this point I need 1,800 calories to maintain my weight and 1,400 calories to lose weight. And I also know that as my body composition changes, and as I age those numbers will change. This is why it is helpful to work with your coach and/or a specialist who knows your sport and understands macros and food.
So, what is “cutting?” Cutting is two things: massive lowering of calories (caloric deficit) and manipulation of water in your body. Generally, one cuts a week or two out. For me this has included cutting calories, but more so manipulating water intake so that my body would eliminate as much unnecessary water stores before a weigh in as possible. It’s generally harmless unless you get completely out of control with caloric intake… you can’t cut to 700 calories a day for five days before a competition and expect to perform well… it’s just not possible to refeed with enough nutrients before you lift.
At the end of the day, in my experience, cutting is not desirable over a steadily maintained body weight. There’s a lot of stress before a competition… adding whether or not you’re going to make your weight class is not a necessary thing to add into the mix. You know when you are going to compete… plan for it on the plate as well as at the gym.