What you’re getting yourself into
4,100 words, 13-28 minute read time
- Unless you’re a superheavyweight for life, the fastest way to increase your competitiveness in powerlifting is to get leaner if you have fat to lose.
- After that, you should try to move up into the biggest weight class you can get into while maintaining a good body composition.
- When moving up weight classes, you may be less competitive for a year or two while you gain muscle, but you’ll generally be more competitive in a heavier weight class in the long run.
- Most people shouldn’t rely on water cuts to make weight, but if you do cut water, you shouldn’t cut more than 2-3% of your bodyweight with same-day weigh-ins, or 5% of your bodyweight with day-before weigh-ins. Larger cuts can be dangerous and will likely negatively impact your performance.
Here’s the one sentence answer to the question posed in the title: The best powerlifting weight class for you will generally be the biggest weight class you can fill out while still being fairly lean.The best weight class will be the biggest one you can fill out while still being lean. Click To Tweet
If you’re cool with that answer and don’t really care to understand the reasons behind it, feel free to skip on down to the section about water cuts. Just check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series to get an idea of what weight class that will be and what lifts you should be aiming for.
However, if that answer doesn’t sit well with you, I’m not incredibly surprised. It’s often met with some push-back. If you move up a weight class, you’re expected to lift more in order to be equally competitive, after all. If you can hold your own at 165 (75kg) – maybe not win meets, but still be competitive – moving up to 181 (82.5kg) where people are lifting a lot more weight seems like a fool’s errand.
However, it’s generally the best course of action; it just means a couple of frustrating years while you work to fill out the larger weight class.
Several of my friends who are weightlifting coaches are fond of the expression, “Weight classes are height classes in disguise.” I could not agree more.
Let’s just consider the basic physics of this situation. Let’s say you’re 5’10” (178cm), and you currently compete in the 165 (75kg) class, where most of the top lifters are closer to 5’6″ or 5’7″ (167.5-170cm).
You’re about 5% taller than the top lifters in your weight class. Assuming your body proportions are the same, that means you’ll need to produce about 5% more torque to lift any weight. It takes the same amount of muscular force for you to deadlift 500, and for them to deadlift 525.
However, the difference in performance potential will actually be quite a bit larger than 5%. Remember the recent article about allometric scaling? If you’re 5% larger overall, that also means your bones and muscles will be 5% longer, and that extra length isn’t weightless. Mass-related factors increase proportionally to length3. If your torso and limbs are 5% longer, if you were built exactly like a scaled-up version of the top lifters in your weight class, you’d weigh about 15% more than them. However, you can’t weigh 15% more if you’re competing in the same weight class, which means you have to “lose” an extra 15% of your body weight from somewhere. Assuming the top lifters in your class are already pretty lean, the only way to close that 15% gap in weight is to have less muscle mass.
So, not only does physics put you at a 5% disadvantage, but the constraint of making weight with a larger body puts you at an additional ~15% disadvantage because you can’t have as much muscle mass as the shorter folks, and still make weight.
In other words, if you’re one of the taller lifters in your weight class, and you feel like you can catch the shorter guys who out-total you … unless they’re fat (which, at the top levels, they won’t be), you’re wrong. You won’t catch them. You’ll always be in a so-close-and-yet-so-far scenario.
You are the Tantalus of powerlifting.
Still, many people are resistant to moving up a weight class, so I’ve made a handy calculator so you can see how much your performance would improve by gaining weight. Obviously, your absolute performance will improve, but the common apprehension is that you’ll be less competitive in a higher weight class, so this calculator also takes that into account, assessing competitiveness (relative strength) via Allometric Scaling Score.
If you don’t know your body fat percentage, you can use the calculator below if you’re a man, or this one if you’re a woman.
This calculation was based on the same principle as the last articles (Part 1 and Part 2); strength scales linearly with fat free mass per unit of height. The calculator computes your current skill as a lifter (how much you lift, relative to how much fat free mass you have), and assumes you maintain the same level of skill as you gain weight.
Play around with the calculator above as much as you want. Assuming your body fat percentage doesn’t increase, and you don’t become a less skilled lifter (lifting less weight relative to how much muscle you have), your relative strength will improve as you gain weight.
Now, there were two parts to the one-sentence article summary we started with: “The best weight class for you will generally be the biggest weight class you can fill out while still being fairly lean.”
Fat doesn’t help you lift more, and it certainly adds weight. You can maybe get away with 20% body fat in some of the heavier classes (105/110kg and above without drugs, 125kg and above with drugs) simply because there aren’t that many people who can fill out those weight classes while still being lean. However, most of the people reading this article (the men, at least) will likely be the most competitive somewhere around 10-15% body fat. For women, it’s generally the low 20%s.
If you’re heftier than that, nothing improves relative strength faster than losing some fat. Furthermore, if you’re trying to fill out a heavier weight class, adding a bunch of fat and a little muscle (obviously) isn’t going to make you any more competitive.Nothing improves relative strength faster than losing some fat. Click To Tweet
Assuming you cut slowly (aiming to lose about 0.7% of your body weight per week), you should be able to maintain performance, or even get a bit stronger.
Around 10-15% body fat, most lifters find that their strength starts taking a hit if they keep dieting, even if they’re cutting slowly. Otherwise, you’d see the top powerlifters competed in shredded-to-the-bone, bodybuilder-style conditioning. Just find the minimum level of body fat that still allows you to train hard and feel good.
You can use this calculator to see how much your relative strength would improve by getting down to about 12% body fat, assuming you can maintain your current strength.
In theory, your most competitive weight class will be the one that corresponds with your maximum muscular potential that we predicted in the last article.
In practice, here’s how you find your best weight class:
- Cut first, finding the minimum body fat level where performance isn’t negatively impacted.
- Get as jacked as possible, splitting your training into controlled bulking phases (never getting much more than 5-6% body fat over the “sweet spot”) and slow cutting phases.
- Repeat step 2 for a number of years. When you reach the point that you’re finding it incredibly hard to add more muscle to your frame: Congratulations, you’ve found the best weight class for you.
This approach is about maximizing competitiveness in the long run. Yes, it also entails a lot of time spent getting your ass kicked when you’re awkwardly between weight classes. But rest assured, it’ll pay off long-term. It may take you 2-3 years to fully fill out the next weight class above your current one, during which time you may be the lightest person in your weight class on the platform, but you’ll thank me in the end.
If you’ve been stuck around the same total for the past couple of years while you’re trying your hardest to keep your weight down to be within cutting range of your trusty old comfortable weight class, there’s probably a reason your competition numbers aren’t improving much. You just don’t have much more room for improvement in your current weight class with your current muscle mass.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’ll be a world-wrecker when you do finally get up to your eventual weight class. Maybe you will top out in the 165 class at 5’10” (though that’s unlikely – refer to the last article about your drug-free muscular potential for a reasonable estimate of what weight class you’ll end up in), but at least you’ll be better off in the 165 class than you would have been at 148 if that’s where you started.
There are a few more things worth noting:
Here are some reference values for what weight class to shoot for, based on your height (these are the heights where you’d expect to have a Wilks Score of 500 or 450, as a male, based on the formula in the last article):
|Weight Class (kg/lbs)||Height (cm/inches) for a
|Height (cm/inches) for a
A 500 Wilks (drug free, without knee wraps) is world-class. A 450 Wilks will generally be competitive at a national-level meet. Mutants like Sergey Fedosienko manage to hit 600+ Wilks Scores, but that’s bordering on incomprehensibly strong.
You’ll notice a stark difference between what’s necessary for a 450 Wilks, and what’s necessary for a 500 Wilks. To hit a 500 Wilks, you generally need to be very jacked and very short. However, a 450 Wilks should be perfectly attainable for most people. I’ll give this the same caveat I’ve given everything else in this series, though: These are ballpark figures. There are taller people who’ve hit Wilks Scores over 500, and short, super jacked people who can’t. These are just rough estimates.
There are a couple of things on that chart I’d like to point out:
- Related to the article on relative strength and Wilks’ bias against normal-sized people, you see that the heights increase slowly up to the 90kg class and skyrocket thereafter. That’s because of how Wilks is calculated. In order to have the same Wilks score, people from about 65-90kg need to have more relative strength than people in the 60kg weight class, or people in the 100kg class and above
- You’ll also notice the large height discrepancies between a 450 and a 500 Wilks, especially in the higher weight classes. The basic takeaway is this: If you’re above 180cm (about 5’10”) you likely need to be at least 90kg/198lbs to be highly competitive, though if you’re aiming to be a world-class lifter, you should probably be aiming for the 110kg/242 class or above (or 105kg/231lbs in the IPF). However, even if you’re really tall, as long as you make your way into an appropriate weight class, you should still be able to be highly competitive (Yao Ming’s hanging out in the very bottom right corner of the chart – in other words, unfathomably tall).
Now, obviously there are exceptions, and by definition, the very best lifters in the world are bound to be the exceptions to just about any rule. If strength were solely based on fat free mass per unit of height, Jesse Norris would be “too tall” (at 5’9″/175cm) to total 2015lbs/914kg at 198bs/90kg, and Josh Hancott would certainly be too tall (at the same height) to total 1521lbs/690kg at 163lbs/74kg. However, it is undeniable that, on the whole, the best lifters in every weight class tend to be noticeably shorter than the other guys nipping at their heels.The best lifters in every weight class tend to be noticeably shorter. Click To Tweet
I’ll also note, these predictions based on the formulas I’m using match Boris Sheiko’s weight class recommendations very nicely, which basically split the difference between height prediction for a 450 Wilks and the height prediction for a 500 Wilks:
|Weight Class (kg/lbs)||Height (cm/inches)|
Since this is an article about choosing a weight class, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on water cutting.
It’s common practice for powerlifters to hop in a sauna or a hot bath to sweat off a few kilos in order to make a lighter weight class.
My general advice about water cuts: Unless you’re trying to qualify for a big meet or break a record, don’t do it!
Cutting water just adds one more unnecessary stressor to the process of meet preparation, and it’s just not worth it for most people.
However, if you are going to cut water, the amount you can get away with cutting depends on the rules of your meet. Some meets have weigh-ins the day before the meet, and others have weigh-ins on the morning of the meet.
For a meet with same-day weigh-ins, you shouldn’t cut very much water weight. Though there’s some conflicting literature, it’s generally agreed upon that losing more than 2-3% of your body weight in water will negatively impact performance. With a same-day weigh-in, it’s tough to properly rehydrate between weigh-ins and the start of the meet. For every kg of water you cut, you need to put a liter of water back into your body, and chugging 5-6 liters of water before you start warming up to squat is not a very pleasant experience (never mind that it takes your body some time to absorb all that water). So, if you do plan on cutting water for a meet with same-day weigh-ins, make sure you’re no more than 2-3% heavier than the top of your weight class before you begin the water cut. If you’re a 65kg lifter, try to be under 67kg the day before the meet. If you’re a 100kg lifter, try to be below 103kg the day before the meet. Just make sure you don’t need to cut more than 2-3kg of water with same-day weigh-ins.
For a meet with weigh-ins the day before, you can cut a bit more. Most lifters can comfortably get away with a water cut of ~5% of their body weight, and some people cut 10% or more. I personally don’t recommend a cut larger than 5%, even with weigh-ins on the day before. Why? Because huge water cuts are dangerous, and staying alive and outside of a hospital are important if you want to hit a big total.
Do people get away with huge water cuts? Sure.
Are some of those people still able to perform well after huge water cuts? Yep (though, even with a full day to rehydrate, performance is generally still negatively impacted).
Does that mean you should do it too? I’d strongly recommend that you don’t.
The next question is how to go about cutting that water weight.
There are four popular methods, two of which are stupid.
- Jogging/biking/etc. with a plastic suit or heavy clothing on. This is one of the stupid methods. You don’t really sweat all that much using this method, and the last thing you should be doing before a powerlifting meet is running around with a trash bag on. You’re just wasting energy doing it this way.
- Taking diuretics. This one is also stupid. Diuretics increase your risk of cramping, and notably decrease strength. The way diuretics generally work is by blocking your kidneys from reabsorbing potassium. Since water follows solutes, when you pee out more potassium, voila, you also pee out more water. However, potassium and sodium are the two key ions responsible for your nerves firing and your muscles contracting. When you get rid of a bunch of potassium, it throws that system out of whack, decreasing your strength. Diuretics generally have long half-lives as well; they’re most often prescribed for people with high blood pressure (by lowering blood volume, diuretics decrease blood pressure), so a long half-life ensures that people with hypertension don’t have to pop a pill every hour to keep their blood pressure under control. This means that, even with weigh-ins on the day before the meet, you’ll probably still have lingering effects from the diuretic that will impact your performance. Obviously, the impact will be even larger with same-day weigh-ins.
- Sitting in a sauna. This is a solid method. In a steamy sauna (40 Celsius/104 Fahrenheit, 100% relative humidity), you sweat out about 176g of water every 10 minutes. A hotter sauna will make you sweat faster, and less steam will slow down sweat rate.
- Sitting in a hot tub. This is probably the best method. Water conducts heat about 24x better than air; that’s why you can get hypothermia if you stay in 24 Celsius/75 Fahrenheit water for too long, but that same air temperature is very pleasant. The same principle is at play when comparing hot water to hot air. A hot tub at 41.5 Celsius/107 Fahrenheit causes you to sweat about 50% faster than the 40 Celsius/104 Fahrenheit sauna.
There’s one more method that’s not as popular, but that I strongly recommend. Get some chewing gum and a 1L bottle. Chew the gum to make yourself salivate, and spit into the bottle. Each time you fill the bottle up with spit, that’s about 1kg of fluid lost (a bit more, actually, because saliva is slightly more dense than water, but the difference isn’t big enough to worry about). You can do this as you’re sitting in a sauna or hot tub as well. Hooray for multitasking.
Once you’ve lost the water weight, you need to gain it back as quickly as possible. The best option is a 50/50 mixture of Gatorade (or any sports drink of your choosing) and water. Sports drinks given to athletes (i.e. what’s in the coolers on the sidelines of a major sporting event) are formulated based on the optimal ratios of water, sugar, and salt for rehydration. However, the stuff you buy in bottles at the store has roughly twice as much sugar and salt as it should have for optimal rehydration (because it tastes better that way).
Whether you compete in federations with same-day weigh-ins or day-before weigh-ins will determine how long you’re awkwardly stuck between weight classes when gaining weight. Let’s say you’re currently at the top end of the 75kg weight class, and you’re moving up to 82.5kg. With a same-day weigh-in, you probably shouldn’t cut more than about 2.5kg of water, so once you’re nearing 78kg, you’re better off just competing as a light 82.5kg lifter until you fill out the class. Assuming you can gain 2-3kg of muscle per year, you’ll be stuck in limbo for about a year and a half or two years while you fill out the 82.5kg class. If you’re competing in a federation with day-before weigh-ins, you can probably get away with cutting 3-4kg of water, meaning there’ll only be about a year or so between when you start competing as a light 82.5kg lifter, and when you can fill out the weight class. In general, 2 years is a good rule of thumb for federations with same-day weigh-ins, and 1 year is a good rule of thumb for federations with day-before weigh-ins.
One final consideration: drugs
This one’s really straightforward. Steroids generally allow you to move one or two weight classes above where you could have gotten drug-free. The same principle still applies – get into the biggest weight class you can while staying relatively lean – but “the biggest weight class you can” will just be bigger.
There’s one more thing I’d like to point out about drugs before wrapping up. When I published “Steroids for Strength Sports: The Disappointing Truth,” I got some blowback for suggesting that steroids make a roughly 10% difference in relative performance. A lot of that blowback is my own fault. I should have written this article series before I published that article.
I had already been working on these models when I wrote that article. These models predicted an ~10% boost in relative strength from steroid use, which, admittedly, surprised me as well (I expected a larger difference, too). When I saw that the available data (flawed though it may be) supported the predictions from the model, I figured it was good enough to publish. In hindsight, I should have put these articles out first to show that the data actually matches the theoretical predictions.
You can use the calculator below to see for yourself. The calculations here are pretty straightforward: Take your current total, see how it compares to your current fat free mass per unit of height, add the extra lean mass from steroids, predict the resultant total (assuming you maintain the same skill as a lifter), and see how the resultant allometric scaling scores compare. If you want to plug in your predicted elite-level drug-free total from the last article, you can give that a shot as well. Also note the difference between absolute and relative performance.
There’s no mathematical sleight-of-hand here – just some simple calculations based on the formulas I’ve explained in the past few articles. It’s pretty darn hard to come up with an increase in relative strength large than 10% unless one of two things happen:
- Your skill as a lifter increases (your total relative to your FFM/cm increases), which simply happens with practice – with or without steroids.
- You gain more than ~20kg of lean mass as a results of steroid use, above and beyond what you could have gained naturally. Although that may be possible in some circumstances (Big Ramy steps on a bodybuilding stage at 175cm and 130kg. I’m not so sure he’d be 110kg in stage-ready conditions without drugs), it would require much higher-than-normal doses of drugs and a much greater-than-normal response to those drugs. 7.5-15kg is more realistic for most people.
With or without drugs, getting into the largest weight class you can while staying relatively lean (maximizing fat free mass per unit of height, which scales linearly with your total) should be your goal. With drugs, you can get into a higher weight class at the same height, meaning your fat free mass per unit height will be higher, and you’ll be able to lift more, both in absolute and relative terms. The boost in both absolute and relative performance you get is directly proportional to how much muscle the drugs help you gain.
So, just to wrap up:
- Generally, your most competitive weight class will be the biggest one you can fill out, while still remaining relatively lean. Even if you need to move up a weight class, if you have fat you need to lose, you’re probably better off cutting first before bulking.
- This may mean that you spend a couple of years awkwardly competing as the lightest person in your weight class, but it’ll be worth it in the end.
- I don’t generally recommend water cuts unless you’re trying to break a record, or qualify for or win a high-level meet. However, if you do water cut, try to limit it to 2-3% of your body weight with a same-day weigh-in, and ~5% of your body weight with a day-before weigh-in. Though some people can get away with larger cuts, I strongly advise against them. You’re better off using dietary measures to stay closer to the top end of your weight class.
- If you’re going to cut water, sauna or hot tubs are your best bet, ideally combined with spitting into a bottle. Don’t jog with heavy clothing or a sweat suit on, and absolutely don’t take diuretics.
The last article in this series – a more objective way to view “strength standards” based on the formulas from the past few articles – will be coming out later this week. Stay tuned!
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Next: YOUR Drug-Free Muscle and Strength Potential: Part 1 →
YOUR Drug-Free Muscle and Strength Potential: Part 2 →