Why Do Powerlifters Have Big Bellies? (Here’s the Reasons Why)

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The appearance of a larger belly in powerlifters, as opposed to a more muscular look, can be attributed to their high intake of carbohydrates and calories. This dietary strategy is essential for providing the energy required to lift exceptionally heavy weights throughout their training routines.

It’s All About Calorie Consumption

Marty Gallagher, Powerlifter and Strength Coach: "Strongmen need a solid base of muscle and some fat for cushioning and support during heavy lifts. While they can lean down for competitions, maintaining a higher body fat percentage helps with overall strength and power."

I guess it’s fairly obvious that “big” in relation to the body typically occurs through calorie consumption.

You have to eat a surplus of calories if you want to get bigger and stronger.

So, if you’re wondering why you’re not packing on muscle, even though you train like a demon, it will be because of your diet and nutrition.

Powerlifters are all about muscle and strength, so it makes perfect sense that they have to eat a huge amount of calories.

The truth is that they are almost in a state of constant bulking.

The heavyweight divisions of powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting, as well as competitors in the World’s Strongest Man, will typically reveal some very big bellies.

The Difference Between Powerlifters and Bodybuilders

When you consider a bodybuilder, they will initially go through the bulking phase too.

This involves training with high intensity and eating a lot.

Basically, doing all they can to grow as much muscle as possible.

Unfortunately, fat comes as part of the deal with all the extra calories.

However, a bodybuilder will then typically go through a cutting phase.

This involves following a very strict diet in order to eliminate fat.

In fact, I’m sure that you’ve heard many bodybuilders live off chicken, broccoli, and rice.

However, even an ingredient like rice is likely to take a back seat during a bodybuilder’s cutting phase.

They will also back off on their training, but still do just enough to maintain as much muscle mass as possible.

That being said, the cutting phase will also deplete the athlete of a lot of strength.

In essence, they become much weaker.

Mark Rippetoe, Powerlifting Coach and Author: "Powerlifters are not concerned with aesthetics, only with strength. This often leads to a higher body fat percentage compared to bodybuilders who prioritize a defined physique."

Now, if we look at things from a powerlifter’s point of view, the last thing they want is to lose strength and become weaker.

Powerlifting is all about building as much raw strength as possible.

This allows you to lift the heaviest loads within your capabilities.

So, a powerlifter won’t go through a cutting stage, especially when training for a competition.

Admittedly, shifting a huge amount of weight will burn a massive amount of calories.

The solution once more is to consume even more calories.

You must remember that you can eat as “clean” as you want.

But excess calories are just that. If they’re not burned through your normal daily activities, they will be stored as fat.

However, this is of little concern to a powerlifter.

More body mass means being able to move more barbell mass.

Powerlifters Train With Lower Volume

Something else to consider is the overall volume of work that a powerlifter does during a session.

Okay, I’ve already mentioned that shifting a lot of weight will burn a huge amount of calories.

However, this doesn’t work in the same way as high-volume training.

Plus, let’s not forget that it’s impossible to spot reduce body fat.

But, the same cannot be said when it comes to adding body fat.

For the vast majority of us an excess in calories will typically make its way straight to our stomachs.

If you’ve ever changed training protocols you have probably noticed the same thing yourself.

Let’s say that you’ve had a real concentration on hypertrophy and conditioning for a few months.

You then decide to shift your focus to pure raw strength training.

Even though you are lifting with just as much intensity, if not more, you’ll usually notice that you’re getting fatter.

You’ll probably end up taking on more calories as your energy levels feel severely depleted from the training.

Plus, even though you’re shifting much heavier loads, your overall volume will have significantly dropped.

Layne Norton, Bodybuilder and Sports Nutritionist: "Powerlifters train for maximal strength using compound lifts, while bodybuilders focus on isolation exercises to target specific muscle groups for hypertrophy and definition."

The Type of Training Can Produce a Big Belly

Now, when I talk about the “type of training” a powerlifter does, this isn’t so much about a lack of cardio and ab work.

In fact, powerlifters will definitely train their abs and core.

Pretty much every movement we make originates from the core, so it’s essential that a powerlifter has an extremely strong core.

In fact, heavy weighted sit ups form part of a powerlifter’s training regime.

Oh yes, even though powerlifters are in a constant state of bulking they still train abs.

But, these are no ordinary weighted sit ups.

Depending on the athlete you could be talking about performing sets of 15 reps with 300-500lbs.

Yes, this will work the abs, but it will also build big slabs of stomach muscle.

Eric Cressey, Sports Performance Coach: "While some powerlifters do carry excess body fat, the thicker midsection can also be attributed to a hypertrophied core musculature, essential for stability and support during heavy lifts."

You’ll also need to consider how these athletes use their weight belt.

Whereas, most of us will use a belt for core stabilization and to protect the lower back, a powerlifter also uses it to target their breathing.

During extremely heavy squats, deadlifts and bench presses the athletes will literally push their stomach out as hard as possible.

The aim here is to press the stomach out as hard as you can against the belt in order to provide additional support.

If you’re doing this multiple times a day, for weeks, months, and years, you’re going to end up with a bigger belly.

Former powerlifter and current strength coach, Louie Simmons, once stated, “If you want a small waist then powerlifting is not your sport.”

The Role of Steroids

Steroid pills and liquids alongside a syringe

Steroids can play a role in producing a big belly.

In fact, there is a term known as “roid gut”, although this is more prevalent in bodybuilders than powerlifters.

It’s actually known as palumboism.

This is when the oblique muscles thicken and actually force the rectus abdominis muscles outwards.

In truth, it’s not actually the steroids that cause this “big belly”, but rather other performance enhancing drugs.

These include insulin, human growth hormone, and various anabolic peptide hormones.

With that being said, the opposite can also be said of certain steroids.

In effect, there are some steroids which will raise the metabolism and increase your total daily energy expenditure.

This will actually cause you to burn calories and body fat, while also improving recovery so that you can train harder and longer.

So, from a powerlifter’s point of view, in order to combat this “calorie burn” the obvious solution is to eat more.

And then we’re back to where we started – higher calorie consumption equals more body fat.

Key Learning Points

  • Powerlifters are required to take on a huge number of calories in order to support their training.
  • It’s not unheard-of for powerlifters to eat DURING their training sessions.
  • Powerlifting training involves forcing the stomach out a lot. The stomach is typically “forced” into a weightlifting belt in order for the lifter to target their breathing.
  • Ab training for powerlifters involves huge weights which will build big slabs of ab muscle, thus making the stomach look larger.
  • Steroids may play a role, whether this is due to palumboism or the requirement to consume more calories.

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