Most powerlifters and heavy weight olympic lifters have a lot of muscle, but are not skinny, why not? Would excess fat not hinder them in their technical lifts?

4 Answers 4


For powerlifting, record lifts are 3 or more times bodyweight, and the lifts don't really require lifting the body. An extra 50lbs of body fat will not affect the result of deadlift or bench pressing, at all. In fact, more body weight will actually help you dead lift more whether you are stronger or not.

If you look at olympic lifters, they are leaner than powerlifters, but the amount of bodyweight they have to lift is still dwarfed by the weight on the bar. Fat on the body is not a major factor in how much they can lift. Flexibility would be much more important.

Their weight does start to matter a little bit because of weight classes. However, you might be used to seeing how cut body builders and boxers look. Both of these type of athletes are often extremely dehydrated when you see them in order to look like they have lower body fat (body builders) or to make a lower weight class (boxers). This reduces strength, which, in weightlifting, does not make up for the weight class advantage. Top lifters are rarely obese, they just don't have any incentive to be underweight.

  • Plus, it's very difficult to lose fat while building muscle. In fact, in many cases when bodybuilders go on a "cutting phase" they'll actually lose muscle. So the idea of a cutting phase would probably just be counterproductive for a powerlifter. Feb 16, 2012 at 21:24

There's a couple of things going on here, and they are both cultural and practical.

  • In order to build muscle you need three things: protein + calories, lifting heavy things, rest
  • You can't build muscle without gaining weight. I can attest to this since I have gained 11 lb of muscle and lost .6 lb of fat in the process. Muscle is more dense than fat. BF% is down but scale weight is up.
  • It takes more calories than you think to build muscle, but if you are consuming those calories without giving your body some work to do you will have too much fat.
  • There is a cultural bias against body builders, and one of Mark Rippetoe's quotes sums up the sentiment nicely: "You guys that worry about eating clean are actually merely bodybuilders looking for justification for your obsession with abs. You cannot get big and strong on 3000 kcal/day. And you cannot eat 7000/day and eat perfectly 'clean'."

Now, while I respect Mr. Rippetoe a whole heap, I also can't bring myself to think like him in regards to food.

What affects your ability to lift heavy things is:

  • Your raw animal strength
  • Your flexibility (full squats to parallel actually improve flexibility)
  • Your technical ability (power cleans and snatches are among the most technical lifts you can do, and provide explosive power--deadlifts are just a starting point for them)

As long as you can get your body into the right position and complete the lift properly you can lift a lot of weight. In short, for power lifters and Olympic athletes strength is more important than the way the body looks.


I was just reading an article on this last night in PowerLifter magazine. On avg., every 10 lbs of new weight adds at min. 4lbs of muscle (for those who do not train at all). So, just adding weight adds strength. The article also listed the lifts from the most to least technical - Bench Pressing being the least 'technical' and dead lifting the most with squatting in the middle...so, some of the lifts could be impacted by the extra weight but not all - and many competitions take the total of the 3 lifts as the determining factor of who wins (total lbs lifted in all lifts). Is it healthy? no

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    I'm skeptical of the 4lbs muscle claim. Do you have a reference? Jun 30, 2011 at 13:29
  • I'll have to get back to you with the reference, but thinking through it, if the person remains at the same bf% (say 25% which is a lot) and gains 10lbs - 7.5lbs is non-fat/lean body mass - somewhere half being muscle to support the additional size. Jun 30, 2011 at 14:26
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    If you're gaining weight, and you're not training, I'm gonna bet your BF% is going up. :) Jun 30, 2011 at 15:40
  • @Jeremy Stein, I have to disagree with you here. I have been gaining weight, but my BF% has been going down. I'm a beginning strength trainer, however you can't assume that more scale weight necessarily means more fat. Jul 1, 2011 at 16:12
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    @berin: Two very minor points. Deadlifting is considered technical because form (keeping the back flat), set up position, and balance take years to learn to do correctly, and can really make a difference for world class lifts (I agree that it is nothing compared to an Oly lift). Second, "power clean/snatch" is not exactly the same as "clean/snatch". The clean and snatch require a catch in the full squat position. Power clean/snatch do not, and therefore aren't legal olympic lifts. The full squat increases the difficulty, but allows for heavier weights.
    – michael
    Jul 1, 2011 at 18:37

Actually, excess fat in the abdominal region can force the lifter to bend over more at the start of the deadlift, which decreases the amount of weight that can be lifted. Observe the world record Squats and Deadlifts and you will notice n the lower weight classes, the record deadlift exceeds the record squat, while in the higher weight classes, the Squat records tend to be higher.

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