Oct 17, 2022
Insights for Powerlifting with a 2X IPF World Champion
Max Deutz, MS, RD, CSS*D

To fit in with the current Issue theme of ‘Strength & Conditioning’, two-time IPF World Champion Andy Askow recently sat down to share some wisdom about his passion for both powerlifting and performance nutrition. 

Andy holds raw powerlifting personal bests of over 800 lbs in the back squat, 700 lbs in the deadlift, and 500 lbs on the bench. Currently, he is in the fourth year of his Ph.D. studies within the Nutrition and Exercise Performance Research Group at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Author: To begin, please share a little bit of general information on both your journey and how nutrition has helped support your impressive powerlifting career.

powerliftingAndy Askow: I began lifting weights when I was in the fourth grade when my best friend’s father would pick me up in the morning. He was the high school football and powerlifting coach in Necedah, Wisconsin (where I grew up), and had us lift weights to get ready for high school football and powerlifting. We continued this throughout middle and high school and in 2012 I had the opportunity to go to the Open National Championships in Orlando, Florida where I got to watch Blaine Sumner squat 1003.1 lbs/455 kg. It’s safe to say from that point on, I was hooked. 

After graduating high school, rather than training for football, wrestling, and track performances, I started to invest my time more purposefully towards powerlifting. In terms of nutrition, it wasn’t really until my second year at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse when I was introduced to Dr. Andrew Jagim that I really had any cognizable strategy. Up until that point, there was really no rhyme or reason for how or what I ate and no real goals or knowledge as to how I determined my energy or nutrient intake. Unsurprisingly, this coincided with a period of relative stagnation in my powerlifting total. After a year of not increasing my total, Dr. Jagim brought me into the lab to measure my resting energy expenditure and had me track my food intake for two weeks. With a thoughtful nutrition strategy, I made tremendous progress, had more productive training sessions, and was able to win three international titles. 

Author: Can you further explain some of these changes you made while touching on how different phases of powerlifting have impacted your nutritional periodization processes? 

Andy: As I mentioned, I didn’t really have any nutritional strategies early in my career. Once I got the opportunity to work with Dr. Jagim, however, I started to become a lot more thoughtful about what I was eating and how I monitored my intake. For me, that meant tracking my nutrient intakes and comparing them to my estimated outputs. The importance of working together with a credentialed practitioner to help determine these values is something that I think shouldn’t be overstated. Though it was very helpful for me, daily food tracking isn’t necessary or right for everyone. This newfound work with Dr. Jagim also coincided with my start in a science-based laboratory, and as a result, I became fascinated with data and understanding how to optimize my performance in new ways. These two entities together were very impactful on my journey to achieve my peak performance.

After a few rounds of off-season training, competition preparation, peaking, and ultimately performing, I settled into a strategy that worked for me. Namely, I liked to focus on being a bit more precise during the off-season by doing things like spending more time cooking to ensure that I was able to get the macro- and micronutrients that I needed via a little more of a diverse diet. As I would move into my competition preparation phase and beyond, I would simplify everything from a nutrition standpoint as much as possible to make things as convenient as possible. This ensured that even when things would get busy with class, training, and lab work I’d be able to get enough energy, protein, etc., to sustain training. Fortunately, not being in a limited weight class allowed me to be fairly flexible in all phases of training.

Author: What are three concrete nutritional tips that you would recommend to other individuals who are either involved or seeking to become involved, with powerlifting?

powerliftingAndy: This certainly depends on goals and how close you are to your weight class maximum. Broadly speaking, however, my number one suggestion would be to be realistic in your strategy. The best nutrition plan in the world won’t do a thing if you can’t practically follow it consistently. This goes for what meals you’re eating, energy/nutrient intake, etc. If you’re a full-time athlete who is 100% focused on training, you have a bit more flexibility to make complex/precise plans. However, if you have a full-time job, family, or some other serious time constraints, it’s okay (from a performance standpoint) to make things simple. In short, only make your nutrition strategy as complex as you reasonably can to fuel your training. Second, I would say that the vast majority of people don’t need to be taking most supplements. I’m not saying supplements don’t have their place in a well-structured nutrition plan. However, the vast, vast majority of supplements are overpriced and don’t yield much of a real benefit; spend that money on real food if you can. Finally, I would say that tracking your food intake strategically in a way that works for you can provide invaluable information if you can do so and still maintain a healthy relationship with what you’re eating. While it may not be necessary after you get a pretty good idea, I believe that having nutritional information can be extremely useful when attempting to ascertain what went wrong (or right) in a training cycle or when trying to make changes to your nutritional strategy to optimize performance. 

Author: On the flip side, what is an area of misunderstanding behind the intersection of nutrition and powerlifting?

Andy: I think the biggest misunderstanding is that nutrition has no role in competitive success in powerlifting. Far too many people think that a great training drive or philosophy can outwork a poor nutritional strategy. I found throughout my own experiences, even in the unlimited powerlifting class, being more thoughtful with my eating habits and nutrition strategy pulled me out of a year-long slump and led me to some of my best performances of all time. Nutrition is a tool just like any other in the toolbox and if you neglect it completely, you’re going to be limited.  

Author: As a very individualized sport, have you found any connection, or lack thereof, between the teamwork of supporting staff for competitive powerlifters? Specifically, would you say the collaboration between powerlifters and registered dietitians (RD) is lacking, or perhaps, up-and-coming?

Andy: I think there is certainly a widespread belief that teamwork is important between a coach and a lifter. It is less common for these performance teams to include registered dietitians, or any other practitioners for that matter. Regarding registered dietitians, I think it’s becoming more common to look for assistance, at least on a part-time basis; however, there is still a pervasive misunderstanding of RDs and CSSDs (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) versus the myriad of ‘sport nutrition’ certifications available today. So often times athletes may be getting help from individuals that may not be properly suited to provide such services. Through my experiences in competition and professionally, I definitely believe there would be tangible benefits if powerlifters were to look towards utilizing collaborative performance teams that include RDs which is common in NCAA or professional sports.

Author: Considering you are no longer formally competing, could you share a little wisdom for individuals that are transitioning out of powerlifting with regard to their overall health status?

Andy: I think the hardest part for me was trying to find a balance. I was so used to training for multiple hours a day getting ready to compete that when I got out of competing and began lifting just for activity, I had a tough time. It’s hard to see your numbers go down, watch yourself get weaker, etc. However, that is to be expected when you go from training for competition to exercising for health or fun. My biggest takeaway is to understand the goal. It’s okay to not train as hard, lift as heavy, run as fast, etc. It helps to still make goals and be realistic in those goals. Don’t expect to stay as competitive as you were when you dedicated a big chunk of your lift to training – just enjoy the process. I find myself getting back under the bar more often these days now that I have come to understand this and would have appreciated hearing this a few years back as I made that transition.

Author: As a current Ph.D. student, share a little bit about some of the work you have completed, or are currently working on, to support both nutrition- and strength-based research. 

Andy: Currently, working under Dr. Nicholas Burd, I am leading a study investigating the role of protein source and distribution on muscle protein synthesis. To accomplish this, we are having individuals consume their daily protein from either plant- or animal-based protein foods in a skewed or evenly distributed fashion to determine which of these dietary patterns leads to greatest stimulation of protein synthesis. We’re hoping to provide context to whether distribution and protein source make a difference when adequate protein is consumed and regular resistance exercise is done. These questions obviously have direct application for athletes and general population alike. One other study we just published that I was heavily involved with investigated the effects of a novel supplement, creatyl-L-leucine, on muscle creatine content. We compared it against a placebo and classic creatine monohydrate to see whether it truly promotes deposition of creatine in the muscle and found that creatine monohydrate still reigns supreme.

Author: To close, let’s ask a fun question… Desert island, Andy Askow, nothing else beyond drinkable water and items to maintain a fire. You are allowed one lifting exercise (equipment to be provided) and five single-ingredient food items to make due. What are you going with and why?

Andy: This is a hard one on the food side but easy on the lifting side. Squat is, by far, my favorite exercise so I’d request equipment for back squats. Moreover, I think back squat is a powerful whole-body movement and is somewhat unique in it being axially loaded which provides a ‘big bang for the buck’ in terms of effort. For food, I’d say I’d request olive oil, basmati rice, beef jerky, white distilled vinegar, and salt. I’d like to think a Wisconsin-born hunter/fisherman that I’d be able to scavenge some wild greens and fashion some sort of means to catch game or fish for meat. However, with no refrigeration vinegar and salt would allow me to pickle or cure anything I caught to preserve it. In the meantime, rice, jerky, and oil would allow me to sustain while I tried to figure out how to get something more substantial and reliable. The real question is, will you be there to help spot me?

Written by a Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association Registered Dietitian (RD). To learn more about sports nutrition and CPSDA, go to www.sportsrd.org.

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