Power Bellies

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | April 13, 2022

thick lifter with a racked clean

My mind’s telling me no, but my body is telling me yeah! You want it, you know you do, but you’re too scared to admit it. A glorious power belly. Commencing operation “See-Food” Diet. The world is your oyster, literally. I just heard every single Men’s Health and GQ subscriber shriek in terror simultaneously. “No, not my abs!” Oh yes, I’m about to open a can of whoop-ass about why a power belly is so magnificent.

Let’s talk bodybuilding stats. Few men are born to be bodybuilders, just as only a few individuals are able to play in the NFL. Of course they also have to train, endure the hard work and eat right, but they were born to look that way. Unfortunately, not everyone in this world can look like them. Sure we can improve and look better, but if you’re expecting to look exactly like those bodybuilders, the majority of you are setting yourself up for a hard fall. Everyone can, however, get stronger.

When you talk about aesthetics and bodybuilding, you have to bring up Frank Zane, a three-time Mr. Olympia champ. I’m comparing him to Phil Heath, who’s won seven times. They are both the exact same height and have the same waist circumference.

Frank Zane @ 185-195lbs/5’9”

  • 18” arms
  • 52” chest
  • 29” waist
  • 26” thighs
  • 16.5” calves

Phil Heath @ 245-255lbs/5’9”

  • 23” arms
  • 54” chest
  • 29” waist
  • 32” thighs
  • 20” calves

There are some glaring differences between Frank and Phil. The Gift, as Phil is called, outweighs Zane by 60lbs, with arms 5” bigger and thighs 6” bigger. So we could conclude that being bigger is the key to being a long-term bodybuilding champion, it seems. Not convinced? Another example: the two titans, Arnold and Ronnie.

Arnold @ 225-230lbs/6’3”

  • 22” arms
  • 57” chest
  • 30” waist
  • 28.5” thighs
  • 20” calves

Ronnie Coleman over 310lbs/5’11”

  • 24” arms
  • 58” chest
  • 36” waist
  • 36” thighs
  • 22” calves

The results, again, speak for themselves. Compare these two guys – the bigger boy wins again. Size does matter. Even in the elite levels of bodybuilding, the bigger guy usually wins. The current Mr. O and now x2 champ is “Big Ramy.” I couldn’t find all his measurements online, but that dude is not called big for nothing. What I can tell you is that Big Ramy is big all over, with at least 24” arms.

Getting bigger and getting stronger go hand in hand. Remember, these are measurements from some of the world’s best ever. They are only in peak condition for maybe 3–5 days of the year. The rest of the time they are preparing and building. They do not look like this all year long. If these top-level bodybuilders have 24” arms, 58” chest and 36” thighs onstage with not a shred of fat (5% or lower), what do you think they look like in the off-season? Bigger. Much bigger. So you’d best believe they get a little round in the belly department in order to build this amount of muscle mass. Steroids help you retain muscle even during a cut, but the rules still apply. These barbell monks will lose muscle when prepping for a competition like the Olympia.

The key take-home message here is that if you’re enormous when you’re walking around at 15–20% bodyfat, then you will still be big at 5% if the cut is done correctly. In order for them to create these gigantic proportions, they need to focus on gaining sheer body mass. They train their asses off, lift heavy and put lots of dead animals and the appropriate calories into their bodies to fuel muscle growth.

What’s a power belly?

Being a proud member of the Power Belly Committee, I define it as a stomach that sticks out further than your chest, with minimal definition. Aka, a one pack. A solid Buddha belly. Heavy weight training and a calorie surplus can thicken your entire trunk, as your “core” is also muscle and it adapts to strength training too. Combined with the fact that a lot of men tend to store bodyfat primarily in the abdomen, it is obvious that this area may appear extra thick. Those proportions will change once you choose to drop weight, however.

The truth is that gaining muscle mass means you’re going to gain bodyfat. There are no ifs, ands, or buts: you can’t gain muscle without gaining some fat. The same goes for losing bodyfat – you will lose muscle mass too. Your training and nutrition determines how well you skew the odds in your favor. The bigger your chest, lats, shoulders, traps, legs, and hips, the smaller your trunk will look in comparison. How much of the weight gain is fat is determined by the food choices that you make every hour you’re awake.

You know this already. For most people, if you have a high-protein, moderate-to-high carb, and low-fat diet, you will skew the gains towards more muscle mass. However, as Bob Santana says, fats are everywhere – they’re the invisible macro, hiding in plain sight. The ones that should be avoided with a 10-foot pole are, crucially, trans-fats. Things like store-bought cakes, cookies, crackers, icing, margarine and microwave popcorn. So delicious. What you eat dictates how your body will repair and grow – whether into more muscle or more fat. So scaling back on the trans-fats is a good place to start.

Eating for strength, not appearance

Unlike the physique-obsessed robots who can eat dry chicken breast, rice and broccoli all day, eating for strength tastes awesome. But has a different purpose – not Olympia-stage-ready, covered in brown spray paint, wearing a thong – strength. It’s easier to force you to train correctly three days a week than it is to make you eat well 24/7. I can make you squat, press, deadlift, bench, and power clean correctly, and LP that for months. Your food habits are a much more personal issue. These habits run deep, and it’s hard to change them. The food you consume is your personal commitment. It’s a constant reminder that you have the power to choose every single day whether to get stronger or weaker. The most important and powerful foods I have eaten in order to get strong are steak, eggs, milk, rice, and potatoes. That’s it. My secret pre-workout is called “coffee.”


Look like Tarzan, play like Jane? Our aesthetics are a by-product of the skills and fitness we possess. With that in mind, I’ve always prioritized performance, ever since I was a kid. My favorite sports were basketball, silat (martial arts), rock climbing, breakdancing, and snowboarding, to name a few. The story is the same with barbell lifting. So if that means transforming into a musclebound gorilla with a power belly in order to reach my goals, then so be it. It’s something I can’t make you fully understand unless you too have been locked onto a goal and developed tunnel vision to acquire it.

This isn’t your standard fitness-goal bollocks, like doing a tough mudder, getting beach/bikini ready, or hiking up Kilimanjaro. I want to be strong, really fucking strong, in all the barbell lifts. Squat, press, deadlift, bench. Even the snatch and clean and jerk. That way I know I have mastered my craft. If my previously skinny 70kg 5 foot 5 British/Malaysian body (with abs) can do it, anybody can become big and strong. The key is wanting it bad enough. I wasn’t particularly blessed – it’s taken me over a decade to get where I am now. One of my biggest mistakes in barbell training was being resistant to gaining weight and having a power belly. Eating enough for training is vital and being comfortable with being a lot bigger is a learning curve.

And I want to leave no stone unturned. I want to have no doubt in my mind that I have done everything in my power to recover and get stronger. Food and sleep should be the only two thoughts that run through your mind after your step out of the weight room. This is what matters when it comes to training:

  • High-quality protein
  • Regular meals
  • Home-cooked food
  • Setting a protein target for the day
  • Planning ahead
  • Sleep hygiene

Counting calories

Being caught up in counting doesn’t work for me for long periods of time, two weeks at best. It does obviously work if you’re honest – which most people aren’t – and counting is great for certain personality types. Personally, I prefer guidelines and foods to avoid or eat less of, as my general rule. I think the Vertical Diet is the closest thing to a “diet” I follow. If I really want to restrict calories, I simply start peeling away more fat macros and alcohol.

In a regular training week I am protective of my mental bandwidth. I find it highly important to focus and reflect on past sessions and how I could improve, by watching my training videos or visualizing my approach to the next training session. My mental approach to my program is a much higher concern to me than worrying about whether my macros are perfect. How do you want to set up your day when you have a heavy Friday? What are you thinking about at breakfast? What are you thinking about when you step into the weight room? Fear, form, failure? Or are you visualizing success, mastery, and courage? I think details like this don’t get spoken about enough.


  • You went up a few jeans sizes or needed a few new suits for work
  • You need to smash a big protein shake at the end of the day because you haven’t hit your target
  • You’re now wearing an XL and not a medium – don’t freak out!
  • You need to crush one or two more meals every day, because it’s going to help you come Friday’s heavy session
  • Your week was gridlocked with work so you have to do a late-night Sunday session to catch up

The opportunities to eat purposefully and reach your goals are everywhere. You will probably never need to bloat out to the extremes of professional strongman and powerlifting competitors. It’s about mindset: eating for performance over aesthetics. If you train for strength then you have to adopt the eating habits of a lifter. That usually means more protein than you thought and more meals than you ate when you were just shuttling between work and home. Would you rather be strong or pretty? That’s the dilemma.

But the thing is, strong is beautiful.

500lbs is not that heavy

Again, this isn’t me saying you need to have a power belly or you’re a pussy. I’m asking how important strength is to you. If you want to keep your abs more than you want to deadlift 500lbs, then maybe you don’t want to be as strong as you think. In the world of true strength, 500lbs is a clean and jerk, not a deadlift – just to put it into perspective. These are the decisions and life choices that separate the rock stars from the groupies. And it’s not even that hard to do. You gain some weight, clean up your diet and lose the bodyfat after you get big and strong. The process of eating a calorie surplus and lifting heavy barbells will mean you lay down a lot of solid, quality muscle.

In my experience, it’s nearly always the people who are skinny and abs-obsessed or people who are scared to eat more cause they don’t want to get fat who tell me that their backs hurt from squats and deadlifts. Or ask why their bench and press are that of a small infant child. They want to know if they should be taking creatine or B-12 – is 1 night of oily fish enough omega 3? What brand of multi-vitamins do I take? Maybe I should buy the new SBD knee sleeves. Are the new Nike Romaleos the best squat shoe on the market? Let me say this one more time: none of that shit matters. Eat the five foods mentioned above, lift heavy, and if you’re lucky sleep 8–10 hours plus naps and you will be good.

A nod to some of the greats

So, in closing, I will say this: you don’t need to get fat, but don’t turn your nose up at the power belly. It is the hallmark of the strongman of yore. Serge Redding, Eddie Hall, Žydrūnas Savickas, Vasily Alekseyev, Mark Henry, Brian Shaw, Andy Bolton, Louis Cyr – to name just a few legends who rocked a power belly in their prime. Some of the strongest men to ever walk this planet had a glorious gut.

Maybe try not be so controlling. When you’re on an LP, just let your body grow. If your main goal is strength, it’s not wise to artificially blunt your progress. That may mean your abs will fade into a one pack, but seriously, who cares? You can get it back, and that’s not your main priority. Aesthetics is something you can worry about after you get big and strong. You should pay closer attention to your training, not your abs. Guys who say they need abs to get women are revealing their vanity and narcissism. Men who fiercely protect their abs are more in love with themselves than any woman or barbell PR they get. A dude who wears a size medium that goes on a cut is not as impressive as another dude who wears an XXL shirt who goes on a cut – there’s a difference, and you know it.

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