There are many people out there who call themselves bodybuilders, but in my opinion, unless you have attempted to take the stage at least once in your life, you are just a weightlifter. There is a big difference between having a physique with some visible abs that looks good on the beach and the body that you see in competition, with striated glutes, paper-thin skin, and veins like you’d see in an anatomy chart. Many have attempted to step on stage, and many have failed. In my mind, that’s what separates a wannabe bodybuilder from the real deal.
Bodybuilding isn’t for everyone, and for some it just isn’t in the cards due to body structure and genetics. You don’t necessarily need to have superior genetics like Jay Cutler to compete, but contest prep does require discipline, hard work, consistency, and the drive to do what it takes to get results. At the end of the day, genetics (and the judges) may determine the on-stage winner; however, the fact that you may not receive a trophy doesn’t mean you are not a personal winner as long as you did everything possible to be your best on that day. As I tell my clients, if you enjoy the process and the challenge, then you have already won.
Where do you start? One general recommendation I make is to hire qualified help. Even with the information in this article, which is written in a general format, there are too many individual differences among potential competitors that must be addressed. An expert will be able to hone in on your particular body and how it works, and then will be able to apply tried-and-true principles to achieve specific results while avoiding the traps and pitfalls that can occur during contest prep. Also, a professional will provide an objective viewpoint and will be able to help you keep your mind on the right path; as the diet progresses, it becomes as much a mental challenge for some as a physical one.
A lot of bodybuilders believe there is only one single process to follow to get ready for a show. Most pick a certain number of weeks before the show to start dieting, usually 12-16 at minimum, and then just gradually drop their calories as the show gets closer. How early you should start your diet depends on your current condition and how much fat you are carrying. A good rule of thumb is to give yourself one week for every percentage point of body fat. Therefore, if you have roughly 12% body fat, start at 12 weeks out; if you are over 16% body fat, start at 20 weeks out.
There are also many bodybuilders who still follow outdated and useless practices during prep such as carb depleting and then reloading the week before the show; all that does is risk damage to the physique. I like to use methods that are based more on science and in-the-trenches experience and not merely on tradition. Always plan extra time for contest prep to ensure optimum fat loss and retention of muscle mass. Specifically, you want to maintain a relative calorie deficit rather than an absolute calorie deficit (an important point I learned from Scott Abel). The reason for this is that in an absolute calorie deficit, an athlete can and almost always will lose muscle mass, which we would prefer to avoid at all costs. In an absolute caloric deficit, the body will be more stubborn about giving up fat because it is in starvation mode, which is roughly 750-1000 calories below an individuals BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate). In this state, the metabolism will protect fat storage at the expense of muscle in order to maintain energy expenditure.
For any diet, and especially for contest diets, a better approach is to use a relative caloric deficit in which an individual begins the diet at or near his normal BMR, which is the rate at which the body burns calories while at rest. Once the BMR has been established, the diet begins. There are various methods that can be used to prepare for a contest…the particular approach all depends on a person’s current needs state, how they have been eating up to that point, and their current condition. Some of these methods are: 1) staggering calories (one of my favorite methods), 2) carb cycling, or just a 3) a steady-state approach at or near the BMR, while introducing fat burning activities (such as a structured training program and cardio) to create a fat-burning machine rather than a fat-storing machine.
So how do we figure out a person’s BMR? There are some good equations out there, but to keep things simple, just take your bodyweight times 12 or 14 if you are in decent shape (below 14% body fat) or your body weight times 10 if you are on the fatter side (above 15%). Next, subtract 300-500 calories from that number, depending on how much fat you have to lose. There are several factors that influence the BMR, including gender, hormonal levels, age, height, and background. Therefore, it would be useful to have a record of a few days worth of eating in order to poinpoint an individual’s current caloric intake and how closely it matches their calculated BMR. Once calorie consumption is assessed, then we proceed to choosing an appropriate diet strategy. I recommend breaking the calories up into five, six, or even seven evenly spaced meals throughout the day. In this way, the body is more easily able to process smaller amounts of food efficiently and to keep insulin levels steady.
Once the general eating strategy is set, it is then necessary to structure the diet in terms of fat, carb, and protein percentages. One point I want to get across immediately is that in a calorie deficit (as in a pre-contest diet), there will be no predisposition for your body to store fat from ANY energy source (carbs, fat, or protein). Therefore, when dieting, don’t be concerned that a certain energy source may make you fat (the usual targeted source is carbs); instead, focus your sights on determining the best strategy to optimize fat loss while insuring retention of your hard earned muscle. Carbs and fats are the protein-sparing energy sources– enough of these must be present in a diet so that protein can be used to build and rebuild tissue. If not, the body will use protein for the production of energy at the expense of rebuilding tissue.
A word on carbs: Carbs are not the enemy, but too much insulin may be a problem when trying to get ripped on a diet. The problem is that too much insulin and too little insulin can both result in feelings of hunger. Therefore, to control insulin levels, we should monitor physiological feedback after meals. If there is too much insulin, the body feels tired and the mind sluggish. If insulin is low, the body feels hungry, but focus and concentration remain clear. Finding a balance between these two situations then becomes a matter of tweaking the meals during a diet. Someone who feels tired and lethargic after a meal may be consuming too many calories at that particular meal. If he feels hungry, but is still focused and alert, then his body is in a fat burning mode. As time goes on most bodybuilders get used to the hunger…it’s just part of a typical contest prep!
Getting back to macronutrients, how do we decide the ratios of proteins, carbs, and fats? As an example, let’s take a 200-lb client. Protein needs would be roughly 275 grams, as I like to keep protein around 45-50% of total calorie intake during contest diets. Because his BMR would be around 2400 calories, according to our calculations, I would recommend that 50% of that should consist of 300 grams of protein (just take 2400, multiply by .50, then divide by 4). Now there are 1200 calories left to divide between carbs and fat. Using a carb-based diet as an example, I would keep carbs at 35-40% and fat at 10-15%. I have gotten many competitors into ripped contest condition using this model. In terms of fat loss, you should monitor bodyweight and the image in the mirror each week (the mirror will always overrule the scale weight) as well as your body’s feedback on hunger, focus, energy levels, etc.. Remember, this is one of many possible ways to diet for a contest, and it always comes down to an individual’s physiology. This is one of the best parts of what I do–manipulate and coax the body to come in shredded and watch it all unfold in front of me.
Also keep in mind that if the body is in a fat burning mode, water intake needs to be increased as well. During diet periods, more body fluids will be lost and replenishment becomes crucial. Proper fluid replenishment and electrolyte balance is important at this stage to maintain cell integrity and intracellular water levels. Therefore, sodium ingestion should also be kept quite high through the whole prep by using sea salt and certain condiments.
After you have taken all of these variables into consideration and have set a plan into action, you can then and only then look for other factors that may influence performance. Finding the right training protocol and minimizing stress levels are factors outside of the diet that can contribute positively or negatively to performance. The others, of course, are supplements and drugs. Too many readers already rely too heavily on pharmacological influences so I will not go into that subject. However, supplements can be put to use in pre-contest dieting. Products are called “supplements” for a reason–they supplement diet and training, but they do not take the place of them. Supplements exist to aid the process of fat loss and muscle retention but they will not replace bad training, coaching, or dieting, and will not fix what is wrong with your overall protocol.
When it comes to cardio, the more fat you have to lose, the more cardio you may need to do. Keep your cardio sessions at 25-45 minutes; longer sessions will cost you hard earned muscle. If you have a lot of fat to lose, the key is to start cardio at the same time as you start dieting. The problem most competitors have is that they tend to throw the kitchen sink at themselves from the start, whether it be cardio or diet. If you start out at six 1-hour sessions per day and plateau at eight weeks left, where do you go from there? Yes, you would initially lose a lot of weight, but once you hit that plateau, you have no option but to go to extremes. Two sessions per day on top of workouts? You want bodybuilding to add something positive to your life, not consume your life. Furthermore, if you go to these extremes, the after-effects once the contest is over could be dangerous, and this is something you want to avoid as much as possible. So you want to get the most out of the least when it comes to cardio—add it only when needed. I would not recommend you start with more than three sessions a week at 30 min each unless you are completely out of shape.
Keep your cardio at an easy-to-maintain pace. The rule of thumb is that you should be able to maintain a conversation but still build up a sweat. You are a bodybuilder, not a runner; save the high intensity stuff for your workouts and keep cardio at a comfortable level. Now I know some individuals like HITT, but for the most part, once you are a month or so into contest prep, you will more than likely end up burning off muscle with this approach. If you want to do it for the first few weeks, that’s good, just be cautious. The time of day at which you do your cardio depends on your lifestyle and other factors. Forget this idea that “first thing in the morning on empty stomach” is absolutely necessary. That may be the absolute best-case scenario, but if you don’t have a good bike or treadmill at home, and you need to drive to the gym or you do your cardio after training, it’ll be fine. Don’t sweat the small details, just maintain consistency with your diet and training program.
First of all, I want to point out that if you didn’t put in the hard work and a good plan to get ripped ahead of time, then no amount of water manipulation, fat loading, or carb loading is going to work in the end. I often hear competitors say that they were just holding water—no, you were just not lean enough, period! If you are shredded, then proper loading can help you to look fuller and dryer in order to present the best package possible on stage.
What you do with your water intake depends on how you will be peaking. If you carb load, water manipulation will have to be different than if you fat load. For carb loading, you need to know that carbs require roughly three grams of water for one gram of carbs in order to load into the muscle cell. For simplicity, let’s say you are loading 400 grams of carbs, which would require 1200 grams of water to load into the muscle. To help with drying out, instead of taking in 1200 g of water, you take in 700 g of water. The body will take the rest of the water needed from its subcutaneous stores. Unless a client needs to make weight, we would typically start loading on Wednesday (Saturday being the contest day) and taper on Thursday; that way, we have some wiggle room for adjustments come Friday and Saturday, depending on how the client is looking. Therefore, you should decrease water as you decrease carb intake, but you should never completely cut water if you are just carb loading. Also, when you carb load you should use carb sources such as potatoes, rice, oatmeal, and rice cakes and not simple sugars. All those will do is cause bloating and water retention.
Another method, and one I use more often, is fat loading. Carb loading can work and work well for an individual with a higher metabolism, but for those more sensitive to carbs, it may be much harder to peak and keep water under control. Instead, fat loading can be done by increasing calories on Wednesday and Thursday (using good fats such as natural peanut butter, whole eggs, olive oil, and red meat) with minimal carbs at a couple of meals as well as keeping water intake low on the day of the show.
Alternatively, this can also be accomplished by taking in simple sugars along with very high fat foods using the correct timing. I learned this method when working with Scott Abel. You must cut out water completely for this approach to work, usually around 12 hours or so before the contest, in order to get rid of the little interstitial water you may have and to make room for fat loading. But first, before you cut your water, you need to take in as much water as you can starting on Tuesday and leading up to Friday. This will send the message to your body to turn off ADH (anti-diuretic hormone), which will ensure that you will continue to lose water even after you stop taking in fluids. Tapering off your fluid intake with this method is a huge mistake because that is what turns on ADH; as less water comes into your body, it responds by trying to hold and store its own water. The result is unwanted water retention. A good rule is that if you are on point conditioning-wise, you shouldn’t need to dehydrate for more than about 20 hours max. You should use foods such as prime rib, fries, cheesecake, nuts, pancakes, and even candy bars along with regular diet foods. If you are plenty dehydrated, after prejudging is over, then a diet soda or two will help fill out the muscles. Just make sure you have them between meals and not WITH your meals, and only have them if you look like you are getting flat. Remember, timing is everything.
Now if you are a novice and you are ripped and ready to go but are unsure about the peaking methods, don’t change a thing…if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it!. Don’t take a chance (as so many bodybuilders do at the last minute) if you truly don’t know what you are doing. To take months to prepare for a contest and then risk it all by trying methods you have no experience with is just not worth it. Fat loading and carb loading both work and work well, but they are not foolproof. This is where expert advice comes into play.
So, to sum it all up, here are the take-home points:
• Determine your timeline (err on the side of longer).
• Select your diet approach.
• Listen to your body and be objective (which is harder than you may think).
• Add in cardio only when needed.
• Be ready at least 1- 2 weeks prior to the contest.
• Don’t use ANY peaking method if you don’t know what you are doing.
• Don’t go to extremes. No contest is worth screwing up your body.
• Work hard and be consistent!
The best advice I can give is to hire a coach to guide you on this journey. It takes all the stress out of the process, and you will also learn things along the way. No two contest preps are ever the same, and prep even shifts from contest to contest as your body changes. A good coach will assess how your body works and will know when to make changes based on your feedback. Good luck and get yourself up on that stage!