Every year dozens of athletes commit to stepping on stage and do so after months of preparation. I hear similar conversations every time backstage at bodybuilding shows. As they exchange stories one thing is for sure, most everyone put forth a great amount of effort to get on stage. Most of them had a well thought-through plan, but very few had things go according to that plan. Everyone starts out with the highest of hopes for their prep, but hardly ever does it manifest into the results they want.
Avoiding The Errors
There seem to be a few trendy blunders, which we will discuss in this article. While there is no such thing as a flawless prep, there are a select few errors which can be easily avoided.
Starting The Diet Too Heavy
This seems to be something more common in first time competitors, or young competitors. If you have never competed before or have never been in elite contest shape, it can be very hard for you to understand how much fat you might be carrying. It is common for many to grossly overestimate their shredded, on stage weight by as much as 12-17 pounds. While young competitors may find the suggestion that they might need to compete in a lighter weight class almost insulting, the truth is that I have only seen one natural amateur competitor under 6’ tall who actually could compete over 200 pounds. As to how this mistake will negatively affect your prep, well the main problem is that this is an initial blunder that normally can’t be undone.
Starting too heavy usually means you will need to spend more time dieting hard. This will take your metabolic rate through some rough patches which can hurt your potential to come in ultra lean.
It is much easier to get those last 5 pounds off with a metabolism that has only experienced a caloric deficit for 6-12 weeks, versus one that has been at it for 20 plus and has gone through more “hard dieting.” If you have 10 pounds to lose but have already lost 30 pounds, it is not going to be a pleasant ordeal and in many cases the attempt will not be successful. By starting leaner, the diet doesn’t have to be as aggressive and it is much easier to lose those final pounds. You will spend more time eating up into your show, rather than crawling to the finish line and putting all your hard earned muscle at risk.
By being a bit more conscious about how heavy you let yourself get in the offseason, you will in turn make your dieting phase that much more fun and not something out of the 15th round in a Rocky movie.
Not Allowing Enough Time To Diet
As much as I would like to think that the common 12 week diet is an extinct dinosaur, I find time and time again that T-Rex still lives! First of all, if you are a natural athlete you should know that the common 12 week prep is something that is inherited from our enhanced brethren. Since anabolic steroids can only be used for set periods of time, it is common for the length of a diet to concur with the length of a steroid cycle. For natural athletes, the longer, less aggressive diet is more ideal because sparing muscle is a big concern. You may think a shorter, 10-14 week diet would help preserve more mass, but in fact the exact opposite is true.
With a longer diet you don’t need a large deficit to lose weight quickly (especially towards the end) and this allows for a less catabolic environment and higher calories that provide greater performance in the gym. Another benefit of a longer diet is that it is more flexible.
Contest dieting can be unpredictable, you might have your pace mapped out, but there can and almost surely will be curveballs along the way. A few stalled weeks won’t affect a longer prep the way it will affect a shorter prep. Lastly, life is even more unpredictable, things come up. It is nice to have a safety net when the unexpected happens and forces you off your diet. In most cases, depending on many variables, a contest diet should start 20-26 weeks out. Trust me, it is not as bad as it sounds. On the contrary, ask anyone who has successfully (and by that I mean gotten very lean) completed a 20 week plus journey and they will tell you that the thought of a 12 week diet makes them shudder.
Nightmares of ending up soft and under-muscled after a last minute scamper come to mind.
Making The Wrong Adjustments To Weight Training
Keeping performance up in the gym throughout your whole prep will ensure that you step on stage with all your hard earned muscle. However, what performance is and what is optimal for preserving lean body mass while dieting is still very misunderstood by the average bodybuilder. The first mistake I will touch upon is turning weight training time into fat burning time. This is where the athlete actually makes an effort to chew through fat while in the weight room. Let’s get this straight, if there is one time you don’t want to be burning fat, it is while weight training. You should be tapping into fat stores during other times of the day and relying on what you ate while lifting. Adding sets, reps, and lowering rest times in an effort to eat up more calories is not a good idea. Not only is it going to sway you in the wrong direction hormonally, but it will make your body adapt to accommodate this training and these kinds of adaptations are not conducive to preserving muscle. On the contrary, smaller, more efficient (aerobically) muscles are better suited for this kind of training. And trust me, while on a deficit your body won’t fight the idea of having smaller muscles.
Lastly, increasing workload simply because you can’t lift as heavy, or lift as heavy as often, is a bogus methodology.
The addition of volume that surpasses your offseason efforts is a recipe for disaster. In fact, most athletes would benefit from a shorter, abbreviated version of their offseason proven protocols. It is the loads that create the highest tension (usually lower rep compounds) that we can thank for the vast majority of our development, and abandoning them in favor of “intense” circuit-type training is senseless. You might not be able to hit your top end weights with as many sets, but one top end set where you reiterate the same amount of tension used in the offseason goes a long way in preserving your hard earned muscle. Keeping strength can be hard and it’s an ongoing battle, but it can be done. It is not strange to hear from top natural pros that they have matched, or even broken personal records in the gym during the last home stretch of their diets. Lowering work load for the sake of keeping intensity up is something I recommend in place of increasing volume and lowering weights.
In most cases, I like my athletes to incorporate slight deloads just as they would in an offseason, especially if performance is suffering. Doing this while adhering to some form of periodization the whole way is ideal when dieting. So in a nutshell, things should not be too different from your offseason training, just keep in mind that you are under eating so recovery will be slower.
Using A Template or Generic Dieting Plan
Very simply here, what works for one person doesn’t always work for another; be it following that guy in your gym’s advice because he has had some success on the bodybuilding stage, or that new popular diet going around online. There is enough variation in individuals’ metabolisms to where the same or similar approach that got one competitor a title just won’t cut it in order to achieve the same for another. We all have different caloric needs, and will respond differently to certain macronutrient combinations that go far beyond what any new trendy percentage might recommend. Expecting very extreme results (not that the methods have to be extreme) from your body will require you to split some hairs to find out what is optimal for you. Case in point: I had a 110 pound female competitor, who was as lean as some of the leanest male competitors you will ever see, on a minimum of 250 grams of carbs a day, just so she would not loose anymore weight! Or another example of a male competitor whose dietary fat percentage had to dropped to below 12% in order to get him ready. More recently, I saw a middle weight competitor who never saw a day with less than 300 grams of carbs and he had shredded glutes.
Sometimes the key to getting that last bit of fat off is not simply cutting calories further.
Last year I had a competitor whose final adjustment was actually a bump in calories and low and behold 10 days later he reported back with a pair of carved hamstrings and striated glutes. Even worse are diets where food groups are removed, such as making fish your only protein source after a certain amount of weeks. Cutting dairy, starches, or only eating from a very small pool of foods is totally missing the point. There is no template out there that can roll with variations to our individual metabolic rates and the issues that may present themselves while dieting. This is especially true when discussing what it takes to achieve elite levels of conditioning. In the same vein there are cookie cutter peaking strategies. For the most part, these have human physiology all backwards and most importantly don’t take into account all the data that has been gathered over months of dieting.
If you pay attention during your diet, you will find out when you look your best, what foods help you look your best, and how to correctly implement this into your final weeks’ plan. Generic diets will simply leave you looking generic and not given a second look by the judges.
Cutting Water, Dropping Sodium, and Potassium Loading
Let me start by stating the obvious, aside from these tactics being sure ways to look your worst the day of the show, they are very dangerous! I find it horrible that competitors are still doing this to themselves. The truth is that we cannot control fluid balance and trying to do so is as futile as moving an empty soda can with a telekinetic squint of an eye, you just can’t. When you drop sodium, you drop blood pressure and subsequently there is less overall blood volume. Water that should be in your vascular system will instead be held subcutaneously thanks to a little hormone called Aldosterone. Adolsterone rears its ugly head when potassium and sodium levels are not balanced and makes sure sodium is not being excreted, but rather recycled.
So you didn’t change blood sodium levels. Instead you lowered blood pressure enough so that water is not in your vascular system but rather hanging around under your skin.
Fluid balance is controlled to the minute and your body will find equilibrium so quick that you won’t even get a chance to visibly see any changes. Well, except for the fact that you are now watery, and to add insult to injury you are also flat! Because you cut water there is simply less water to go around everywhere, including your muscles which are 70% water. Again, there is a fluid balance that you cannot control and it’s more complicated and delicate than just potassium and sodium. Add that to the massive amount of carbs that bodybuilders are throwing in the day of a show and you have a nasty mess of a spillover on your hands. After seeing stage pictures, many competitors in the back of their minds recall a random day three weeks ago at the gym (because they did nothing extreme then) where they looked better than the day of the show. Not only are these kinds of manipulations detrimental to your appearance, they are just not healthy. Sadly it is common for competitors to pass out from the lack of water and become unable to compete when these manipulations are implemented. A few years ago, a now retired IFBB pro had to be hospitalized for this very reason; his potassium levels were so high that he went into heart arrhythmia. Yes, potassium at extreme levels can be very dangerous or even lethal. The final week should be more about fine tuning your appearance, working out the details from weeks previous and you should feel your best. On the days of all my shows, I feel great. I am hydrated and moderately carbed–up, with potassium and sodium at the same levels they have been during my whole prep.
I can run a 5k I feel so good and run another one for the guy sitting there cotton mouthed wondering why these last minute “voodoo” tricks have not worked yet again. Leave the goat blood, and virgin chickens at home, just bring your water.
No Exit Plan
What I am about to tell you are not tall tales, but true life occurrences. There are competitors that in two weeks time are back to offseason body fat levels and even individuals that have gained 30 pounds in just over a week’s time. Some competitors find themselves suffering from semi-starvation neurosis, and develop odd relationships with foods for weeks or even much longer.
The most common misconception is that right after dieting is a prime time for growth, it is said that you are a sponge ready to absorb all the excess calories that your body has been deprived of over the course of prep. Well, this is partially true, but not in the traditional sense.
You are primed for growth, but mostly in adipose (fat) tissue. Your metabolic rate takes a hit when dieting for prolonged periods of time and while this trauma is very correctable, it takes a few weeks to get back to normal. Sadly, in a few weeks time a ravenous (both for gains and food) competitor can do plenty of damage. Some competitors make the mistake of correlating hunger with metabolic rate, which is the furthest thing from the case. If this were so, fat loss would be easier towards the tail end of the diet, which is not the case. Early on you can lose weight too quickly if you are not careful and as time goes on those final pounds that get you shredded require some time with more intensive dieting and cardio protocols. In reality, your plan post show should consist of a gradual increase of calories, the speed and amount will vary from person to person, but you should have an exit plan that goes further than which restaurants you want to crash. In 2008 after my 8 month contest season, through strategic increases in calories (and specific macronutrients) I was eating 1,500 calories more, but only gained 2-3 pounds and this was 12 weeks after my show. While I don’t expect most other competitors to be this diligent, it’s proof that you can set yourself up for a more effective, less metabolic trauma-inducing prep, and not experience the “empty nest” syndrome that comes with a prep that’s just ended. It’s always easier to deal with “post contest blues” when you are only 10 pounds over contest weight as opposed to a bloated mess. Have a plan, and stick to it. It’s no different than when you started your contest season. The first steps towards your offseason should also be closely moderated and carefully planned. This will guarantee that you will not make the first mistake I mention, which is starting your diet too heavy.
Author: Alberto Nunez