After months of rigorous preparation, numerous athletes commit to stepping onto the stage yearly. Backstage at bodybuilding shows, I often overhear similar conversations among competitors. One thing remains clear: almost everyone invests tremendous effort to get on stage. While most have well-thought-out plans, very few see their plans materialise into the desired results.
This article will discuss a few common mistakes that can easily be avoided. Although there is no such thing as perfect prep, there are specific errors that athletes frequently make, and we’ll explore how to steer clear of them.
Mistake #1: Starting the Diet Too Heavy
This seems to be something more common in first-time or young competitors. If you have never competed or been in elite contest shape, it can be tough to understand how much fat you might carry. 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 for over 200 pounds. As to how this mistake will negatively affect your prep, the main problem is that this is an initial blunder that generally can’t be undone. Starting too heavy usually means you must spend more time dieting hard. This will take your metabolic rate through rough patches, hurting 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 4 kilos to lose but have already lost 10, it will not 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 kilos. 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. Being more conscious about how heavy you let yourself get in the offseason will make your dieting phase much more fun and not something out of the 15th round in a Rocky movie.
Mistake #2: Not Allowing Enough Time
As much as I’d like to believe that the conventional 12-week diet is a thing of the past, I consistently find that it remains prevalent. It’s important to note that this timeline is more suitable for enhanced athletes whose diet duration aligns with the length of their steroid cycles. Natural athletes prefer a longer and less aggressive diet to preserve muscle mass effectively. While a shorter 10-14 week diet may seem like it could help maintain muscle mass, it yields the opposite results.
With a more prolonged diet, you don’t need to create a significant caloric deficit to achieve rapid weight loss, especially towards the end. This approach creates a less catabolic environment and allows for higher calorie intake, resulting in improved performance in the gym. Another advantage of a more prolonged diet is its flexibility.
Contest dieting can be unpredictable, with potential setbacks and plateaus. A few stalled weeks won’t significantly impact a more extended preparation as they would a shorter one. Additionally, life can throw unexpected curveballs, so having a safety net in case you are forced off your diet is beneficial. Depending on various factors, a contest diet should ideally start 20-26 weeks before the show. Trust me; it’s not as daunting as it sounds.
Mistake #3: Mistakes in Weight Training
Maintaining optimal performance in the gym during your entire competition preparation is crucial for preserving your hard-earned muscle. However, many bodybuilders misunderstand what constitutes good performance and what is ideal for maintaining lean body mass while dieting. Let’s address some common mistakes in weight training adjustments during prep.
One mistake to avoid is turning weight training into a fat-burning session. Some athletes mistakenly believe they should focus on burning fat while lifting weights. However, this is not the time to prioritize fat burning. Instead, you should tap into your fat stores during other parts of the day and rely on the nutrients you consumed before your workout. Trying to burn more calories by adding sets, and reps, and reducing rest times is not advisable. This approach affects your hormones negatively and causes your body to adapt in ways that are not conducive to muscle preservation. This type of training is better suited for developing smaller, more efficient (aerobic) muscles, which is not the goal when you’re in a calorie deficit.
Another mistake is increasing your workload simply because you can’t lift as heavy or as often as you did during the offseason. Adding excessive volume compared to your off-season training is a recipe for disaster. Instead, most athletes would benefit from a shorter and more condensed version of their offseason training protocols. The heavier loads, typically with lower rep compounds, contribute the most to muscle development. Abandoning these heavy lifts favouring “intense” circuit-style training is senseless. While you may not be able to perform as many sets with your top-end weights, focusing on one challenging set that generates the same tension as your off-season training can go a long way in preserving muscle mass. Rather than increasing volume and decreasing weights, I recommend lowering workload while maintaining intensity.
In many cases, incorporating slight deloads, similar to those done during the offseason, can be beneficial, especially if your performance suffers. Implementing some form of periodization throughout your dieting phase is ideal. Essentially, your training should not be drastically different from your off-season routine, but keep in mind that you are in a calorie deficit so recovery might be slower.
In summary, avoiding these mistakes is essential as ensuring that your weight training adjustments during prep align with your goals of preserving muscle mass. Focus on maintaining strength, prioritize heavy lifts, and make necessary adjustments while considering the impact of a calorie deficit on recovery.
Mistake #4: Using A Generic Dieting Plan
It’s important to understand that what works for one person may not work for another when following advice from successful bodybuilders or popular diets. Every individual has unique metabolic variations, making customising approaches for optimal results essential. Simply relying on trendy recommendations or specific percentages is insufficient. Achieving extreme results requires meticulous attention to detail and finding what works best for you.
For instance, I had a 49kg female competitor who, despite being as lean as some of the leanest male competitors, needed a minimum of 250 grams of carbs per day to prevent further weight loss. On the other hand, a male competitor had to lower his dietary fat percentage to below 12% to reach his desired condition. Additionally, I’ve witnessed a male physique competitor with shredded glutes who consistently consumed over 300 grams of carbs daily. These examples highlight the need to understand individual requirements and responses.
Sometimes, achieving the final stage-ready condition does not solely involve cutting calories further. Surprisingly, I’ve had a competitor whose last adjustment involved increasing their calorie intake. This change resulted in noticeable improvements within ten days, including carved hamstrings and striated glutes. It’s essential to recognise that restrictive diets, such as eliminating entire food groups or relying on a limited selection of foods, miss the mark. Individual metabolic rates and specific challenges faced during dieting cannot be adequately addressed by a one-size-fits-all template, especially when aiming for elite conditioning levels. Similarly, generic peaking strategies often overlook crucial physiological considerations and fail to incorporate months of gathered data.
If you pay close attention during your diet, you’ll discover when you look your best, which foods enhance your appearance, and how to effectively implement these findings into your final weeks’ plan. Following generic diets will only result in a generic look that won’t capture the judges’ attention.
Mistake #5: No Exit Plan
The following are not mere anecdotes but real-life situations. There are competitors who, within two weeks, return to their off-season body fat levels, and some individuals even gain 12 kilos in just over a week. Many competitors suffer from semi-starvation neurosis, developing unhealthy relationships with food that persist for weeks or even longer.
The most common misconception is that immediately after a diet is the ideal time for growth. It is believed that your body becomes a sponge, ready to absorb all the excess calories it has been deprived of during the preparation phase. While there is some truth to this, it is not in the conventional sense.
You are primed for growth, primarily in adipose (fat) tissue. Prolonged dieting lowers your metabolic rate, and although this can be corrected, it takes a few weeks to return to normal. Unfortunately, an eager and food-craving competitor can do significant damage within that short timeframe. Many competitors mistakenly equate hunger with metabolic rate, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Fat loss would be more effortless towards the end of the diet if that were the case, which is not the reality. Early on, if you’re not careful, you can lose weight too rapidly. As time goes on, shedding those final pounds to achieve a shredded physique requires more intensive dieting and cardio protocols. In reality, your post-show plan should involve a gradual increase in calories. The speed and amount of this increase will vary from person to person, but it’s crucial to have an exit plan that extends beyond deciding which restaurants to indulge
My advice is to have a well-defined plan and commit to it. Just as you carefully planned your contest prep, the initial steps of your offseason should be closely monitored and thoughtfully executed. This approach ensures that you won’t make the initial mistake I mentioned, which is starting your diet at a weight that is too heavy.
Avoiding these mistakes is vital as ensuring that your weight training adjustments during prep align with your goals of preserving muscle mass. Focus on maintaining strength, prioritise heavy lifts, and make necessary adjustments while considering the impact of a calorie deficit on recovery.