Ask any competitive bodybuilder or fitness competitor what their goal is when stepping on stage? 9 times out of 10 the same response will follow “I want to be better than my previous show".
Bigger, fuller, leaner, more shredded… they want all of it and they want it now!
This competitive mindset and desire for self-improvement can potentially spiral out of control…. So begins the vicious cycle of competing every year, or worse, every season within a year in search of self gratification and short-lived success.
The truth is most competitors are not prepared to invest the time, nor have the patience required to make substantial changes to their physique. Most make no significant improvements from show to show, continue to look the same year after year, break-ties with other aspects of life and eventually become frustrated with their progress and quit the sport altogether.
It is time to clear the air, address the pitfalls of competing too frequently and provide some better strategies that promote sustainability in bodybuilding and improving one’s physique for the long run.
Levels of Development
The biggest factor determining the rate at which a competitor can make substantial changes in muscle size and density from show to show is their current level of development. Simply put are they: a beginner, an intermediate or an advanced competitor. It is a simple concept that highlights that the training strategies that work for beginners are simply not applicable for more seasoned competitors, especially as they approach their genetic potential.
It is safe to assume that a competitor in the beginner phase of their training can expect to see the most dramatic increases in muscle size and strength over any period of time. As a general rule of thumb a beginner can be classified as anyone with less than 2 years of consistent training under their belt. It is not unreasonable for a beginner to ‘test’ the waters as a teenager or junior competitor, transition into a relatively short off-season of 6-12 months and make substantial changes to their physique before trying their hand at another competitive season.
During the intermediate phase of training, progress will slow down significantly compared to ‘newbie gains’ and is measured across months and years as opposed to weeks. Competitors that fall into the intermediate category need to recognise the importance of extended off-seasons/growth stages that allow them to make visible improvements. Competing every year as an intermediate competitor simply does not allow enough time to recover from a contest and then make significant improvements in just 4-6 months before beginning a diet for the following year’s competitive season.
For the advanced competitor the formula for progress is the same, improving in the weight room, precise nutrition and high motivation… the simple truth is substantial gains at this elite level are rare or extremely slow at best. This potentially means stepping away from the competitive stage and investing 3,4, or even 5 years into an off-season to produce even the smallest improvements. If we take a note from Doug Miller, one of the most competitive and humble natural bodybuilders on the planet it is hard to argue the importance of patience and consistency.
"During the 5 years away from the stage I was able to train uninterrupted the entire time. What I mean by this is I didn’t have to stop the growth phase to diet down for a show. I think this is where a lot of competitors go wrong; they compete every year and never give themselves real time to grow. Natural bodybuilding is a marathon not a sprint and a lot of people lose sight of this. You can hit your peak well into your 40’s so why rush to get on stage? "
Read the complete Doug Miller Interview Here
Typically the final weeks of dieting for a show mean low calories, hours of cardio, depressed metabolic rate and undesirable physiological adaptations all of which are discussed in detail in our Reverse Dieting article. If we look at a single competition season in isolation, it is normal for an individual’s metabolism to slow due to metabolic adaptation.
An issue that is particularly prevalent with both female competitors or those who do not reach their desired level of conditioning is their need to get back on stage quickly to outdo their previous performance without successfully recovering their metabolic rate. It is typical to see competitors put too much emphasis on indulging post-contest and gaining bodyfat quickly without successfully repairing their metabolism.
Immediately these competitors become dissatisfied with their ‘fluffy’ physique and jump straight back on the dieting train for the next season of shows. The problem is they are now starting at a high bodyfat percentage, suppressed metabolism, restricted calories and often limited time-frame. They need to resort to drastically low levels of calories and hours of cardio to see any form of weight loss because their metabolism has not fully recovered from the damage of previous pre-contest diets.
After a few cycles of starting a contest-prep diet with a lowered metabolic rate and plenty of bodyfat to lose from their previous post contest blowout, most competitors will reach a point where their body essential puts on the emergency breaks. Regardless of how few calories they consume and how much cardio they do, they simply can not lose bodyfat.
This phenomena has been termed ‘metabolic damage’ and is essentially an extreme case of metabolic disturbances that usually only presents itself after numerous cycles of the less calories, more exercise approach to dieting. Once a competitor has reached this point there is little choice but to focus solely on recovering the metabolism as slowly as possible through the process of reverse dieting.
Check out the complete Reverse Dieting Article Here
Bodybuilding and fitness competitions require an unshakeable mind set and level of commitment from an individual if they wish to be successful. Regardless of how ‘seasoned’ an athlete is, all contest preps require a high level of precision in regards to training, nutrition, supplementation, cardio and stage preparation that is unavoidable and simply takes a lot of time and energy.
Never missing a workout, counting every calorie and spending hours doing cardio is a huge commitment in itself that undoubtedly detracts from experiences and time spent on other aspects of life such as family, friends, work or hobbies. Regardless if the dieting process is 12, 20 or 30 weeks there will always be a level of unbalance during a contest preparation and important sacrifices will need to be made at some point.
Not unlike performance based athletes, it is important for physique competitors and bodybuilders to ‘map’ out their competitive career, rather than chasing trophies and competing in every show and every federation known to man. Spending periods of time away from competition can help restore a sense of balance and provide more time to direct energy and focus towards other aspects of life without the stress of competition.
Throughout a contest-prep there is a huge emphasis (for good reason) placed on the dieting aspect of competing in order to obtain extremely low levels of bodyfat and the conditioning required for the stage. There is no doubt that calorie restriction, hunger, limited food choices and the precision required of counting calories and macronutrients becomes tiresome and can potentially lead to emotional eating and food disorders.
Regardless of the approach, be it ‘clean’ eating, IIFYM, intermittent fasting or a host of others, the one consistent theme is that they all require the counting of calories and macronutrients. Although there are pros and cons for each approach that we will not touch on specifically in this article, the most critical culprit for creating eating disorders and emotional associations with food is the length of time spent in a diet and the severity of calorie restriction.
For competitors that spend 5 months or more preparing for a show and potentially another 3-5 months reverse dieting, they are looking at 8-10 months of precise calorie counting every single day. Frequent competing will only exacerbate the issue, with competitors cycling between strict contest-dieting and reverse dieting without allowing themselves any substantial time in an ‘off-season’ where they can loosen the reigns on both food selection and quantity.
There will eventually be a point where a competitor either throws any nutritional strategy out the window and engages in binge eating, or becomes so concerned with staying lean or meticulously tracking their calories that this too becomes a disorder. We are not advocating completely throwing out counting daily calories or consuming quality nutrient dense foods, but allowing some flexibility in terms of food choice and not getting hung up measuring every gram of food will help a competitor transition into a more sustainable and less stressful nutritional strategy.
A balanced approach to off-season dieting would entail consuming 70%- 80% nutrient dense food sources whilst allowing 20%-30% of the diet to comprise less restrictive food choices. When it comes to counting calories a sound strategy is to use macronutrient ranges as opposed to precise figures. A pre-contest/reverse diet will typically stipulate precise macronutrient amounts, for example: Protein 200g, Carbs 180g, Fats 60g, whereas macronutrient ranges can be used to similar effect during the off-season, for example: Protein 200g (+/- 20g), Carbs (+/- 20g), Fats 60g (+/- 10g). The later approach still allows for desirable macronutrient ratios whilst requiring less precision and stress of measuring everything down to the gram.
It’s unlikely that budgeting for a competition is high on the priority list of any competitor, but the truth is competitive bodybuilding is expensive and can cause financial burden if not properly planned for. Unlike most sports/hobbies that generally require ‘once-only’ investments be it membership, equipment or other, competitive bodybuilding and physique shows require both ‘once-only’ investments and ongoing costs due to the required lifestyle changes associated with competing.
Competing for any amateur sport club will certainly require purchases of specific footwear and equipment, club membership, club clothing and some travel costs, but this is nothing in comparison to the depth of costs associated with bodybuilding competitions even at the amateur level.
The food sources and cuts of meat typically consumed are often more expensive, a commercial gym membership is always a requirement as well as personalized training/coaching… add to this the cost of protein powder, amino acids, pre-workouts and fat loss supplements, plus the substantial costs per contest including entry fees, posing suits and trunks, travel expenses, tanning and makeup and at the end of the day most competitors may not even obtain a trophy for their dedication.
As an example a very modest breakdown over a 6 month contest-prep for a female bikini/fitness competitor would entail:
- Gym Membership 6 Months ($250)
- Supplements ($1,000)
- Posing Classes ($200)
- Contest Registration ($150)
- Contest Suit/ Shoes ($500)
- Contest Tan/ Hair/ Makeup ($500)
As can be seen, preparing for a single contest is a considerable financial investment for most and it is rarely the case that a competitor will choose to compete in only one contest after dedicating so many months to training, nutrition and stage preparation. It’s appropriate for competitors to consider these costs in their personal and family budgeting, discuss them with their partner and be certain the costs will not cause undue stress and financial burden on other areas of their life.
It is important that a competitor takes an objective approach to assessing their readiness to compete in order to set themselves up for success as a competitor, ensure they are healthy, and to alleviate as much stress as possible during a contest-prep.
In making the decision to step on stage, these 5 points should all be carefully considered:
- Training experience and level of development should dictate the length of an off-season and next scheduled competition.
- Contest diets should be avoided in close succession, in order to avoid creating a severely lowered metabolic capacity.
- Stepping away as a competitor allows time and energy to be focused elsewhere, be it with work, family or social connections.
- Time should be spent away from restrictive diets and precise calorie counting to reduce the risks of eating disorders.
- The cost of competing should not interfere with an individual’s financial responsibilities to themselves, partners or dependants.