The final week when preparing for a Bodybuilding or Bikini Competition is critical to one’s success on stage. Sure, you spend weeks or even months adhering to a strict diet and training regime, with hours on hours spent in the gym, all whilst avoiding giving into the temptation of all the foods you begin to crave. During this time, you will make the majority of your physical changes when it comes to cutting bodyu fat, however what you do during your final week will have a huge influence on the final package you will bring.
If you search the internet or speak with any experienced competitor or coach, you’ll be sure to hear a myriad of protocols that are recommended to be implemented during this final stage of competition preparation, which involve manipulating various elements in order to look one’s best. These include Water, Sodium and Carbohydrate intake, as well as one’s training regime, and each individual will have a different opinion on how to and whether or not to manipulate each. It is important to ensure you or your coach are making the most informed decision as to how to alter such in the lead up to stage. To assist, we’ve put together an abundance of information on each element to help you make the best decision and look your best come show day!
Ask any bodybuilder or bikini athlete how they feel about carbing up prior to showtime, and you’ll more than likely see a huge smile appear on their face. Carbohydrate loading or ‘carbing up’ prior to stepping on stage serves an important role for an athlete attempting to look their best. To appear large, lean, muscular and full, we need carbohydrates in the form of Glycogen to fill out our muscles. The fuller our muscles are, the more they push against the surface of the skin, also allowing us to appear leaner and more defined. Without adequate carbohydrates to fill our muscle tissues, we run the risk of looking flat or ‘fluffy’ on stage. Think of a car tyre that’s flat; it appears droopy and saggy. As soon as that tyre has been filled with air, it is hard and tight, just like the physique you’ll want to bring to the stage. Therefore, you’ll want to intake a sufficient amount of carbohydrates in order to fill out your muscles and allow you to appear lean and hard!
In order to determine just how many carbohydrates you should incorporate in the lead up to stage, there are a number of factors to consider. Many will over simplify this question, relying solely on the amount of muscle mass one has, and the average amount of carbohydrate that can be stored in muscle tissue. A common calculation that will be used to determine how many carbohydrates you need is 8-10g per kilogram of bodyweight. However, this can often overlook some key influences such as your metabolic rate, your level of insulin sensitivity, the amount of carbohydrates you have been eating prior to peak week and how well you as an individual respond to carbs. If you aren’t careful in how you come to decide just how many carbohydrates to intake prior to stage, you will run the risk of ‘spilling over’. This describes the situation whereby one over consumes carbohydrates, which exceeds the amount muscles are able to store. The excess will then pose issues as it will be converted and stored as body fat. This will also cause one to hold excess body water on stage, leaving them looking far less defined then desired. The best way to come to learn just how much carbohydrate you will require to fill out yet not overspill, is to learn your body and understand your metabolism!
Various methods exist as to how one may approach carbing up; you can spend a few days prior gradually increasing your carbohydrate intake or you can intake a high proportion of carbohydrates closer to stepping on stage. There are pros and cons for each, and we will explore both options to reveal which method is optimal for you. However, it is first important to discuss the Carbohydrate Depleting phase, which can be executed regardless of which method you select for your carb-up. A depletion phase typically involves quite drastically reducing your carbohydrate intake for anywhere between 1 – 5 days. While the amount of carbohydrates will vary from athlete to athlete, typically around 20g – 100g will be consumed per day, deriving from fibrous sources. The aim of this is to utilise all of your existing Glycogen stores, so when you commence your carb-up, your body will actually hold more carbohydrates than it otherwise would if you were to consume that amount of carbohydrates without initially depleting. This is known as Glycogen Supercompensation, whereby their body attempts to correct the absence of nutrients by increasing the amount that can be stored within muscle tissue. This will allow a muscle to appear fuller, which means your skin will be stretched over the muscle and your physique will appear both bigger and leaner.
Allocating three days to commence your ‘carb up’ is a safe method and is predominantly advised for beginners who may not understand how their bodies respond clearly. This method can be performed via a front or a back load, which describes when you intake carbohydrates during the week. For a Front Load, an athlete will spend the first few days of the week consuming the majority of their carbohydrates, and then slowly taper down the amount as the show gets closer in order to maintain the ideal fullness they have achieved. This approach has its benefits as if you consume too many carbohydrates (spilling over), you still have time before your show correct this. This isn’t the same if you choose to Back Load, whereby you spend the final days leading up to the show gradually carbing up. You still have some time to monitor how your carbohydrate intake affects your physique, however you will not have to time to mitigate damage caused from spilling over prior to show day.
If you choose either one of these methods, it is recommended to take quite a gentle approach in how you determine how many carbohydrates to consume. If you’ve spent weeks on less than 100g of carbs per day, be responsible and elect to consume approximately three times that amount per day. This will avoid spilling over, especially as your body may not work as efficiently in how it processes carbs after spending time dieting. It is best to underestimate at first, and monitor how your body responds each day. If indeed you are still flat, you still have time to increase your carbohydrate intake further to truly fill out.
A far more rigorous approach which has become quite popular thanks to Cliff Wilson is the Rapid Backload Peaking Method, which describes intaking the required amount of carbohydrates in the day or day and a half prior to the show. This can translate into athletes consuming anywhere between 800 – 1600g of carbohydrates during this time! This will only work if the athlete has performed their depletion stage correctly. This method sees some athletes wake up in the early hours of their show day to ensure they have enough opportunity to intake the required amount of carbohydrates. This approach seems like there is more risk involved, as it becomes easier to spill over, and there is no time available prior to stage to remedy this if it does. It truly requires you to have a great understanding of your body, and to have knowledge surrounding just how many carbohydrates you can tolerate and how your metabolism works. So why use this method when the risk factor is far greater? Cliff has found that this method has had his athletes look better than when using any other method. He believes the reason is during the three-day carb-load, the body will adapt and recognise that it now has a steady influx of carbohydrates continually entering the body. This takes away from the idea of supercompensation, which will occur when the body feels it needs to hold onto excess energy in the event it won’t receive some in the future and the body doesn’t have time to adapt.
Another important question competitors will ask is what type or sources or type of carbohydrates are best for include for their carb up? Backstage at a bodybuilding contest, you’ll see a diverse range of foods being consumed; Rice Cakes, Honey, Chocolate, Cookies, Gatorade; the list goes on. Different individuals have varying beliefs as to which foods are best to use, and the truth is, a carb is not a carb when it comes to attempting to fill out before stage. Glycogen Resynthesis describes the rate at which you are able to store glucose in muscle tissues. The type of carbohydrate you consume, either low GI (slow digesting) or high GI (fast digesting), will impact your glycogen resynthesis levels. Studies have revealed that after successfully completing a carbohydrate depletion phase, high GI sources of carbohydrates (such as sugars) promote higher levels of glycogen resynthesis during the first 24 hours of a carb-load. Examples of such sources of food include lollies, rice cakes, white potato and white rice. Studies have then revealed that low GI carbohydrates should then be consumed during the second 24 hour phase of a carb up, which includes slow digesting foods including all starches, sweet potatoes, brown rice and some fruits. Carbohydrates which contain a high quantity of fructose such as many fruits and honey are not optimal; fructose refills liver glycogen stores opposed to muscle tissue, which is not the priority at this point in time.
Whichever method you decide to use, it is important to come to learn how you individually tolerate carbohydrates and the best amount the fills out your muscle tissues. Any excess carbohydrate will be stored in the outer tissues, drawing water under the skin and making an athlete look far less lean and defined than they are. Before you start concentrating all your energy discovering what amount of carbohydrate is best for you, your water consumption must be considered, as it is intrinsically related to how successfully you can carb load.
- Commence your carbohydrate load after your final training session. Your insulin sensitivity will be HIGH and the potential rate of glycogen resynthesis will be at its maximum. Studies have revealed that delaying carbohydrate intake for even 2 hours after training can reduce glycogen resynthesis by 47%! It is also recommended to perform training which does not cause muscle tears or trauma, as this has been associated with lower rates of glycogen synthesis. Keep the loads light but intensity high
- As for the other Macronutrients, reduce your protein intake to compensate for the increase in Carbohydrates. Fats should be maintained somewhat, as they assist with helping one appear full, and can even help bring out one’s vascularity. You can eat up to 15-20g of fat with each meal the day of your show
Water is often misunderstood when it comes to it’s incorporation prior to stage. For the majority of Federations and Divisions, achieving a hard, dry looking physique is imperative. In order to achieve this, one must sufficiently excrete much of their subcutaneous body water, which describes the water which sits under your skin. Once this water is reduced and somewhat eliminated, your muscles will appear more visible, with more definition and muscle texture able to be seen. In order to excrete this water, many will reduce their consumption of water either gradually or drastically prior to stepping on stage. Is this the most efficient method to shed excess water and appear leaner, harder and drier?
So here is the dilemma; we need to appear full yet dry on stage. Muscle fullness as discussed requires the sufficient amount of glucose to be stored in our muscle tissue, yet it is not the glucose alone that fills us out. Without adequate water, your carb up won’t be successful. Carbohydrates when ingested draw water to them, wherever they are in the body. In fact, for every gram of carbohydrate stored, it holds 2.7g of water with it! The reason for this is that glycogen can only be stored in a hydrated state; in the absence of water, carbs will preferably be stored as fat! Therefore, carbohydrates stored as glucose within muscle cells will draw in fluid, which accentuates how full and pumped your muscles appear. And if a gram of carb holds almost 3g of water, this means that our water intake will be responsible for three-quarters of our muscle fullness! So, water is actually critical to looking your best on stage. However, we still want to eliminate our subcutaneous water, which describes body fluid that sits under the surface of our skin. This is what will allow athletes to achieve a lean, dry, hard and grainy looking physique! So how do we achieve both?
We see many competitors drastically reduce their water intake in a bid to lose the fluid under their skin, but clearly this has repercussions for our ability to look full. The truth is, fluid levels under the skin are more a result of your carbohydrate intake. Any excess water you consume, will simply be urinated out. Any excess carbohydrates you ingest however, will be ‘spilled out’ into surrounding tissues, whilst also drawing water with them. Hence, it is integral to intake the right amount of carbohydrates, and not fear water consumption!
It is recommended to keep water levels consistent during your preparation for stage. As you will increase the amount of carbohydrate you intake, your water intake will need to increase accordingly to ensure you look as full as possible. It is not recommended to make drastic changes with your water prior to stepping on stage; to suddenly increase your water levels to account for the additional carbs can see your body react unfavourably and hold onto unwanted water, particularly under the skin. If you have conditioned your body to intake high amounts of water, it will be used to eliminating excess. This means that competitors can drink anywhere between 3 – 12 litres until the day of their show! So keep up your water intake and pay more attention to getting the right number of carbs in, and watch yourself fill out whilst staying nice and dry!
A word about Diuretics…
Diuretics are often used by both natural and enhanced athletes, in a bit to appear drier, leaner and harder on stage. While there is much speculation and conflicting arguments surrounding their use, there are forms and strategies that can be used successfully and safely. There is however, a lot of risk with using various types available, with side effects including but not limited to heart and kidney issues, muscle cramping, loss of nerve function and mental blocks! We’ve established that water is crucial to achieve muscular fullness, so if you are going to use Diuretics, it is important to use ones that will allow you to main intracellular fluid and only excrete subcataneoius fluid. We recommend using natural extracts such as Dandelion Root, Celery Seed, Theobromine and even Green Tea Extract.
Sodium and salt levels are another frequently manipulated variable come peak week of a bodybuilding show. Sodium is often avoided as it is thought to cause excess water retention, particularly under the skin. Adequate Sodium is actually crucial for a variety of integral processes the in body, and is of utmost importance for the bodybuilder trying to look their best on stage. Sodium is not only crucial to enable nutrients to enter muscle cells and to increase insulin sensitivity, but is integral to how successfully glucose can be stored! Inadequate sodium levels whilst participating in a carb-up routine will see competitors unable to fill out, as ingested carbohydrates will sit undigested in the gut, causing bloating and water retention. Water consumption and sodium levels are intrinsically related; the more water you consume, the more sodium you will need to add into your diet, otherwise you will flush out your existing stores, leaving you body flat, dehydrated and thirsty. When you have low sodium levels, the body releases the hormone Aldosterone, which signals to your body to re-absorb and retain water and sodium, instead of excreting either. This translates to looking softer and less defined on stage, the absolute opposite of what we want.
Another important element that Sodium offers us is its role in our blood pressure levels, whereby its presence causes blood pressure to increase. This is imperative to achieve a decent pump, whereby you can effectively transport blood, oxygen and water around your body into contracting muscles. Therefore, if you expect to achieve a good pump not only come stage time but during your own training, you’ll need to ensure you have adequate sodium levels present in your bloodstream.
When athletes achieve a greater level of leanness as they approach the stage, blood pressure levels will naturally fall in conjunction with this. This is why many competitors near stage time, despite including a decent quantity of carbohydrates in their diet and supplementing with a Nitric Oxide Booster, may struggle to achieve a decent pump! So combined with a drop in sodium as many athletes will do due to thinking it will make them store water, it will be difficult to achieve muscular fullness and maximise the appearance of their physique. In addition, sodium plays a vital role in assisting the transportation of glucose into muscle cells. Therefore, you should keep sodium levels consistent and sufficient throughout the duration of your entire prep.
There are some changes however that can be made come peak weak. It is recommended the weekend prior to your show to commence a sodium load, whereby athletes will consume anywhere from 3-6g of sodium a day. This may sound obscure, especially so close to stepping on stage, but if performed correctly, it will do you plenty! The reason for increasing your sodium intake a week prior to stage is to give your body (and more specifically, your hormones) the opportunity to adjust to this and excrete any excess sodium you do not require. You may temporarily hold some water during this adjustment phase, but it will correct providing you are being sensible with your water and carbohydrate intake. You can then consume back to normal sodium levels during peak week, but an important opportunity is the day before your show. Many successful bodybuilding coaches will often advise their clients to use the day prior to their show as an opportunity to really load up on the sodium, with some athletes taking in up to 10g of it! Athletes will notice they become instantly more vascular, especially if sodium is simply taken with water, as this is the fastest way to allow the sodium to be absorbed. This will assist in helping athletes fill out and absorb glucose into muscle tissues, as they are also participating in their carb up during this time. You can then drop sodium levels back to ‘normal’, until immediately before stepping on stage, whereby intaking additional sodium can truly maximise one’s fullness and vascularity.
It should be noted however that much of this advice, particularly in regard to the very high sodium ingestion recommendations, truly rely on an athlete being extremely lean. If you aren’t stage ready or conditioned enough, these methods won’t magically help you look like a pro overnight. You’ll need to have very low body fat levels, and if you don’t, then elect more moderate sodium manipulations. But do not omit it!
Training and Cardio
Training, both Cardio and Resistance based, have become dominant features of your schedule during contest preparation. Multiple visits to the gym each day as you approach your scheduled show are not uncommon, as athletes put in the work to ensure they are ready for their show. During peak week however, your training regime need not be as intense. In fact, you should aim to be ready for your show and therefore have the lost required amount of body fat before peak week. The role of your training come the final days before stepping on stage is not so much to help you reduce your body fat, but to support the success of your carbohydrate depletion and loading phases.
What your training regime will look like during peak week is highly dependent on what your regime has looked like prior to this. You will want to continue your cardiovascular training during peak week in accordance to your carbohydrate depletion, as this will assist in utilising existing glucose stores. It is recommended to perform LISS or Low Intensity Steady State cardio, as anything with a higher intensity such as HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) can cause inflammation and consequential fluid retention for the athlete. You’ll need to listen to your body and monitor your physique to elect just how much cardio you should perform. It is also common for athletes to participate in circuit style training, using light weights and high repetitions with supersets, to further deplete glycogen stores. Intensity of resistance training should again, be kept low, to avoid inflammation and water retention in the athlete. In addition, exercising until failure or causing muscle damage will have negative future implications on your ability to resyntheseis glycogen as previously discussed. So keep it light, but get the heart rate up!
Once you have successfully completed your depletion phase, your cardiovascular training should come to a halt. You will want all ingested glucose to be utilised for muscle tissue replenishment and storage, as opposed to fueling activity! In regard to resistance training, you can perform some light training as recommended during your depletion phase, as this will assist in driving blood flow and glucose into your muscles. This will help attain a pump and encourage muscle storage. However, this training should be kept light and not be too strenuous. In fact, many coaches advise their clients not to train at all during this time, prescribing only posing practise in order to encourage blood flow to muscles.You can even strategically incorporate exercises to pump up certain muscles in order to give perception of symmetry!
During your carb up, flex your muscles after ingesting your carbohydrate dense meals, to encourage nutrients to travel to such muscles and be successfully stored!
Show Day and Final Words
Depending on your approach, how you’ve ‘come in’ and what Federation and Class you are competing in, will determine how your show day protocols will look. Whether you are competing in the morning, afternoon or at night will also influence how you structure your day. A typical show day may look like this, but it’s up to you to discover what quantities and food sources are optimal for you:
- Carbohydrates: Consume Low GI every 2 hours prior to stage (such as sweet potatoes, rice, quinoa, oats) and then consume fast digesting sources closer to stage time.
- Sodium – consume sodium with each meal and intake a high quantity immediately before stepping on stage. Either mix salt with water, or add soy sauce/salty condiments to your food.
- Fats – Include fats in each meal to assist with looking full and bringing out vascularity
- Water: Maintain water intake, continually sipping on it during the day or consuming up to 250mL with each meal.
So there you have it! You now have thorough insights into how you can manipulate your carbohydrate, water, sodium and training regime in order to ensure you ‘peak’ and bring your best package to stage. There are always going to be a diversity of opinions that exist around what methods work best, so we thoroughly recommend educating yourself and learning how your body responds. Every single person is different and will respond differently to the same protocols, so don’t be afraid to take the time to trial and error, to discover what works best for you!