Preparing for a Bodybuilding Competition can be a daunting task. Unfortunately, too many competitors (and unfortunately, too many coaches) rely too heavily on the so called “standard” 12- and 16-week Contest Prep Plans. Doing so, you set yourself up with a race against the clock and have little to no room for error.
There is no crystal ball that so many people think they have. What happens if you have an injury, get sick, have some unexpected travel, work or family issues and a host of other things that can derail you? Unless your prep goes perfectly (rarely does that happen) you are going to find yourself playing catch-up, getting more aggressive with calorie reductions and/or increasing cardio. And the more aggressive you get, the less predictable the outcome.
I can go on and on about the fallacies with these “standard” prep plans. But I am going to switch gears for a second and flip the switch.
What happens if you get stage lean EARLY?
I cannot count the number of times I have heard, “be careful not to come in stage lean early!”
I do not know another way to say this, but that is a RIDICULOUS notion. In fact, I would argue that you should strive to come in early…. several weeks or more actually. In this article I will be explaining the Five Stages of Contest Prep (developed by Dr. Joe Klemczewski) which focuses on doing just that. And I break down each phase, what to expect and in the end…why this is what every competitor should shoot for.
The Five Stages of Contest Prep are the Transition Phase, Core Phase, Set-Point Phase, Metabolic Building Phase and Fine-Tuning Phase.
The Transition Phase of prep is when you shift from Offseason to Contest Prep and usually lasts for 2 to 3 weeks…in some cases, longer.
This is the time you start your prep with calories and body fat at their highest point before your initial deficit. This deficit is usually more than most people realize, especially those who have never competed before. Hopefully your calories are plenty high before you start.
Once you start with your initial deficit, body fat will start to come off fast. Glycogen (which is 2/3 water) and water from other areas will result in the biggest drop the first week or so. Eventually, your ROL (Rate of Loss) will start to slow down as you start to develop your own unique trend…but that does not mean body fat loss slows down as well.
That said, some people may not experience that big initial drop right way. In some instances, weight can temporarily go up. This can lead to some uneasiness and panicking. I caution you to be patient. For people in this situation, it is not uncommon for it to be 2, 3, even 4 weeks to see the scale start dropping. There are many physiological things (insulin sensitivity is a big one) that can contribute to a faster or slower ROL in the beginning. This DOES NOT mean that body fat is not coming off. Rather, the extra water you may be holding is just camouflaging your progress…at least as far as the scale is concerned.
It is important to give some time for your body to work through this rather than increasing cardio or dropping more calories.. Both can have an unnecessary, and negative effect on your Metabolic Rate. Instead, give your body a little more time to work through all the physiological changes going on. If a couple of weeks or so have gone by and weight is not coming down, then make a few “subtle” adjustments until you reach your desired ROL. Often, a simple reduction of 10-15g of carbs and 2-3g of fats will give you enough push to get your trend going in the right direction.
The Core Phase of Contest Prep is where you will spend the most time. Once your body settles in during the Transition Phase and you are at an appropriate weekly Rate of Loss (ROL), you will shift to this phase.
During the Core Phase your ROL should be consistent as it develops a trend of its own based on calories and genetics. Two different variables that have a great impact on how prep goes and why everyone’s prep is different, even if consuming the same calories, doing the same workouts, weighing the same and the same height.
As fat loss stalls you will need to make subtle calorie and/or cardio adjustments. As a result your Metabolic Rate will go down as a normal part of Metabolic Adaptation. It is advantageous to keep Steady State Cardio (SSC) at a minimum (or better yet, none) and let your Nutrition, Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) and your workout program do as much of the work as you can before adding SSC into the mix.
Protein requirement should still be between 1.2 to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight to optimize protein synthesis. Undershoot protein and you risk an increased rate of muscle wasting. Overshoot and any protein not used for Protein Synthesis will be converted to glycogen through gluconeogenesis. There is no real downside to that in terms of weight loss, but those extra protein calories would be better served as carbs or fats since both are much better sources of energy than protein. And in prep, you need all the energy sources you can get, especially as calories get lower.
You may go a few weeks without needing any adjustments, and there may be times where you need an adjustment a couple of times per week. This is a normal part of the process. Just be sure you keep your weekly ROL between .8 and 1% of your body weight in lbs. That will help you shed the body fat off at an appropriate rate while preserving as much muscle mass as possible.
Eventually, you will notice that fat loss will start to slow down and become harder to achieve, even when you increase cardio and/or decrease calories more. However, that may not be the best choice just yet. We will get into that next as we discuss the Third Phase of Contest Prep, the Set-Point Phase.
SET POINT PHASE
By the time you end the Core Phase of Prep, you have been dieting for several months or more. You are depleted, your Metabolic Rate is slow and continues to slow down. If you have not been experiencing mood changes, they are most likely coming.
Sleep is not great. You may be cold and showing signs of low blood sugar. For the ladies, you are probably about to start experiencing changes (perhaps loss) in your menstrual cycle if you have not already.
As uncomfortable and alarming as these things seem, it is quite normal at this stage of the process. And the last thing you want to happen is to have your weight loss stall…but that is about to happen when you finally hit the Third Phase of Contest Prep, the Set Point Phase.
First, let us discuss what your Set Point is.
Think of your Set Point as your body’s defense against lowering your weight/body fat below homeostasis. This is the body’s self-regulating process by which it strives to maintain stability while “adjusting to conditions that are best for its survival.”
In other words, keep you in a weight range that your body is comfortable and feels safe in.
For example, let’s say your body is happy within 120 to 140lbs. Weight loss and gain is not too difficult within this range. However, once you get to the low end of the range which is 120lbs in this example, your body will rebel. It will do everything it can to keep you from going lower than 120lbs. Some examples include:
- Slow your Metabolic Rate even further, making your body more efficient in burning calories.
- Decrease the hormone Leptin, which regulates hunger, to get you above your set point by increasing hunger. Leptin can increase insulin which can increase the size of fat cells.
- Cause you to hold on to more water.
As you can see, hitting your set point can be very frustrating. And you do not really know what “HANRGY” truly means until you have hit this battle head on.
As energy falls, it will seem like you are fighting for every ounce of fat loss, while at few calories. This is when panic usually sets in. And the first thing most coaches who do not understand how to properly work WITH your set point is drop calories and/or increase cardio…but that is not really the best approach.
The best approach is to allow enough time in your prep to work through your set-point by giving it enough time to break through it naturally. Otherwise, dropping calories too much and adding more cardio in because you (or your coach) are panicking, is likely going to make the situation worse. In this instance all you are doing is forcing your Metabolic Rate to slow down much faster. The optimal approach is to adjust as you normally have until your body gives in and you blast through it. Otherwiase, it can have a negative effect on the likelyhood of getting into the 4th Phase of Contest Prep, the Metabolic Building Phase, which we will discuss in a moment.
Unfortunately, most competitors do not even get through their Set Point. I am sure you have heard stories of people stalling in the last few weeks of prep no matter what they do. This is one of the main reasons that happens, and the result of not planning for more time in prep.
For those of you who take a slower approach to prep and give yourself enough time to work through your set point, you may have enough time to start enjoying the benefits of being on the other side of your set point. But for those of you who rush and don’t take the time to build your metabolism high enough before you start prep…you will never make it past this stage.
METABOLIC BUILDING PHASE
Now that you have passed the Third Phase of Contest Prep, the Set Point Phase, hopefully you still have a few more weeks until your show to have enough time in the Fourth Phase of Contest Prep, the Metabolic Building Phase.
In this phase we can start adding calories back in to regain some muscle fullness due to an increase in glycogen deep in the muscle tissue. You get tighter. The skin will appear thinner leaving you looking leaner and you become less sensitive to carbs reducing the risk of spillover. But if you do happen to spill over, it only takes a small reduction in carbs to help tighten you back up in a short amount of time.
To make this possible, you simply have to give yourself enough time in prep to reach stage lean early, and you need to reach it at least 3 weeks out (preferably longer) to allow enough time to allow this transition to take place. If so, you can start adding in carbs a little at a time, perhaps every 2 or 3 days, and maybe fats too since fats are carb sparing.
The longer you have in this phase, the quicker this adaptation starts to take place. And if your Metabolic Rate really takes off…before you know it, you might get to a point where you can’t get calories in fast enough.
Thats a great thing!
Eventually you can get to the point where all your variables (carbs, protein, fats, sodium, potassium, and water) are now all going in the same upward trajectory and leaving Peak Week just like any other day.
And that brings us to the Fifth (and final) Phase of Contest Prep, the Fine-Tuning Phase.
FINE TUNING PHASE
You probably have heard the phrase, “Conditioning Wins”. While that is true to an extent, there is something that beats conditioning every time, if the judging panel is doing its job. It is called BALANCE.
The next logical question should be, “what is a Balanced Physique?”
Glad you asked!
A balanced physique is one that meets the criteria for a given class and includes the “right amount” of the three main elements that are muscularity, symmetry, and conditioning. And let’s not forget that your posing and stage presence plays a role in how you display the three main elements of which, conditioning is only one-third of the equation, when it comes to balance.
The first thing I want you to take away from what I am about to tell you is that two of the three main elements (muscularity and symmetry) are primarily achieved in the offseason. If you do not have that base built before prep starts, there is little you can do about it. So make sure you take your time and build a quality physique…before you even consider starting prep.
Assuming you have built your base physique in the offseason, and you have successfully made it through the first four phases of contest prep and you are stage learn and do not have a need to lose more body fat, you may have time to make sure all three elements are covered appropriately in the fifth and final phase of prep, the Fine-Tuning Phase.
At this point fat loss is no longer an issue and both fullness and hardness has already been achieved for your specific division. You have spent enough time in the Metabolic Building Phase that allows you to start increasing calories, your physique is becoming less and less sensitive to carbs, reducing the risk of spillover. Now you can observe changes in the physique daily and experiment with carbs and fats to find out what looks hard, what looks blurry or extremely crisp.
Because you have the time to experiment you learn what subtle adjustments need to be made if the physique falls off point, even the slightest, to bring them back to their ideal look. This is incredibly helpful data for peak week and show day as well. For example, you may find that a simple rice cake or two with a tablespoon of Peanut Butter can quickly fill you out a little while greatly increasing your vascularity within 10 minutes or so which is valuable information to have if you need a quick fix just before you hit the stage.
As you can see, Contest Prep is not just a “dieting contest”, this is bodybuilding and not The Biggest Loser. Unfortunately, just dieting down and trying to lose weight is what most competitors and coaches focus on and why so many competitors fall short, when they think they are ready, when the final calls are made on show day. Understanding how each individual responds to a wide variety of information is difficult, challenging and time consuming (another reason why cookie cuter program and meal plans and not the best idea). Data must be analyzed and reanalyzed over a variety of time points. And this goes for every single prep you do. Your body’s reactions to the same stimuli will not be identical and neither should your next prep be.
If you wait until your body is primed to start contest prep, give yourself plenty of time for diet breaks, unforeseen circumstances like injuries/sickness, work/relationship issues, set-point and plateaus and peak week protocol testing, skin adaptations, better glycogen response and observation/experimentation you will give yourself an incredible edge and make all the time, effort, sacrifices and money actually pay off.
And if you can apply that to the 5 phases of Contest Prep it can give you a huge edge when you step on the stage, and that will make you awfully hard to beat.
Note: Picture at the top is Team USA Physique Wellness Athlete, Amanda Wright, one month into the Metabolic Building Phase.