Whatever the choice of activity to get fit is, whether running, biking, lifting, swimming, etc., a small population will be taken enough with their chosen sport enough to want to take the challenge on of competing. For runners, some will get the bug to prepare for and run a marathon. For the gym rats who love lifting heavy, some will get the bug to enter a powerlifting meet. Other gym rats will gravitate to physique competitions. Since I get asked about the latter pretty regularly, let me share some lessons learned.
Prep For Contest Prep
How bad do you want it?
Getting in contest shape to enter a bodybuilding or physique competition is really hard. I mean, it is really, really hard. Many people who decide they want to compete never make it through their prep. Think about that. If you are going to prep for a show, it will be 12-20 weeks of many hours in the gym (5 days/week of lifting, cardio most every day) and a diet that will become tougher with diminishing carbs along the way. It will be hard, time consuming, and leave you tired. You are looking to achieve an extreme goal, so it will take a lot of investment.
I personally like the structure of a prep and want to achieve the look of the end result, so I don’t have a problem pushing through days I am tired or really desire eating a tub of peanut butter. In other words, motivation creates discipline, but I suspect I am odd about that. If accomplishing the goal at hand is important enough, you will make it happen; if not, you will find excuses and be like most people and quit. It needs to be something you really want to do – and a prepared to do.
Get in shape
As a very rough guide, you can expect to lose about 1% body fat about every 2 weeks. In other words, if you decide you want to do a show 12 weeks out and are a fluffy 20% body fat, you are not going to make it. Going extreme with cardio and diet is not really an option as the body will burn a lot of muscle in the process; besides, you will likely plateau since the body will eventually fight back against this approach. You need to be no more than 13-15% at 16-20 weeks out to get in the needed condition.
Find a prep coach
You will need a prep coach. Most people can achieve reasonable leanness on their own…but being on stage requires a different level of conditioning. You will also need an independent viewpoint to look at you and honestly assess where you are and make changes to diet and cardio based on that assessment. People regularly overestimate or underestimate where they are based on how they see themselves in their own mirror; that is why you need an independent critique. The last weeks of a prep can also play mind tricks – i.e. you will look flat because carbs will decline. A coach can guide you through what to expect.
Unfortunately, becoming a prep coach nowadays is a low barrier to entry. A lot of people who have done one show think they are qualified to start coaching and will offer services on-line for cheap. You need a good coach. Find one that has a track record of clients who have won. If you don’t have the money to afford a coach, save up and find a show to do when you will have the money to do it right.
There is nothing to do but to do it. I always tell people to follow the instructions of their coach to the letter. You would be surprised how many people spend money on a coach and then do not follow the diet or cardio instructions. The reason you hired an experienced, qualified, successful coach is because they know more about this than you do and know what they are doing.
A coach is going to update your diet and cardio based on how you are progressing. If you have been cheating with extra food or skipping meals, you need to own up to it; otherwise, it makes updating a plan difficult. If a coach has you on a certain calorie amount and amount of cardio and you are snacking extra – and not making progress — but telling the coach you are not cheating, they will inevitably adjust the plan to either have less calories or increase cardio (or both), for example, when the plan they gave you was valid had you been following it.
The above also means, aside from motivation and discipline, you should have character. Own up to slipping up on a diet. My pet peeve is people who do not follow their coach’s advice and then blame the coach; this happens quite often. If you are snacking on cookies or hamburgers and not owning up to it and then tell people your coach was not able to dial you into your show, you might be short in the integrity department.
The days up to the contest often get referred to as “peak week.” Sometimes people will try drastic changes to peak for a show…often, they don’t work. If you are contest ready the week before (and if you have a good coach and you followed instructions, you should be), you should have to do minimal changes for peak week. No amount of water loss/”drying out” to tighten your physique up is going to tighten up fat, for instance.
The sport is subjective…and, no doubt, there is sometimes politics at play at some contests or organizations that sanction a show. If you don’t get the placing you wanted, be a good sport, talk to the judges on their feedback, and learn from the experience to be better next time. Reflect if you did everything you could have…if you didn’t, the blame is with you and not your coach or the judges.