By Eric Trexler, CSCS, CISSN
Former Director of Research and Education, INOV8 Elite Performance
There are a couple common ways to brag during contest preparation.
Some competitors like to brag about the sacrifices they’re making. They’ll often talk about their extensive cardio and absurd dietary restrictions. Ultimately, they’re trying to boast about their toughness, determination, and discipline.
Other competitors go the entirely opposite direction. They’re more interested in bragging about how they’ve “figured out” contest prep— they’ve found the smarter, easier way to do things. This type of boasting, which has become increasingly common, is typically characterized by claims of minimal cardio, relatively high caloric intake, and few dietary restrictions.
Many recent articles and videos have urged competitors to seek a better way to prepare for physique-based competitions. These resources have denounced high volumes of cardio, restriction of specific foods and/or food groups, and excessively large caloric deficits. In general, this trend is beneficial for both the sport and the individual athlete. However, it would appear (based on feedback, primarily from clients that are new to competition) that this message has been widely misinterpreted.
It’s important to remember that everybody is different to some extent. When you see someone brag about how easy and enjoyable their contest prep was, a number of factors must be considered. Some people find it easier to get into contest shape based on differences in metabolic rate, body fat set point, appetite, and other physiological factors. Further, some people are far more positive and less likely to complain than others, and some have been through truly terrible contest prep experiences that have influenced their perception. When you see someone talk about how great their recent prep was, all of these factors could be influencing their interpretation of the experience.
It is great that people are starting to realize that 2 hours of daily cardio and extreme starvation diets are not necessary prerequisites for getting into contest shape. However, do not get your hopes up: contest prep is rigorous, challenging, and uncomfortable at times. Even if you do it “right.”
When you walk around town, you rarely encounter people who just happen to be really muscular and below 7% body fat. That’s because you don’t arrive there by accident— it takes a lot of dedication and attention to detail with both training and nutrition. It also requires you to “override” the feedback that many receive in such a physiological state— you have to work through hunger and lethargy, with a persistent effort to maintain training intensity and dietary adherence.
Obviously, the goal is to make contest preparation as smooth and comfortable as possible. To this end, it is often advised to take off-seasons of sufficient duration, diligently track macronutrient intake, participate in a well-designed training program, and adjust the caloric deficit by reducing calories or implementing cardio in a conservative, step-wise manner. However, despite our best efforts, we can rarely attain a contest-ready physique without some level of sacrifice and discomfort. Some individuals can get in shape easier than others, but most people will have to dig deep and grind out some pretty rough training and cardio sessions, and some level of hunger and lethargy are to be expected late in contest preparation. We can hope only to attenuate such feelings as much as possible.
This article is not intended to scare people away from their first contest prep or to discourage people from pursuing the most effective methods for contest preparation. It is simply a reminder to approach contest preparation with realistic expectations. You are pushing your physique to carry large amounts of lean tissue with high metabolic (caloric) demands, while limiting your fat (caloric) storage as much as possible. In this state, your body is designed to fight back. Our bodies try to decrease the energy deficit by urging us to increase food intake and decrease energy expenditure , making contest prep somewhat of an uphill battle. Our approach to contest preparation can magnify or attenuate these effects, but they signify a natural mechanism that cannot be avoided entirely.
So by all means, seek out the most effective methods possible. Reduce calories and add cardio as conservatively as possible, and try to make your weight loss as smooth and enjoyable as you can. But when you see another competitor boast about their relatively painless contest prep, don’t get unrealistic expectations, and don’t assume that a bit of fatigue or hunger during contest prep is indicative of incorrect weight loss methods or a poorly executed plan. Everyone is different, but the overwhelming majority of competitors have to dig deep toward the end of prep. And as your physique goals become loftier and the level of competition becomes more elite, the level of sacrifice involved often becomes magnified. While genetics certainly play a role, you’re not likely to present an elite-level physique without an exceptional level of perseverance and discipline in the face of contest prep’s inherent challenges.
1. Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, Norton LE: Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete.Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2014, 11:7.