Competition season is upon us once again for those of us who compete in physique sports. A time to get shredded, diced,
So I was speaking to a friend of mine earlier this week to catch up. As she’s aware I’m competing in the next upcoming week (I’m in my peak week as I write this), she noticed that I was very tired, lethargic, and just overall lacked interest. Her, not being totally immersed into the scene of competitive fitness and physique sports, asked me “Zach, is this even healthy?”
I answered something along the lines of “No, no it’s not. But it’ll be worth it.” In a very unenthusiastic tone I might add.
But I Thought It Was Healthy To Lose Body Fat!
And you’d be right! In fact, there are a plethora of health benefits to losing body fat, particularly if you’re overweight or obese. Those following a standard calorie-restricted diet (approximately 500 calorie deficit) can often expect to see significant decreases in waist circumference, glucose, insulin, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol, also known as “bad cholesterol”.
However, the difference here is that we’re talking about conditioned athletes. VERY conditioned athletes. This is much different than many of the studies that are out there, which are usually conducted on overweight or obese individuals. But even if they’re conducted on those of normal body weight, they’re often still not very physically active or are on the higher range of healthy body fat levels, particularly in the United States.
It’s All About the Ranges
When we’re talking about body fat, we can’t think of it in terms of simply “how much weight did they lose?” We need more context. We need to think about WHO we are actually talking about here and we need to think in terms of body fat loss as opposed to simply weight loss. That’s why utilizing body fat percentage along with body weight is so important in tracking somebody’s progress.
Men and women vary widely in the amount of body fat that they carry. Typically, women carry more body fat than men. This is just basic physiology at work.
As you can see, there are many different categories that somebody can be placed into depending on where their body fat percentage falls. Obviously, most would fall into the average category.
This is completely fine, as most improvements in health biomarkers, such as the ones mentioned earlier, are seen when somebody drops from the overweight/obese category to the average category. After that, results would still be seen, but the returns would diminish after each and every category the person drops. Makes sense?
During a bodybuilding contest, it is standard and expected that you come in as lean and conditioned as you possibly can, while still carrying as much muscle mass as you can hold onto (the exception to this being something like the women’s bikini division, where excessive vascularity and leanness would be discouraged).
When you think about it, you’re asking your body to do something very extreme, much against its wishes, as it is far from its normal state (homeostasis).
Referencing the above chart, men are often expected to come into shows at below 5% body fat, tapping into that “essential fat” category. Because this fat is “essential” to our survival and our calories at this point are extremely low, the body doesn’t have much place to turn in terms of energy production. Because of this, muscle loss becomes a huge concern.
The effects that take place on the body’s hormones are quite drastic for both men and women.
- Testosterone: lowered in both men and women, which we all know is important for building and maintaining our muscle mass and strength
- Estrogen: this will be lowered along with testosterone. This is because testosterone converts into estrogen, and with less testosterone, you’ll obviously have less estrogen.
- This is
mostlyimportant for women, as it will have significant effects on their menstrual cycles and mood.
- But it’s also important to note for men as
well,since it plays a vital role in skin and joint health, as well as sexual function in both sexes.
- This is
- Leptin: this one has gotten a lot of attention lately. Leptin is a hormone that regulates your hunger, and the further it drops, the hungrier you get. It can get so bad for some people that it may exacerbate those with eating disorders or other mental health conditions.
- Cortisol: “the stress hormone” as it’s often referred to. This one actually elevates, as opposed to the ones I previously discussed.
- This catabolic hormone is responsible for breaking down tissues for energy, and it is notorious for doing this to muscle mass, particularly in times of high stress, such as contest prep.
- Insulin: pretty much the opposite function to cortisol, this anabolic hormone helps to synthesize new tissues. But when it is very low, such as during contest prep, new tissues are more slowly created and the body’s normal processes begin to slow, thus dropping our metabolic rate, our the number of calories we burn at rest.
I could go on and on about the effects that contest prep has on hormones, but as you can see, it’s not pretty. This can most certainly take a toll in many aspects of your life, including your relationships, job(s), and academic pursuits.
Often, after a show, win or lose, competitors will participate in an all-out binging episode. This is to relieve themselves of the 3, 4, 5, sometimes 6 months of hard dieting that they did leading up to this point. And this is expected.
However, it becomes unhealthy when they cannot stop this type of binging behavior for weeks after the show. This can lead to copious amounts of body fat being accumulated onto their physiques. As dramatic as it sounds, it can lead to things like depression and anxiety, as they do not look nearly as lean, vascular, or cut-up as they did when they were on that stage.
But That’s Okay!!!
It’s okay to not be as lean anymore! In fact, it’s encouraged!
The body cannot sustain that type of leanness forever, at least not healthfully. You would be living in misery for the rest of your life if you tried to maintain a look like that year-round. It’s not sustainable, don’t even get it in your head that it is.
Unfortunately, this is what can cause or exacerbate body image issues in some people. They created this “new normal” for themselves, and now that they are not there anymore, they may resort to unhealthy tactics to try to get back to that look again, long before the body has recovered from the intense preparation is was previously put through.
It’s Not For Everybody
Unfortunately, this isn’t for everybody. Competing in physique sports is extremely tough. Many people overlook the mental strength and fortitude that it actually takes to succeed. Most only look at the physical aspect, which is understandable. But it’s more than just vanity, I promise you.
Don’t get me wrong, taking part in physique competitions comes with great benefits as well! Mental toughness, perseverance, discipline, I could go on. These aspects of your character translate over to other areas of your life as well, which makes it even better.
I saw an interview not too long ago where an IFBB pro bodybuilder was
Now of course this is just one perspective, but a very interesting message is portrayed here.
If you want to try it, than by all means, I’m for it. But don’t go into this expecting it to be some cakewalk. Yes, it is fun. Yes, striking the poses in front of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of cheering fans is exciting. But please, for the love of God, make sure you are mentally prepared. It can even mess with the mental health of those who are considered in good mental health, such as myself.
Just be careful. Knowing all this, you’ll have a good time, and stay healthy in the process.
If you enjoyed this, please don’t be shy and share this with your fellow competitors to get the message across! Talk to you all soon! 😁
Boston-born bodybuilder currently residing in the beautiful city of Tampa, Florida in pursuit of a Master's Degree in Exercise & Nutrition Science. Competitive NPC Classic Physique athlete with a passion for strength training, health, well-being, and the science that makes it all possible. I want to sift through all of the B.S that's out there to provide you with the best information possible for you to achieve YOUR goals, whatever they may be. Human physiology is an amazing thing, let's find out what the human body is capable of!