5 Contest Prep Mistakes That Are EASILY AVOIDABLE!

As of this writing, I am fresh off of the 2019 Europa Games event in Orlando, Florida. It was a hell of a time, let me tell ya! I competed in both bodybuilding and classic physique, a crossover in which I’ve never attempted before.

BUT…

That was where one of my first mistakes was made. That and a few more led me to compile this list of 5 mistakes that you can avoid making on your next contest prep so that you can bring your best package to the stage!

Mistake #1: Looking At What Everybody Else is Doing

Now look, don’t get me wrong, you can learn a lot from people more experienced in the field than you are. But one things for sure, it can easily fuck you up mentally as well.

Something that I caught myself doing often times was obsessively researching all over the internet through forums, articles, and even the scientific literature as to what was the BEST way to do something.

For example, during my peak week, I was looking at all the different loading strategies for cutting carbs, water, sodium; the whole nine yards. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with gathering information, but what is wrong with it is being an information whore and not sticking to a plan that you’ve logically thought out for yourself.

And that leads me to my next point…

Mistake #2: Constantly 2nd Guessing Yourself

I didn’t have a coach for this prep nor any of the other preps I’ve done during my time as a bodybuilder. But even when you do, you still have the urge to question “Why?” “Why can I only eat xxx amount of calories while so-and-so can eat xxx more calories and still lose that lower ab fat?”

It’s questions like these that can lead to frustration and even anxiety. So how can we fix this problem? Hire a coach? Possibly. But some people can’t afford that. Just “fake it till you make it” until you start oooozing with confidence? No, that shit never works. So what do you do?

Well, let me tell you what you DON’T do, and that’s

Mistake #3: Not Being Meticulous Enough

Yeah, that’s right. I said it (or typed it anyway). Just like me, you’re more than likely NOT BEING PRECISE ENOUGH WITH YOUR PREP!

There were quite a few things I did this prep that I now scratch my head at in disbelief. Things such as:

  • Eat copious amounts of Walden Farms products (zero-calorie dressings, desserts, etc.)
  • Never developed a solid game plan for peak week as well as the day of the show
  • Made a last minute decision to crossover into both classic physique and bodybuilding

As far as all of the new “diet” products that are out now, such as Walden Farms, diet sodas, zero-calorie sweeteners, they’re all fun and great, until they start adding up!

Especially as it pertains to the last 4-8 weeks of prep when you’re really cutting it close, I now believe that these should really be tapered down, or at the very least, tracked for precisely. Even Walden Farms products contain trace calories even though they are marketed as “zero-calorie, it even says it on the label! Even though we don’t know exactly how many calories are in there, what we do know is that FDA guidelines allow for products with less than 5 calories per serving to be labeled as “zero-calorie”. Therefore, to err on the side of safety, I would label every serving you take of this as a gram of carbs, or 4 calories.

These MUST be accounted for, where everything counts. Think of it as a clinical trial, but on yourself. Everything must be tightly controlled if you want to achieve the most optimal results.

And as for making other important decisions on prep, please make sure to have a plan in place! Especially for something as important as peaking for a show! I kind of treated it as an afterthought, and when it came to show day, I was trying a million and one things to try to drop weight for the lightweight bodybuilding class as well as peak optimally during my carb backload. Which brings me to my next point…

Mistake #4: Crossing Over

Unless you have A LOT of money, or are simply curious, I don’t suggest crossing over into two different classes. I feel like at that point it’s more like being a “jack of all trades” as opposed to a “master of his craft.” Instead of being an expert in one, you kinda mediocre at both.

At the last minute, I decided that my weight was pretty close to a lightweight bodybuilder that I decided to throw out the big guns and try some dehydration strategies so that I could make the weight cut-off for that class. BIG MISTAKE!

Because I decided to do that, I ruined my chances of succeeding in the classic physique division. At this point, I was far below the weight cap for this division, as I now sacrificed too much size to be able to even place in the open class.

So please, just do the one division you feel best fits your physique. You’ll save a lot of time and money that way.

Mistake #5: Not Practicing Your Posing Enough

And last but certainly not least, PRACTICE YOUR POSING!

I can’t stress this enough how important this is. I think that posing needs to be practiced every single day, starting at 8 weeks out minimum. I was beginning to do this, and then I began to slip up, giving myself excuses like “I’m too tired” and “I already know how to do this.” Trust me, no amount of excuses are going to help you here. It could be the difference between a 1st or 2nd place trophy.

C’mon bro, you can do better than that.

It’s a workout itself. It takes practice to not only hold the poses for an extended period of time, but also to capture the right angle and lighting that you want the judges to witness the pose in. You’ve worked this hard, don’t screw it up by not practicing your posing.

Final Words

Well, there ya have it. Five mistakes that you can take with you to the bank. Learn from them. Learn from your own mistakes as well, because everybody makes them. This sport is very rewarding, especially when you snag a first place trophy 😜

Don’t worry babe, I won’t be this tan forever.

WARNING: CONTEST PREP IS NOT HEALTHY

Competition season is upon us once again for those of us who compete in physique sports. A time to get shredded, diced, chizzled…you get the idea.

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.

Source: American Council on Exercise (ACE)

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?

Contest Expectations

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.

Hormonal Effects

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 mostly important 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.
  • 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.

Post-Contest Rebound

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.

Final Words…

I saw an interview not too long ago where an IFBB pro bodybuilder was asked “Would you ever have your son compete in bodybuilding when he gets older?” His answer surprised me, saying “Absolutely not. It fucks you up mentally. A lot.”

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! 😁

Refeeds and Cheat Meals: Are They Really Necessary?

It’s almost that time of the year. Many people will begin to end their bulks and shed the blubber that they put on over the winter.

I may have taken my last bulk a little too far…

The diet usually starts out simply enough. You’ll begin by dropping the calories. You start to see gradual but consistent changes. You decide to amp things up and include some more cardio into your plan as well. The scale begins to budge faster now, things are going quite well.

But then…

BAM! Like a freight train, it hits you. You hit that dreaded wall. You’ve reached the infamous plateau.

You’re not losing weight anymore. Your performance is declining. You always seem to be in a sour mood. You need to be drinking coffee every hour on the hour in order to just survive the day.

So what do you do? Drop the calories even more? No, you say to yourself, you’re already hungry as it is, and this will just exacerbate that issue.

How about more cardio? Hell no! You’re tired as it is already, you feel like you can’t manage any more of an increase in activity.

Well, my friends, there may be a solution out there that you may have heard of but never tried before.

Refeeds and Cheat Meals

These are two different types of dieting strategies used to combat this plateau. But what are they and how do they work?

Well before we dive into each of the strategies, let’s examine what exactly the function and purpose of them are.

Leptin and Ghrelin

These are two potent “hunger hormones” in your body that regulate appetite and energy balance within the body. Both leptin and ghrelin directly contrast one another.

Simply put, a drop in leptin signals for hunger while a drop in ghrelin would signal that you are satisfied or full, and vice versa.

As you progress further and further into your diet, leptin will continue to drop. This is what causes that intensifying hunger and drop in metabolic rate. Cheat meals and refeeds would theoretically combat this issue. But the caveat here is that we have to find the right balance. We have to eat just enough more to reaccelerate our fat loss, but not too much that we throw off our calorie balance and end up gaining fat. This is the trickiest part for most people.

Cheat Meals

This is the one that most people are familiar with. But notice a subtle detail here. I said MEALS, not DAYS. Trust me, no matter how far you are in your diet, you DO NOT NEED an entire day to break your plateau. That’s just ridiculous, and most often just an excuse to eat like a pig and not stay disciplined.

This method often doesn’t utilize calorie or macro tracking and is usually pre-planned as well. Depending on the macronutrient composition of the meal, it has the potential to raise leptin and provide psychological relief to the dieter.

However, the problem here lies in the fact that as cheat meals become increasingly popularized and endorsed (particularly in social media), the risk for developing eating disorders increases, such as binging episodes. As we continue to diet, we want our relationship with food to remain healthy. Remember, beyond the vanity of this endeavor, we are also doing this for the betterment of our health.

Plus, the use of the word “cheat” creates its own set of problems. This also has the potential to damage ones’ relationship with food, as the word “cheat” has a negative connotation and stigma attached to it. People have often referred to this type of meal as a “free meal” in order to remove that taboo.

Refeeds

This is where refeeds come into the picture.

Think of this strategy as the more balanced and planned out version of a cheat meal. Basically, it is an increase in one’s calories by only increasing carbs. Protein is often set to around 1 gram per pound of body weight, and fat is dropped anywhere between 25-50 grams per day to make room for more calories from carbs. Calories are increased to about 20-30% above the person’s calorie deficit.

Just note that these are ballpark figures and that there are no scientific studies out (yet!) that have determined a “best number” of macronutrients and calories to consume for a refeed. This requires constant experimentation and monitoring of one’s own physique and performance over time.

Now what’s the benefit of doing this over a flat-out cheat meal?

Well, you’ll increase leptin more so than cheat meals would. Carbs have been shown to increase leptin far more significantly than dietary fats do. In one study, leptin was increased by 28% after a carbohydrate overfeeding compared to fats which didn’t even increase leptin to a statistically significant level.

Plus, it’s more structured manner allows you to more easily track what is working and what isn’t. When you’re utilizing cheat meals, it’s not as easy to see what foods make you perform and look better, as you’re most likely not tracking them either.

But with refeeds, you’re able to modify and adjust the amount and type of carbs that you’re using, as fats and proteins remain constant. That’s one of the most important things to do when performing experiments, even on yourself; keep as many variables as constant as possible.

But It’s Not All Black-and-White Either…

As with anything in fitness and bodybuilding, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Those who prefer cheat meals may not have any psychological issues with food whatsoever and find that it works better for their particular physique and increases their motivation. That’s fine. You have to do what works for you.

But others may find that once they get off track one time, they develop that all-or-nothing mentality and begin to binge and use it as an excuse to fall off of their plan. Try both of them a couple of times and see which one works better for you.

How Often Should I Utilize These Strategies?

Depending on which one you decide to choose, frequency is going to differ.

If you go the cheat meal route, I’d stick to a more pre-planned route. I would pick a certain day of the week to use it (probably a weekend day) and use it as the last meal of the day. This reduces the chances of excessive binging later in the day and allows you to start fresh the next day.

If you’re prepping for a contest or photoshoot, I’d switch to the refeed strategy for the last 2-3 weeks, as you want the most control possible as you get closer to your deadline. But if you’re just dieting with no set deadline, then experiment and determine which frequency is best for you. The leaner you get (sub-10% body fat), the more often you’ll need to implement them.

Before I learned about refeeds…

If you go the refeed route, I’d start out with once a week after you’ve been in a deficit for about 2 months or so. You don’t really need it that much before this point, depending on how lean you start the diet. Just like with the cheat meal route, the leaner you are, the more often you’ll need to implement them. As you get to the 8-10% body fat range, you’ll probably need to do it 2x/week.

Final Thoughts

So again, you’ll really need to try these out on yourself in order to see which one works best for you. The scientific community is finally beginning to look at this in the bodybuilding and fitness community, so expect to see some interesting revelations in the industry relatively soon.

Do you use refeeds or cheat meals (or both?) If so, which one do you prefer? Let me know in the comments!

Don’t forget to follow me on Instagram @zach.macdonald