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 ūüėú

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

The Winter Bulk: What You Can Learn From My 1+ Year Long Bulk So You Don’t Get Fat!

It’s that time of the year again; the winter bulk is upon us! This is that amazing time when most of us are putting on the good ole’ sweats and going to the gym to train heavy, only to return home and stuff ourselves in hopes of packing on as much size as possible before the shredding season comes.

But First, My Story (It’ll help you later on I promise)

I worked so hard to get to where I was during my NPC Classic Physique competition in 2017. I dieted hard for 16 grueling weeks. I thought I looked pretty damn good…

Edited Side Chest

Could I have come in more conditioned? Absolutely. But for my first NPC show, I thought I did pretty well; not even having a coach and acting as my own coach. But then decision time came, it really hit me…

Before we get to that, let me give you a little background. I signed up for two classes; both the open class, which anybody can participate in, and the novice class, which you can only enter if you have never placed in the top 3 in a competition before. Given that I’ve never placed before, I thought this would give me a much better chance of victory competing in this category.

I was DEAD wrong. I did absolutely terrible. I got 9th out of 13 in the novice class and LAST in the open class. I was shocked. “Why did I do so bad?” I asked myself.

I compared myself to the other competitors. They were all so much bigger than I was. Exactly¬†why they were bigger than I didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to get bigger. A lot bigger.

I came in at 147 lbs soaking freakin wet, and I expected to win? What was I thinking? And with a weight cap of all the way up to 165 lbs for my height of 5’5″ to boot. I had a lot more work to do. I did not gain enough size in my previous offseason to constitute competing at that time.

I was so determined to win the next time I competed that I was going on a bulk indefinitely. I was not going to stop until I packed on as much muscle as possible and stayed below my personal body fat cap that I set for myself at 16%. Once I reached this mark, then I’d stop.

Why Am I Telling You All This?

Because it’ll help provide you with context as to why and how it can be possible to bulk for either¬†too long¬†or¬†not long enough.¬†There’s a happy middle ground here. And I’ll help you find it with this sappy story of mine.

I Bulked…FOR A Long Time

Starting right after my competition, I bulked all the way till September of 2018. At first, I was scared to add one more pound to my already deteriorating physique. I wasn’t as lean anymore due to excessive water weight gain. It was a huge psychological (“mind fuck”) in my head. I was having negative self-esteem issues because of my loss of leanness. And I still looked small in my eyes.

However, after a few months, things started to come together. I started to gain weight steadily. The pounds started to pack on (in a good way). I was getting stronger in the gym. I finally sucked it up and forced myself into a caloric surplus, despite my fears of getting fat.

And I didn’t get fat. I added a respectful amount of muscle, going from 147-166 lbs over the course of half of a year.

And this trend continued up until the summer time of 2018. During this time, I started to get lazy. Not with my workouts, but mostly with my nutrition. I started not to track macros anymore, just eating whenever I felt like it. I noticed I was starting to get weaker in the gym as well. Most likely because my protein intake dropped because I just wasn’t tracking anymore.

September came around. And I wasn’t like what I was seeing in the mirror. I wasn’t getting any stronger either. I’d been in a stalemate for months. Did I get bigger? Of course. People were even telling me so. But I hated how fat I looked. I hated that I was able to so easily grab on to my “love handles” (does that sound weird coming from a dude?). I was curious to see what my body fat percentage was at this point.

20180927_004609

I was at 16.2% body fat! Perfect timing! Just slightly above the cap I set for myself. I was finally happy with how big I was in terms of weight (183 lbs) and I was now ready for the next phase.

TRUTH: Adding on Muscle Mass Takes A LONG time!

Do I need to repeat myself? This takes a long freakin ass time people! It’s not easy. It can get super boring and repetitive sometimes. But if you’re serious about it, you’ll make it happen.

It took me 16 months to get where I wanted to be. Most people want instant gratification. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out like that. So don’t go spinning your wheels in the dirt going on short bulking and cutting cycles of a few months each. Sure, you can lose a considerable amount of fat in a matter of 3, 4, or 5 months. But you¬†CANNOT¬†add a significant amount of muscle to your body in just a few months. Unless you’re just starting out in the fitness world, you can gain muscle and strength doing virtually any training program (1), which is an entirely different story altogether.

Each Bulk Has an Expiration Date

What do I mean by this?

Everybody’s different. Different genetics. Different background. Different training experience. But everybody has a point in time in which they reach a sticking point in their bulk. They simply can’t gain any more muscle (or a significant amount anyway). It seems as if there’s a certain point where all the extra weight gained just goes to fat and not muscle. This happened to me as well…

For those last few months of my bulk where I was lazy and more unmotivated when it came to my nutrition, I started to gain a good amount of fat without adding much muscle mass. I went from 14% body fat in June up to 16% in September, while only gaining approximately 20% muscle mass and the rest coming from fat! Now, why did this happen?

It’s hard to say with absolute certainty, as there is a huge lack of scientific literature on the topic. This is because this would require an exorbitant amount of time to study this phenomenon in multiple individuals, as most would not want to commit to such a long study. Studies of that magnitude are mostly saved for those in a clinical setting, such as pharmaceutical studies.

Because of this, much of what we can go on is anecdotal. However, one theory that can be speculated is that it has to do with something called insulin resistance.¬†This is when the body cannot effectively store glucose (sugar) into the tissues of the body effectively, which raises one’s blood sugar, leading to a myriad of health complications. This can occur in up to 25% of nonobese individuals with what appears to be normal glucose levels via an oral glucose tolerance test (2). Now, this doesn’t cause weight gain directly per se. But, it can possibly shift our body composition adaptations from primarily gaining muscle to gaining fat, while still gaining the same amount of total weight. However, this is just a theory, as there haven’t been any adequate studies conducted on resistance trained populations. If you’ve been overconsuming calories for a while now (usually via carbohydrates) this is something to think about.

insulin
Hopefully, you won’t need this

The Bottom Line

As it looks right now, the mechanism as to why bulks start to fail after prolonged periods of time is still unclear. More studies are definitely going to need to be conducted in order to analyze this phenomenon further.

So, how should you bulk? With patience. This is a must. As the cliche saying goes “This is a marathon, not a sprint!” And it holds very true. Don’t rush it. The results that you get from it will be worth it. Trust me.

But also, don’t prolong it for too long either. Be your own guinea pig and constantly gauge your progress. Do this by utilizing:

  • Progress Pictures
  • Weight
  • Body Fat Analysis (skinfold calipers, BodPod, DEXA, etc.)
  • Progressive Overload (are you getting stronger?)
  • If others comment on your physique (seriously!)

These are just a few ways in which you can see if you’re headed in the right direction. Also, everybody has different images of what they want their physique to look like and why they want it to look like that. So if somebody is at 18% body fat and they like the way they look, then that’s great, don’t criticize them for that. Getting upwards of 20%, however, is when we start to run into health and performance problems, which is a story for another day.

If you guys have any questions, feel free to reach out either in the comments or on social media! Have a great week!

References

  1. Cunha, P. M., Nunes, J. P., Tomeleri, C. M., Nascimento, M. A., Schoenfeld, B. J., Antunes, M., . . . Cyrino, E. S. (2018). Resistance Training Performed With Single and Multiple Sets Induces Similar Improvements in Muscular Strength, Muscle Mass, Muscle Quality, and IGF-1 in Older Women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000002847
  2. Reaven, G. M. (1997). Role of insulin resistance in human disease. Nutrition, 13(1), 64. doi:10.1016/s0899-9007(96)00380-2

Cortisol and Its Effects on Your Performance

Imagine this; your girlfriend/boyfriend just broke up with you and now you’re absolutely devastated. Or you just got into a huge fight with your roommate about how he’s not paying the rent on time and now you’re absolutely pissed.

boyfriend-and-girlfriend-fighting-2

 

What do both of these scenarios have in common? They both are eliciting a strong emotional response (one of sadness and one of anger). Ones that are far different from your standard emotional state.

How Does This Impact My Progress In The Gym Though?

Well, when stressful situations arise in our lives, a hormone which many of you are familiar with called cortisol is released. Many of you most likely know this¬†as the “stress hormone.” But what really makes this hormone so bad?

Inherently, cortisol isn’t either really “good” or “bad”.¬†1200px-Cortisol2.svgIt is simply released to carry out the body’s catabolic processes. But what does this mean?

Catabolic simply means “to break down”. From a muscle-building perspective,¬†your probably thinking this is the worst possible thing that could happen to you. But hear me out. Your body is constantly breaking (more like tearing) down muscle during training and then recovers during times of proper nutrition and sleep (aka recovery), causing growth (called¬†hypertrophy for us physiology nerds).

Also, cortisol performs a number of other beneficial functions, such as breaking down proteins into amino acids to be used for initiating muscle protein synthesis (the key driver of muscle growth via the amino acid leucine) and breaking down proteins to be converted to glucose (sugar for energy) via a process called gluconeogenesis, when sufficient amounts of carbohydrates are not available to be used for energy.

 

catabolic-hormones

But What Makes It The “Stress Hormone?”

What gives cortisol a bad name is when it begins to affect the positive adaptations (results) you normally see when your progressing through your exercise regimen. What this hormone has the ability to do is significantly reduce protein synthesis rates, thus halt tissue growth (that hypertrophy we discussed earlier) when produced in excess.

When somebody has excess amounts of this hormone in their body, it can result in:

  • Reduced ability to build lean mass (muscle)
  • Reduced anabolic (“the building up of”) hormone output, such as testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1)
  • Have a negative affect on glucose uptake and utilization throughout the body, therefore, energy is being expended less efficiently in order to fuel your activities, resulting in a more rapid onset of fatigue (that’s no good guys, that’s for sure)

However, this is not to say that cortisol is absolute devil and we should aim to have no cortisol in our bodies at all. Far from it. We need cortisol to perform the bodies necessary basic functionalities that have to do with breakdown which eventually lead to repair and progression. That is when we come back stronger and better. We should aim to keep it at normal levels through easily applied lifestyle changes that can become habits.

What is “Normal”?

That’s a good question. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center [1], serum cortisol levels (blood levels) should be around 10-20mcg (micrograms) per dL (deciliter), which would look like this: 10-20 mcg/dL, given that you take this exam upon waking in a fasted state, around 6-8 a.m preferably. Morning is when your cortisol levels are the highest due to the stress of your body waking you up to start the day, so if you take this test in the afternoon hours, expect a level closer to 3-10 mcg/dL.

10-Things-Doctor-Wont-Tell-About-Blood-Tests-722x406

However, for those who can’t afford or don’t want to receive a blood test (the preferred method), then a urinalysis (pee test) or salivary (spit test) will also give you an estimate of where your levels are at.

But if you still don’t want to do those tests, that’s fine, money can be tight. There are ways that you can estimate it upon yourself through various symptoms of high cortisol. These include:

  • Fatty deposits around the midsection and upper back and face
  • Slower healing of cuts and bruises
  • Decreased libido
  • Severe fatigue
  • Depression/Anxiety
  • Constant headaches
  • Erectile Dysfunction (men)
  • Irregular or missing menstrual periods (women)

What I just described here are symptoms of a disorder called Cushing Syndrome [2]. This disorder occurs when we are exposed to chronically high cortisol levels over a period months and years. High cortisol is essentially harmless in the short term (couple of days) and insignificant in terms of your health and progress. But if it occurs for a longer period of time and you begin to observe these symptoms or test results that you receive are throwing you a red flag, please seek out a medical professional.

Cushing's_syndrome

 

How Do I Control my Cortisol Levels?

Okay, now that we know all about the basics of cortisol, let’s figure out how to control it in order to keep it within healthy ranges.

Methods to reduce cortisol are drastically similar to those of overall stress management.

Sleep

Everyone knows how important sleep is. Given that everyone is different and requires varying amounts of sleep, 7-9 hours is a good starting point. Over time, things like sleep deprivation and insomnia can wreak havoc on your body and can increase cortisol in the long run. Doing things like using that cool blue light filter on your phone an hour before time (or powering it off completely), putting away all work-related tasks 30-60 minutes before bed, and limiting caffeine intake 6 hours before bedtime can help improve your sleep quality.

The Power of Positive Thinking

Anxiety; many of us gave gone through it (including myself) or know somebody who has. It’s an absolutely terrible feeling and I don’t wish this feeling upon anybody (I will write a specific article for this topic in the future). Whatever the cause may be or whether or not you are taking prescription medication to manage it, learning to take control of your thoughts (as corny as it sounds) is a step in the right direction to manage anxiety and destructive thinking.

 

Anxiety disorder

Learning to be aware of your negative thoughts when they arise and simply turning them into a positive has helped me tremendously. Acknowledge the raise in heart rate, breathing, and other signs of tension when they arise. That’s it. Don’t attach an emotion to them. Just realize that they are there, it’s happening, and that it will soon go away. Develop an action plan and envision the solution. Visualization is a powerful tool, trust me.

Diet

Do I really need to go over this? Those of you reading this most likely know how to eat properly. Eat your protein, get in your micronutrietns with those fruits and veggies, implement those healthy fats, and for God sake, drink a lot of water. Make sure that pee is a bright yellow guys ūüėČ

Supplementation

There isn’t too much to go over in this category, as most supplements marketed for this purpose haven’t been adequately proven in the scientific literature. But there a couple supplements that I have found to help me and have great support behind them in the data.

  • Ashwaganda
    • An herb that was popularized in Ayurvedic medicine
    • Is most notable for reducing anxiety via the reduction of cortisol levels. Lowers cortisol more significantly compared to any other herb out there.
    • In one study, 300 mg (a little less than a standard dose of 400-500 mg) was shown to decrease serum (blood) cortisol levels by 27.9% over 60 days, a very significant drop for a non-drug treatment [3]

Ashwagandha-CMYK

  • L-Theanine
    • A non-essential amino acid (meaning the body makes some of it in the body without obtaining it from diet or supplementation)
    • Appears to promote relaxation without sedation (sleepiness)
    • One study found that an increase in alpha brain wave function (electroencephalogram, which is a significant marker of mental relaxation and concentration in the frontal and occipital lobes of the brain)¬† in healthy adults was significant in those with high baseline anxiety after ingesting 200 mg L-theanine (higher end of the standard dose) in 30 minutes [4].

71M440IlsyL._SY679_
I’m not sponsored in any way by NOW Sports, but I am a firm believer in the quality and efficacy of their products

Final Thoughts

Cortisol has many other catabolic functions throughout the body that expand beyond the scope of muscle building and fat loss. This just scratches the surface of it in order to inform you of the basics so that you can make the right decisions for your health.

If you have any questions about any aspect of this topic, please don’t hesitate to reach out via the comments or my email!

 

References

1. Cortisol (Blood). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=167&contentid=cortisol_serum

2. Nieman, L. K. (2015). Cushings syndrome: Update on signs, symptoms and biochemical screening. European Journal of Endocrinology, 173(4). doi:10.1530/eje-15-0464

3. Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 34(3), 255. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.106022

4. Song, C., Jung, J., Oh, J., & Kim, K. (2003). Effects of Theanine on the Release of Brain Alpha Wave in Adult Males. Korean Journal of Nutrition, 36(9), 918-923.