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

Why Motivation is Often Bullshit

Motivation: much of the reason as to why many of us fail to reach our fitness goals.

The most cliche image about motivation that I could find
  • I’m motivated to start, but can never keep it up
  • I have too much to do to stay motivated
  • This particular person has more money than me, so they can buy better food and supplements then I can. It’s easier for them to stay motivated.

And the list goes on and on and on…

I’ve heard it all. And let me tell you right now, IT’S ALL B.S!

Discipline: The True Answer

This is where the true answer lies. According to Webster Dictionary, the definition of discipline is:


training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character

Discipline (n.d.) In Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/discipline

To me, this definition is very powerful. This is one of the core reasons as to why we’ve gotten into fitness and training in the first place; to mold the ideal version of ourselves.

What people often don’t realize is that training shapes our character. Yes, you need the motivation to start, but it’s the discipline that you develop over the years and years of training that truly gets you going.

I’m sure you’ve noticed these effects that have come from training and living a fitness-based lifestyle:

  • Learning that failing is actually a good thing, as long as you continue to try again
  • Established more patience for obtaining the fruits of your labor
  • It’s more about the quality of worked performed than the quantity of work performed
  • You’re honestly capable of a lot more than you give yourself credit for

Again, this list can go on and on, but I think you get my point.

But Wait, You Actually DO Need Motivation?

But I understand, you do in fact NEED motivation to get started, before you can ever develop the discipline that’ll help you to keep going. In this article, I will tell you all about what I, and the literature, have to say about gaining the momentum from motivation so that you can reach that blissful discipline stage that keeps you in the game for the long run.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic

There are two types of motivation out there. As you can tell by my heading, there are two of them.

Intrinsic

This is the kind of motivation that lies within somebody. Some examples of this are the personal enjoyment that you get while doing something (such as playing video games) or the feeling of accomplishment you get after completing a particular challenge (such as exercising). This is the kind of motivation that will keep you in the game for the long run, as opposed to…

Extrinsic

This kind of motivation is the opposite of intrinsic; coming from the outside. Examples of this include trying to impress your peers and monetary (financial) gain. This kind of motivation isn’t necessarily “wrong”, but the problem lies in using this as your primary source of motivation. You’ll quickly run out of gas by using this as your main fuel source.

So How Do I Use These Kinds of Motivation To Help Me?

There have actually been a multitude of studies where these kinds of motivation have been put to the test in order to determine what the best method for exercise motivation is.

One study in particular examined college-aged students (both male and female) and found out that the students were more likely to report their intrinsic motives such as the enjoyment of engaging in a sport rather than their extrinsic motives, such as their weight. What we can gather from this is that it may prove to be more beneficial to always have a tangible goal for your fitness pursuits.

For example, say you’re a bodybuilder who’s plateaued in the gym. You’re not motivated to train anymore, so you haven’t gone to the gym nearly as often as you used to. What should you do in a scenario like this?

Set a goal. Yep, that simple. Aim for a photo-shoot. Do a bodybuilding contest. Try to improve on one of the “big 3” lifts. There are limitless possibilities. If you don’t have a clear goal, then you’ll just be spinning your wheels in the dirt.

Let Both Types of Motivation Work Together

In one of the most extensive analysis of data that I’ve ever seen, researchers looked at over 4 decades of research and 9 meta-analysis (yep, they looked at over 9 summaries of data and made their own summary about it) on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. What the researchers discovered was that in terms of performance in multiple settings (school, work, physical activity), intrinsic motivation was what they call a “medium-strong” predictor of performance.

However, the surprising discovery here is that when incentives were added (extrinsic motivation), researchers were better able to predict the participants quantity of performance. In other words, although the quality of work was similar, they were more often than not able to perform more of that quality work when some sort of extrinsic motivation was applied.

So don’t think of these two types of motivation as inherently “good” or “bad”. Instead, think of them as tools; being able to use them together to more effectively and efficiently reach your goals.

Bottom Line

So, do you need motivation. Yes, you do. The title was more “clickbaity” than anything else. (It’s just the way it is now)

Although motivation is quite important, discipline is what keeps you going indefinitely. So use these motivational tools to your advantage to help you reach that discipline stage and let me know how that works out for you! Feel free to reach out in the comments to share your experiences with these types of motivation.

References

Cerasoli, C. P., Nicklin, J. M., & Ford, M. T. (2014). Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic incentives jointly predict performance: A 40-year meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin,140(4), 980-1008. doi:10.1037/a0035661

Kilpatrick, M., Hebert, E., & Bartholomew, J. (2005). College Students’ Motivation for Physical Activity: Differentiating Men’s and Women’s Motives for Sport Participation and Exercise. Journal of American College Health,54(2), 87-94.

Discipline [Def. 1]. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/discipline

Should You Still Eat “Healthy” During the Holidays?

In a matter of less than 2 weeks, we’ll be going to parties and gatherings that involve some tasty and interesting food options; eggnog (alcohol anyone?), ham, cookies, cakes, you name it. It’s there.

Now, since we’re all into fitness and such (I’m assuming that’s why you’re all here right?), it can be difficult to navigate through these times. We want to keep on progressing in the gym because we’ve worked so hard to get there, but at the same time, we don’t want to be “that guy” or “that girl” who makes everyone else feel bad by not indulging in the holiday goodies. So, what should you do?

Well, the simple answer to that question is…

It Depends…

The most annoying answer you’ve ever seen in your life, I’m sure. Usually comes without a valid or applicable explanation too, which makes it worse. But don’t worry, I’m Zach, and I explain things…thoroughly.  

What Are YOUR Goals?

This is probably the most important question when it comes to dietary success during the holidays. Why do you train? Why do you track your nutrition and watch what you’re eating?

Is it for:

  • Enhancing your physique?
  • Gaining strength?
  • Having an overall greater sense of well-being?
  • Impressing chicks? (nothing wrong with that)

There is no wrong answer here. Everybody has different reasons for training. It doesn’t matter why you do it. My goal here is to help you stay aligned with whatever goal it is that you have. 

Let’s go over a couple of the most common goals that fall into broader categories that will most likely be applicable for most of you. If I happen to miss any of you, please don’t hesitate to reach out in the comments or DM on social media!

Bulking Phase

Hell yeah. This is the holy grail of goals to have during the holidays, which many people do. Being in a caloric surplus to gain mass during the holidays is a simple feat. And don’t worry, one day of more extreme overfeeding of a less than ideal ratio of nutrients is not going to make any sort of significant impact on your long-term progress. 

In one study of 31 young (mid-twenties) and healthy (non-obese and not overweight) people, subjects were overfed 1,250 extra calories per day above their normal levels. That equals out to a 3,750 calorie surplus over the course of 3 days for these people (1). Most people during the holidays (even if they are bulking) don’t even get to this number. But yet, we have to be realistic, some do. 

Even still, this study showed us that even though health markers such as body weight and fasting glucose and insulin increased, there was no significant increase in peripheral insulin sensitivity (the failure of tissues to increase the release of glucose in response to the release of insulin) or any biomarkers that are associated with insulin resistance, such as angiopoietin-like 6, insulin-like growth factor 1, selenoprotein-P, and C-reactive protein. 

So no need to worry here. You’ll see a greater increase in weight (a lot of it from water/sodium retention, so don’t get too excited) which will go away after a few days of eating on your normal diet. Plus, you’ll most likely get a good training session the next day due to the even higher acute increase in calories. 

Cutting Phase

This is the tricky one. To be quite honest, this one all depends on your view point.

Now, if your goal is to lose around 5-20 lbs, that’s what I’d unofficially call a light or mild weight loss cycle. In this type of cut, you’re allowed to be a little more lenient, since you don’t have nearly as much to lose as somebody who is carrying a lot more body fat on them. However, this doesn’t mean that you should go hog-wild and stuff your face with sweets and treats until you vomit. 

I can only give you my recommendations and insights as to what I would do. I wouldn’t go all out if I were in a phase like this, but if you’re one of those people with the “all or nothing” mentality, then go for it. I admit it can be fun sometimes. As long as it doesn’t promote an unhealthy relationship with food, then yes, stuff that face of yours. You’ll be able to catch back up to your set point sooner than you might think (depending on how hard you go). But if you feel like it’s messing with you psychologically and causing you more stress than its worth, then you got to learn to cope healthily. We’ll get into that into a future article.

No matter how big your weight loss goal is and you still want some treats to eat for the holidays, this is the approach that I’d reccomend:

  • Intermittent Fasting: No, this is no holy grail diet or solution to all of your weight loss problems. However, it’s been shown for many to reduce appetite in people more so than regular calorie-restricted diets (2). Because of this, I’d recommend following a diet like this for a few days previous to a party or gathering you plan on attending. If you’d like to find out more on how to perform this kind of diet and find out more about the diet in general, please read my other article on intermittent fasting here: https://scholarlymuscle.com/2018/08/07/intermittent-fasting-is-it-really-the-weight-loss-miracle-its-advertised-to-be/
  • Whey Protein: It’s also been shown that whey protein, when taken consistently, can blunt both short and long-term hunger responses (3). I’d recommend taking it an hour or two before you head out to ensure that you’re not overeating during the event. 
  • Carbonated Beverages: Diet soda, sparkling water, whatever you’re into. It doesn’t take a scientific study to tell you that these types of beverages can fill you up and pretty quickly as a matter of fact. Just make sure you’re not adding a significant amount of calories to them such as through juice, alcohol, or other calorically-dense drinks. 
  • Variety: Get a little bit of everything. Anything that you see that you want to eat or drink, make yourself a sample platter of it. Do this in order to make you feel like you haven’t missed out on anything but also keep the portions modest, which can add up quickly particularly with typical holiday foods. 

Just Enjoy Yourself

Cliche statement alert. At the end of the day, it’s all about balance and moderation. The holiday season only comes once a year, so enjoy it to the extent that you want to. Don’t worry about what Joe Schmoe or Jane Doe is doing. Their goals are different. Their genetics are different. Their beliefs are different. 

This is all about you. Nobody else. Don’t let anybody make you feel bad about eating a particular way; holiday season or otherwise. Your the one who’ll be receiving the results of your actions, not them. So just freakin enjoy yourself!

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and whatever else you celebrate!  

References

  1. Chen, M., Liu, B., Thompson, C. H., Wittert, G. A., & Heilbronn, L. K. (2016). Acute Overfeeding Does Not Alter Liver or Adipose Tissue-Derived Cytokines in Healthy Humans. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 69(3-4), 165-170. doi:10.1159/000452678
  2. Seimon, R. V., Roekenes, J. A., Zibellini, J., Zhu, B., Gibson, A. A., Hills, A. P., . . . Sainsbury, A. (2015). Do intermittent diets provide physiological benefits over continuous diets for weight loss? A systematic review of clinical trials. Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology,418, 153-172. doi:10.1016/j.mce.2015.09.014
  3. Mollahosseini, M., Shab-Bidar, S., Rahimi, M. H., & Djafarian, K. (2017). Effect of whey protein supplementation on long and short term appetite: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Clinical Nutrition ESPEN,20, 34-40. doi:10.1016/j.clnesp.2017.04.002