Congratulations! You have shown enough courage to read an article entitled “Real Men Cry.” If you’re male, you probably clicked in to see if I’m going to talk about you. If you’re female, you most likely want to know the secret to making a man cry. Whatever your gender or your motive for coming here today, I’m sure the information I’m about to share will be valuable and worthy of your time.
If you are thinking of entering a bodybuilding competition, or have just started the preparation for your first one, there a few things you may want to seriously consider before going forward. Forget worrying about your size, forget about your strength, and forget any preconceived notions you have about bodybuilding competitions. You may be a brute in the gym and the envy of all the guys and gals, but are you emotionally and mentally prepared for what is to come?
There is more truth to the simple graphic above than you will ever know. It’s been said that you have never really dieted unless you have prepared for a bodybuilding competition. It is a diet unlike any other. It is not a matter of starvation, endless cardio, boring and bland food, or water deprivation. It is a fine balance of eating the correct foods, at the correct time, in the correct amount. It is a fine art of determining your body type, your body’s reaction to foods, and your calorie expenditure. It is the fine manipulation of natural body processes to trigger the growth of muscle and elimination of fat, whilst operating on a caloric deficit. Ultimately, it is making demands of your body that every natural process is programmed to avoid.
Sound intense enough for you? It gets better. Typical contest preparation runs from 12 to 16 weeks. You can gauge how much time is needed based on your starting condition. If you maintain a lean physique year round then you will want to go on the lower end of preparation. I’ve met some bodybuilders that prepare in six to eight weeks. Most people however, do not remain this lean (below ten percent body fat) year round and will require a little more time to prepare.
When determining your starting point you will need to get a fat test performed to determine your percentage. Once you have your numbers in hand you can calculate your lean body mass and how much you are going to want to lose. You are going to want to aim for a loss of approximately one pound per week. Attempting to lose more than this will most likely result in the loss of muscle. It is a SLOW process, so give yourself plenty of time.
The beginning should start out smoothly. You will still have your normal/elevated body fat level, and plenty of energy. The excitement of what you are embarking on will be enough to keep you fueled for several weeks, especially as the initial weight starts to come off and people start noticing. I find that most people, including myself, find no problem in eating smaller more restricted meals in the beginning. I usually lose several pounds the first couple of weeks simply due to a change in diet and monitored portions. Here is a snippet of my log from my current prep. You will see a drastic decrease in weight at the beginning which levels off as the weeks go on.
Things start to change after about eight weeks. As your body fat lowers you will start seeing some key changes besides the physical ones. You will most likely start to experience a small decrease in strength, or at least intermittent weak days. Food cravings will start to appear – even for food you never craved or ate previously. Mood swings will start to take over and you may find yourself easily agitated by small and irrelevant things. The closer you get to show day the worse it will get.
These changes in mood and behavior are completely normal. Our emotional stability and wellbeing is tied into our nutrition. It makes perfect sense why we start to experience these changes when we start to get to points in conditioning where you are basically at war with your body – the ultimate battle of differing opinions!
The important thing to remember is that although these changes are normal, it is not a green light to be a complete jerk to those around you. I find myself very volatile at this time and I must admit I have a tendency to take out my frustrations on those around me. I find myself excusing my behavior a lot. Believe it or not, I’m a pessimist by nature. This condition is only worsened when I am in a “food mood’ and am overcome with anger, sorrow, doubt, envy, and anything else you can throw at me – for reasons I cannot even explain.
It is for these reasons that you need to surround yourself with understanding and supportive people. This all ties in very closely to one of my previous articles, Value and Cooperation. It is absolutely important that you explain the process to those around you. Despite what others believe, you will not have control over a lot of the emotional and mental changes you will go through. It’s not your fault. Prepare yourself and others for what is to come. Tackle it together and formulate a contest prep strategy for dealing with emotional and hormonal changes.
My wife has seen enough prep breakdowns to realize a “food mood” when it is happening. I’m not so demanding that I would ask her to change her lifestyle or eating habits around me in a time when my options are limited. Yes, it does make for more difficult times; willingly placing myself in situations where I would be tempted and emotionally tormented, but it is what is. This is my choice, made with full knowledge of the difficulties that I would face.
My wife does an excellent job of talking me through my slumps. I tend to get very negative as show day approaches, actually mouthing the words “I am retiring after this show,” or “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I’ve even gone so far as to totally diminish my efforts by saying that bodybuilding is a complete waste of time and a vain hobby. I feel so childish after I throw my tantrums and have a good cry, but during the fit, it all seems justified and appropriate.
Life saving advice: Look into products by Walden Farms. They are zero calorie products formulated for diabetics. They include a variety of salad dressing and treats – including chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, and marshmallow topping. These products keep my tantrums at bay! It is important to keep in mind that these products are zero calories when consumed at the regular portion sizes. They do contain trace calories – and to be honest, some of the products are so good that there is no way you can restrict yourself to a single serving. Beware the not so good items. In my opinion you will want to avoid the peanut spread and the marshmallow dip.
On a final note, I want to share a dieting a strategy that it still relatively new to me but has shown great potential. Some of you may have heard of IIFYM, or, If It Fits Your Macros. The philosophy is simple; if what you want to eat is within your daily allowance, eat it. I used to look down on this method of dieting as a clutch for the weak; a way to rationalize eating junk food for those that could not handle the demands of the bodybuilding lifestyle. Nonetheless, the idea intrigued me, because deep down, I too wanted a good and legitimate reason to eat something “forbidden.”
I was first really introduced to the concept by NGA/IFPA Pro Brian Ahlstrom. I had the pleasure of working out with Brian while he was in contest prep, and he explained to me his typical diet, which happened to include a post-workout skinny cow ice-cream. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! He looked amazing, was in contest prep, and was eating THAT to fuel his body post workout?! Immediately I thought, “SABOTEUR! He wants me to ruin my physique!” But if you have ever met Brian, you will know that he is not that kind of guy. He has a friendly way with people that just says, “Trust me, I’m awesome.” He has a body that proves he knows his stuff, and he has clients that continue to win titles from his training.
I had to try it for myself. I started my contest prep diet two weeks early to allow myself some time to play around with food I typically considered taboo. I started incorporating things like sugar-free, fat-free ice cream, pop tarts, bagels, pancakes, and kid’s cereal into my diet. Jelly, honey, and butters were used more frequently. My first reefed consisted of pop tarts, animal crackers, and frosted flakes! What I saw totally blew my mind. Weight started to come off, strength and energy increased in the gym, and my mental state was significantly better compared to previous prep cycles. Now 16 weeks later I am still dieting this way and have lost over 20 pounds. In my opinion I look better than I have ever looked. I am leaner, stronger, and more vascular. I estimate I am going to come in three pounds heavier than my last show – a three-pound gain I am actually happy about!
I still believe that caution must be utilized when taking this approach. It would not be healthy or feasible to plan an entire diet around food that is void of any nutritional value. A contest prep diet should still be strict, well thought-out and disciplined. This is simply a method of dieting that allows for the inclusion of the foods we enjoy (allowing for that much-needed mental break), with the one rule being that you still remain in a caloric deficit.
Good luck on your competititive endeavors! Eat well, train hard!