They say that success leaves clues. What does this mean? When we set out to accomplish something and happen to be successful, we often believe that we did everything right and that is why we are successful. This is also the reason that when we set out to accomplish a similar feat after having success we then fail miserably. In 2010, I had my most successful contest season yet. It was the first time that I ever made top 5 and I took my conditioning to a new level. That being said, I cannot say that it was a 100% success. I did some things correctly, and I did some things incorrectly. In this article I would like to highlight some facets of preparation that were mishandled and what I plan to do to correct these issues for my next contest preparation. I plan to cover all aspects of preparation: training, nutrition, posing, tanning, coaching, cardio, my approach to the off-season, and time management.
This area of preparation was lacking for the first half of my preparation. During this time I was finishing my physical therapy education, which involved full-time clinical work. I wasn’t getting paid for this, and I was working in the clinic 40+ hours per week. I had limited time to work, and I was also in the first year of my marriage. Anyone who has been married for over a year knows that financial struggle is rule rather than the exception. Something had to give, so I had to cancel my gym membership. I was fortunate enough to train 3 days a week in our school’s weight room, which was not always open for students to use! I wasn’t able to get back into my real gym until I was six weeks out of my first show that year! BOTTOM LINE: Have your ducks in a row when you commit to doing a competition! If you can’t put your full effort into training and preparation, wait until you are in a position to do so.
This is easily the most critical aspect of contest preparation. As I mentioned before, I never placed in any contest until 2010 (I started in 2003). This was in large part due to the fact that my nutrition was not optimal. One of the biggest factors, according to most judges, that affects your placing is how lean or conditioned you are able to get. Up until last year, I never got lean enough. Whether it was not taking my calories low enough (out of a fear of losing muscle), cheating on my diet (which I did several times), or not dieting long enough; it all led to me showing up “out of shape.” In 2010 I committed to dieting as long as I needed to and staying on the diet. While I managed to do this, I made three critical mistakes:
I had allowed myself to get too fat in the previous off-season! Successful competing is not made in the final 12 weeks before the show. It is made in the year (or two) leading up to the show. Whether you compete or not bodybuilding is a lifestyle. To get the most out of it, you must live it 24/7. While I had a great season, I know I could have done better if I had less body-fat to lose from the start.
Too many cheat days: I stuck to my diet leading up to my shows but I had a couple incidents where I allowed myself go overboard with eating whatever I wanted. The first was a weekend trip to celebrate our anniversary. I could have stayed on my diet but I chose not to. I was still unsure if I would compete in the first show that I wanted to do, but I had four weeks to go. After my binge, after consulting with a trusted friend, it was decided that I could compete and still be better than my last outing. I ended up getting 3rd in the open class and 5th in the novice class. While I was ecstatic about placing for the first time, it’s possible that I could have placed better had I committed to staying on the diet while traveling. I also took a week off of hard dieting after my first contest of the year. While I had another eight weeks before the next contest, I know it would have been to my benefit to have one cheat meal after the show and get right back on the diet.
I had no issues with cheating once I finished the week after my first show. I continued to get leaner than ever had been in my life, let alone for contests. I maintained a minimal carb diet as I got leaner. I had read about doing re-feeds to kick start the metabolism every week or at least raising my carb intake for a day. I guess I was afraid that doing this would encourage me to cheat again, so I did no re-feeds! I had to keep increasing my cardio to continue getting leaner and I did lose a considerable amount of muscle mass. I have become more disciplined since then and know the difference between re-feeding and having a cheat meal or cheat day!
Stay lean in the off-season
Stay on track with your nutrition no matter what!
Implement re-feeds as you get leaner
I did no cardio for my last contest preparation. Just kidding! Every contest I’ve done I’ve performed fasted low-intensity steady-state (LISS) cardio in the morning upon waking up. I’ve also lost considerable amounts of muscle mass (more than necessary) during every preparation that I’ve done. There’s little research that shows that this approach is optimal or necessary. Since then I have rarely performed a fasted cardio session. Staying leaner is part of this strategy as well as allowing myself enough time to diet.
I was also not consistent with performing High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). I did sessions sporadically throughout my preparation period. There are many benefits to performing HIIT, too many to discuss in this article alone! But as I look back, it was laziness that prevented me from performing an optimal number of sessions. This year I am committed to performing 1-2 sessions per week, and I expect the results to be significantly greater!
BOTTOM LINE: Fasted morning cardio will allow you to get lean, but is not optimal for sparing muscle mass while you diet. HIIT can be beneficial but is not for everyone, it’s very effective if done correctly (and very hard!)
Every experienced competitor will tell you that it is important to be dark onstage. You can almost never be too dark onstage; and if you aren’t dark enough, those stage lights will wash out your physique! Part of being dark enough is having a solid base tan before you have a spray tan applied. Last time I prepared for competition, I opted not to tan naturally in favor of spray tan. It seemed that no matter how many coats of tanner than I put on, I was not dark enough! Also, I did a total of three shows, for the first two I applied the tanner on myself with the help of my wife. Despite adding six coats, I was still not dark enough! All that work was for nothing. Do yourself a favor; if the promoter offers a spray tan service, get it! You will save time and avoid stress (which is the last thing you need the weekend of a contest)! My decision to not use the tanning bed was based on all of the bad press surrounding tanning beds. What I can tell you is this, if you have a base tan from a tanning bed, it will be easier to be darker onstage and your skin will be tighter from being in the tanning bed. Using a tanning bed is a personal decision, as a healthcare professional I cannot recommend using it. After a discussion with a close friend of mine, however, I have decided that since I have no family history of skin cancer as well as the fact that I personally tan easily, that a few weeks every other year would not significantly increase my risk of getting skin cancer. And because I have had several off-seasons of getting too heavy, I had a lot of loose skin, which could be somewhat tightened by spending time in the tanning bed.
BOTTOM LINE: Utilize spray tanning service for your next contest. Although I won’t recommend it, carefully consider using a tanning bed as it can tighten your skin and help you build a better base tan.
Posing practice is vital to your preparation! You need to be able to hold your poses for a certain amount of time (which means tensing every visible muscle at once and making it look easy)! Practicing posing will also harden your physique and give you a denser look. I had been more diligent with posing practice in the past and did not practice as much during my last preparation. As a result, I had difficulty holding my poses onstage. Towards the end of preparation, I got better at holding my poses but it was too little too late. My final show of 2010 I had to go up against ten other guys. It was the largest, toughest class I’d ever competed in. Needless to say, I was more winded than I had ever been after going through that pre-judging! BOTTOM LINE: Practice your posing and focus on all your poses (not just your most muscular)! Work up to holding each pose for 60 sec. and doing this for two rounds.
Choosing to have a coach is, again, a personal decision. My decision not to utilize a coach during my last preparation was based mostly on financial limitations. But there are other components to this as well. If you are relatively new to bodybuilding and want to start your competitive career off on the right foot (and you have the means), hiring a coach can be a great idea. If you are someone who is experienced and feel you have been stuck at the same level of development or same level of competition for a long time, then hiring a coach may also be a good idea. If you are the kind of person who likes to think for themselves and learn what works and what doesn’t work for your body, then hiring a coach may be a waste of time. I do fall into this third category for the most part. If I decide to hire a coach, I must also commit myself to being 100% compliant otherwise I’m wasting my money and my coach’s time! That being said, I’m not above constructive criticism. I will seek feedback from trusted friends when it comes to how I’m progressing and if I need to change my routine or nutrition.
BOTTOM LINE: Weigh the pros and cons of hiring a coach. It may or may not be right for you. That said, utilize feedback from trusted eyes.
There really is no off-season. I am a firm believer in the idea that what you do with your off-season in the months and years leading up to the start of your prep will have as much of an impact on how well you do compared to what you do in the final 8-12 weeks. If you squander your time in the off-season not eating properly or training effectively, your best efforts in the final weeks leading up to your show will be futile. Your best case scenario will most likely be that you look the exact same as you did last time. To take your competitive physique to the next level, you have to live a bodybuilding lifestyle. That doesn’t mean eating chicken and broccoli all the time and staying shredded constantly, it means committing yourself to making improvements in your off-season. If you are uncomfortable taking your shirt off in front of others (i.e. at the pool or beach), you probably aren’t taking your off-season very seriously.
BOTTOM LINE: Live like a bodybuilder and you will become a better bodybuilder.
The year 2010 had plenty of ups and downs for me. Like I said, it was my most successful competitive season yet. However, I also lost my job… TWICE! The first time was during prep and the second was a couple weeks after the last contest. My wife and I entered into marital counseling as we were approaching our first anniversary. All this while finishing school and preparing for a national exam to get my license. Looking back, I could have managed my time and priorities better. I can’t say that it was the wrong decision for me to compete because of the success I did have. As I write this, I am preparing for another round of contests and the key word here is BALANCE! I’m also adopting the mentality of being in the “here and now.” When I’m at work, I’m working. When I’m training, I train. When I’m with my wife and/or my son, I’m 100% with my them. I can’t let thoughts of other areas of my life enter into what I’m doing at that moment. Plan your day, week, etc… and then follow through with it in all areas, not just training and nutrition.
BOTTOM LINE: Remember to live your life first; improving your body should NOT be an obsession. Bodybuilding and physique competition is a luxury for most of us! Keep your priorities straight!
There you have it! As I type this I am less than 10 weeks out from my first of three planned contests this year. I am doing my best to apply the lessons I’ve learned from my last preparation, and I’m even more excited about the results to come! Hopefully you can learn something from what I went through as well. Learn from your own mistakes, and from some of mine!