I began competing in men's physique this year and placed third in my second competition. The Mr. Olympia contest was the past weekend, and I couldn’t help but be inspired to talk about my own experiences competing in a bodybuilding event.
Obviously, the National Physique Committee (NPC)/International Natural Bodybuilding and Fitness (INBF) competitions provide a very different platform to the traditional bodybuilding platform of Mr. Olympia. Nevertheless, the purpose of this article is to help prepare you for your own competition if you're thinking about it, or convince you to compete if you are unsure.
“Competitions can help discover our weaknesses and lead to self-discovery.”
–Huo Yuanjia, Jet Li’s Fearless, 2006
Competition, according to the dictionary is an event or contest in which people take part to establish superiority or supremacy in a particular area. Gaining supremacy in something, to the degree of being an Olympian, requires a high level of testicular fortitude that many lack. Those who decide to work for the prize seek a greater reward through the fruitful and grueling process of the bitter work of training for competition.
Competition, especially with oneself, is the epitome of motivation. Comparisons should allow us to see the beauty in all things, not just ourselves. For example, in physique competitions the “ideology” is to present a muscular yet fit aesthetic such that it can be “reasonably” obtained (think Michael Bergin or Traci Bingham from the original Baywatch series, plus some more muscle). This means each competitor has a chance at winning if the effort is applied, no matter the start of each journey.
I competed in men's physique having previously competed in fencing, rugby, and Shotokan karate. I came from a background that was, in its purest form, competition heavy. For you, that might not be the case, so it’s a question of your goals. Why do you spend hours a week to “get in shape” (whatever that means anymore)?
If it’s for health, then it’s a competition with your body to work in functioning order. If your answer is to get a better-looking body then it’s a competition with your genetics and your current lifestyle to make a change. J, my client whom I frequently talk about in my articles from DeShawn Fairbairn, is now on his prep for his first competition after witnessing my experience and after seeing a difference in his own physique through training. Like I said, competition serves as a motivation, and in reality, each of us has what it takes to compete.
What Does It Take to Compete?
“Everyone wants to shine bright like a diamond, but no one wants to get cut.”
When it comes to physique or bodybuilding competitions, the short answer to what it takes isn't encouraging: money, time, commitment, and sacrifice.
Just take a look at the following essential components you'll have to have in place prior to a show:
- Posing and Stage Presence
- Financial Support
The Biggest Need: Nutrition
Nutrition plays a big part in being competition ready in physique, as you might guess. You get to be a laboratory of ideas as you train because everyone has a unique path to creating the right physical make up to pose on a stage. The rage for some time has been: carbs, water, sodium, potassium, human growth hormones (HGH), T-shots, supplement cycling, and sleep cycling (amongst other things).
Nutrition isn’t simply tricking your body into a magical state of muscle on, fat off. It’s a combination of necessary elements that your body needs to thrive. Cutting out water, sodium, carbohydrates, fats, and trace micronutrients for extended periods of time is not the answer. Monitoring these things and adjusting them to provide the driest and fullest physique possible is the most definite approach.
Water constitutes a major factor in prepping for a show so, messing about with your water intake, which some people assume is happening in the run-up to a competition, is not on the cards. If you are on prescription medication that affects your kidneys such as Lasix, you can't mess with water intake.
Lean muscle is about 75% of water when you have water under the skin, subcutaneous water, that's when you may want to have some sort of elimination to make the skin cling tightly to the muscle. But, when it comes to training, staying healthy and being lean, you're water intake is going to be normal, if not above normal because of the level of activity. My go-to option is to increase water close to the show, then reduce the amount of water the night before and day of the show.
Regarding protein, I’d like to keep them at 1g of protein per 1lb of body weight—1.5g for a hard-gainer—and ultimately a source of extra calories. Using 2g of protein per 1lb of body weight reaches the territory of borderline excess1, but bodybuilders on the NPC stage will have no issue discrediting my aforementioned claim due to their need to maintain their sheer size.
Carbohydrates are the super fun topic of a prep and, for some competitors, akin to scratching one's nails against a chalkboard. Carbohydrates supply fuel for the body, replenish glycogen stores after a carbohydrate deplete, help to fill your muscles—1 gram of carbohydrates attracts 2.7g of water with it, the kind that "fills out" the muscle, not the subcutaneous kind—but most importantly, carbs make competitors feel happy (a carb depleted competitor is a sad competitor with no pumps given).
The crucial part here is to maintain your carbohydrate intake until approximately three weeks out from the show. It’s more manageable to manipulate carbs with sufficient time away from peak week so that adjustments can be made without detracting from the work done thus far.
The Three Week Prep Plan
A typical three-week plan for me involves maintenance carbs (carbohydrates needed at the goal body weight and or current weight) until two weeks out from a show, ingesting 2-3 times the amount of average carb intake. Then, deplete for three days. This cycle repeats with Wednesday being a re-feed of an additional 100 to 300g depending on personal need.
Please keep in mind that the following system will not work if your body fat is still within a range that that is considered to be too high for your weight class in competition. Last minute cardio will not trick your body into having a drastic metabolic change or effect what your body considers to be “precious adipose tissue.” Remember, your body wants to maintain homeostasis at all times.
The Three Week Prep Plan: Week -3
C means carbs and H means half (or less than half) of your main carb intake.
- Monday – C
- Tuesday – C
- Wednesday – C
- Thursday – C
- Friday – C
- Saturday – CC (double carbs)
- Sunday – H (half of maintenance)
The Three Week Prep Plan: Week -2
- Monday – H
- Tuesday – H
- Wednesday – CC (Here is where I focus on my look and adjust as necessary never totally depleting carbs.)
- Thursday – C
- Friday – C
- Saturday – H
- Sunday – H
The Three Week Prep Plan: Week -1
This is peak week. Do not change anything this week unless a coach specifically tells you to. This week is not the time to experiment. If you still have fat to lose, or you’re not peaking out as you should be, check the ego and choose another show.
- Monday – H
- Tuesday – C
- Wednesday – C
- Thursday – C
- Friday – By now, your water has been “cut off” by your coach; since carbs hold water, check Saturday morning to see if you appear a bit flat. Erring on the side of flatness will make it simpler for a coach to re-feed in some carbs and/or water if need be (remember, sips not gulps). Here, it’s a toss-up with your game plan. The more muscular you are, the higher your need for carb intake, and the more water you’d have to consume in the morning. If you’ve peaked sufficiently without spilling over and you’re not the most muscular, you can remain at a maintenance carb load to effectively double them the morning of the show.
- Saturday – Show Day – Carbs, sodium, or water—if you restrict any of it, you will cramp and or spasm guaranteed. No one wants to see you doing the Stanky Leg on stage or watch your muscle enter a black hole.
Jelly, peanut butter, rice cakes—carbs are your friend on show day—the more the merrier. Breakfast should be something to the extent of a boiled chicken breast and a yam. You’d want to carb up around the time you pump up (vanity here is your friend). This portion of your prep should all be done before pre-judging.
After pre-judging, you’ve completed posing for the first time and at this point, your muscles are the most vulnerable. Muscles at their peak do not retain a pump for very long and, as such, you need to have a consistent supply of carbs in your muscles and sip on water. Some such as the likes of Dorian Yates would even consider eating a burger and fries for the extra sodium. So, you flexed your last muscle, how did you get there?
The Role of Strength and Conditioning
Conditioning in the world of bodybuilding refers to your dryness, muscularity, shape, and how shredded you are. Dryness means how much subcutaneous water have you depleted and if you holding on to excess water. Obtaining dryness comes from the tortuous practice of cardio.
Strength focused training will be implemented within your program as not to lose your mass or force output. Bodybuilders often get a bad rap for quarter squatting four plates. This is not the case in new age bodybuilding and also should not be in your own journey. Strength training is best suited for the beginning of your prep, peaking around the middle of your prep, and should be used as the heaviest set during your training days to add density to the muscle.
Conditioning and imbalances are two important factors to consider when displaying one’s body on stage. Symmetry is a huge defining factor during competition and by integrating unilateral work as a primary facet of your training modality, the deeper you are in your prep, the better you will present on stage. For instance, I have a larger left pec than right pec. I do my best to “hide” it, but in reality, some imbalances are completely genetic. Despite the efforts made sometimes, you cannot “mask” what could simply be a deformity.
Higher volume is a common term that is tossed around and given a bad name because people typically associate it with going super light during weight training. You have to throw this idea out the window and take the bullshit with it. Your muscles have no reason to maintain their mass and density if there is no challenge that they must overcome.
Where there is a sense in going lighter, however, is during a need for glycogen depletion and/or for correcting form. Higher volume is an inevitable path that bodybuilders follow because it’s simply a recipe that works. Keeping muscles under constant tension2 for an extended period presents the opportunity for metabolic stress. Lactic acid anyone? Nevertheless, this should not be the only training modality used in your prep otherwise you’d be doing yourself a disservice of trying to trick your body to grow after it has already adapted.
You Must Prepare Your Aesthetic
Posing originated from muses in Greek mythology and in African tribes as a way of showing an aesthetic and showing the nature behind a people. Posing comes naturally to some as means of expression, whereas on the stage it presents an opportunity to showcase hard earned muscle and show “personality.”
Practicing posing for an hour or two using what are called “mandatory poses” create a sweat like no other, but most people will laugh at you because it appears that you’re simply grimacing in the mirror. Posing becomes routine after a few competitions once you’ve created your own style. You will be able to pick the poses that showcase your body in the best way.
Looking at Women’s Figure during the Olympia had me awestruck. The competitors must’ve practiced for hours every day. My supervisor, Jessica, poses every time she passes a mirror in an attempt to normalize certain poses into her routine.
Tanning will ruin your hard work if not done and will shatter it completely if not done properly. If you’re convinced that your skin is already a bronze beauty, the lighting on the stage will make the judges think otherwise. The lighting used on bodybuilding stages and theatre stages “wash out” your natural skin tone. Therefore, a lighter toned person will appear pale and a darker complexion will appear as a pasty brown “clay-pot.” Tanning solutions range from $50 for a DIY kit with Pro-Tan to professionals that charge $100 upwards to $300 for the competition level tan. It's money well spent after attaining your new physique.
Don't Forget About Money, Time, and Energy
The average bodybuilder from the amateur level spends an excess of $500 on prepping for a competition. This includes tanning, hotel overnight stay, supplementation, and last minute amenities such as a robe or shorts. Other expenses include gym membership, food, time off work (optional), and more food.
The amount of time that is dedicated to your preparation is approximately 90 minutes per day for three to six months while you work diligently at your craft. This means if you have a full-time job, children, and friends, that’s a sacrifice they will be making as well. However, this sacrifice of missing parties and or not going out drinking is something that they will respect. It’s a life-changing undertaking. It’s the best time you’ll ever spend.
As your carbs, water, and body fat fluctuate, so will your energy levels. Preparing for your competition will leave you in a place that calls for resilience and courage. Time management will be the best friend that you always had, but never knew. Your sleep schedule along with managing work, or school, and life, in general, will be a great experience if you prioritize well. Having a strong support network will be like gold during your bouts of hormone change.
At the end of the day, you’re doing this competition for you and yours. It’s your journey in life. Do not stop because it’s hard.
1. Morton, Robert W., Kevin T. Murphy, Sean R. McKellar, Brad J. Schoenfeld, Menno Henselmans, Eric Helms, Alan A. Aragon, et al. “A Systematic Review, Meta-Analysis and Meta-Regression of the Effect of Protein Supplementation on Resistance Training-Induced Gains in Muscle Mass and Strength in Healthy Adults.” Br J Sports Med, July 4, 2017, bjsports-2017-097608.
2. Schoenfeld, Brad J. “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24, no. 10 (October 2010): 2857–72.