This is where it all starts and ends. Nutrition is 70–80% of not only the contest prep but also a bodybuilder’s overall existence. As a bodybuilder I was well aware of this from the start. I attribute my success to nutrition and to researching macronutrients (i.e., protein, fats, carbs— the body needs a large amount of these to function, hence the prefix “macro”). Each macronutrient plays a specific role in your muscle tissue development and your body’s ability to maintain size during contest prep.
Protein is used by the body not only to build muscle but also to repair tissues under the stress of the prep. It’s a building block of muscle during the off-season as well as during the prep. While contest prepping, you can still build muscle—ask Kevin Levrone if you have any doubts. Protein also helps prevent the breakdown of muscle during prep. When incorporated with a high-intensity workout, protein builds extra-lean muscle tissue while you are dieting for a show. I recommend 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight while dieting.
Carbohydrates are stored in your muscles and the liver and are used to provide energy to your muscles. When you work out, your body converts these stored carbohydrates into adenosine triphosphate and uses it as energy. Carbs also help keep your muscles full and hydrated, in addition to increasing insulin levels in a positive manner by boosting other growth-promoting hormones and enzymes needed to keep your muscles full of glycogen while dieting. Yes, lowering your carbs is sometimes necessary to burn off extra body fat, but when you drop your carbs too low, it affects your insulin levels in a negative fashion (opposite of above with more carbs). Don’t lower your carbs too much, because you can put your body in a catabolic state. My recommendation for carbs while dieting is 1.5 to 2 grams per pound of body weight.
Healthy dietary fats play a big role in the production of hormones responsible for growth and strength increases, like testosterone. This hormone production is vital while contest prepping. They help keep your body in an anabolic (muscle-building) state and prevent it from falling into a catabolic (muscle-breakdown) state. Examples of healthy fats include medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs); flaxseed oils; omega-3, -6, and -9 oils; fish oils; and conjugated linoleic acid. Healthy fats also help spare protein from being used as an energy source, which frees protein to be used primarily for building, maintaining, and repairing muscle tissue while dieting. Here is one thing many people don’t know: Good fats help reduce water retention by assisting in sodium and water removal. Keep this in mind while contest prepping. I recommend 0.3 to 0.4 grams of healthy fats per pound of body weight.
Everyone knows I’m big on cardio (as long as you’re feeding the body enough macronutrients) because cardio does burn calories and body fat, but it cannot be done to the point that it breaks down muscle. This would be catabolic to a bodybuilder who’s dialing in correctly. Too much cardio leads to cortisol (stress hormone), which makes you retain water. So now your body is burning muscle (catabolic) and retaining water by inducing cortisol levels. Not good! The correct functions of cardiovascular exercise are to burn calories and body fat, strengthen your heart and lungs, improve bone density, lower blood pressure, keep cholesterol in check, and improve overall stamina, not to break down muscle! During cardiovascular exercise, your body turns to glycogen that it obtains from carbs for energy (a reason you need to eat carbs). If there isn’t enough glycogen (carbs) available, your body may turn to fat stores or muscle for fuel.
Cardio is important for conditioning the body, but many people are confused about cardio intensity or which cardio machine to use. The machine doesn’t matter, although I prefer the StepMill. What does matter is your heart rate. I believe your target heart rate should be around 130 to 140 heartbeats per minute. The last thing to keep in mind is that if you don’t get fat in the off-season, then you don’t have to kill yourself doing cardio during the prep. I recommend off-season cardio even while trying to put on muscle. It won’t restrict building muscle if your food is correctly planned. I suggest that off-season cardio should be three days a week, 30 minutes a day.
Sodium Manipulation and “Dehydrating” the Body
I don’t believe in sodium manipulation. If you already have sodium in your diet and it’s keeping you full and you’re getting harder each day, just keep it the same. I’m not salt sensitive, but my clients vary from salt sensitive to not at all salt sensitive. You don’t want to mess with your aldosterone levels by playing with your sodium intake. Aldosterone is a hormone that increases the reabsorption of sodium ions and water, and the release (secretion) of potassium ions in the distal convoluted tubules of the kidneys. Sodium manipulation is very risky. Rookies and inexperienced bodybuilders should not mess with it. If done right, it releases more subcutaneous water, but if done incorrectly, you can look watery onstage. Don’t do it until you know your body well and have gained more experience. When bodybuilders say they are “dehydrating” themselves to look tighter, it drives me nuts; it makes no sense! Muscle tissue is 70% water. When you dehydrate and deprive your body of water, you are in danger of losing muscle fullness and risk looking more watery (even though your body fat is low, your skin hangs if your muscles aren’t hydrated). You want to hold on to and be hydrated with intracellular water to make the muscles look fuller and harder. My advice is to increase your water intake to 1.5 to 2 gallons per day while contest prepping. The more water you drink the more water your body will let out, it’s that simple. You also have to hydrate your body before you begin to pull water or you will flatten out at the end of the prep.
You need to rest in order to recover properly during contest prep! When you rest, you increase your body’s anabolism and allow it to restore glycogen to repair and recover from the stress of prepping. Resting is the most overlooked contest-prep factor. During contest prep many competitors increase their weight training. Some even do double splits daily. They also, as mentioned, do excessive cardio and risk muscle tissue breakdown. Resting helps reduce cortisol produced by this activity. More is not better when it comes to contest prepping. If it were only that easy, we would all live in the gym 24/7 and look like Mr. Olympia Phil Health.
I hope this helps many up-and-coming bodybuilders during your contest prep. Bodybuilding is the hardest sport in the world, but don’t make it even harder by doing things incorrectly or foolishly. Yes, you will learn with experience, but do your research, or hire a good coach who will guide you to become an even better bodybuilder.