A very clear societal line has long separated nerds and jocks. Either you crunch numbers and derive formulas with little popularity or athleticism, or you excel in athletics while resembling a modern day Neanderthal in the classroom. To suggest the same person could achieve both brains and brawn was blasphemy.
Luckily things have changed since days of classic 90s movies pitting geeks and jocks against each other. Also, fortunate was the fact I grew up as nerdy as they come, but somehow decided one day that I would like to begin playing football and basketball during middle school. An unlikely sight, after a few early years of rude awakenings to an out of shape, nerdy kid- I gradually improved and turned into a decent player.
But “decent” was about where my ceiling capped. In high school, after realizing I wasn’t quite college sports material, my passion quickly changed from being a nerd and playing sports, to being an even bigger nerd and lifting weights! Fast forward a few years, and when it came time to choose my college thesis, the idea of pursuing one of the first case studies on natural bodybuilding contest prep and its subsequent effects on various health and performance markers was a fit geek’s dream come true!
Considering at that time, very few research studies had been performed on competitive natural bodybuilders, it was the perfect circumstance to perform a 13-month case study surrounding my own contest prep and subsequent reverse diet. Throughout the entire process, tests were conducted in which everything from hormone levels, sleep quality, power output, metabolism and even mood alterations were measured, and man oh man did I learn a lot, much of which has helped me in developing processes I use with my own clients through APFitness.
The rest of this article outlines many of the take-aways I gained from the research that have helped guide my personal development, and can help others in approaching their own contest preps.
To provide some background into this study, it spanned from the time my contest prep started, the 7 months of preparation for my first show, the month of both competitions, and 5 months of post-show reverse dieting. 
During this study, we tested a variety of metrics, in a variety of frequencies based on what was approved by the Institutional Review Board, allowed for the most efficient use of our research funding, and were the most practical given their often time consuming nature. Below is an outline of each factor test.
- Dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) (Month 1, 8 (show month) and 13)
- BodPod (Monthly)
- Blood Testing (Every ~3 months)
— Total Testosterone, T3, T4, Cortisol, Ghrelin
- Wingate Bike Test (Monthly)
— 30 Second Version
- Resting Metabolic Rate (Monthly)
— via Parvo Medics TrueOne2400 Metabolic Cart
- Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) Survey (Monthly)
- Actigraph Data Collection (Monthly)
— via Actigraph GT3X+ Accelerometer
General & Mental Health
- Blood Pressure (Monthly)
- Profile of Moods State Survey (Monthly)
Of all the above measured metrics, the disruption in my hormones and metabolic rate are some of the most notable, especially as a preface to the following section of this article. Regarding the hormones measured, every one of them was pushed out of its respective reference range- the range deemed healthy for most individuals. Specifically, total testosterone dropped from 623 to a measly 173 (ng/dL) by the time I reached the stage. To give an idea of just how low that is, the reference range for my age group was (348 – 1197 ng/dL). Being a major factor in muscle growth and retention, fat metabolism, and even libido, one can imagine the drawbacks a physique athlete will deal with when experiencing such a drop.
Paired with the very substantial disruption in testosterone and ghrelin (often termed the “hunger hormone”), thyroid hormones also experienced less dramatic, yet still very notable disruptions. Many of these measurements were not only thrown out of whack during the actual diet, but also took over 5 months to return to normal levels after I finished competing, which is the perfect segue into what this research helped to highlight regarding ideal growth seasons.
Your Growth Season May Be a Waste of (not enough) Time
We all know athletes that compete year after year, after year…after year. As emerging research is helping to support, we can be confident in saying this repeated dieting will suppress metabolic rate,2 and not to mention, create a huge mentally taxing demand on the athlete. I hear athletes refer to their “growth season” as the months between the same annual show. In my research, after finishing my last show of the season and beginning to immediately reverse diet into my growth season, even after 5 months of steadily increasing calories and reducing cardio, many of my hormones had still not returned to baseline levels measured just prior to the start of my diet.
So consider this: John Doe plans to compete in the 2018 Generic Show Championships and after dieting 4-6 months and stepping on stage, isn’t happy with his placing. Full of piss and vinegar, he decides he’s going to come back to the 2019 Generic Show Championships to show those judges just how great a bodybuilder he really is.
If John is smart, he’ll implement a steady reverse diet right after the show, gradually bringing calories back up, and cardio back down to pre-diet levels, something, which may take up to 3-4 months before baseline is reached. 4 months post-show, John is finally back to the strength, energy, hormones and metabolism he had before beginning his diet… finally in his sweet spot for muscle growth. For sake of argument, we say he’s now 20lbs above stage weight. Conservatively, we’ll estimate he needs a 25 week prep for 2019 to make sure those 20lbs come back off and he has a few weeks to spare in case life events or setbacks occur.
At roughly 1lb weight loss per week, John is left with 5-5.5 months of dieting before the show. If you’re still with me, that means John is left with maybe 3 months of “growth season” to make improvements before getting back into a deficit. For those who follow much of the research on drug-free muscle and strength growth rates in athletes, you’ll realize just how small of a time frame that is. We can all agree that if John repeats this cycle multiple times, “making gainz” isn’t a phrase his buddies will be using to describe him for a while.
Moral of the story: don’t be a John. As much as you may feel you have to prove on stage- you aren’t doing yourself any favors by competing year after year. Enjoy your season, then keep in mind the many benefits you’ll reap from being patient, putting in significant time in your offseason, and putting yourself in a much better position to step on stage noticeably better the next time you compete.
It’s More Than Physical
Most topics discussed in the fitness industry are merely physical in nature. Maximizing weight lifted, muscle tissue gained, fat lost, best booty progress pic on Instagram- you know, the usual. Especially in research, we tend to measure more easily identifiable, objective metrics like lean body mass and force output.
To make for a more well rounded study, I included a profile of moods state (POMS) survey, which essentially helps to put a measurable value on mood and attitude alterations over time. The problem is, most of us have a hard time even knowing exactly how we feel during a period of high stress or enjoyment. We’re often “left speechless” or “at a loss” in many instances. So, getting an objective measure with such a complex aspect of the human condition can be a bit difficult.
That being said though, my POMs scores did help reflect the increasing stress, fatigue, and irritability I dealt with as my diet progressed (score more than doubled throughout prep). By the end of my reverse diet post-show, measurements dropped down a bit less than initial values at the start of prep.
Although relatively much more relaxed, I can say that personally, I was far from feeling back to normal. Even 6 weeks after the study was completed, while visiting family for Christmas, I distinctly remember driving home and thinking to myself how much I still struggled with nearly insatiable hunger, low libido, and a lack of enthusiasm for training in the gym.
*Outside of reference range
**Both contests were held in this month
Based on all my scores 5 months after my last show, I should have been feeling like a million bucks. Lean body mass was completely restored, and actually up a bit from my baseline measurement (gainz anyone?), most of my hormone values were at least near baseline, body fat was back to a healthy offseason level, sleep had improved some, yet I still struggled quite substantially from a mental standpoint. My view of food was quite skewed, my excitement to train was barely existent, and my digestion still wasn’t back to what I was used to.
All this is said to help people understand that contest prep will affect you much longer than the 12-20 weeks you prepare for the show. Changes to your body extend past your outward appearance, and can take quite some time to rebound. This isn’t said to discourage newcomers to the sport, but to help others realize that contest prep isn’t as simple as many “fitspos” on Instagram try to make it out to be.
Athletes can struggle both mentally and physically for an extended period of time, even in the best of circumstances, so finding the right coaches and resources to base your programming off of isn’t just good for placings, but prudent for your long-term health as a human being.
|Time||Testosterone (ng/dL)||Cortisol (ug/dL)||>T3 (ng/dL)||T4 (ug/dL)||Ghrelin (pg/mL)|
Develop Proficiency in Efficiency
Less scientific, but very applicable- conducting this research during my contest prep taught me just how beneficial properly scheduling my daily life can be in helping make the most of my efforts in and out of the gym.
I spent the past two years either planning or conducting the study I’m referring to- which required endless hours of research, meetings, scheduling, conducting the actual tests, then evaluating and documenting results- all before then working on dozens of drafts before the final manuscript was finished. Although extremely time consuming, it was only a portion of the responsibilities I had. During this time I was also taking full loads of college courses, working as an Assistant Sales Director for a sports nutrition company, and beginning my pursuit to grow my contest prep coaching business. These pursuits were exciting for my future, but did a number on my sleep and recovery. As the below table will reflect, my sleep barely averaged over 5 hours per night the entire 13 months of the study. Throw in reduced recovery from being in a caloric deficit and increased cardio, and I had myself quite the stress cocktail.
Before I come across as pretentious for listing all my pursuits in college, I promise there’s a point! Taking on more than I probably should have during the time of this study meant incredibly lower energy levels, reduced enthusiasm, and often struggling to complete daily activities like walking across campus to class or going to buy groceries. Early on, I realized I could make things a lot easier on myself by becoming more proficient at scheduling out my days ahead of time.
The night before, or even at the start of each week, taking a mental note of the different tasks you have to complete, and places you have to visit, then mapping out the shortest, most efficient path to getting those all accomplished with the least time and effort can really help make prep a lot more bearable.
Even if you don’t struggle to find enough sleep or energy, the time-saving aspect is something everyone can benefit from. Considering the added time we have to devote throughout the week to things like shaving, posing practice, and additional cardio, being smart with our schedules can help to accommodate for those new additions and can help ensure we don’t sacrifice family time or begin slacking at our jobs as we prepare for the stage.
Time Management Tips:
- Plan weekly errands beforehand to reduce travel time around town.
- Attend gym sessions during the least busy time of day, if possible, to reduce wait time for machines, cardio equipment, and other distractions.
- Prep meals and/or find meals that provide your nutritional needs with the least amount of cooking & prep time. Croc pots, rice cookers, pre-made meals, and bulk meals like casseroles or lasagnas can be lifesavers during the work week.
- If performing MISS (Moderate Intensity Steady State) or LISS (Low Intensity Steady State) cardio, find activities you can multi-task with. Use a smartphone for emails, scheduling appointments, or giving family members a call. Use that time to take care of other tasks to cut down your to-do list for more time later in the day.
|Time Frame||Sleep (hours)||Awakenings|
|6 Months Pre-Contest||5:09||26|
|4 Months Pre-Contest||4:56||16|
|3 Months Post-Contest||6:00||25|
|5 Months Post-Contest||6:14||36|
The More Energy Expended, The Less You Expend (Say what?)
Metabolic adaptation is one of the biggest catch phrases of the fitness world in the last few years. Every coach and their mother slips the phrase into their social media captions to sound more legitimate, but few are able to point toward any legitimate research, much less explain the theory behind it to save their lives.
As research like that of Eric Trexler, Layne Norton, and others have shown,2 essentially, as body fat declines, the average amount of calories expended throughout a given day are reduced in a sort of “survival tactic.” By doing so, the body helps to delay starvation as long as possible.
As shown in my study, my resting metabolic rate (RMR) dropped from 2,275.42 kcals at the start of prep, to 1939.44 kcals seven months later during the month of my shows. Although maybe not the most dramatic example, it helps to reinforce the point that your metabolism can become depressed during extended periods of dieting.
This is normal, but it is something to consider as adjustments to a plan are made from week to week. This fact is why it’s important to know when and to what degree to make changes to diet and training since our bodies are constantly adapting to what we throw at them. Too drastic of a change can lead to greater than ideal adaptation, while too little change can leave us stalling progress and feeling the pressure of a reduced timeline to show day.
Knowing the changes to a metabolism one can expect can help us field changes in our physiques from week to week and make informed decisions that will best help us to accommodate for those changes and keep progress as consistent as possible over the course of a diet.
|Month||1||Show Month (Month 8)||13|
Track More Than Your Bodyweight
Not every athlete who begins contest prep has access to a full laboratory of equipment and funding for doing the sort of measurements my team and I were able to do throughout our study. The good news, however, is that there are relatively comparable at-home options for getting a better measure for your progress & physiological changes throughout a prep and reverse diet which can help you make more informed adjustments, and also have valuable information to refer to in subsequent growth seasons and future diets.
Accurate Body Composition Measurements
Although they have their merits, tools like body calipers can leave much to be desired. When possible, opting for DEXA (top choice), or BodPod (a solid second option) scans are two of the best body composition measurements athletes can use. Especially if you live near a high-population area of the country, it’s worth a web search to see if you may have a facility near you offering either in their gym, or even in a research lab with possibly open hours for general public to use, which allows students a chance to practice administering the tests.
If you aren’t so lucky, even just incorporating progress pictures every few weeks, taken in as near the same lighting, time of day, and with the same poses each time can go a long way in helping to assess progress. The point is don’t merely rely on or chase bodyweight readings to assess change. Using a combination of body composition scanners, consistent progress pictures, and bodyweight readings can help provide a more comprehensive view of just how much body fat you need to lose, and how your body composition progresses in the months during your prep.
Having full panels of hormone tests taken can be expensive. For most of us, paying upwards of hundreds of dollars per testing session out of pocket, on top of all the other incurred expenses that come with being a physique athlete, just isn’t manageable.
One way to get around this is to check with your insurance provider and see if you may be covered for blood work. For many, after visiting a doctor and explaining competitive plans, getting approval to have insurance help cover most of the expense is possible. Otherwise, some 3rd party labs offer blood panel testing for reasonable prices online, which can be found through a brief web search.
If you are able to do something along those lines, having your hormone levels measured periodically during a contest prep can provide interesting and applicable information about your health. It can be instrumental in helping you make more informed decisions on the length of diet you plan to pursue, and after the show, how long you should take as growth season to allow for optimal returns of those levels.
Daily Activity Trackers
As contest prep progresses and energy becomes scarcer, it’s easy to look for ways to expend as little energy as possible throughout the day. Letting our significant other walk the dog instead of doing it ourselves as we usually would, taking the elevator rather than the stairs, or even moving to more seated exercises in the gym can be tempting. It’s completely understandable, but doing so can actually work against an athlete trying to maximize fat loss while dieting.
NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) is essentially activity unrelated to structured exercise, eating, and sleeping throughout the day that leads to additionally expended calories. Taking the stairs, walking the dog, mowing the lawn, all the little things we typically do during our day help contribute to our overall caloric expenditure. If halfway through our contest prep we drastically cut down our daily activities, technically it further reduces how much we’re expending each day, which results in further caloric restrictions and/or cardio increases to accommodate for the discrepancy.
Using a reliable pedometer, activity tracker, or simply keeping in mind our typical routine, we can mitigate the decreases in NEAT, maximize food intake, and minimize the amount of structured cardio we need to continue adding to our plan. In short, the more “normal” we can keep our weekly schedule during the week, the fewer variables we have to concern ourselves with adjusting for.
In my study, we used ActiGraph software to get a very detailed assessment of my sleeping patterns. This software is amazing and the readouts were very informative, but without having access through a lab, the equipment and software is extremely expensive for a single person to purchase. Luckily, there are more economical alternatives like fitness trackers that are as popular as ever in the fitness industry. Although not quite as accurate as lab quality equipment, a high quality activity tracker can be really helpful to the detail-oriented athlete.
Tracking typical bed & wake time, awakenings per night, and actual time spent asleep can help athletes in determining areas for improvements to their typical sleeping habits during prep to help in maximizing recovery and daily energy levels as the dieting phase gets more and more demanding.
Keep Relative Workout Logs
If you’re reading this article, you are undoubtedly already keeping track on a consistent workout program, and logging each workout to assess progress from session to session. In the offseason, bodyweight is a relatively stable variable, so assessing strength gains through reps, weight lifted, and overall volume completed is pretty straightforward.
When we start dieting however, bodyweight begins to drop, and eventually so does our absolute strength. Whereas before prep began you may have been squatting 315 lbs for 4 sets of 12 reps with some energy still left in the tank, you may reach a point during prep where 295lbs for the same rep scheme feels like death. The thing we most often forget to consider is the difference in our body weight in the two situations. Although it’s never fun to struggle with a weight we previously moved with much more ease, we may still be near the same relative strength.
For example, if you were squatting 315lbs for 4×12 at a bodyweight of 200lbs, you could get a relative strength index of 315/200= 1.58. Now, take that workout while deep in prep when you squatted 295lbs for the same 4×12 scheme. It may be discouraging at first, until you consider your current body weight, which for the sake of example, may be down to 182lbs. 295/182= 1.62 is an actual increase in relative strength, despite being a decline in absolute strength.
Keeping a log of your strength in big compound movements relative to your current body weight & body composition can go a long way in reducing discouragement, and better assessing how you are maintaining your strength and muscle tissue over the course of a diet.
There are Always Exceptions
The first critique this article will get from Internet warriors is that case studies are only on one person and can’t be generalized across all athletes. Well, to a degree, they’re right. One case study can’t serve as the end-all, be-all for application by other athletes in our sport. However, with other researchers like Fitchen3, Helms4, Robinson5, and others currently in the works- we are beginning to allocate more and more related research that can help to better create average changes to then be better generalized across a larger population.
The important thing to remember is that although the greater the research on a subject, and the more the results can be generalized, there are still going to be individual variances among athletes. Athletes can almost certainly expect to see a depressed metabolism, at least slight loss in lean body mass, and increased feelings of hunger and fatigue, but the degree to which athletes will be affected by those changes can vary quite significantly.
The same goes for how challenging a prep may be to you personally. For some people, especially those new to the sport, contest preps can be one of the most physically and mentally challenging endeavors they have pursued. For others, particularly experienced athletes, following a contest prep can much less draining, and appear to be “just another day” in comparison.
One athlete may have more experience with long-term diets, which makes the process less stressful. Others may have greater total muscle mass, which makes fat loss more noticeable with each pound loss. Some may have a less stressful personal life, a more genetically favorable physique, and I could go on and on.
My point is that each person has different life factors, genetic dispositions, and resource availability, which can make his or her bodybuilding journey relatively more or less challenging. Although we can use the general consensus gained through scientific research, along with the experience of other informed athletes & coaches, we each still have individual experiences to expect. Research is extremely important in understanding the best methods for generally maximizing results, but each person still has personal preferences, life factors, and schedules that are helpful to consider when developing their own strategies to help have the best experience possible.
Even Great Methods Aren’t “Good” Methods
The negative mental and physical detriments seen in others’ and my research is pretty substantial. The real kicker is that these effects were seen even while following protocols many top coaches and researchers currently believe to be the most optimal for natural bodybuilders. This isn’t mentioned to suggest these leaders in the sport are wrong in their approach, but to highlight the consideration of how much more negative effects would likely be using poor methods often seen in “fly by night” online coaches that fill social media timelines of every fitness aspiring physique athlete to ever hold a smartphone.
Diet adjustments and rate of weight loss were made at a very gradual pace to prevent excessively fast metabolic adaptation and hormone crashes. Training was based around programming shown by research to stimulate, build, and maintain muscle tissue very well. Supplementation was kept to the basics, which is pretty well supported by legitimate research. We considered every variable, and made the most scientifically and anecdotally sound programming possible to maximize results and minimize detriments, yet I still finished prep with terribly low testosterone levels, reduced strength, poor sleep, irritability, and suppressed metabolic rate. For clients fooled into crash dieting, poorly designed training programming, and excessively high amounts of cardio by highly unqualified “coaches,” I can bet their physiological changes would make a researcher blush.
Bottom line, even with the best methods currently available to coaches and athletes, this sport isn’t necessarily “healthy” to compete in. A lot of changes occur, and not all of them are positive, so choosing the right coach to hire, or quality information to follow online isn’t just about looking good when show day arrives, but more importantly a matter of short and long-term health.
The increasing popularity of scientific research directly relating to physique athletes has begun to blow up in the past few years, and it looks like it’s only going to grow from here, which couldn’t be more exciting for coaches and athletes in the sport. It’s now our responsibility to wade through the junk, and align ourselves with individuals who have athlete wellbeing and scientific backing as their top priorities to ensure we’re not only looking our absolute best, but also remaining healthy enough to compete in the sport we love for a long time to come.
- Pardue, A., Trexler, E. T., & Sprod, L. K. (2017). Case Study: Unfavorable But Transient Physiological Changes During Contest Preparation in a Drug-Free Male Bodybuilder. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 1-24. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.2017-0064
- Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, Norton LE. Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: Implications for the athlete. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014; 11: 7. [Pubmed: 24571926]
- Rossow L, Fukuda D, Fahs C, Loenneke J, Stout J. (2013). Natural bodybuilding competition preparation and recovery: a 12-month case study. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2013; 8:582-592. [Pubmed: 23412685]
- Kistler BM, Fitschen PJ, Ranadive SM, Fernhall B, Wilund KR. Case study: natural bodybuilding contest preparation. Int J of Sport Nutr and Exerc Metab. 2014; 24:694-700. [Pubmed: 24901578]
- Robinson SL, Lambeth-Mansell A, Gillibrand G, Smith-Ryan A, Bannock L. (2015). A nutrition and conditioning intervention for natural bodybuilding contest. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015; 1:12-20. [Pubmed: 25949233]