I always train hard, but I feel like I get my best workouts during the contest prep phase. It's weird - I'm eating less and doing more cardio, but I feel like I can just tear up the gym! My energy and motivation do dip a little bit toward the very end, but for most of my diet I am knocking out supersets and drop sets like I can go on all day. Is this normal?
This is quite normal, but it's completely opposite from the way it should be. Allow me to elaborate.
First off, why is it that we often train harder when we are dieting for a contest? Several factors come into play. The main one is motivation. Once you have that date circled on your calendar when you know you are going to be up on a stage, under bright lights, in front of a crowd in a tiny posing suit; there is no room for slacking. Deadlines create a powerful sense of urgency that drive us to work harder and longer than we otherwise would. As the days and weeks tick by, you feel even more pressure to put out extra effort. It's even more urgent when you have a bodypart that you know needs to improve. You will get that extra rep or two, you'll do another set or two, add in more exercises, and so on. Many of us use fat burners with strong stimulant effects when dieting, so it's really no wonder that we are flying high with energy even though logic would seem to dictate we would be dragging our asses on lower calories and more cardio. I've found also that when I start getting really lean, I require less sleep and I do have more energy. I believe my metabolism runs at a higher rate at this time.
A final tie-in to the motivation factor is simply that with less bodyfat, you look so much better. It's more fun to train, and more inspiring, when you can actually see what your muscles look like in detail. If you've ever done cable crossovers or barbell curls into a mirror in contest condition, you know what I mean. Now let me explain why all of this is such a bad idea.
What do your muscles need to grow? Obviously they need the stimulus of training to cause muscle growth, but that growth only happens if the muscles have ample nutrients and ample recovery time and energy. That's why do many people hardly make any gains - they just don't eat enough, and often they don't get enough rest either.
Now here's the thing. To gain weight, be it in the form of fat or muscle, you need to take in more calories than you expend - a surplus. To lose bodyfat, you need to expend more calories than you take in - a deficit. When you are preparing for a contest, you need to be in that deficit state to get rid of as much of your bodyfat as possible. Thus, your body is in no position to make new gains in the form of lean muscle tissue. To boil it down for you, you are not going to grow in the contest prep period. Are there exceptions to that rule? Certainly. If you start a contest prep phase after not having trained for some months(silly, but it's been done), and you dose yourself with enough human growth hormones and fat-burning drugs, you will be able to regain previously existing muscle mass while getting leaner. Still, even in that rare scenario, the person isn't gaining new muscle mass. They're simply getting their mass back. But put that aside as it doesn't apply to most people. The bottom line is that you are not going to grow when you're dieting down. That's why it makes no sense to train harder and longer - it's completely misguided and misplaced effort!
The time to train like a beast, with more intensity, more volume, and more intensity techniques is the off-season, when your body has the resources available to actually see results from it. You're eating more, sleeping more, and doing only maintenance amounts of cardio. This is when you grow. These are the workouts that really matter, really make the difference in the physique you will show onstage. This is when you can bring up lagging bodyparts and get bigger in general. Once you're dieting, the goal should be to maintain as much of your muscle as possible while getting as lean as you can. Assuming you've worked hard and ate and rested well in the off-season, you should have new mass to show once you're in contest condition.
So for those of you who, like me; are in off-season mode right now - make the most of it! Make every workout and every meal count, every night of sleep. This is really when contests are won or lost.