I am just over three weeks into my diet for two events, the NPC Team Universe and the NPC Masters Nationals. So far I can't complain at all. The fat is clearly starting to come off and I feel fine. From past experience I know things won't be so easy or pleasant in a few more weeks.
Dieting down into what is considered 'contest condition' today at the level I now compete at (pro qualifiers) means you need to see striations in your glutes. People can argue back and forth about how low your bodyfat needs to be to achieve that look, but that's irrelevant. Suffice to say that except for a few rare individuals who simply don't ever carry much bodyfat due to gifted genetics, you have to suffer on lower carbs, lower calories, and increased cardio for many weeks after you are considered 'ripped' to the average person.
The physical discomfort pales in comparison to the mental anguish, 100% of which is self-inflicted. In short, your mind starts playing tricks with you the closer you get to your competition and even the most rational person can find him or herself thinking the most paranoid, ridiculous thoughts and feeling like someone entirely different. Having competed many times myself and knowing many others who have as well, here are the 5 most common mind games we play with ourselves in the later stages of contest prep, along with ways to shift your perspective so you don't drive yourself - and everyone close to you - bonkers.
1. "I'm shrinking!"
We all got into bodybuilding to get bigger, right? So the worst scenario, especially for those of us who had to fight bitterly for every single pound we ever gained, is to start seeing numbers on the scale going down. Well-meaning people ask questions like, how much weight have you lost? What do you want to get down to? Personally, I don't ever, EVER want to lose 'weight!' I want to get shredded and unfortunately that does mean losing bodyweight, but it still kills me to get on the scale and see that I don't weigh as much. At any contest you go to but more so at the local and regional level, you will see plenty of guys who aren't anywhere as lean as they should be to be up on that stage. I'm sure some of them just didn't know how to get in shape or terribly underestimated how much fat they had and how long it would take to get rid of. But there are always at least a few who purposely stopped getting leaner at some point in the diet because they were freaking out about being too light and 'small.' For all these reasons, it just makes sense for bodybuilders to stay reasonably close to their contest bodyweight all year long, as in 12-20 pounds. Otherwise, the shock of seeing yourself getting much lighter is too much to bear for many. Another common scenario when you start a diet with too much bodyfat to lose is that you end up losing some muscle mass along with the fat. In that case, you really are shrinking, and that truly sucks for any bodybuilder. I could tell you all to avoid the scale and just go by the mirror, but that would make me a hypocrite. As stupid as I know it is, I will weigh myself at least twice a day when dieting.
2. "I'm getting fatter!"
Assuming you are dieting strictly and doing cardio, there is no way you are going to add bodyfat when dieting. But especially toward the end when you are very lean, your body can look different at various times of day based on what you've eaten (especially higher sodium than normal), and even things like tanning that make you retain water under the skin. You will look in the mirror and all of sudden a vein or striation that was clearly visible yesterday is gone! At times like this, you just need to slap yourself in the face and remember it's a temporary issue and not a reflection of actual fat gains.
3. "I'm getting weak as a kitten!"
I love Ronnie Coleman, but one thing his video 'The Unbelievable' did was instill the belief that you should be just as strong if not stronger just a couple weeks out from the contest. "Ronnie was still deadlifting and squatting 800 pounds, bro," is what you hear. If ever there was a case for the cliche 'don't try this at home,' this is it. Let's say you were 240 pounds in the off-season and could handle 405 for 10 reps in the squat. At two weeks out from a contest in which you plan on being around 198 pounds for (you got too heavy - but most national-level light-heavies I know do get up to 230-245 pounds), you're about 208. You're not going to be squatting 405 for 10 anymore, nor should you try to. With far less calories, carbs, plus the fact that you have just a fraction of the fat and water cushioning your joints that you did at 240, you would be begging for an injury. Ever been injured going into a contest? I have, and it's miserable! Do train as heavy as you still can because you need to in order to maintain your muscle mass and density (there is a harder look to the muscles that comes from heavy training as opposed to higher reps), but by no means should you be worried that you're not moving the same weights you were a few months ago when you were stuffing your face every day.
4. Crazy cravings
The funniest thing about cravings is that you find yourself salivating over food you normally wouldn't even glance twice at. You only want it because you know you can't have it! As early into my diet as I am, this has already happened to me. My son's middle school had a 'Night of Excellence' where all the kids had to do a project about a different country, with a poster, a written report, and a sample of that nation's food. Most of the kids (or their parents more likely) chose desserts. I had to walk past rows and rows of tables with literally every type of dessert in the world! Many of them probably wouldn't even taste good to me, but there I was staring longingly at all of them. Ridiculous! The best thing to do is to not be around foods you can't eat, but barring that; just remind yourself that fast food and junk food aren't going anywhere. Pizza, ice cream, cookies, chocolate bars, etc. - they will all still exist once your show is over and you can eat whatever you want again.
5. Worrying about who you're up against
I saved this one for last because it can be the most insidious mind game of all. Bodybuilding should be all about beating your own previous best, but at the end of the day we are all up on stage together and we all want to win. Maybe you compete at the local or regional level and don't really know who you will be competing against. If you're at the national level, odds are you know who many of them will be. All you usually need to do is look at the show from last year, and whoever didn't win is often going to be back looking for a win this time. And with the message boards and Facebook, competitors often announce their plans months ahead of time and post update pics regularly. You can go out of your mind looking at these and psyching yourself out. He's so much bigger than me! This guys has better arms/legs/back/chest/etc than I do! And on and on. This is a tough one for me too, trust me. But I take the attitude that all I can do is train as hard as I can for the show and do everything in my power to make sure I look my absolute best on stage. The rest is out of my hands. I have no control over who else will be up there next to me or what they will look like, or what the judges prefer. So why waste mental energy getting worked up and worrying about it? Be your best ever. If that's good enough to win, perfect! If you look as good as you possibly can and get beat by a better physique, you have nothing to be ashamed of. In the meantime, don't bother obsessing over your competition. The only time this would be of any good would be if you are the type who is fueled by seeing people you think are capable of beating you, and it inspires you to really nail your prep 100%.