The bodybuilding contest season is now in full swing, which is the perfect time to talk about a subject that has been a topic of debate for years: last-minute voodoo tricks practiced in the final week. In this case, I propose that competitors abandon them for their own good as I did in the final years I competed. Once I did, I was kicking myself for not having made that decision long before then.
As long as I can remember, and keep in mind I began competing in 1989, it was standard to ‘carb deplete’ from Sunday or Monday through Wednesday or so, then ‘carb load’ from that point until contest day. The concept had been poached from endurance sports, based on studies that shown it was a way to trick the body into super-compensating and retaining more glycogen inside the muscle cells than usual. Bodybuilders saw it as a means of looking fuller than normal. There was more to it, involving cutting sodium at some point, and cutting out all fluids. The net effect of these three actions was to present a version of your physique that was fuller and leaner-looking, with all the subcutaneous water shed for a ‘shrink-wrapped’ look to the skin. Awesome! The only problem was, it was always a hit or miss thing. Some people lucked out and did actually look better. Many more mistimed their peak, since it was incredibly tricky to time it exactly right. The most common unwanted result was ‘spilling over,’ the name given to what happens when the body readjusted itself back to homeostasis by retaining massive amounts of fluid. Someone could look spot-on the day before the contest, ripped and ready to win; then walk onstage the next day looking like a water buffalo.
In more recent years, peak week has become even more intricate as various drugs like diuretics and insulin have become standard protocol for drying out and filling up. The contest prep business is now a booming industry, with literally thousands of ‘prep coaches’ and their ‘teams’ of competitors. Some coaches are well versed in all the related subjects, others not so much. It’s not unheard of these days for a person to compete just once and then suddenly proclaim themselves a prep coach and offer their services. Yet still, we continue to see progress pictures of athletes in which they look pretty damn good in the final few weeks before their contest, only to compete with a physique that all of a sudden has gone to shit, pardon my bluntness.
Why does this happen? I’m not going to lay blame on the coaches per sec, because plenty of competitors prep themselves. I always did. It can be summed up by what one guy around my age said to me recently while briefly discussing the process of dieting and competing. “It’s all about the last week, we all know that,” he said.
As is my custom, I came right back with, “Actually, it’s not at all. It’s what you did the 10, 12, or 16 weeks leading up to that final week that matter the most. Doing stupid shit at the last minute usually backfires.” I didn’t have time at the moment to explain myself to him more, so here I go.
Bodybuilders resort to last-minute trickery for two reasons. Either they falsely believe they have more muscle mass than they actually do, or they falsely believe they are leaner than they actually are. Very often, they are under both delusions simultaneously.
Many bodybuilders, and Lord knows I have been one, get too fat in the off-season. When you do that, you really don’t know how much muscle is under all that lard. It’s very easy to optimistically assume most of that bulk filling out your clothes and tipping the scales at some impressively high bodyweight is muscle mass. Then, after a certain amount of dieting, it becomes apparent that you weren’t as big as you thought. Countless times I have spoken with guys who were say, a very chunky off-season 250 who boasted that they would compete at 235 in a few months. One look at their bloat and I knew they would need to get down to something more like 210-215 to be in shape. So one of two things usually happens. They get into shape, but don’t see the huge physique in the mirror they know they have. They convince themselves they are merely ‘flat’ and design a plan to ingest massive amounts of carbohydrates in the final few days before the contest. Then, they will ‘fill out’ from that flat 215 to a bursting-full 230. It should be obvious that this plan is ridiculous. But delusion is a powerful force. Nine times out of then, they binge out on carbs and sometimes even tons of junk food near the end, and show up still small, but now watery. Hello, last place!
Very closely related is the competitor who doesn’t get lean enough, yet maintains the belief that they are just holding water. Nothing that dropping fluids and taking some diuretics won’t fix in a jiffy in the last day or two! If they are lucky, they just wind up still fat, but now flat, as our muscles are 70% water. If they aren’t so lucky, they experience horrible cramping. In some cases, they will need to be rushed to the ER as severe dehydration and imbalanced electrolytes threaten their very lives. I am dead serious here – bodybuilders have died this way more than a few times.
So what’s the solution? This is going to sound so basic and simple, but here it is. Get in shape. Then don’t change a damn thing that last week. Here’s the thing. If you diet properly, you will be looking your best at a week out. You will be as full and lean as possible. You’re not going to add any more muscle in a week. You can still lose a bit more fat, so keep dieting and hitting your cardio. But understand that any radical changes you may undertake constitute a huge risk. Let’s say you have a 10% chance of looking better, and a 90% chance of looking worse. After dieting your ass off and doing all that cardio for months, missing out on going out and doing things, dealing with hunger and cravings, do you really want to take the chance of screwing it up so badly that people will think you didn’t even diet?
I’m not a prep coach, but I have seen enough bodybuilders throw all their hard work out the window with just a few days of crazy manipulations of food, fluids, and drugs to be able to state with certainty that most athletes would be far better off steering clear of all that and just cutting water out a few hours before judging. You work too long and hard to get in shape. As the greatest drag queen of all time, RuPaul says: “DON’T F**K IT UP!”