Posted on May 07 2018
Bodybuilding contest prep has historically been approached as a rapid and extreme fat loss phase. When I first got into the sport over 15 years ago, typical contest prep length was 3-4 months or less. In fact, my first contest prep was only 3 months and I lost 25lbs during that time.
Over the years, an increasing number of individuals have begun to use evidence-based approaches to bodybuilding contest prep. One approach commonly utilized is a longer contest prep duration. As a result, the level of conditioning and the quality of physiques onstage have greatly improved.
Therefore, the purpose of this article is to outline reasons why prepping longer is going to result in a better package onstage.
Less Muscle Loss
Muscularity is a part of the judging criteria in all divisions. Many competitors do a great job of focusing on adding muscle in the offseason; however, when it comes time to diet down for a competition they pursue fat loss at all costs, oftentimes at the expense of muscle.
In reality, muscle retention during contest prep is going to be as important as muscle growth in the offseason. Muscle added in the offseason means nothing if you can’t retain it during contest prep.
To maximize muscle retention during contest prep, you are going to want to diet at a rate of 0.5 – 1.0 % of body weight weekly . This means that if you are a 180lb male, you should be shooting for 0.9 – 1.8lbs/wk on average whereas a 110lb female should keep rate of loss to 0.55 – 1.1lbs/wk.
It also may be beneficial to diet closer to the lower end of the range (0.5% of body weight weekly) especially in the later stages of contest prep in order to minimize muscle loss at the time when a competitor is at greatest risk of muscle loss. Looking specifically at recent case studies of natural bodybuilders, those who averaged a rate of loss of around 0.5% bodyweight weekly [2, 3] retained more muscle during contest prep that those dieting at 0.7%  or 1.0%  of body weight weekly on average.
Dieting at a slower rate will allow a competitor to consume a greater number of calories during contest prep. For example, a competitor aiming for 3 lbs loss weekly will need to create an approximately 1500 Calorie deficit daily whereas a competitor aiming for 1 lb of weekly loss will need to create a 500 Calorie deficit daily on average. As a result of a slower target rate of loss and more calories, performance in the gym is going to be higher than an individual crashing down on a lower calorie intake. By maintaining training intensity and volume, a competitor will retain more muscle mass during contest prep.
Time To Get Leaner
The most obvious advantage of a longer contest prep duration is that it will give you more time to get leaner.
For example, if a 130lb female had 20lbs of body fat to lose and wanted to maximize muscle retention, 12 weeks would not be long enough. The end result would either be dieting too quickly sacrificing muscle and/or not being lean enough onstage. At minimum, she would need 16 weeks to lose around 1.0% of body weight weekly. However, to really maximize muscle retention and keep rate of loss closer to 0.5% of body weight weekly (especially during those later phases where she is most prone to muscle loss), she would need a 6-8 month contest prep time.
In addition, starting contest prep closer to stage-lean may allow for a slower rate of loss without an extremely lean prep. In the example above, if the competitor only had 15lbs of weight to lose during contest prep, 4.5 – 6 months would likely be long enough to allow her to diet at a rate of muscle loss that maximizes muscle retention.
However, it is important to note that this is not a reason to stage-lean year round. Virtually all competitors who reach stage-lean levels of body composition will need to add body fat back post-show to normalize hormone levels, maximize offseason progress and to stay healthy long-term.
Refeeds and Diet Breaks
At this point you are probably thinking that there is no way you can diet for a show for that long. However, a longer contest prep duration also has the benefit of having time to take days out of a deficit. This is commonly done as either refeeds or diet breaks.
A refeed day is a day where calories are raised to around maintenance or slightly above (primarily through an increase in carbohydrate). Refeed days are beneficial for providing a mental break from the deficit and increasing muscle glycogen stores which can potentially increase performance in the gym. For these reasons, it may be beneficial to incorporate 1 to 2 refeed days a week where caloric intake is raised to around maintenance or slightly above by increasing carbohydrate. It is also important to note that a competitor’s maintenance intake will be reduced during contest preparation. Therefore, it will be important to base a refeed day off of a competitor’s current maintenance and not their maintenance at the start of contest prep.
A longer contest prep duration can also allow time for a longer diet break than just a single-day refeed. A diet break is a period of time (typically ranging from 1 to several weeks) where calorie intake is increased to around a competitor’s current maintenance. This provides the same psychological and muscle glycogen benefits as a single-day refeed. In addition, there is evidence that a longer break from a calorie deficit can help to up-regulate hormones and have a positive effect on metabolic rate. In fact, a recent study observed that incorporating diet breaks had no effect on the total amount of weight loss during a weight loss intervention . Therefore, it may be in your best interest to incorporate diet breaks periodically during contest preparation as necessary.
It should be noted that refeeds and diet breaks should not be view as a “cheat day.” Calories on these days still do count and if you consume more calories than you expend you will gain weight. If you are going to incorporate refeeds and/or diet breaks during prep it will likely be best to have targets to hit on these days rather than turning this time into a “free-for-all.”
Bodybuilders have historically worried about “peaking too early.” Obviously, if a competitor is ready 4 months before their contest, they would be better off choosing an earlier show. However, there are actually a number of benefits to being ready a few weeks early.
First, a competitor who is ready early can start increasing food and tapering cardio to help fill out going into their show. As long as this is done conservatively to fill muscle glycogen, but not increase body fat, it typically only enhances a competitor’s look on show day.
In addition, by being ready early a competitor can run a mock peak. This is especially beneficial for those trying more drastic peaking protocols for the first time. By running through your peaking protocol ahead of time while stage-lean you can drastically increase the chance that things go smoothly when it counts.
Bodybuilding contest prep is stressful both from a physiological and psychological perspective. However, competing is something you should enjoy that enhances your life not something that stresses you out. Typically, if you enjoy the process you will work harder, stay more consistent and as a result the process will go more smoothly. By taking a longer prep, you will also be able to roll with the punches a bit more and keep stress levels in check.
For example, if you start prep with 20lbs to lose in 20 weeks you will need to lose at a rate of 1lb weekly on average. Prep starts off smooth and you hit your target rate of loss for the first 4 weeks, but then you hit your first plateau. Now you only have 15 weeks to lose 16lbs which increases target rate of loss. You make some adjustments and prep continues to go smoothly until 10 weeks out when your weight strangely increases 1lb. Now you have 13lbs to lose in 10 weeks bringing your target rate of loss up to 1.3lbs/wk on average. Aside from the fact that a faster target rate of loss is going to most likely result in greater muscle loss, the feeling of falling behind can be stressful.
One easy way to reduce the stress associated with falling behind is to pick shows based upon when you are ready. For example, during my last contest prep I started dieting in the fall with a number of show options during the spring and summer the following year, but no specific shows picked. Once I dieted to near stage-lean levels of body fat I picked shows based upon when I would be ready rather than having a target show from the start. This can go a long way towards keeping stress in check during contest prep because no matter what comes up, you don’t compound it with the stress of not being ready for your target show.
How long should you prep?
At this point, it should be clear that a longer prep is going to come with a number of advantages. To determine how many weeks out to start prep, calculate the number of weeks necessary to lose at an average rate of 0.5 – 1.0 % of body weight weekly (preferably near the lower end of this range for maximal muscle retention, especially during the late stages of contest prep).
For those who have not previously been stage-lean, it will most likely be best to aim for a target stage-weight lower than you think you will be onstage. Oftentimes the difference from what a new competitor thinks they will weigh when stage-lean and reality is 10lbs or more. When in doubt, aim for a lower weight than you expect initially.
Once you have determined the number of weeks it will take to get stage-lean while dieting at 0.5 – 1.0 % of body weight weekly, add in extra weeks to account for plateaus, diet breaks and to allow yourself to be ready early. If you can, hold off on choosing a specific show until you are closer to stage-lean to ensure you are giving yourself adequate time to be at your best onstage.
Ultimately, by taking your time rather than rushing, contest prep will be a more enjoyable process than if you were to go to extremes and crash down rapidly. In addition, the end result will likely be that you step on stage looking your best ever.