Welcome to part six of The Battle of Biology. Let’s cut right to the chase about the purpose of this article – I have made the decision to end my contest prep. In what will be the final segment of this series, I will outline the rationale behind my decision, but first, I’ll provide a brief update on what the past and final eight weeks of my diet looked like.
Following week 16 (where we left off last time), I continued losing weight at an appropriate rate and this led into a diet break in week 19.
Following my diet break, the plan was to roll into an aggressive digging phase to strip off the last remaining bits of fat (those darn glutes) leaving me with approximately 4 weeks to eat into my season opener on April 25th.
An interesting aside about this digging phase, as you will notice, my step count did not change much, but I did increase my energy expenditure through cardio. How can this be? I added a 20lb weighted vest to all of my cardio sessions. I got the inspiration for this from James Krieger. You can find out more about the potential benefits of this approach as well as an interesting case study about an athlete’s success utilizing this protocol here.
In week 23, I initiated the “eating up” process. After 6 days of increased energy intake, I took what ended up being my final progress pictures which I’ll attach to the end of this blog post.
Can You Dig It?
Before transitioning into the next topic of discussion, I want to touch on how I was feeling during my digging phase. To put it bluntly, shit got real. Before this period, I was in the meat and potatoes of contest prep. Prep was “hard,” but I put hard in quotation marks because while cardio was quite high and food intake was relatively low, I didn’t perceive my situation as being very difficult. Sure, I was hungry and tired. It took a valiant effort to adhere to the plan, but I was locked-in to the point where it really didn’t bother me. Frankly, I was in a rhythm and learned to “embrace the suck” which masked the true strain of the process. Then came the digging phase…
These 3-weeks were the first time that I really felt the brute force of contest prep. We had been going punch for punch and I was definitely up on the scorecard, but then it landed a pretty devastating uppercut. During my string of low days, by around day three, I felt like I got hit by a bus. This was the first time I felt truly lethargic and the most basic tasks became the equivalent of climbing a mountain. The hunger was not an issue. If given the option, I would have welcomed a further increase in hunger if it meant that I could move around my house without feeling like my feet were stuck in cement.
I personally feel like I handled myself quite well throughout contest prep (though, I guess the true judge of this would be my girlfriend XD). I definitely had less energy, and as a result, was not as perky in conversation, but my temperament was stable. Contest prep did not put unnecessary strain on any of my relationships. I never lashed out at anyone or acted out of character. With that being said, I found myself becoming more irritable during my digging phase. Nothing out of the ordinary happened, but I could feel myself getting agitated more frequently and for no good reason. In particular, I could really feel these effects if my meals got delayed by as little as 1-hour during my low-days.
The Corona Conundrum
Around the middle of March, things really started to pop off with the coronavirus. Social distancing restrictions increased in their severity. Small businesses were being forced to close, major sports organizations got shut down for the season, and unsurprisingly, bodybuilding shows were getting postponed or canceled left and right.
While my season opener appeared to still be on schedule, I opted to contact the event promoter before I signed up and she reported that the event got moved from the end of April to October. I then contacted the event promoter for a show I planned on competing in at the end of May. He responded that he was unsure whether or not the event would take place due to it being held at a high school. Basically, the school district had to be open for the show to go on and well, I wouldn’t hedge my bets on schools reopening this year.
I had planned to compete in one more show this season and that was at the end of June. I emailed the event promoter and while they claimed the show was still on, it’s impossible to report this with any real certainty during this period of time. I spoke to others in the bodybuilding space (one being a judge for a natural bodybuilding federation) as well as those who had a good grasp of the current corona crisis (and possibly possessed a little bit of exclusive insight). They all had their doubts about whether or not there would be a bodybuilding season at all, let alone a show at the end of June.
To summarize the situation, I’m roughly in stage condition, the first two shows I had planned for the season have been postponed or canceled, and I am now nine weeks out from a show which was originally supposed to close out my season. Further, I was never 100% committed to the idea of this show to begin with. Basically, my first two shows were in place to provide me with some stage experience and indicate how well I stacked up against other competitors. Following these contests, I would roll into the third show if the prior two deemed it was appropriate. Otherwise put, I would sign-up for the third show if my placings and the judges’ feedback displayed that I could be competitive at a major event.
I originally embarked on this contest prep because it was the last year I would be able to compete as a junior (23 years old) and this age class restriction comes with fewer expectations and less competition. From the start, the overall goal of contest prep was to gain both stage and diet experience, but I was only willing to step on stage if I could be competitive. The intent was to compete as a junior because I knew before prep started that I was undersized for my height and to be truly competitive in the open I needed to put on more muscle. For me, there’s no point in competing if I don’t think I can place well. It’s the athlete and competitor in me. I always strive to be the best at whatever I’m doing. As a junior competitor, I knew I had the potential to take home some hardware.
Frankly, if the junior category didn’t exist, I would have never started prep. I would have extended my off-season for a minimum of three more years before taking the plunge in order to make sure I would be ready to battle in the open.
Interestingly enough, as my contest prep progressed and I received feedback from other bodybuilders, including some natural pros, I ended up scratching the junior class restriction and setting my sights on the novice open. With that being said, my focus did not change. I certainly didn’t develop the irrational expectation that I was suddenly in a position to be fighting for a pro card. The aim of the season was still simply to gain come competition exposure while looking like I belonged on stage, it just became apparent that I could likely achieve this in a more competitive class.
With the primary goal of gaining experience in mind, competing in one show is certainly not ideal. And just to reiterate, I was apprehensive about signing up for this particular event. To throw another wrench into things, it’s a show that more likely than not will be canceled (especially since it’s being held in New York), and in order to compete, I would have to maintain my current level of conditioning for nine weeks.
When you’re in the fire, it’s a good idea to get out as soon as possible and physiologically, I’ve been in the fire for quite some time now. Extending this duration probably isn’t the best idea. Not to mention, if it already weren’t hard enough to lose the last couple of pounds or maintain stage level conditioning, the magnitude of difficulty becomes even greater when there is extreme uncertainty about whether or not the show you’re preparing for will happen.
Considering what I wanted out of this season and where I’m at in my bodybuilding career (I have a lot of growing to do), I ultimately decided to shut this season down and transition into the off-season. It was a difficult decision, but I feel confident that it was the right one. On the surface, it seems like I “wasted” six months of dieting, but I learned a ton throughout this process. I’ve grown immensely psychologically and emotionally. You learn a lot about yourself through the suffering. For those who aren’t interested in this specific realm of fitness culture, believe it or not, a lot of positive growth as a human being occurs during a contest prep diet (at least if you approach it the right way). To top it off, I gained some valuable insight into the dieting process which will not only benefit myself next time I tackle a contest prep but the athletes I coach as well.
Recovering from Prep
Over my 24 weeks of dieting, I did not have a single meal out. Truthfully, throughout the entire duration of my diet, I adhered 100% to the plan. I never missed a cardio or training session or cheated on my diet. During my diet breaks, I didn’t even try to fit in fun foods, I just ate more of my diet foods. This rigid approach to dieting isn’t ideal for everyone, but it aligns well with my psychology and worked well for me.
With that being said, like any bodybuilder who wraps up their contest season does, I had a celebratory meal out. For me, this was five slices of chipotle chicken pizza from a local pizza joint and five Reese’s peanut butter cookies from the bakery at a local grocery store. This meal was absolutely amazing, but following this episode of indulgence, I felt very satisfied and was ready to move on to a structured recovery diet. I had no urge to binge and felt very much in control, which isn’t always the case with many bodybuilders, especially first-timers. The next day, I woke up 3 lbs heavier and felt quite pleased with this minimal damage.
It”s common to hear horror stories about the days and weeks following the cessation of contest prep. Many competitors, unfortunately, experience a lack of control during this period of time leading to binges and copious amounts of weight gain. I think in many cases (not all) this has to do with the underlying attitude of the competitor and whether or not they truly enjoy the process of bodybuilding. Contest prep can absolutely suck, but for myself and others who derive genuine purpose in this pursuit, we revel in the suffering and find a lot of joy in it.
There are many competitors who prep for a bodybuilding show for the wrong reasons, in my opinion. Perhaps they opt to compete in a physique competition simply as a way to give themselves the motivation to achieve a weight loss goal they haven’t been able to crack. Others are attracted to the glamour of getting on stage; they really only like the idea of the end product and the photos and attention that come with it. These are the type of people who tend to get chewed up and spit out by prep and report a poor experience. The common one and done phenomenon. For these competitors, their list of goals for the off-season revolves around the variety of foods they plan to eat rather than what aspects of their physique they plan to improve upon.
Honestly, after my celebratory meal, I tried to think of what else I wanted to eat and had a really difficult time coming up with ideas. I’m just not hyper-focused on food, it’s never been part of my personality. To put it simply, I’m a complete bro at heart. I take a lot of pride in living the bodybuilding lifestyle and eating “clean.” I’m genuinely more excited to be able to eat big meals of jasmine rice, lean protein (96% ground beef, chicken, shrimp), and vegetables with Asian-style sauces than being able to eat out now.
My Recovery Diet
As alluded to above, after my digging phase, I increased my calorie intake and reduced my cardio before taking my final progress pictures. During this week, I consumed 2300 calories per day and averaged 9000 steps with 170 minutes of weighted vest cardio (roughly half of what I was doing during the digging phase).
The week after this, my recovery diet began. To develop this protocol, I referred to some general guidelines provided by the team at 3DMJ. They have an awesome series on the recovery diet which can be found here. From this outline, I customized things a bit further based on my individual circumstances and the data I have collected.
The plan for week 1 is to increase calories to 2700, reduce my average steps to 7,000 per day and cut my weighted vest cardio down to about 85 minutes per week. At the time I’m writing this article, I’m 4-days into the plan and executing accordingly. My body weight average for the week is currently at 155 lbs.
Over the next 4-6 weeks, I’ll continue to taper my activity and increase my food intake. The goal is to put on about 2 lbs per week eventually leading to a bodyweight of approximately 165 lbs. From here, I’ll assess my training performance, recovery, and libido, and likely shift to a slower rate of weight gain as I officially transition into the off-season.
Let the gainz begin.
Final Progress Pictures