It was during the crazy 10 weeks of my first prep when I started talking to people about what they were doing – their diets and processes, that I began hearing things, that to me, sounded awful. 3 years on in the bodybuilding world, having been through on-season, off-season cycles, no exercise/rehab cycles, managing my diet for leaness, learning, studying, experimenting on myself with a wide variety of eating styles, methodologies and practices, delving deeper and deeper into all things diet and nutrition, knowing a hell of a lot more than I did back then, I still hear things that to me, sound awful.
Which brings me to the purpose of this article.
Comp diets and prep. Yes, that one…again. I’ve had a rant about this before, I’m not the only one pointing this stuff out and I’m very sure I won’t be the last either as, but it doesn’t appear that the message is getting through. Thinking back to conversations I’ve had with competitors over the last few years, the means by which they arrive at competition day are many and varied – and whilst there are good ones out there (would that I hear more of them!), there are just as many that are definitely less than ideal.
With competition Season A finished and competition Season B a mere 6 weeks away (!) I feel that now is a good time to go through some of these less than desirable approaches – and if any of them resonate with you (which I sincerely hope they don’t), I beg you to question your process/diet – there may be a better, healthier way and you might just about have enough time to get out of the situation and make a change for the better or reset your sights onto something more achievable to ensure your health is prioritised.
1) The Slasher
This one I came across very early on in the season. A novice competitor who until about 9 weeks out was cruising along at a lofty calorie load of 1900/day, which piqued my curiosity somewhat, since at the time I had only just hit 2200 calories for ‘bulking’. This competitor was quite a bit smaller than me, had nowhere near as much muscle on me and was cutting…
I asked what she was doing and she said she was working with a registered nutritionist who had competed before, so it sounded like she should be in good hands.
Fast forward 2 weeks, she’d suddenly had fats taken out – all of them…in one go. It equated to over 200 calories from a single macro in one change.
Alarms bells started going off.
Fast forward another 2 weeks and she’s had both snacks cut out, and is down to just 3 meals a day – another 300-400 calories gone in one fell swoop. By now she was starting to suffer and beginning to ask others for help.
Fast forward another week and she’s been cut to 850 calories a day!
Think about it – as an example a 160cm, 55kg, 25yr old female who leads a completely sedentary lifestyle has a base metabolic rate of approx. 1350 calories. That’s just what she burns by lying on a couch all day, breathing. By the time she moves about doing day to day stuff you can add another 300 odd calories on to that just to maintain body mass exactly the way it is. To lose weight at a sensible pace it’s usually recommended that calories should not go lower than BMR – yes this is a very broad generalisation, I realise that, and yes you do have to be in calorie deficit to lose weight, but we have a competitor here, an elite athlete who is not only doing 5 resistance training sessions a week, but also 3, hour long cardio sessions…
How in the world are they supposed to function, get lean AND maintain muscle on 850 calories a day??
At least 300-400 of those would be burned by the exercise she was doing, so she is trying to survive on as little as net 400 calories a day.
Your body will shut down fat loss because it thinks the world is ending and it needs to hang on to what it has got to keep you alive. At this level of calories your body is just going to eat up your muscle, and there could be longer term health consequences.
Is it any wonder she was by this time in tears, almost daily begging for help?
So did these desperate, extreme changes work? Did she look the best she could?
No. It was too drastic, too late.
The competitor did one show in March and I haven’t seen her since. I hope she’s ok, because that would have been a hideous experience to go through.
2) The Restricter
Bodybuilding places extraordinary stresses on the body, we all know that, and there are a number of essential vitamins, minerals and micro nutrients that can become depleted by intense training. Iron, sodium, potassium, Calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamins B, D, C, E, Selenium …I could go on, which is why it is essential to eat a wide variety of foods at all times and especially on comp diet when you’re (probably) restricting the amount of food you’re eating and possibly doing excessive extra exercise.
The restricter diet is not only calorie limited but food limited – you know the one
‘You can only eat white fish for the next 2 weeks’
‘You can only eat chicken and red capsicum’
‘Don’t eat egg yolks’ – please, I wish this furfee would die. Yes, egg yolks have sodium and cholesterol in them.
It’s been proven that the cholesterol in eggs does not raise your cholesterol levels. Your body NEEDS sodium and the egg white protein is less bioavailable in the absence of the yolk,because there are key compounds as well as good fats that actually allow you to digest the protein in the egg white…
Yes cutting out the yolks reduces calories, but its false economy folks, you’re missing out on so many additional healthy benefits.
If you’ve been on a comp (any!) diet or its your current comp diet and someone started a sentence with ‘you can only eat…’ or ‘Don’t eat…because <insert broscience reason here>’, then question it
If you’re wondering why your hair is dry and brittle or your, nails are cracking and soft, you have no energy, your skin is dry, you’re not sleeping very well, you have bad breath, joint pain…all of these could be indicators that your diet is too restrictive in terms of variety of food sources and you’re missing out on key nutrients.
Now you can have a perfectly balanced, very limited calorie diet, it’s totally possible with judicious food choices. As an example, with these 7 foods – yes, just 7 – you can meet your daily requirement of 20 key vitamins and minerals that your body needs to function well.
- Spinach – Vit A, B2, B6, B9, C, E, K, Iron, Zinc, Magensium, Potassium, Manganese
- Tuna – Vit A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, B12, Magnesium, Potassium, Selenium
- Avocado – Vit B3 B5, B6, B9, Magnesium, Potassium, Copper
- beef – Vit B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, Iron, Zinc Selenium
- kale – Vit A, C, E, K, Iron, Magnesium, Potassium, Calcium, Copper, Manganese
- mushrooms – Vit B2, B3, B5, D, Zinc, Potassium, selenium, copper
- pumpkin seeds – Vit B1, B3, B6, E, Iron, Zinc, Magnesium, Selenium, Manganese
- almonds – Vit B2, E, Iron, Zinc, Magnesium, Calcium, Copper, Manganese
Do yourself and your body a favour – break your ‘you can only eat…’ rules, blend up a handful of spinach, 4-5 kale leaves, 4-5 dried apricots, 10g pumpkin seeds (or 8 almonds) in 200ml water, throw in ½ a scoop of WPI (optional) maybe teaspoon of honey(optional) and BOOM – instant, perfectly balanced highly nutritious brekky/snack approx. 230 cals, P:19g, F:6g, C:23g, fibre:4g
Your body will thank you.
And then you can thank me for showing you that there are better alternatives.
3) One size fits all
This core of this one, is the attitude ‘It worked then, it’ll work now’ – competitors get presented with diet plan A that hasn’t changed for years and that’s what they do – all of them.
And yes it might work for some competitors, but it won’t work for all of them. It doesn’t take into account starting body composition, genetics, preferences, training styles and a myriad other factors. Conditioning results can and often are a bit hit and miss. Those that it works for, will look good, those that it doesn’t work for will not and will probably have to resort to the next ‘no-no’ to try and reach any sort of conditioning because they’re not on a diet that works for their particular metabolism.
Competition preparation, in my opinion should be specifically tailored to the individual competitor.
4) Starve and Flog
This is an old favourite, and it’s the one that most horrified me the most when I did my novice season (now it just makes me angry).
Follow the mantra ‘less calories, more exercise’ and you’ve got this one in a nutshell. It is the favourite of the diet industry everywhere – the competitor from ‘slash and burn’ above morphed into this style of prep – out of sheer desperation, and ultimately that’s what this style is – a desperate attempt to make it all come good in time, and whilst there could be a variety of reasons behind why it’s not coming good, wouldn’t the more sensible thing to do, be to stop the prep and move the target to something that is more achievable in a safe manner or even investigate the underlying reasons as to why it might not be working?
Yes you can always starve a competitor onto stage, and make them train 2 or even 3 times a day, yes they will lose the fat – eventually, but at what cost to their sanity, emotional, mental and ultimately physical health? The science is there, plenty of studies have shown time and again that this form of dieting is ultimately going to do more harm than good.
There ARE better ways of doing things, competitors PLEASE help yourselves and if it is recommended that you train 2 or 3 times a day on very few calories – question it, seek alternatives, readjust your goals – yes it’s a huge achievement to get on stage, but not at the cost of your health.
There is always another competition.
5) Too Low Too Soon
This is almost the opposite of ‘The Slasher’, but the end point is the same. Also very early on in the season, I was sent a diet by a competitor who wanted me to check it out and give them some advice, they were 9 weeks out at the time.
My immediate impression was ‘Where’s the food?’ – sure there was good whole food listed, the type of food I would recommend in the main, but just not enough of it, the menu plan had pre printed boxes to write in the foods…and there was lots of white space…and even food scribbled out that the competitor was no longer allowed to have.
So I added it all up…
At which point I went off. That is too low, too far out, I don’t care how small the person is to start with – what happens when fat loss stalls as it inevitably will?
Where do you go next?
There was nothing left to cut!!
See my example in ‘The Slasher’ above, how can you possibly expect to function on any level when your calorie intake is approximately 50% BELOW BMR and that’s before you take off the calories burned by the weight training and cardio?
Again the only way I could see this poor competitor getting on stage was the addition of the ‘flogging’ in terms of excessive extra exercise.
It was a fast track to a chronically slowed metabolism, sure-fire muscle loss, and very probably a hideous rebound with massive fat gain.
Unfortunately I don’t know what the starting point of this diet was or how quickly it had come down to this low level and I also don’t know what happened to the competitor, which is a shame – I really hope they took my advice and readjusted their goals, because they were going to be a mess emotionally, mentally and physically if they stuck to it for the next 9 weeks, and if they survived would probably hate life so much that they’d never compete again.
6) Salt/Potassium Loading
Lets just start with saying I have never salt loaded or potassium loaded. I eat salt all the way through my prep even on comp day.
Because I get my conditioning right at least 2 weeks before I step on stage.
Why would you interfere with something that has got you to a particular point by doing something that is unreliable at best and downright dangerous at worst? To me it smacks of desperation. Here’s an example – again from this year, a competitor who’s plan was shown to me by a (rightfully so) very concerned friend, was being asked to take 4 teaspoons of salt after every meal and eat 4 bananas a day (potassium loading), whilst water loading up to 8 litres!
Dear competitors, if anyone, EVER asks you to salt/potassium load PLEASE go and find the biggest dumbbell you can and drop it from a great height onto the person who suggested it.
Your body is the best adapting machine you will ever come across, it always seeks homeostasis and it is waay better at doing it than any artificially manufactured loading scheme designed to try and ‘trick’ it into doing something it doesn’t want to do. By making such drastic changes your body will also change drastically and unpredictably with the very real probability of screwing up all your hard work over the previous months.
If your diet is balanced then you should be getting enough but not an excess of both sodium and potassium. If you’ve got your conditioning right before peak week you shouldn’t need to resort to dodgy manipulation schemes to bring you in right on the day.
These sort of practices may make someone who has already hit their conditioning that 1% better, but it won’t make mediocre conditioning suddenly come good and as I said before there’s every probability it will actually make your conditioning worse!
This poor lady, was so ill 2 weeks out with swollen joints and ankles puffed up like footballs that she could hardly get out of bed – forget training! And she was going to pull out of her comps.
Fortunately she took the concerned friends advice, the situation was rescued and she smashed her competitions.
7) BAD IIFYM
I’ve saved the ‘best’ worst to last…
Doesn’t this eating style cause sooo much discussion and division amongst people. :-p
IIFYM as it was intended is perfectly sensible in it’s intent. It focuses on getting your protein macro in first – essential for muscle building/preservation, your fat macro next – too many reasons why you MUST have good fat, the right amount of fibre (gotta keep things moving! Keep you full etc) and what’s left is your carb portion – preferably from smart, nutritious, fibrous sources.
The trouble is that very quickly it became perverted by nutritional imbeciles who discovered that they could get onto stage by eating poor quality junk foods.
And it does seem to work – I’ve seen competitors who have come up amazingly well, whilst gleefully posting all over FB every 5 minutes about the caramel-choca-cookie-cream gelati, or macca’s or mocca fudge-a-frappe-latte’s with 2 that have got them there.
But looking good on the outside doesn’t necessarily mean being healthy on the inside – see them 6 weeks after comp and they may be a fat mess, and 6 months after comp when they’re 20kg off comp weight and no longer even resemble a fit person, they may start to wonder what happened.
Yes you can get away with eating crap, but it will catch up with you.
Unfortunately, in most people’s minds, IIFYM = Eat whatever the hell you like and look good.
It has now become synonymous with eating rubbish.
Too late, the IIFYM community is trying to backpedal and distance itself from this junk element, but the genie is out of the bottle – good luck with getting it back in…we all know that ‘Flexible Dieting’ is the perfect excuse for those who are junk food fanatics or nutritionally uneducated idiots trying to justify their complete lack of off season discipline.
Here’s a perfect example of this and this makes me so mad that if I ever happen to come across this person, I sincerely hope I have something hard, heavy and jagged in my hand, which will be applied forcefully in the direction of their ignorant head. This diet was created by some jumped up little jerk, who has done one competition and of course is now god’s gift to comp prep.
Where do I start with just how bad this is?
Coco pops + almond milk for breakfast…where’s the protein? Where’s the fibre? Most almond milk is just water with sugar in it. Sure it’s got carbs in it and you’ll get a nice insulin spike and feel good, but you’ll be hungry within an hour or so, and probably have a horrible sugar crash to deal with…but that’s ok at meal 2 you also don’t get real food, you get a protein bar. Now, yes, quest bars ARE one of the better ones out there – but protein bars are designed with a very specific purpose in mind…to provide protein, and they can be very good at that. You do need the protein (especially when the rest of the days food contains very little) BUT when you have meal replacement bars instead of real food you are SO missing out on many essential macro and micro nutrients, vitamins and minerals that are vital to your overall health and what meal are you actually replacing? Spag bol? pancakes? meat and veg? Its a chemically manufactured prop for lazy people. Eat real food.
Fast food hot cakes and syrup – REALLY???
Nearly 600 EMPTY SUGARY CALORIES. Nutritionally devoid of anything useful. Guaranteed to be cooked in poor low quality fat. Nearly 1/3 of the daily calories blown in one meal!
Remember, this is supposed to be for an ELITE ATHLETE, whose body NEEDS the maximum nutritional bang for buck it can get, especially when calories are limited and so many of those micro nutrients, vitamins and minerals get badly depleted by intense training.
A small tub of sugary supermarket yoghurt? Please…get some good quality, full fat, organic greek or labneh.
The whole food protein source is almost exclusively chicken breast – some of the time turkey mince was mentioned, oats and the yoghurt do have protein in but not much – no eggs, no beef, no lamb, no kangaroo, no fish…?? This is a very limited range of protein sources…
Vegetables – almost exclusively broccoli or sweet potato. Again, where’s the variety?
Hmm… we’re back to ‘The Restricter’!
60g of Sweet chilli sauce??!! W.T??
What the hell is the point of this? – Yes it has flavour, but that’s it – why would you have such a useless, nutritional void – I won’t call it food – as additional carbs on top of your rice carbs? In fact it has MORE carbs than 120g basmati rice! If you wanted 60g of carbs why wouldn’t you choose brown rice (extra protein, fibre, iron, selenium), quinoa (fibre, protein, amino acids, vitamin B, zinc, magnesium, calcium…I could go on), amaranth (as quinoa) – these are vastly superior foods from a nutritional stand point.
Slathering your meagre portion of chicken and broccoli with sweet, sugary gooey stuff just to fill an artificial concept, doesn’t make up for it’s lack of purposeful nutrition – try herbs, spices, garlic, herby oil vinaigrettes instead – all full of flavour with a bucket load less calories, which means you can then chose more real foods to fill up the carb macro (and your stomach!)
Confectionary bars for lunch?? ARE YOU FUCKING SERIOUS???
Again, yes there’s a ton of carbs BUT it’s all sugar!! Its empty calories – you’ll be so hungry by tea time you’ll be wanting to eat the plate! If you do want chocolate, and there’s nothing wrong with that, why not go for dark chocolate made with (70%+) raw cacao (iron, zinc, magnesium)?
I don’t have a picture of it, but after your confectionary bar guess what delight you can have for dinner…
6 chocolate biscuits!!!
MORE SUGAR and EMPTY CALORIES – YAY!!!
If it had the milk to dunk them in, even that would be an improvement!
There is an over-reliance on protein bars, what’s wrong with real f.o.o.d?
Fat burners – which will be needed to re-start the fat loss because…
A GLASS OF WINE FOR AN ENTIRE MEAL???
W. T. Actual F!!!
Alcohol is a toxin. The body stops all other functions until it has broken down and eliminated the toxin – that means fat loss folks. You train your arse off burning a ton of calories then you shut your fat loss down by having a glass of wine for tea every other night!
Talk about self-sabotage and sending your body mixed signals; fat burner – ‘go burn fat’, alcohol – ‘woah! stop burning fat’
AND where’s the nutrition in that? By the time you’ve had nothing but a meal replacement bar at mid afternoon snack, 6 chocolate biscuits for tea and a glass of wine there is actually nothing in that to help your body recover from your training, or use to maintain your hard earned muscle. You’ll probably be starving by midnight and want to binge. You’ll probably have cravings, and mood swings due to insulin spikes from all the sugar, you’ll probably be emotional , lethargic and depressed and feel like shit.
me? I’d rather eat plates-ful of brightly coloured salads, and veggies with protein sources that includes wallaby, kangaroo, venison, buffalo, eggs, chicken, lamb, beef, pork, salmon, tuna, mackerel – all fresh.
I’d rather eat my meat cooked in butter or coconut oil, I’d rather throw flaxseed oil/lemon vinaigrette on my salad and veggies and have chunks of avocado and almonds every day.
I’d rather cook up delicious curries – with maybe teaspoon of cream, or yoghurt, or prawns fried in garlicky butter with a mushroom sauce, or a hearty venison stew, or throw 6 or 7 different green veggies into a pot and make a soup…
I’d rather bake my cinnamon covered sweet potato until the moisture caramelises the cinnamon… completely clean sticky toffee cinnamon sweet potato….YUM!!
highly nutritious treat that won’t spike insulin (cinnamon helps balance blood sugar)
But maybe that’s just me. I kinda like EATING my way to stage not STARVING…
This ‘meal plan’, I use the term in its broadest possible sense, was about 1800 calories a day, but this competitor was constantly hungry.
No shit Sherlock, because there’s no fucking nutrition in some of this stuff.
You would not EVER recommend this diet to a normal person who isn’t trying to achieve anything with their weight…
On what planet does it become acceptable to give it to a highly trained athlete??
Words fail me.
Ok, calm down Sarah.
On my comp prep, I don’t get hungry – even when I get down ‘as low’ as 1600 calories – because I load up my plates with lots of the best veggie superfoods.
That picture of salad above? That is a typical SNACK!
Lunch is bigger…
And yes I am still coming in – very nicely too.
I told the waitress at my local café where I get my eggs, spinach, avocado, salmon and tomato brekky that I’d lost another kilo this week.
After she did a huge fish impression she uttered one word:
Because I don’t do ANY of the ABOVE!!
My philosophy is ‘eat as much as possible for as long as possible’ and strategically add just enough inter and intra set conditioning to exponentially compound the intensity of my normal training sessions and gently nudge along the fat loss. A typical change might be as little as eating 2 less almonds a day, or adding 1 set of fast pushups after a chest superset once in a training session. Tiny, tiny tweaks…ninja fat loss…it sneaks up on my body and before you know it 5kg has gone! 🙂
These types of not particularly ideal diets and methods are probably the reason why there is such a high proportion of competitors who do one comp and then never again.
For them it must be a miserable experience.
I count myself incredibly lucky that I have never had to suffer any of these, I was only going to do one comp…and loved it so much I keep coming back for more! I love comp prep and look forward to it. I love seeing the changes in my body and I think because ‘comp diet’ has become my defacto lifestyle, there is no transition for me to make onto a ‘comp diet’. It is also how I’ve managed this off season very well and have held at 5-6 kg above stage weight all year despite stacking up my calorie level by about 1000 calories/day from the lowest calorie point last year. An extra 1000 calories is a very handy buffer when it comes to cutting…
Wonder if I can hit stage at 2000 calories a day…shredded to the bone? Hmmm…definitely something to aim for!
It can be done…I know of a female competitor who has done it…and yes I’m ‘eaten’ up with curiosity about ‘How?’
I urge all competitors out there when on your comp diet, dig down under what you’re being asked to do, find out what you’re really going to be letting yourself in for, ask to speak to previous clients, look at those previous clients photos – did they look healthy on stage or like a ‘skinned rabbit’? Did they come in shredded on top and fat on their legs (a typical result of the type of prepping outlined above).
Is your plan tailored specifically to you? Are you going to be asked to do excessive amount of extra training to get there? Has your diet plan been fully explained to you – what are the reasons behind the structure of the plan? Are they legitimate reasons, broscience, a particular groups ‘mentor philosophy’ e.g do they blindly parrot someone else’s ideas or just personal bias?
Educate yourself, so you don’t find yourself in one of these scenarios.
Find out and if it doesn’t feel right then don’t do it, find another way – a healthier way.
Do your homework and good luck!
I’ll see you on stage looking fabulous, in perfect condition…and healthy.