Guidelines for Pre-Contest Bodybuilders

IFBB pro bodybuilder Pavol Jablinicky
Photo credit: Muscletime

Q: I want to do a bodybuilding contest sometime next year but am confused about how to get in ideal shape. Do you have any general guidelines for pre-contest bodybuilders?

Lyle McDonald: Although there is no one hard and fast plan to follow for getting into contest shape, here are some good general guidelines so that you can avoid the common traps I see people fall into. Keep in mind that the goal for your contest diet should be to lose all the bodyfat necessary while sacrificing minimal muscle mass. I say minimal because it’s nearly impossible to keep all your muscle mass while dieting. My recommendations can hopefully prevent you from losing more muscle than you have to. Unfortunately the dieting advice available to natural lifters has gotten garbled by what the pros are doing. Whenever you introduce steroids and other drugs (especially thermogenics) into the mix, things change drastically. It’s much easier for someone using steroids to crash diet and lose a lot of fat very quickly without dropping a lot of muscle.

  1. Don’t get too fat in the offseason. A lot of lifters go into bulk-up mode in the offseason, see their strength and mass coming up and put on ‘fat blinders’. Since they aren’t keeping track of body composition, they end up at too high a bodyfat percentage and end up sacrificing all that nice muscle when they diet down. For men, the highest you should let your bodyfat get is about 10-12%. You won’t have abs at this level but neither will you be ‘fat’ in the classic sense of the word. Women should try to go no higher than 15% bodyfat or so. What this means is that you will need to do short dieting cycles during your mass phases to keep bodyfat under control. Basically you should mass until you hit that high end bodyfat level (10-12 or 15%) and then diet for 3-4 weeks. This also gives you a chance to dial in your dieting for when the real contest prep starts. However neither should you try to maintain super-leanness during the off-season. It’s extremely difficult to add much muscle while staying totally ripped and, as a general rule, you will have to gain some bodyfat if you want to gain any mass.
  2. Start your diet too early rather than too late. I’ve seen fat bodybuilders give themselves 8 weeks to get into shape for a contest.. There is a physiological limit to how much bodyfat you can drop in a given amount of time without losing muscle and it’s about 2 lbs. Also it’s better to get into shape 2 weeks too early than 2 weeks too late. So many lifters report looking just great a week after their contest which doesn’t do them a heck of a lot of good. Assuming you didn’t let your bodyfat get too high during the off-season, a 12 week dieting cycle should be plenty. Of course, if you really let your bodyfat get out of control, you may need 16 weeks or more to lose fat without losing muscle. Do you really want to diet for 16-20 weeks? I didn’t think so. Better to throw in short dieting cycles during your mass phase. Starting your diet early enough also gives you a chance to throw in a week off the diet which seems to help break fat plateaus. That is, rather than diet straight down for 12 weeks, you can diet 4 weeks, take a week off, diet 4 weeks, take a week off, etc. Seems to work better than one long diet cycle.
  3. Dance with who brung ya’. Meaning that you should maintain (to as great a degree possible) the same training that you used during your mass cycle. There is an erroneous idea out there that you should use high reps and lighter weights to ‘cut up’ a muscle. My feeling is that this idea came from the steroid users who had to lighten the weights when they dropped the heavy androgens and their joints started to hurt. The worst thing you can do during a diet is to drop the stimulus to maintain your muscle mass which is heavy weights and low reps. Now this doesn’t mean that you should try to maintain maximum intensity and go crazy with forced reps and negatives. I think you should try as much as possible to maintain your poundages and train to the point of concentric failure (or even a rep short) but no further. You won’t have the recovery to handle set-intensification techniques.
  4. Don’t overtrain or overdiet. A lot of lifters (who didn’t follow rules #1 and #2) panic when it comes time to diet. They cut calories too low and do hours upon hours of cardio. While they lose fat, they lose a lot of muscle too. By the same token that it’s a bad idea to push yourself too hard in the gym (rule #3), I think it’s a bad idea to increase your frequency in the gym during a diet. Yes you will burn more calories but you won’t have the calorie or hormonal levels to handle a higher frequency of training. In the start of you diet, I don’t recommend any cardio. Simply cleaning things up food wise and reducing calories slightly will get fat loss started. Bring in cardio only when it’s necessary (i.e. when fat loss starts to slow for a given calorie level) but don’t go nuts. Some people can get plenty ripped with no cardio, others can’t. But I think that 4-5 days per week for an absolute maximum of 40 minutes is more than enough. More than that and you will whack hormone level and start losing muscle.

About Lyle McDonald

Lyle McDonald is the author of the Ketogenic Diet as well as the Rapid Fat Loss Handbook and the Guide to Flexible Dieting. He has been interested in all aspects of human performance physiology since becoming involved in competitive sports as a teenager. Pursuing a degree in Physiological Sciences from UCLA, he has devoted nearly 20 years of his life to studying human physiology and the science, art and practice of human performance, muscle gain, fat loss and body recomposition.