In bodybuilding/physique athlete nomenclature, the final week leading up to competition is referred to as “peak week.” It’s too late to work any miracles, but this is the last opportunity to put the finishing touches on your physique and get 100% stage-ready. Even the most flexible of flexible dieters pay a little extra attention, as your look can absolutely undergo day-to-day fluctuations based on small changes in meal timing, sodium/potassium intake, water intake, macronutrient ratios, and even food sources in some cases. Some of these factors are relatively negligible in the context of general weight loss, but peak week is one of the circumstances where extra consideration is warranted.
Historically, bodybuilders have tried all sorts of tricks during peak week, including carb loading, sodium depletion, potassium loading, and water restriction, among others. These strategies range from effective to useless to downright dangerous. In this article, I describe the fairly practical approach I took to peak week this season.
1) Manipulation of sodium, potassium, and water
I’m starting off with this section because it’s short and sweet: I didn’t do much at all. It’s not uncommon to hear people employ all sorts of intricate protocols to manipulate these three factors in hopes of decreasing extracellular fluid and increasing intracellular fluid.
In a nutshell, there’s no strong evidence to suggest that these attempts are successful; the body will fight very hard to maintain appropriate electrolyte balance, as this is critical for normal cell function. In some instances, bodybuilders have caused serious harm and even death as a result of drastic manipulation of these factors. So it either won’t work, and you wasted your effort, or it will work, and you’re screwed. Sodium and water are often restricted close to competition time, but I dislike (and do not recommend) this approach- you’re going to have a tough time getting a pump backstage without them. So, I kept my sodium, potassium, and water intake consistent with my normal prep diet.
Again, short and sweet here: No major changes. Throughout peak week, I continued my normal use of creatine monohydrate and a multivitamin. People commonly discontinue creatine use near show time out of fear that it will cause water retention, and Jonny Deacon recently asked me about this on his podcast. Creatine is osmolytic, and therefore does cause you to carry a little more water weight. However, this is primarily stored within the muscle. So, if anything, this water retention would actually enhance your fullness and improve your look on stage rather than hinder it. I wouldn’t recommend beginning a creatine load during peak week, but continuing a normal maintenance dose throughout prep should not be problematic whatsoever.
3) Carbohydrate loading
Our body stores carbohydrate as glycogen, mostly within the liver and skeletal muscle. If you’re carbohydrate-depleted on stage, your muscles will be measurably smaller and appear less full. As a result, it’s no surprise that a major goal of peak week is to optimize muscle glycogen storage. But this is a somewhat tricky task- you want to maximize the amount of glycogen in your muscles, but if you push it too far with carbohydrate intake, you might exceed your muscle glycogen storage capacity. The result is referred to as “spilling over,” leaving a physique that often looks (and places) worse than before the carbohydrate load.
There are two common methods for achieving muscle glycogen replenishment: frontloading and backloading. The difference relates to when you start “carbing up,” or increasing the carbohydrate content of your diet. Frontloading involves eating more carbs early in the week, whereas backloading involves larger carb intakes in the 24-72 hour period prior to taking the stage.
There are pros and cons to each approach. Frontloading is often considered the safer, more cautious approach. If you put most of the carbs early in the week and you do happen to spill over, you still have some time to correct the mistake before you hit the stage. Nonetheless, this rationale is a bit of an oversimplification. It makes it seem as though you can figure everything out by Thursday, and then just “stay put” in a stage-ready spot until the night show on Saturday. There’s a temporal aspect of glycogen storage; this means that even with a frontload, you’ll still need to continuously monitor your look and make adjustments all the way up to stage time. The magnitude of the late-week, day-to-day adjustments will be smaller in a frontload, but you’ll still need to keep tweaking all the way up to the stage, while trying to roughly estimate daily changes in energy expenditure, liver glycogen utilization, and muscle glycogen utilization. Each of these factors can influence how many carbs you need and where they’ll go.
The risks of a backload are clear- if you swing for the fences and spill over, you have no time to adjust and correct. Anecdotally, it would appear that this is a high risk, high reward type of situation. When someone nails an aggressive backload, the results can be pretty incredible; when someone messes it up, it can potentially yield a pretty disappointing showing.
When it comes to your carb loading strategy, there’s no right or wrong choice. Personally, I tend to lean toward a fairly conservative backload. I find it much easier to focus on monitoring my glycogen replenishment over a shorter period of time, so I prefer loading in the 48-72 hours prior to stage time rather than 5-7 days. While it doesn’t necessarily need to be this way, backloads are also commonly preceded by a more aggressive glycogen depletion protocol than frontloads. I have noticed that I look a little bit sharper and “drier” on stage when I backload, which may relate to a more pronounced glycogen partitioning effect resulting from the aggressive depletion protocol and short time window for replenishment.
In discussions with a couple of really smart, experienced bodybuilders (who also have advanced degrees in exercise/nutrition, if that matters to you), I’ve found that we all shared an interesting observation: When you fully deplete and backload in a short time window, it’s actually kind of tough to spill over unless you’re being really bold with your intake and relying on tons of liquid/syrupy carb sources that are easier to overconsume. In addition, from a far less scientific perspective, I prefer the brief, all-out explosion of carbs that the backloading approach affords you, in comparison to a more “responsible adult” approach of adding in a few carbs here and there throughout the week. From my perspective, the frontload is simply more enjoyable and easier to manage. At the end of the day, both approaches will work when done correctly, so it’s best to pick whichever fits your preferences. Most importantly, don’t try to work a miracle. If you do, you’re far more likely to mess things up than to drastically improve your look. Getting stage-lean during the other 16+ weeks of your prep is what’s going to win you the show, not the little tricks you implement 7 days preceding it.
4) Macros, timing, and food sources
When it comes to long-term weight loss goals, we get it: Calories in, calories out, and if you say anything else matters, the internet will bury you in PubMed links and call you a bro (or worse). In general, the core principles of flexible dieting are effective and essentially indisputable. However, peak week is one of the few situations where it actually does pay off to sweat the smaller stuff, such as meal timing and food sources.
You may notice that certain foods temporarily alter your look. For example, you might notice that a particular food makes you appear “puffy” or causes your stomach to bloat a little bit for a few hours afterward. Depending on the individual, this could relate to a variety of factors, such as the content of lactose, sugar alcohols, fiber, FODMAPS, or gluten, or a minor reaction to an allergen, to name a few. That doesn’t mean that all of these components of food are inherently “bad,” and in the context of long-term body composition changes, some of them probably don’t matter much at all. However, in the context of meals consumed close to stage time, a poor individual response to a certain food could be very unfavorable.
I try to carb up with foods that I tolerate extremely well, to avoid any risk of GI discomfort, bloating, or minor food allergies/intolerances. If a food wasn’t part of my prep diet and I haven’t had it in a while, I generally shy away from large intakes during my carb load- particularly if it contains some of the food components listed previously. However, if a food containing one or more of those components causes no issues for me and has been a consistent part of my prep diet, I go for it- particularly in the early half of peak week.
As the week moves on and stage time approaches, I switch toward foods with lower content of fiber, sugar alcohols, and overall volume, and I stay away from excessive intake of carbonated beverages. High-volume foods obviously cause a temporary expansion of your stomach, which isn’t ideal for your overall shape, and fiber and sugar alcohols will be digested via fermentation, which can cause gas, bloating, and more distention of the gut. A few of my carb-up “staples” include rice, low-fiber cereals that are rice or corn-based, and sugary, low-volume options like honey, maple syrup, and jelly, but there are plenty of foods that work perfectly fine for pre-competition carbohydrate loading.
Finally, I always consider meal timing and macronutrient ratios as I begin my carb load. You can only store so much glycogen at a single time, so most carb loading protocols advocate splitting your daily carb intake into several feedings ingested a few hours apart from each other. I also go a little higher with carbs at my peri-workout feedings (immediately before, during, or after my workout); the exercise-induced translocation of GLUT-4 transporters will facilitate glucose uptake and glycogen storage within skeletal muscle.
When it comes to macros, there are two things to consider when carb loading. If overall caloric intake is too high, you’re likely to spill over and store some fat. If caloric intake is too low, most of the carbs you’re ingesting will get burned for energy rather than stored as glycogen, and the load will be relatively ineffective. As a result, I tend to drastically bump carbs, keep fat quite low, and modestly reduce protein during carb loading. This generally places me in a middle ground where I’m able to ingest plenty of carbs while eating right around maintenance calories (or just a tiny bit above), so the additional carbohydrate can actually be stored without inducing spill over or fat storage.
Myths are plentiful in the world of physique sports, and peak week is the source of many of these myths and poorly supported strategies. I have no intention of telling you what to do, but now you know my personal approach to peak week- a little carb depletion, a modest carbohydrate backload, foods that I’m used to eating, and no crazy tricks or stunts. And please remember these three points:
- Don’t do anything stupid or dangerous
- You’ve got more potential to ruin your look than to drastically improve it
- No amount of peak week magic can make up for having too much body fat
For more information and perspectives on carb loading and peaking for bodybuilding, check out the following resources:
Note: Eric Trexler is not a physician or registered dietitian. The contents of this website, or any related content or communications, should not be taken as medical advice. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any health problem – nor is it intended to replace the advice of a physician. Always consult your physician or qualified health professional on any matters regarding your health. The content of this website is intended purely for educational purposes, and does not constitute nutritional counseling, dietetic advice, or medical advice. For nutritional counseling or other individualized nutrition services, consult with a licensed, registered dietitian or an otherwise qualified medical professional.