If protein shakes kill, apples do too

A 25-year old woman recently died while preparing for a physique competition. This week, countless media outlets have run headlines suggesting that protein shakes and “bodybuilding supplements” killed her, followed by calls for tighter supplement regulation. Did protein shakes really kill this young, fit, and apparently healthy woman?

The answer is no, not really. This tragic, untimely death is the consequence of a urea cycle disorder. This genetic defect is an inborn error of metabolism, resulting in a deficiency in one of the key enzymes involved in the urea cycle.

Under normal circumstances, the human body is well equipped to deal with excessive protein intake. Part of this process involves the clearance of excess ammonia, which is accomplished by several enzymes in a series of reactions known as the urea cycle. However, some individuals lack one or more of these critical enzymes, severely inhibiting their ability to cope with high protein intakes.

There are countless inborn errors of metabolism, including fructose intolerance and phenylketonuria. The calls for increased regulation of “bodybuilding supplements” in response to this tragic death are no more justified than calling for an apple ban when someone dies from hereditary fructose intolerance, or diet soda legislation when a life is lost due to phenylketonuria. In fact, it’s difficult to ignore the ironic fact that patients with certain forms of urea cycle disorder actually use L-citrulline or L-arginine supplements, which are typically marketed as “bodybuilding supplements,” as adjunctive treatments.

Make no mistake- this death was an absolute tragedy, and it seems very trivial to quibble about protein’s culpability in the matter. However, inaccurate reporting in these types of news stories distorts nutrition information in a manner that spreads misinformation and directly opposes the goal of empowering people to make informed, health-oriented food choices.

If you dig through the recent literature regarding dietary protein, you will find countless interventions reporting beneficial effects on bone health, muscle mass, physical function, glycemic control, fat loss, and a variety of other health outcomes. You’ll also find randomized, controlled dietary interventions seeking to identify the negative consequences of high protein diets, and coming up empty handed.

So no, protein shakes and high protein diets do not abruptly kill healthy people. You should seek to achieve a balanced diet that meets your personal needs, but the fearmongering taking place in the wake of this death is unwarranted. Individuals with urea cycle disorder or kidney failure should absolutely avoid excessive protein intakes, just as all individuals with an inborn error of metabolism should be conscious of whatever dietary restrictions result from their condition. However, extrapolating the dietary restrictions of unique clinical populations to the general population is unwarranted and unjustified.

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Navigating the post-competition period, part two: Psychological factors

Everybody worries about how they’ll get to the finish line, but we rarely consider what we’ll do beyond the finish line. For bodybuilding and physique athletes, contest prep and the post-competition period bring some pretty crazy changes, both physiologically and psychologically. To effectively navigate the weeks (and months) immediately following competition, knowing what to expect can help you plan for a successful transition. In part one, I discussed the physiological changes observed following competition. In this article I will discuss the psychology side, as this is often the most drastic and difficult aspect to deal with.

For many sports, you plan your training to allow for “peak” performance at the most critical time of year. For example, swimmers train themselves into the ground, taper before the biggest meet of the year, and then achieve their best times when it matters the most (when all goes according to plan). Physique sports are no exception, and the whole purpose of contest prep is to tailor training and nutrition practices to achieve your best possible physique on show day. With this general concept in mind, I want to share some of my thoughts on how to best handle some of the psychological aspects of the post-competition period.

 

First, it’s important to acknowledge the following points:

1) The psychological “lows” experienced after competition are often referred to as the post-competition blues. Don’t beat yourself up or get down on yourself for feeling this way- if they made up a widely-recognized term to describe it, that usually means it’s really, really common.

2) By definition, you will look worse after the show, just like you did before the show. That’s how “peaking” is supposed to work; it’s the entire point. If you do it right, you’ll look the very best you’ve ever looked on show day. That means that virtually every other day of your life, you didn’t look that good, and you probably won’t maintain it for long. You’ve got to get comfortable with that.

3) There is no other sport in the history of the universe where people evaluate their success based on their ability to perform 4 weeks after the championship. Yet, we have countless physique athletes who lose their contest shape a few weeks or months after the show, and feel like they’re “failing.” It’s natural, but it’s illogical.

4) Your competition-day body is the equivalent of taking a vacation. It’s awesome, but it’s not realistically sustainable. You save up all year for vacation, then spend a week in a great location, living above your means, and spending 100% of your time on leisure activities. If you compare your everyday life to your “vacation life,” you’ll undoubtedly conclude that your regularly life SUCKS, no matter how good you’ve got it. We shouldn’t be making “apples to apples” comparisons in that context, and we shouldn’t compare our offseason body to our contest day body.

 

When you look in the mirror, particularly within the first few weeks after competition, your mind is guaranteed to play tricks on you. I’ve found a couple of strategies to be particularly helpful in fighting off some of these mind games:

1) Remember where you came from

Look at your progress pictures, start to finish (credit to Chris Barakat for this one- he made a Facebook pots about it recently). Over the course of my prep, my body fat percentage dropped from around 15% to around 5%. As the fat was coming off, I felt fantastic about how I looked at 10% body fat. But as we shift from 5% up toward 10%, it’s common to feel terrible about how we look. Use your progress pictures to remind yourself that you used to feel pretty darn good about being 10 lbs over stage weight, and that fact that one day (believe it or not) this precipitous weight gain will plateau, and you’ll reach a steady, sustainable body fat level that you’ll feel comfortable with.

2) Remember where you’re going

Let’s illustrate this numerically. Hypothetically, you start prep at 185 lbs, 16% body fat. That’s 29.6 lbs of fat on your normal, offseason body. From the research available, it appears clear that competitors will tend to revert toward their pre-diet weight and body fat level, and that fat will be regained preferentially toward the beginning of recovery. So when you gain about 6 lbs of fat in the first couple months, it can be helpful to remember that you (most likely) still have way less total fat than when you started, and it’ll take a minute for your lean mass to catch up and for your eyes to readjust to seeing a body in the mirror that isn’t absolutely shredded. Take a deep breath, chill, and give your body a few weeks to re-stabilize itself. After putting your body through hell during contest prep, it’s the least you can do for it.

Similarly, consider the positive aspects of the road you’re on. After a show, you’re probably experiencing some negative prep-related side effects, eager to gain some muscle to improve your future placements, or both. In either case, a caloric surplus and some corresponding fat gain is going to be part of that process. That doesn’t mean you should be force-feeding yourself in the name of making gains, but you certainly shouldn’t be stressed about the fairly necessary restoration of a reasonable amount of “fluff.”

This is one of the reasons I love bouncing between bodybuilding and powerlifting. It totally re-frames the post-competition period. As you lose your bodybuilding conditioning, any underlying disappointment is totally overshadowed by the fact that your strength performance is skyrocketing at the same time. One of the primary contributors to the “post-competition blues,” in my opinion, is the inability to shift your perspective from focusing on the negatives of this process to focusing on the positives.

3) Put on your old pants

I did a competition about a month or two ago, and the other day I felt absolutely HUGE (I was cool with it, but felt huge nonetheless). I had to try on some pants for a wedding, so I grabbed the khakis that fit pretty well before I started contest prep. I was pretty concerned that they might be too tight by that point. Then I tried them on, and realized they were still several sizes too big (so big, in fact, that I would’ve looked silly wearing them at the wedding). Your eyes will tell you that you’re losing a battle with morbid obesity, but the scale and your old clothes can be helpful, more objective indicators of what’s really going on.

 

Conclusion

I’m no psychologist, so an in-depth discussion of psychology is well beyond my academic reach. However, competitors have to deal with this stuff, and I have developed a profound respect for how powerful some of these psychological factors are. I hope some of these points and perspectives help physique athletes re-frame their mindset in a more positive direction as they navigate the post-competition period. However, the most important point has yet to be made:

If you derive a great deal of your self-worth from your physique or physical appearance, you’re setting yourself up for a very, very tough time in the world of physique sports.

If this is you, I’d encourage you to spend some time wrestling with why that’s the case, and possibly seek help from a qualified professional in the field of psychology, before embarking on any type of physique-related goal. Don’t let any stupid stigmas about mental health services hold you back- achieving resolution and clarity regarding body image issues will simply set you up with a solid foundation for a happier, more successful path in the world of physique sports.

Anyway, back to the conclusions. Bottom line: Don’t compare yourself to your stage-ready physique; you looked worse before the show, and you’ll look worse after. That’s the whole point of contest prep. And don’t beat yourself up for your inability to sustain an inherently unsustainable physique.

Navigating the post-competition period, part one: Physiological factors

Everybody worries about how they’ll get to the finish line, but we rarely consider what we’ll do beyond the finish line. For bodybuilding and physique athletes, contest prep and the post-competition period bring some pretty crazy changes, both physiologically and psychologically. To effectively navigate the weeks (and months) immediately following competition, knowing what to expect can help you plan for a successful transition. This article will discuss the physiological aspects of the post-competition recovery period; part two will discuss psychological factors.

I don’t want to rewrite everything I’ve written in the past three years, so I’ll summarize: Your body goes a little haywire during contest prep, assuming that you’ve effectively obtained a “stage-ready” level of leanness. A variety of hormonal changes and other physiological adaptations promote an environment of reduced anabolism, increased catabolism, suppressed metabolic rate, and absolutely insane hunger [1]. The side effects go even further, with common complaints of disrupted sleep, foggy thinking, extreme lethargy, and reproductive side effects including amenorrhea in females and low testosterone in males.

In my time at UNC, I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to be granted the freedom to pursue this research line, and to be connected with tremendous collaborators who share an interest in this topic. Our group wrote a review paper summarizing some of the unfavorable effects of contest prep [1], then followed up with a case study [2] and a pilot study [3] on post-competition recovery. I also competed in two competitions (including my pro debut!) recently, so I currently find myself directly in the middle of the post-competition recovery process. In this article, I aim to answer some common questions by drawing upon observations from the literature, the laboratory, and “the trenches,” which may help other athletes manage the post-competition period.

 

1) How quickly should you gain weight?

If you truly got into contest shape, you’re going to gain weight after the competition. This is normal, expected, and almost certainly a good thing. I’m hard-pressed to imagine a sum of money that could convince me to maintain a contest-ready physique for more than 6-8 weeks at most.

The good news is that, as our pilot study indicated [3], the initial weight gain you may experience in the first few days has very little to do with getting “fat.” We used a 2-compartment body composition model measured via A-mode ultrasound, and much of the initial weight gain fell in the “fat-free mass” compartment; bioelectrical impedance spectroscopy confirmed that the initial weight gain was largely water weight.

Simply put, you’re likely to see an abrupt increased in fluid, sodium, and carbohydrate intake following competition, which will increase total body water. Another frequently overlooked fact is that increasing food intake will likely increase the amount of food and waste within the gastrointestinal tract at any given time. So, there’s nothing wrong with just planing for a few quick pounds of weight gain in the first week or so after competition (depending on your body size), and I wouldn’t spend too much time fretting about it.

But what should you do after this initial increase?

I’m of the opinion that it entirely depends on the individual’s goals and circumstances. To make an informed decision on how to manage the “recovery diet,” one must consider the competitor’s weaknesses, the stage of their career, and the presence/severity of any lingering “side effects” of prep. I’ll illustrate with a few examples:

Competitor A is a long-time pro male bodybuilder, who competes with a fat-free mass index of 26 kg∙m-2. He hasn’t gained much lean mass in the last few years, is likely close to his genetic ceiling for muscle mass, and his primary weakness is his inability to achieve elite conditioning (leanness). This competitor has no significant lingering side effects from contest prep.

For Competitor A, a slower rate of weight gain might be advisable, which would consist of what many people consider a conservative “reverse dieting” approach. They might employ a strategy in which they immediately get to maintenance calories after the show, and slowly increase calories from there over time (note: The initial bump to maintenance calories probably won’t be very big, as the caloric deficit is often pretty marginal by the end of contest prep in many circumstances).

Competitor B is pretty new to the sport, 23 years old, and still in the early stages of his lifting career. He achieved decent conditioning for his competition, but simply didn’t have the muscle to compete at a high level yet. Based on these circumstances, it makes absolutely no sense to keep this kid on low calories for another 7 months. He’s better of jumping straight to a moderate surplus, and pushing calories up from there (at a more aggressive rate than Competitor A) to facilitate some lean mass gains.

Competitor C is the exact same as Competitor A, but he does have lingering side effects from contest prep that are clinically meaningful and disruptive. In my opinion, this individual’s approach should be much like Competitor B’s approach- when the caloric deficit caused all the issues, committing to a sustained, reasonably sized caloric surplus is often the most parsimonious route to alleviating these unfavorable effects. (note: see the website disclaimer; always discuss any such health issues with a physician or otherwise qualified medical professional, and follow their advice with regard to any necessary treatment or recovery strategies)

 

2) Are you “primed for growth” after a competition?

Sure you are, just not the good kind of growth. In the obesity literature, there’s a commonly observed phenomenon called post-starvation obesity; we commonly see that weight-reduced subjects will have a ridiculous appetite (hyperphagia), and will tend to preferentially regain fat instead of lean mass when they begin to regain weight [4, 5]. Our pilot study in physique athletes showed a similar pattern, unfortunately, with very little “true” lean mass gained within the first 4-6 weeks after competing [3].

Taken together, the evidence suggests that you should not be force-feeding yourself in hopes of capitalizing on some extra anabolic state after competition. If anything, this is likely to cause a whole lot of rapid fat gain. Research has also suggested that hyperphagia may continue, even after you’ve regained all of the fat you lost, if you have not fully restored the lean body mass you lost while dieting [4, 5]. So, even though the deck is stacked against you, diet and training strategies should be tailored to maximize your chances of regaining lean mass at a realistic rate during the post-competition period.

 

3) How long does it take to recover?

It depends on who you are, what you do, and how you define “recovered.” Case studies tell us that most factors, such as hormone levels, metabolic rate, and physical performance, generally return toward baseline after about 6-7 months [2, 6]. However, these subjects also tend to restore their weight and body fat levels to near-baseline levels by the end of this 6-7 month period. Had they attempted to maintain low caloric intakes and a contest-level body weight, it’s very safe to assume that recovery would be substantially delayed, or potentially halted altogether, depending on the magnitude of post-contest restriction.

However, there are some factors that may lag behind during recovery. For instance, some struggle with appetite and/or their psychological eating habits well after 7 months post-show. In fact, one case study [7] documented amenorrhea in a female competitor that persisted for 71 weeks following competition! As such, it’s almost impossible to give a single estimate for the time course of recovery- different components recovery at different rates, and the rate of recovery depends on the individual and the strategies they employ after competition.

 

4) Conclusions and practical applications (the stuff you can actually use)

When you get in contest shape, your body will hate you, and recovery will be required. In the post-competition period, how quickly you choose to increase caloric intake and/or gain weight should be determined based on the needs and goals of the individual- a “one size fits all” approach is not appropriate. Along the same lines, the rate at which these things occur will influence the timeline of recovery, so different individuals will recover at different rates.

To effectively navigate this time period, I think a few strategies come in handy. I’m going through this process as we speak, and I have made a point of emphasizing high protein intake, consumption of foods with plenty of fiber and low energy density, and training to maximize hypertrophy as much as possible.

The high protein consumption may help on several fronts- protein supports the process of regaining lean mass, has a high thermic effect of feeding, and promotes satiety. Collectively, these factors may impart favorable effects with regard to rebuilding muscle, fighting excessive hunger, and restoring metabolic rate. In fact, our pilot study found a correlation between post-competition protein intake and restoration of metabolic rate.

Consumption of high-fiber foods with low energy density is generally a good idea, even if you aren’t a physique athlete. The foods that meet this criteria often include micronutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, which carry a wide range of general health benefits. With respect to the post-contest period, these foods will also increase satiety and can help curb urges to overeat.

Finally, if you’re going to be in a caloric surplus, you might as well put those calories to use. Train to maximize hypertrophy, targeting each muscle group with sufficient volume and intensity at least twice per week. Personally, I tend to opt for an upper body/lower body split after competition, allowing me to train each muscle group every 48-72 hours to stimulate muscle growth. This will assist with nutrient partitioning, optimization of body composition, and recovery of lean mass, which may play a role in attenuating post-competition hyperphagia and overeating.

So plenty of protein, fruits, vegetables, and lifting are good. I know, I know- groundbreaking, controversial findings indeed.

 

Be sure to check out part two of this article, which discusses psychological aspects of the post-competition period!

 

References

  1. Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, Norton LE: Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014;11(1):7.
  2. Pardue A, Trexler ET, Sprod LK: Case Study: Unfavorable But Transient Physiological Changes During Contest Preparation in a Drug-Free Male Bodybuilder. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2017:1-24.
  3. Trexler ET, Hirsch KR, Campbell BI et al.: Physiological Changes Following Competition in Male and Female Physique Athletes: A Pilot Study. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2017:1-25.
  4. Dulloo AG, Jacquet J, Girardier L: Poststarvation hyperphagia and body fat overshooting in humans: a role for feedback signals from lean and fat tissues. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997;65(3):717-23.
  5. Dulloo AG, Jacquet J, Montani JP et al.: How dieting makes the lean fatter: from a perspective of body composition autoregulation through adipostats and proteinstats awaiting discovery. Obes Rev. 2015;16 Suppl 1:25-35.
  6. Rossow LM, Fukuda DH, Fahs CA et al.: Natural bodybuilding competition preparation and recovery: a 12-month case study. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2013;8(5):582-92.
  7. Halliday TM, Loenneke JP, Davy BM: Dietary Intake, Body Composition, and Menstrual Cycle Changes during Competition Preparation and Recovery in a Drug-Free Figure Competitor: A Case Study. Nutrients. 2016;8(11).

 

 

Practical Peaking: The Week Before Competition

best comp pics july 18

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.

 

2) Supplements

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.

 

Conclusions

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:

  1. Don’t do anything stupid or dangerous
  2. You’ve got more potential to ruin your look than to drastically improve it
  3. 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:

https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/layne-norton-peak-week.html

https://www.muscleandstrength.com/articles/rapid-backload-peaking-cliff-wilson-approach-pre-contest-dieting.html

http://www.mysportscience.com/single-post/2016/05/12/Carb-loading-what-is-new

 

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.

Identifying the right time to compete

trexler5

A picture from my first competition, circa 2011

 

People get into weight training for a variety of reasons. Whether you got into it for sports, to improve your stock on the dating market, or simply as a hobby, you might one day acquire the itch to compete in powerlifting, bodybuilding, or some other iteration of strength/physique sport.

But when is the right time to start?

This is a common question, and a tough one at that. Obviously you need to get some training under your belt to make competing a feasible goal. From that perspective, I understand why so many prospective competitors are often timid about taking the plunge and converting from hobbyist to competitor. However, the majority of individuals take too long to make this transition, myself included.

I knew I wanted to do a bodybuilding show some day, but I just needed to add some more mass. I did, but then I found that I needed some more time to allow my legs to catch up with my upper body development. They did, but then I found that my chest was lagging behind a bit, so I needed a bit more time to focus on added some size to my pecs. You probably see where I’m going with this- if you wait until you feel ready, you may never feel ready.

As I mentioned, I had added a bunch of mass already, and was in the process of building up my chest. And it was working- I was walking around at 195 lbs, which is about 40 lbs over the stage weight I turned pro at. My bench was at 355 (touch and go) and climbing. I was walking home from the gym when I crossed a street that I was pretty sure was a one-way street… Except that it wasn’t.

I got nailed by the car, and it tossed me like a rag doll. Luckily (somehow) I walked away totally unharmed. At that point I decided, unequivocally, it was time to compete. You never know when you’re going to get sick, get into a freak accident, or even just acquire a simple gym-related injury. If you’ve got a decent amount of training under your belt, you’re healthy, and you’ve got the itch to compete, I would urge you to go for it.

Aside from the whole carpe diem justification, getting your feet wet as a competitor will probably improve the effectiveness of your training and facilitate/accelerate your progress. Perhaps you’ll get your butt kicked the first time around- this might be a humbling reality check that sparks some change. Maybe you’ll do well, and obtain a boost in motivation and focus moving forward. Either way, you’ll get submerged into a world that includes seasoned veterans and a more broad collection of knowledgeable perspectives, and you’ll be forced to objectively evaluate how you stack up against some competition. You might even find some friends, colleagues, peers, or mentors in the process who can help you moving forward. People who will keep you accountable, give you ideas, give you something to chase, or even take you under their wing and show you the ropes.

My first bodybuilding competition was, as it should be, my worst showing ever. Not a bad showing, not a bad experience, but a necessary first step. I was actually very happy with how I looked and had a great time. More importantly, I got a good assessment of my strengths and weaknesses, made some mistakes that I learned from, met some great and tremendously helpful people, and got a huge motivation boost. This first competition was a huge stepping stone in accelerating my progress in the gym.

While prepping for my competition, I ended up befriending another competitor who also competed in powerlifting. He got me into the whole powerlifting thing, and we ended up racing to see who would be the first to get an official 500-lb squat at a sanctioned meet. Aside from being really fun and keeping both of us honest, this little “challenge” also basically forced my hand with regard to when I would start competing in powerlifting. As soon as I got near a 500 lb squat, I’d enter a competition, simple enough. My first powerlifting meet was similar to my first bodybuilding meet- I had fun, met some great people, got another huge motivation boost, and learned a ton.

In hindsight, I’d say I probably waited too long to compete in both bodybuilding and powerlifting. Competing is such an invaluable experience when you consider the connections made, the techniques and lessons learned, the motivation gained, and the enjoyment obtained. This combination of factors can really accelerate your progress moving forward, so I’m a big advocate of competing a bit early in the career. This doesn’t mean you have to compete often; just frequently enough to refine your skillset and tactical approach over time and keep your motivational fire stoked.

 

Conclusions

If you’re one of the many people who plan to compete “someday,” go out and make it happen! Whether it’s bodybuilding, powerlifting, or some other strength/physique sport, getting your feet wet with your first competition will be a fun, motivating, and educational experience that is likely to give your progress a boost. More importantly, if you wait to compete until you feel big enough, lean enough, or strong enough, it may never happen. Those goalposts have a way of constantly moving themselves further and further away as we approach them.

Goal setting: The Six Years’ War

trexler4

Time to get serious about my powerlifting goals!

 

The year was 2013. I had just finished my undergraduate degree and was on my way to North Carolina to start grad school. I didn’t really know anybody there, I just knew that Abbie Smith-Ryan was there, she was doing cool stuff, and I wanted to be on her team.

It was around this time that I set four goals, with a six year deadline. It didn’t matter when I accomplished each, or what order they fell in, they just needed to get done by May 2019. They were as follows:

1) To establish myself as a proficient, productive researcher

2) To get my pro card in natural bodybuilding

3) To achieve an elite total in raw powerlifting

4) To earn my PhD

 

Four years in, it’s time for a progress report.

 

Overall, I’d say I can cross off #1, although it is admittedly vague in nature. You could always be more productive, but I’m very proud of the amount of quality research our lab group has completed and published within the last four years. We’re far from done and have plenty more research to do in my remaining time at UNC, but the wheels are absolutely in motion and we’ve accomplished a great deal so far. If you’re interested in seeing what we’ve been up to, much of our work is available at my PubMed and ResearchGate links.

As I recently posted, #2 has also been completed, as I recently took home pro cards in bodybuilding and classic physique, and subsequently made my pro bodybuilding debut. As far as #4 goes, a lot of progress has been made. Completing a PhD takes time, and there isn’t much you can do about that. But, at this point, my coursework has been successfully completed, comprehensive exams are quickly approaching, and I have secured a research grant to fund my dissertation. So, I am still on track to meet the self-imposed deadline for graduation in May 2019.

That leaves #3. I’m so incredibly far from an elite total right now, it’s a joke. But on the bright side, I could have said the exact same thing about #1, 2, and 4 at various times throughout the last four years.

I’m writing this post for a few reasons. First, it’s important to put your goals in writing, and to make them known. This can help reinforce your commitment and accountability, and it makes them feel a lot more “real” and tangible. I’m being facetious with the title of this article- I’ve always found in humor in the duality of strength and physique goals; they mean the world to us, but are so trivial in nature. It’s common to see athletes take themselves way too seriously and drastically inflate the importance of what they’re doing. I’m not one to give unsolicited advice frequently, but I would encourage you to find the middle ground. Let your goals mean a lot to you, pursue them enthusiastically, but don’t lose sight of the relative triviality of pursuing a lean physique or a huge bench press. It’ll help keep you rooted in reality, keep your priorities in line, and make you more robust to the speedbumps along the way.

Second, this post serves as a quick update to contextualize my upcoming focus. After a long, arduous contest prep, it’s time to figure out what the next step or transition is. I’ll be focusing on regaining as much lean mass as possible in the immediate post-competition period, then transition toward a more powerlifting-oriented approach to my training and nutrition. Of course, I’ll be updating this website along the entire way to keep everyone posted with regard to what I’m trying to implement and how it’s going.

But third, and probably most importantly, I want to use this post to reinforce my belief that setting and reaching goals is, more than anything, a battle of attrition. From the outside, it’s easy to look back after someone else accomplishes one of their goals and say, “I knew they’d do it eventually.” I do this all the time when I see others reach their goals, and I think it’s a fairly natural response when we believe in the abilities of our peers. But as I cross one of my goals off the list (pro card) and switch gears towards another (elite total), I want to document my first-person perspective here, and highlight two facts:

The goals I’m currently working on are numerous years in the making, and there have been times that I’ve strongly doubted my ability to complete each and every one of them- including those that have since been accomplished.

Like I said, I’m weak as hell right now. I’m standing at the foot of a very large mountain that I fully intend to climb. Based on my current numbers, it’s a really stupid goal, almost impossibly out of reach. But as I’ve learned from pursuing my other goals over the last four years, where you start isn’t really that important. What really matters is identifying the route to achieving it, putting your head down, and grinding it out. There will be times when the route takes detours, when it’s necessary to slow down the pace, and possibly times when it’s necessary to hit the “pause” button. But like I said, it’s a battle of attrition- I don’t need to be superhuman to finish off the list, I just need to make sure I don’t give up, and I don’t move backwards.

I don’t consider myself “successful” yet, so I’m not the guy to dish out tips on achieving success. I am still working on the climb, and I have a long way to go. I’m happy about the progress I’ve made so far in a variety of pursuits, but I’m a work in progress that has much to prove and achieve. But the more I meet and talk with successful people- academics, physique athletes, business owners, and otherwise- the more I observe the same thing, over and over: These are, typically, very average people. You don’t need to be born with it, made for it, or possess some exceptional talent that no one else has. You just need to identify the goal, focus, and always keep moving. So as I gear up to tackle the rest of these goals by May 2019, I hope you’ll join me in identifying some goals, putting them down in writing, and chasing them like crazy.

Rear-view mirror: A contest season in review

trophies and check july 18 post

Welp, that’ll do it. This season was funny- it started in a pretty unusual fashion. I used to eat a huge, family-sized bag of tortilla chips at work every day because it was convenient to pack and required no preparation. One day I decided that this behavior probably wasn’t an ideal nutrition choice, so I stopped.

I started losing weight. The weight loss was unexpectedly motivating, so I made a couple other tiny, easy changes to my training/nutrition. Before I knew it, I had a pretty solid weight loss trend rolling. Then I looked at the calendar and realized it was my last chance to scrape together a contest prep before starting my dissertation. So, all of a sudden I was prepping for a show, I guess. I’d estimate that about half of my prep occurred without me knowing about it.

But before you explode with envy, rest assured that it eventually got pretty brutal, as contest prep does. I didn’t just stop eating tortilla chips and coast onto stage a few weeks later. The goal was to make a hard push for my pro card, so I dug deep and grinded it out. Below are a few important things I learned and/or want to highlight as I look back at my season.

 

1) You don’t necessarily have to do cardio during prep

Energy balance works. Calories in, calories out, you know the drill. If it isn’t working, you’re messing up part of the equation. Sometimes it gets messy.

Bottom line, you’re free to manipulate whichever side of the equation you prefer. Frankly, I’m pretty willing to starve myself, and I absolutely hate cardio. From my personal perspective, cardio takes time, cuts into recovery, and generally leaves me miserable and hungry. So I opted to go on a super restrictive diet instead. It’s not for everybody, and I’d never make the blanket recommendation that people shouldn’t do cardio during prep. I’m just saying that I picked my poison (dietary restriction), it appears to be a viable and justifiable strategy from a conceptual standpoint, and I achieved my best ever conditioning with this approach while minimizing the “miserableness” of my prep.

 

2) I wish I bulked more aggressively in the off-season

I’ll cut myself a little slack here, since I didn’t really plan on competing this year. Nonetheless, as I look back at the stage photos, I’m very pleased with my conditioning but definitely need some more lean mass. Again, not a blanket statement that everyone should go start a “dreamer bulk.” How tightly or loosely you approach the off-season really depends on your capacity (and desire) to add more lean mass. At this stage in my career, I am confident that I can add plenty of mass to my frame, and I believe I held myself back by being a bit too shy with the calories over the past couple years. Lesson learned!

I’ve posted a few contest pictures below, so feel free to judge for yourself. If you’re interested, there’s a more extensive album of stage photos that is publicly available on my Facebook.

best comp pics july 18

 

3) I’m really stoked

My biggest goal was to get my pro card, and I did! There are always shortcomings, weak areas, and room for improvement, but it’s important to be happy and take the win every now and then. I ended up turning pro in both bodybuilding and classic physique, and I’m incredibly excited and thankful about that.

 

4) I’m really thankful

Not just about reaching the goal- I’m thankful for the support group in my life. Friends, family, lab mates, advisor, the whole gang. Everyone was incredibly supportive throughout my entire prep. They showed interest, shared my joy, understood the times when I was a bit sluggish, and propped me up when I transiently slipped in and out of full-blown zombie-mode toward the end there. So, I want to openly acknowledge how awesome they are and express sincere gratitude for their support.

 

5) I’ve got some work to do!

Making my pro debut was a really fun experience, and I had a great time with it. I also got to compare myself with some pro bodybuilders to see how I stacked up- This was a humbling experience, and it showed me what I need to work on moving forward (more details on the pro debut are available here).

Overall, I was happy with how I looked at the pro debut, and I felt like I held my own on stage. I had the best conditioning in the pro class, but I definitely need to add some muscle mass, particularly from the posterior perspective (rear lat spread, back double bicep, etc.). Adding some mass to my quads, hamstrings, and lats will greatly improve these shots and give me much better chances of placing well moving forward. I also need to improve my posing quite a bit, as the pros tend to display a much more refined style of posing than at the amateur level. Plus, I don’t have the type of physique that’s good enough to overcome subpar posing (few do).

 

Conclusions

Despite very atypical beginnings, this turned out to be a great season for me. I learned a lot, which will certainly influence my preps in the future. Overall, I walk away with great optimism regarding my future in the sport. I’ll focus on adding some mass for a while, continue to work on posing, and I should show up to my next competition with some drastic improvements. In the meantime, I’ll be focusing on building up my strength as I add mass, and potentially competing in powerlifting. More on that in my next post!