Take a couple deep breaths: New keto paper published

For whatever reason, ketogenic diet studies seem to trigger visceral reactions these days, whether positive or negative. The latest edition is no exception, and the internet is champing at the bit to tear it apart.

When people start critically reading research, they tend to ride a U-shaped curve, as follows:

u shaved curve

The natural progression of critically reading research

 

When you first start, you’re most likely going to accept whatever you read as fact. As you get a little more experienced, you start looking for holes to poke in every study, ultimately becoming hypercritical. Eventually you’ve been around the block enough times to realize that there are any number of alternative approaches, methods, and interpretations for just about any study you could read. At that point, you start reading papers differently; instead of asking, “How many holes can I poke in this?” you start asking, “What information can this paper provide me?” The threshold of a “publishable paper” is not perfection, it’s a meaningful contribution with sound and repeatable methodology.

Hypocrisy disclaimer: I speak from experience on this. I once summited the peak of that U-shaped curve, and was dreadfully hypercritical of every paper I read, mostly for the gleeful ego-stroking that comes with feeling more sciencey than scientists. Then I started doing research and found out this stuff is really, really, really hard.

The only reason I bring this up is because the whole internet has descended on this paper like a ravenous pack of wolves. Everybody wants to poke holes, and there are certainly aspects that are quite pokable. But much of the chatter I’ve seen about this paper has been way overblown, complete with personal attacks, vague accusations of impropriety, and even calls for retraction. None of these are warranted. Frankly, if reviewers were as harsh as Facebook fitness group posters, our field would have about 3 suitable papers published per year. And this is coming from a person who serves as a reviewer for multiple journals, and often seems to come off as “the harsh reviewer.”

There are several things about this paper that limit the findings, as reviewed by Sci-Fit.net (to be clear, I think Sci-Fit wrote an excellent, fair review that was not excessively harsh or nitpicky). I agree that the lack of randomization and existence of meaningful baseline differences between groups are problematic. I also disagree with the decision to report performance outcomes relative to body weight, and to adjust the testing loads based on current body weight, instead of keeping them consistent from pre-testing to post-testing (at least that’s what the methods appear to indicate). The body composition changes also appear to be at odds with the reported caloric intakes, but this is neither rare nor unique in literature with self-reported diets.

Having said that, this study has some strengths. It’s a relatively long intervention for this type of work, has a fairly large sample size, used sound methodology to confirm that ketosis was achieved, and used reasonably well-trained participants. And, although the data are reported relative to body weight, the study used multiple indices of exercise performance, and it’s not difficult to convert those data back to raw values. All in all, this paper gives us an indication of what can happen when you implement a fairly “real-world” keto approach in trained individuals, in terms of body composition and a variety of exercise outcomes. While there are aspects of the study that have justifiably been questioned by readers, there’s no reason to call for retraction or accuse the authors of unethical behavior. It’s not a perfect study, but it makes a contribution to the literature.

The results tell us a few things: application of ketogenic diets may induce weight loss in this population, which makes sense given the satiating nature of the diet. This effect is most likely dictated by reduced caloric intake (rather than bioenergetic magic of ketones), whether or not the diet logs reflect it. We also see that absolute performance changes (i.e., not scaled to body weight), were pretty similar for both groups. Taken together with the rest of the keto literature (which is how we should interpret any study, by the way- in the context of the literature preceding it), there are some things we know about keto:

It reduces appetite

It helps people lose weight in ad libitum conditions, mostly due to appetite reduction

It’s suitable for low-intensity endurance athletes; the more glycolytic the activity becomes, the more unfavorable keto seems to be

It’s great for certain clinical populations with medical issues pertaining to carbohydrate metabolism

It’s pretty inconvenient, and a bit difficult to make a “well-rounded” keto diet that provides sufficient micronutrients (not impossible; just requires a bit more effort)

 

So let’s call back the dogs of war and set down our pitchforks. I’m not saying research shouldn’t be critically analyzed, reviewed, and discussed in public forums, we just need to retain a reasonable level of respect and civility when doing so. Half the time you’re reading a research paper, several of the authors on the paper are people who have a master’s degree, work 70-80 hours per week doing highly skilled labor, and earn less than the minimum wage. The only thing fueling them is a desire to make an impact on the field, investigate exciting questions, and share their results with the public. It’s important that we critique the work, without bashing the worker. Depending on contextual factors, keto diets may be better, worse, or no different than other diets. From a pragmatic standpoint, the study in question adds a little more to what we know about keto diets, and when they may be justifiable.

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I’m back! And here’s a cool new study about metabolic adaptation

prep face pic

The dark days of contest prep, where metabolic adaptation reigns and cheeks are a thing of the past

 

It’s been a while since I posted anything. I’m running a huge, time-consuming study at the moment, and had to take care of my comprehensive exam, which is basically a cumulative exam over the last eight years of my life. But now the exam is done, and I have metamorphosed from a PhD student to a PhD candidate.

I’m not really “known” for much of anything at this point in my career, but those who do know me most often associate me with my papers on metabolic adaptation and contest preparation in physique athletes. As a bodybuilder, I’ve long been interested in how metabolic rate fluctuates in response to under (and over) feeding, and how these fluctuations influence weight loss and weight maintenance success. A recent paper sheds more light on the topic of metabolic adaptation, or the exaggerated drop in metabolic rate that occurs during weight loss.

The researchers had two weight loss groups: One group did a weight loss diet for 16 weeks straight. The other group did the same weight loss diet, but they alternated between two weeks of dieting and two weeks of weight maintenance. So, instead of 16 straight weeks of weight loss, they would lose weight for two weeks, then take a two-week “break” in which they ate enough to keep their weight stable. In total, they did 16 weeks of dieting for weight loss, but the intervention took 32 weeks total for this group. The overall caloric deficit was equal for both groups.

 

Statistical analysis status: It’s complicated

When it comes to the statistical analysis of this paper, there’s a lot to chew on. But there’s reasons for the cumbersome nature of the analysis. When we study weight loss or weight maintenance, compliance and drop out are major issues. This leads to two huge questions: 1) Do we analyze the data for everyone who was assigned the diet, or everyone who properly adhered to it? 2) What do we do about data that are missing due to dropout or poor compliance?

The paper reports two analyses: Intent to treat (ITT), and per protocol. The intent to treat analysis analyzes the data for everyone who began the study, even if they dropped out or had poor compliance. The per protocol analysis only uses people who finished the study with sufficient compliance (i.e., they did the whole thing and followed directions reasonably well).

There are pros and cons to each approach. From an application standpoint, the ITT analysis ensures that the randomization of groups holds true, and incorporates the likelihood of successful compliance as part of the intervention’s effect. For example, if you gave a miserable diet that no one could adhere to, the ITT would show a low level of effectiveness. You could pick out the 10% of people crazy enough to follow it and find a great deal of weight loss for those lunatics, but overall the success of the intervention as a whole is questionable based on an ITT analysis.

Per protocol analysis takes the other approach. It aims to determine how effective the treatment was, if you followed your directions and stuck to the plan reasonably well. If you’re a coach who knows your athlete will comply with whatever you give them, this might be a more meaningful analysis for you to interpret, because you aren’t concerned about your athlete’s willingness to comply.

Finally, there’s the issue of how to account for missing data. There’s plenty of methods out there. The simplest is to just remove subjects who don’t have all of their data present. The next simplest is called “last observation carried forward” (LOCF). Let’s say we have two visits: pre-test, and post-test. If you were there for the pre-test but dropped the study before the post-test, the researchers would just assume your value stayed the same- they would “carry forward” your value from pre-testing to post-testing. More advanced methods, such as single regression imputation or multiple imputation, use the trends in the existing data to “predict” the value for missing data.

In this paper, the researchers used LOCF. I typically don’t like LOCF for weight loss/weight maintenance research, because I tend to suspect that most individuals have missing data in follow-up testing because they fell off the weight loss wagon, and their value is likely worse than the previous observation available. I would’ve preferred to see single regression imputation at the very least, or better yet, multiple imputation or the use of linear mixed effect models. Either way, it’s just a preference thing- these researchers carried out a thorough and ambitious project, so no need to get worked up over a judgment call like this.

Finally, they used three different methods to calculate “adjusted” changes in energy expenditure over time. It’s important to adjust these values somehow, because we expect that metabolic rate will naturally decline due to the loss of mass. One method aimed to mathematically account for changes in lean mass and fat mass. Another method used a linear regression equation derived from this specific sample. The third method used a previously published prediction equation. Again, total judgment call here, and they decided to provide all three. Good on them.

 

Findings

Either way you slice it (ITT or per protocol), the group with diet breaks lost more weight. In absolute terms, metabolic rate dropped to a similar degree in both groups. However, when you account for the amount of mass that each group lost, the group with diet breaks had less of an “adaptive” drop in metabolic rate (i.e., the drop in metabolic rate that can’t be explained by the loss of tissue). What’s really interesting is that this was observed solely looking at resting metabolic rate, even though non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is more markedly influenced by metabolic adaptation. One might presume that NEAT, which wasn’t measured, would show an even larger difference than resting metabolic rate, but this is purely speculative.

Another interesting observation is that the group with diet breaks lost more weight, but also maintained their weight loss advantage at the final follow-up visit. Some weight regain was observed, but the absolute amount regained was similar in both groups (with a slight advantage observed in the group with diet breaks). As a result, the weight loss gap between the groups at the end of the 16 weeks of weight loss was similar to the difference observed at week 48.

 

Application

A single study never definitively proves anything, and there’s always plenty to nitpick in a big, intricate study like this one. However, these findings are reasonably promising, and as a practitioner/competitor, would lead me to believe that this intermittent approach to dieting may be just as effective, if not more so, than traditional, continuous, linear dieting. However, the authors suggest that what happens during the “diet break” is critical. They contend that it’s important to actually achieve energy balance (i.e., to get calories all the way up to a true maintenance level). However, if you return to ad libitum or uncontrolled eating habits, you’re very likely to overeat and regain weight during the diet breaks. So, the proper application of this study is not to actually take a complete “break” from dieting altogether, it’s to increase your calories to maintenance level for a couple weeks.

Based on my experiences as a researcher, competitor, and colleague of some great coaches, it appears that some people have metabolic rates that are more adaptive than others. For individuals who tend to experience relatively large drops in metabolic rate during contest prep, this might be a viable strategy for attenuating this unfavorable adaptation. But don’t get your hopes up too high- some degree of metabolic adaptation will still occur, and contest prep will still be rough. You’ll probably just be able to sneak a little more food into the prep diet, or get away with slightly less cardio.  But when it comes to making the most miserable days of contest prep just slightly more tolerable, a win is a win.

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.

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.

New article: Using fat-free mass index to guide your off-season

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My primary goal of this website, and my career in general, is to highlight and apply the symbiotic relationship between research and application. I find joy in using observations “from the trenches” to guide research questions, and in translating research findings back to applicable, real-world training and nutrition recommendations.

My newest article, “Using fat-free mass index to guide your off-season,” is an excellent example of this. The article, featured on BioLayne.com, translates my recent publication into some practical tips that help you use this valuable metric to guide your mass-gaining goals. Moreover, the BioLayne staff went above and beyond and put together a nice FFMI calculator to accompany the article and make life even easier.

As always, it’s an honor to be featured on Layne’s site, so I want to thank him and the BioLayne staff for their help and support in getting this article up. I’m about 4 days away from a nice, mass-filled off-season, so the timing couldn’t be better!

Check out the article, and please share if you like it.