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).

 

 

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

ffmi trexfit picture

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.

Three new podcast appearances

mydnacoach podcast ep 96 Eric Trexler

Greetings from Phoenix!

The 2017 ISSN conference just wrapped up, and I’m at the airport to catch a red-eye back to Chapel Hill. After a fun and information-packed conference, I finally have a minute to post a quick update.

A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of being Jonny Deacon’s guest on three episodes of the “My DNA Coach” podcast. We discussed a few ingredients that I have previously done some research on, including creatine, caffeine, and nitric oxide boosters.

Check out the links below and give them a listen!

Episode 96: Creatine

Episode 97: Caffeine

Episode 98: Nitric oxide boosters

 

 

ICYMI: Featured guest on “The Bodybuilding Summit”

bodybuilding summit image

A while back, I had the pleasure of sitting down for a podcast with Joshua Vogel. This was part of his “Bodybuilding Summit” event, which featured an incredible list of bodybuilding experts ranging from active researchers to world-class competitors.

I’ve been extremely lucky to have the opportunity to merge my personal interest in bodybuilding with my research activities (a couple examples here and here). In this podcast, we discuss all things bodybuilding, drawing upon experiences from both the gym and the laboratory. Check it out here!

Quick Tip: New research supporting effectiveness of drop sets

drop set picture

If you follow the fitness research closely, you’re already very familiar with Brad Schoenfeld and Jeremy Loenneke. Brad has made tremendous research contributions in recent years, primarily focusing on very applied, practical questions that are common among gym-goers. Dr. Loenneke is an extremely prolific researcher, with focuses on blood flow restriction and responses to resistance training.

In the past few weeks, both researchers have co-authored brand new research papers discussing drop sets. Drop sets generally take the following form, more or less: You start with a weight, and do it to failure (or near failure). Without resting, you drop the load a little bit, allowing you to get some more repetitions in. The exact protocol can vary, but you’d usually drop weights once or twice in a single drop set. This has been a favorite “intensifying technique” among gym-goers (and even the old bodybuilding magazines) for years, so it’s fun to see it pop up in academic research from time to time.

In the paper by Schoenfeld’s group (Fink et al.), they did a 6-week study comparing a single drop set to 3 normal sets. Loenneke’s group (Ozaki et al.) had a similar set-up for their 8-week studying, comparing three groups: 3 normal sets with a heavy load, 3 normal sets with a lighter load, or a single drop set “cluster” progressing from heavy to light as the load was dropped.

For strength outcomes, the results are fairly intuitive. Fink et al. found greater strength gains from the multiple-set protocol; Ozaki et al. found significant strength gains in the heavy group and the drop set group, but not the light load group. At this point, the research seems pretty clear that in order to improve strength, going heavy is key; we can still make strength gains with light loads, but you’ve got to really push the intensity and approach failure to make it happen.

For muscle growth, the research generally tells us a slightly different story. Heavy training can be an important, effective part of a hypertrophy program, but it appears that light loads elicit plenty of growth when taken to failure. In line with this concept, Ozaki et al. found similar muscle growth across all three groups in their drop set study. Fink et al. saw improvements in both groups as well, although the drop set group experienced a little more growth than the group performing traditional sets.

Getting to the Point

These new studies both support the idea that drop sets may be a helpful technique for promoting strength and hypertrophy. In addition, you’ll note that the drop set groups completed their workouts in less time as well, providing the additional benefit of a more time-efficient workout.

I’m still not a huge advocate of single-set workouts, as the body of evidence largely shows some benefit to multi-set protocols. On the flip side, if you complete a true drop set to failure for your first set of an exercise and try to do more, the quality of sets 2, 3, and beyond are going to be garbage.

When I implement drop sets into my own training, I do it selectively and intentionally. For a muscle group that needs some extra attention, I’ll throw in a drop set as my final set of the final exercise, and really push the intensity to achieve failure. If you’ve never done drop sets before, this new evidence suggests it may be worth a shot.

Quick Tip: Pre-meal beverage to reduce overeating

As I sit 3 weeks out from a bodybuilding competition, the topic of overeating has crossed my mind once or twice this week. I’ve always had tremendous interest in the post-competition rebound from weight loss, which prompted me to contribute a review paper and an original study that touch on the subject.

I will eventually write a big, bloated article about post-competition strategies, but that’s for another day. Today’s post is about a quick tip from the research literature that may help, particularly when you anticipate a meal in which you may be tempted to overeat.

The concept is simple: 0-30 minutes before the meal, you “pre-load” with a beverage, such as 500 mL of water or a protein shake, to reduce how much you eat in the subsequent meal. If you’re someone who is diligently tracking your portions, this obviously will have no effect for you; the benefit is seen for people who are eating ad libitum (i.e., freely determining how much they eat on the fly). The pre-load is basically intended to subconsciously reduce the amount of food you consume. But to the point- does it work?

Despite its simplicity, the research actually does indicate a benefit. Pre-loading, even just with water, has been shown to reduce food intake at the following meal, and to support weight loss over 12 weeks (some studies here, here, and here). Similar studies have been done with pre-meal protein shakes, with similar effects reported. There has been some research to suggest that whey protein is more favorable than soy, but other research showing that pea and casein protein were a little more effective than whey.

For numerous reasons, I would generally tend to recommend some kind of complete, animal-based protein such as whey, casein, egg, or a blend of these sources. A separate study compared egg white isolate, whey isolate, micellar casein, and instant egg whites as protein pre-loads, and found them to be equally effective.

Sure, this post could diverge off into discussions about the psychology of overeating, satiety vs. hedonic eating, and the typical debates surrounding untracked “cheat meals.” But those are for a different day.

Today’s post is simply to highlight research on a practical, quick tip that some may find helpful. Sometimes food-heavy social events don’t align with our dieting plans, and overeating is generally a topic of concern following weight loss, whether the weight loss was health-oriented or competitive in nature. As a result, there are a variety of scenarios where a water or protein pre-load may come in handy!

How to accurately measure and track body composition

tracking body comp image may 27

I’ve had the opportunity to contribute some articles to Layne Norton’s website, BioLayne.com. His site has always been one of my most frequently recommended resources and I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for Layne, so it’s an honor that I don’t take lightly!

In a recent article, I discuss various methods for measuring your own body composition, how to enhance the accuracy of your measurements, and how to interpret the results. Check it out here! If you happen to become a member of his site, you’ll gain access to countless articles from a great group of contributing fitness experts.

On a related note, the ISSN Annual Conference is June 22-24 in Phoenix, AZ. I will be there presenting some brand new, original data on the validity of body composition tracking in the Data Blitz event, along with an abstract/poster on the same topic. If you’re going to be in attendance, please be sure to stop by my poster presentation and say hello!