I get asked to describe how competition training differs from a general fitness and nutrition plan. Some clients come to me after seeing their friends or family members take the stage and they decide for some reason or another that they too want to compete. Now, let me go ahead and tell you that I am a competition coach and competitor myself so I am by no means attempting to thwart anyone’s goal or dream of stepping on stage, however I think that a detailed, brutally honest check list has been needed for some time.
So many clients start competition prep only to quit in the middle, falling short of their goal. It is my job as a coach to education on the reality of competing and the fact that it isn’t for everyone.
Finding time to train is hard enough with our busy schedules but training for a competition requires even more time and effort than that. So if you are considering taking the plunge into the competition world, please take some time to go through each of these bullets and ask yourself if this is something that you have the time, money, psychological stability, and even more time it takes to compete.
The truth is some coaches may not want to tell clients what I am about to lay out in fear that it may lead to one less client but you have the right to know what to expect and to know that it’s okay if you don’t compete. Competing isn’t for everyone and you certainly don’t have to compete to be in the best shape of your life!
1. The Time
Like I stated previously, finding time to get to the gym is hard enough when you aren’t competing. Competing generally requires 5-6 days in the gym for how many ever weeks you elected to prep. Most competitors don’t give themselves enough time on prep so missing a few workouts just doesn’t cut it when you are 12 weeks out and have 15 lbs. to lose.
If you don’t have a lot of extra time to commit to working out, doing cardio, and practicing posing, you probably shouldn’t compete. While you can get your workouts accomplished within an hour if you are productive, it requires more than just hours in the gym. It requires posing practice as well. Posing is just as important as your training, nutrition, and cardio. You will also spend time meal prepping, even if you are prepping using flexible dieting you will likely be preparing some basics and will spend a great amount of time tracking food and figuring out what you can have for your next meal.
In addition, competing is a selfish sport. It is all about youand your body. You will have time away from friends and family as you train and if you do not know how to balance it, it can be frustrating or overwhelming. As the mother of a 19-month-old, I get cardio in at 4am while he is sleeping and lift during lunch while everyone else is eating and taking a break. Even when I can get in and get out, I find it exhausting.
2. The Training
Competing is not the time to learn how to train. You should have some experience with training previous to deciding to compete. This will allow you more time to understand the technique and work on form. This is not to say that I have never taken on a newbie. I have and they have done well. I simply mean it is not the time to be learning very technical lifts. I always suggest giving yourself enough time in a prep to learn form so that you are less likely to get injured and can focus on specificity.
Training for competition is not like a normal workout routine. If a person who isn’t prepping has a long day, they can skip the gym without causing any setbacks. However, as a competitor, you will not get ready by skipping workouts or putting in the bare minimum effort either. It takes hard workouts and proper form to build muscle and lose fat. In addition to the fact that you will likely be in the gym 5-6 days a week, you will also NOT be in a building phase when actual prep begins. Building cannot be accomplished at a calorie deficit. As such, your prep will be focused on recomposing body fat and fat loss. While some competitors can see a slight increase in lean body mass and a decrease in body fat during a deficit (when testing is measured accurately), it is not the time to take a lagging body part aka glutes or shoulders and try to grow them.
In addition to weight training, you will likely have a cardio schedule of some sort. Depending on how much fat you have to lose, you could be doing anywhere from 30 minutes each day, shorter HIIT sessions, or a combination of that. It is not unheard of for competitors to be doing 35-45 minutes of cardio a day if they have not given themselves enough time to prep. A typical prep is 12-15 weeks, however this is not a magical number. You should allot yourself 1 week for every percentage of body fat that you have to drop, not necessarily weight because in order to get lean, body fat is what needs to come down. If you are 20% body fat and need to get to 10-12% to step on stage as a bikini competitor, then you need to allot 10-12 weeks. This still is not a magic equation as other factors affect how fast we lose weight or build muscle. Unfortunately, this means 10-12 weeks of non-stop work. If you have an upcoming trip that has significant meaning, I do not recommend prepping through it because it can be difficult to track food when eating out and temptation to consume foods you normally wouldn’t or in higher quantities while on vacation can be detrimental to your prep. At the end of the day, sure you can track macros, but is it worth tracking macros so tightly on your trip to Mexico that you can’t have a margarita AND enjoy the food? Probably not.
3. The Diet
Hands down the #1 reason why most clients fail to make it to the stage. Your coach can give you every tool needed to succeed but if you aren’t following it, you will not succeed. Meal plan on prep is brutal. You eat the same boring stuff day in and day out and it leads to cravings and binge eating. Using flexible dieting where you count your macros instead of following a meal plan is not only more flexible but ends up making the experience so much better for the athlete. The problem is people come to us without the basic knowledge of macro tracking. If you are a competitor who wants to prep using flexible dieting, please take time to practice before starting your prep. Beginning a prep where every day and week count and the clock is ticking, is not the time to learn so give yourself a little more time to learn first. Even if you are on a flexible diet, you will be consuming lower calories at some point during prep and it is not sustainable for a long period of time. This isn’t for the faint of heart. It is hard. Really, really, hard. You can’t just go out to eat all the time and guess macros on prep. Once in a while is fine but you cannot control what they add to your food so even your best guess could stall your weight loss for the week. Butter, oil, etc. all add up to much higher calories in the long run. Adding alcohol on top of that could make matters worse. In general, we teach clients how to track alcohol as we don’t believe in elimination diets. However, when your body ingests alcohol, it immediately wants to metabolize it and turns its attention from burning fat to metabolizing the alcohol it sees as a toxin. You can see how this could be a problem when you are already on a time crunch and need to lose fat in 12-15 weeks, right?
Competition diet is difficult so if you can’t see yourself having this much discipline even with flexible dieting, you should probably start with a general fitness and nutrition plan first. It takes a lot of discipline and planning to diet for that long without a break so starting with something more simple will allow you to decide if kicking it up to a competitive level is right for you.
4. The Financial Cost
Competing is a very expensive sport. Not only are you paying a coach, you are paying for all of your prep food and supplements. Then there is the registration fee for the show you choose and possibly a membership fee for the federation or league as well, the tan, nails, hair and makeup, the travel expenses if any, and the suit. On average, it costs roughly $775 without nails, hair and makeup and without any travel expenses. Add in nails ($60) hair and makeup (roughly $125) and a hotel ($120) and you jump up to over $1000 for one competition. Make sure you have calculated these costs before thinking about competing.
5. The Social Cost
Your social life will be the gym. If you are balanced, you can set aside time with friends and family but you have to learn to redefine these times as so many are centered around food. You can find grilled chicken salads at just about any restaurant in town so you don’t have to say no to every social event. However, we see a lot of peer pressure from friends who aren’t being supportive and you may find people around you making fun of your goal or teasing you about “dieting.” Hopefully this doesn’t happen to you and you have an amazing support system but we do hear about it from time to time. If you are used to going out drinking with your friends and aren’t ready to give that up, you probably aren’t ready to jump into a competition prep. It requires a lot of focus and time management to be able to juggle a prep schedule and make time for other aspects of your life. As mentioned early, heavy drinking isn’t conducive to fat loss and can hinder your process dramatically.
6. The Reason
All the time, money, and effort that goes into this process isenough to make anyone question whether it is worth it. To add to that, there are only 5 places that are awarded and one 1st place. We want all of our clients to be in it to win it, but at the end of the day you have to have fun regardless of your placing and remember your own incredible journey. You may put all of this work in and walk away without placing and you have to not only be okay with this but still be proud of yourself. This isn’t something that everyone can do and if this sounds like it something you don’t want to think about, maybe you shouldn’t compete right now. A lot of girls compete because they want to look a certain way, but you have to know that all of this hard work and money is for one day on stage. If you are not confident with who you are and how you look before you hit that stage, a lean physique, flat stomach, or bikini body will not make you feel any more self-worth after the process. You have to do this for you and know that a stage ready body is not sustainable year round.
7. The Physiological Toll
As if it isn’t hard enough to be a woman trying to lose weight, right? At some point during your prep, if not multiple times, you will think you aren’t ready. You will think you haven’t progressed, your shoulders aren’t roundenough, glutes aren’t big enough. At some point you will compare yourself to another competitor even though you shouldn’t, but you will anyway. You will think you aren’t enough. The psychological toll on competitors is rough because you are training your butt off to stand on stage and be compared to other women’s physiques and it gets in your head. Body dysmorphia is a real thing and even more real among competitors. To add to that, eating disorders are all too common in this industry. If you have a history with body dysmorphia or eating disorders, you should not compete. Competing (even with flexible dieting) can trigger the same emotions that lead you to the eating disorder in the first place. It can also trigger binge eating in competitors who have never had any history of eating disorders. The entire process of competing can be done in a healthier way, but the general principle of cutting weight to compete can have psychological consequences that you need to be able to recognize. Bodybuilding is a sport so when people ask why anyone would want to do this or call it unhealthy, I compare it to wrestling. Have you ever known anyone from grade school to college who has cut weight for a wrestling match or boxing? They go to extremes too, such as water depletion methods, in order to make weight. Bodybuilding is the same. You diet for weeks for one “match” aka show. On stage, you are your leanest but if done the correct way while learning about health and fitness, it can lead to a lifestyle that is sustainable where as competition body isn’t.
8. The Post Show Rebound
This is perhaps the most important of them all. You have dieted for weeks and finally after the show you are “free.” You enjoy your post show meal and treats and that continues into the weekend and then through the week until you have gained 10-20 pounds in one week. It happens. We try to walk our clients through reverse dieting which is the process of reversing your caloric intake back up slowly to avoid fast weight gain or rebound. While we preach this throughout the process, the responsibility ultimately lies with the competitor. We want competitors to go enjoy treats and meals out after working that hard, but we also want to help them rebuild their metabolism. This reverse process takes time and some clients who finish the competition are literally fighting their body. It isn’t because they have no self-control. On the contrary, to achieve homeostasis, their body wants to be at a higher body fat and their appetite is at an all-time high. Therefore, it takes planning to get back on track after a show and it is at that time when we can either help a competitor to maintain their fitness level at a higher body fat gained over a slower period or watch a competitor rebound to the initial weight or more. Of course, every competitor will gain weight back but by reversing you can minimize the amount of body fat that is put on in a short time and increase metabolism by slowly adding calories back in. We have seen a lot of competitors feel like failures after the show because they gain weight. Just know that no one stays stage lean and a healthy, sustainable body is not that lean.