Typically I write my column based on an interesting e-mail question I have received or a question I’ve heard repeatedly at the gym. Although I’ve written about dehydration several times in the past few years, I’ve gotten so many e-mail and in-person questions about it during the past month that I feel compelled to address it again. That’s because dehydration is very unhealthful and because it makes drug-free people look worse instead of better. Here are some of the questions I’m talking about:
From a 2011 Texas Shredder Classic competitor:
I am three weeks out from the show, and my trainer says I have a lot of water to get off. He has me eating asparagus at two meals per day and taking dandelion root. Do you think it will get the water off in time?
From Dr. Tracie Schwab, D.C.:
I just saw the photo of you and Diana in the June IRON MAN. Y’all (that’s Texan for “you guys”) are both in fantastic shape. Do you have to restrict your water intake for days to look like that? The reason I’m asking is that one of my patients—who is just an average guy doing a transformation contest—has been advised by his trainer to drink only one cup of water per day for the week prior to his “after” photo being taken. I thought it sounded like a very unhealthful practice.
Paraphrased from several competitors:
As a judge at the Ronnie Coleman Classic can you tell me how I can improve for your show [one month later]. I felt small, flat and weak onstage at the Coleman.
DG: Did you dehydrate for the Coleman?
Competitors: Yes [from all of them].
From a men’s physique competitor:
I’m two weeks away from a really important photo shoot. Some of the guys at the gym are telling me that I shouldn’t lose any more weight. They say I just need to drop my water, and I’ll be shredded. How many days do you usually cut your water before a show or before a photo shoot?
What really amazes me is that when people find out I’m a competitive bodybuilder, even those who know absolutely nothing about bodybuilding have asked me if I go days without drinking anything before a competition. Why is that the one thing about bodybuilding that everyone knows?
The first thing to examine is how the practice of “cutting water” came to be so common in bodybuilding. Prior to 1988, steroids weren’t classified as a controlled substance in most states, nor were they classified as a Schedule III substance by federal law until the Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990. Steroids were openly used by most bodybuilders and strength athletes from the early 1960s through the late 1980s. One of the side effects of using them is edema—fluid retention outside the muscle cell. To get rid of drug-induced water retention and achieve an ultrathin-skin look, bodybuilders used prescription diuretics and reduced precontest fluid intake. Even after steroids became illegal and drug-tested shows became more prevalent, the concept of dropping water for competition was passed on with no regard to whether a competitor was using drugs.
If you are not taking any bodybuilding drugs, there’s no reason to dehydrate your body for a competition, photo shoot or any other event at which you want to look lean and muscular. Your muscles are 73 percent water, your blood is about 85 percent water, and your skin is about 44 percent water. A drug-free athlete who takes steps to dehydrate will lose plenty. For example:
1) Muscle cell volume, which makes muscles flatter and smaller
2) Blood volume, which leaves you less vascular and makes it more difficult for you to get a pump
3) Skin cell volume, which leaves the skin looking leathery—drier, older and less elastic
Reduction in muscle cell volume and blood volume also causes a loss in muscle circumference. That means your skin isn’t stretched as tightly and looks loose—in many cases saggy. From the judges’ table that’s extremely evident when competitors do their back poses. When asked for a critique, I can look at athletes’ back poses and predict almost 100 percent of the time whether they’ve dehydrated themselves.
Another thing that has perpetuated the use of dehydration in the attempt to look leaner is the prevalent use in the fitness industry of the following phrase: “You’re just holding water.” Yes, some things cause temporary water retention. Eating foods with more sodium than you are accustomed to, eating foods containing MSG or taking in foods and other substances you’re allergic to can make your body retain water. Be aware, however, that such water retention is temporary. Unless you have kidney issues, the water will be gone in no more than 24 to 36 hours. If the softness that is being considered “holding water” is there every day, it’s not water but fat that you still need to lose. If you’re looking lean on a daily basis and one day you wake up puffy but a day later you’re back to your usual leanness, then that was water retention. If you’re still carrying too much bodyfat to look as lean as you need to for your competition or photo shoot, no amount of dehydrating will make you look lean. To the contrary, dehydrating will make you smaller, flatter and less vascular. In addition to the detrimental effects on your appearance, dehydrating your body will very likely lead to painful muscle cramps. I learned that lesson at my first competition.
If you want to look your very best for whatever event you have coming up, the best thing you can do is to use your weight training, cardio and diet to reduce your bodyfat to the point where your skin is as thin as you need it to be. Then make sure that you’re fully hydrated on the day that you want to look your best. In order to make sure that I don’t have fluid retention on the day of a contest (or photo shoot), I usually drink six to eight quarts of distilled water the day before the show, avoid eating anything that I know I have a mild food allergy to, avoid eating anything that’s out of the ordinary for me and get plenty of sleep. I also take a mild antihistamine, such as Claritin, the night before and morning of the event, just in case I’ve been exposed to any allergens.
I know that many out there think I’m full of crap and that there is no way you can be ripped without cutting water. Well, since experiencing severe calf cramps during my first contest in 1983 and experimenting with less water restriction in the other shows that I did that year, I haven’t drunk less than six quarts of water the day before any show. On contest day I always have water with me and drink anytime I’m thirsty. My advice is to be well hydrated and healthy.
I’ve been competing for almost three decades. I have seen competitors pass out backstage and onstage, go into such severe cramping that they end up in the emergency room instead of the stage and/or experience severe vomiting, delirium or seizures backstage. Those are the results of dehydration.
Don’t fall victim to confusing bodyfat with “holding water,” and don’t become a casualty of dehydration.
Train hard and eat clean.
Editor’s Note: See Dave Goodin’s blog at www.IronManMagazine.com. Click on the blog selection in the top menu bar.
To contact Dave directly, send e-mail to [email protected]. IM