Every fitness competitor recalls their first stage contest. The temperature backstage being the complete opposite of what you dressed for. You either sweat through your tanner or simply can’t seem to get enough warmth to not shiver uncontrollably. The smell of the tanner resembles that of Gojo hand soap with a slight orange tang to it. The panic when the expediter calls your class to the stage, long before you had a chance to get a proper pump up. Not to mention, the hotel charge for the sheets you ruined thanks to the pre-stage base coat turning the white sheets and comforter brown as bread crust (although the tossing and turning the night prior in those sheets should barely be labeled as sleep).
All of those memories are fond reminders of the exciting experience that leads most to fall in love with show day, and stories that most competitors tell every chance they get. Most coaches will hold sessions with their clients to give the athlete an idea of what to expect and how to quell their panic. But what about the time leading up to the stage? What stories and guidance can be given about the time leading up to donning the war paint and going to battle?
Once you step out on stage for competition, under those bright lights, with your body being judged in a manner it never has before, all your preparation work is complete and you are presenting your best. All it takes is any misstep or miscalculation and you could miss the mark of winning, or getting placed, entirely! This is why preparation is everything. Welcome to Ironman Magazine’s guide on how to prepare for your first bodybuilding competition. We are going to cover all the ins and outs of the intricate details leading up to the stage so that the memories you recap someday are capped off with “…but I was ready, and so I won the overall!”
What Is A Bodybuilding Competition?
The sport of bodybuilding can sometimes paint a picture of the old Pumping Iron footage, where Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, and Mike Katz battle it out in front of six guys from Long Island. In the aforementioned classic tale of brains and brawn, little explanation as to how the winner is chosen is given, and never is there any other divisions or sexes even shown in the documentary. That’s because back then, there was no variety of participants.
Today, bodybuilding competitions are defined and separated by gender, division, competitive level (pro vs. amateur), and sometimes height. Once these categories are filtered and stacked, it comes down to the classification of the judge’s criteria, starting with muscularity. The top male categories in order of the expected muscle size are currently: Sports Model, Physique, Classic Physique, Bodybuilding. For example, in the male divisions, there needs to be a solid separation in how big and dense a men’s physique competitor is compared to a bodybuilder. How separated and visible the individual muscle groups are from one another on the competitor is going to depend on the muscularity they carry out under those lights. For further reference in the female divisions, muscularity from smallest to largest would be Sports Model, Figure, Physique, Bodybuilding.
The judges’ panel, chosen by the promoter and approved by the federation before the show kicks off, is tasked with the burden of “rack and stacking”. This is when they rank competitors on the stage in order of how close to the designated criteria they have come at the time of judging. This throws a lot of competitors off as they struggle with how far out they should look show-ready, and can vary drastically from federation to federation. We will get to that a little later, but let’s focus on further defining what the contest itself is.
Fitness competitions usually take place in two variations, either the double show or single show setups. A competitor and their spectators can get an idea of the length of the show by seeing which format the promoter has scheduled. A single show running order means, with the exception of a short 15 – 45 minute intermission, the divisions will all be judged and then immediately awarded placings before being sent on their way. A double show format means that after all divisions are judged, a longer 3 – 4 hour intermission will take place before a final round will begin. In the final round, the judges will run through the whole show again before awarding placings. In this format, the scorecards are finalized in the morning show. Only tiebreakers or the awarding of overall titles between competitors in the same division standard will be judged in real-time (e.g. Men’s Physique Short class winner vs Men’s Physique Tall class winner to award an overall champion within the division).
How long should I train for my first competition?
The specifics of how long to prepare for a contest as it relates to a “prep season” can get a little tricky. The industry is loaded with opinions. Some think working hard for 10 weeks with extreme dedication and focus is enough, while others believe that 20 – 30 weeks of slow progress work best. The real answer depends on a few things, that you should consider as a math equation for deciding what’s right for you.
First, what division are you aiming for? Looking up the judge’s criteria will tell you how far off you are from their benchmark. For example, if I have an athlete who would be considered a hard gainer that can’t seem to put on muscle fast and needs a solid size upgrade, prep would start 1 – 2 years before ever seeing the stage, with a long and valuable offseason filled with caloric surplus and heavy lifting. This will change the result when the physique gets cut to look more full so you have the size the judges are looking for on show day. In order to decide your cut time, try a test run of 4 – 8 weeks to see how your body responds to a caloric deficit. This will give you a better idea of if you should aim for a 10 – 12 week cut or 16 – 18 week cut. Either way, a good rule of thumb is to not pick your show until you have an idea of what you need to make the mark on and how the body responds to what your dietary methodology will be.
Next, how much time are you able to dedicate to training, cardio, and meal prep? It sounds rudimentary in thought, but if your show is happening 12 weeks after a family vacation, you may have enough time to re-regulate your schedule and get back on track after your return. If you have that trip 4 weeks out, it may be time to pick a different show timeframe and see how feasible keeping your diet while away from home truly is. While I will admit, it gets easier year to year, first-time competitors vastly underestimate how difficult it is to stay on prep while traveling.
One last thing to consider is the budgeting and financial aspect of the sport itself. Most people who start in the sport start young and are working entry-level positions with a minimal surplus in cash while also paying for things like school and bills. Longer preps allow you to trickle in savings towards the end goal of paying for all the expenses that come with stepping on stage. As a basic list, you’ll need to account and budget for tanning, lodging, registration, travel, and outfit.
How Should My Diet Be Set Up To Prepare For The Show?
With dozens of roads to the same end, specific diet types are going to vary from person to person in terms of efficacy and ease of use. The main thing you need to be concerned with is getting into a deficit with the specific goal of reducing body fat while maintaining muscle mass. Pay careful attention to the wording in that last sentence because most new competitors confuse their stage body as more muscular than when they began the prep. The truth is that this is just a misconception on how the body looks when the additional body fat is removed to reveal only the lean mass underneath.
Any trainer worth the weight has said the following statement: “Lose body fat or gain muscle… choose one, not both.” The reason for this is that the body will always want to store some level of fat and put on lean muscle when in a caloric surplus. The opposite is true when the body is forced into a caloric deficit. It will begin to chisel away at the energy it has stored in lipid tissue to continue the workload being placed upon it. The issue though is that fat is long in its molecular structure and can take some time to break down. The easier to access energy in terms of passive consumption from storage is amino acids from the breakdown of muscle tissue. Too high of a workload or not enough protein intake to handle recovery and you’re going to be negating a lot of the work you put in during the off-season. The easiest way to combat this is to ensure your protein consumption is higher than normal, using the benchmark of .8 – 1.4 grams per pound of body weight as a good window.
How the body responds to different fat and carbohydrate intakes will always take some finessing. Instead of just picking one diet to follow until the show, take 4 – 6 weeks and test out ratios to see how your body feels and how much strength you can keep while monitoring the level of body fat and overall fullness. The most success will come from focusing on macronutrient counts (fat, carbs, and protein) and how those ratios affect the function and aesthetic of the physique. Do not just stick to one-size-fits-all fad diets.
How Do My Diet And Training Change the Closer I Get To The Contest?
Calories will inevitably get lower as cardio creeps up and training seems like more of a daunting task. As carbs and fat are being modulated to maximize fat loss and maintain as much muscle as possible, the idea of lifting heavy in the rep range of 1 – 8 is a thing of the past. Too much weight at this point in prep can lead to tendon and ligament issues. It can also cause a breakdown of muscle which can cause severe soreness and even medical issues like rhabdomyolysis. In turn, it will only serve to discourage you mentally as you are calculating just how much strength you lost while trying to reach for that fully shredded look.
To keep the body healthy while still growing and lowering injury rates, use high-energy lifting like supersets/giant sets or working to near failure with a combination of drop sets or accelerated cardio style HIIT circuits. This will allow you to create a larger deficit to dig into fat stores without needing to underfeed. Underfeeding can lead to metabolic damage and make the lifter feel so miserable that they are at a far greater risk of straying off the diet or seeing the long road of prep as unsustainable.
What Should My Final (Peak) Week Look Like Leading Into My Contest?
While it’s true that the majority of people will see their final increases in expenditure and decreases in caloric intake right around this time, the truth is it shouldn’t be by massive margins. The changes should be at the same level of the alteration as previous weeks, but with the idea of reducing the amount of water under the skin while keeping the stress hormone cortisol at bay. If you were increasing cardio by 5-10 mins each update, then this week should be no different. And if the physique is within striking distance of the judge’s criteria, try not to change much at all. You would rather be 90% polished and have the judges give you feedback that can be acted on for the next show than miss the mark completely because you tried to sprint toward the finish line and had your body rebel against you.
Contrary to popular belief, water and salt should remain as they always have been and see only small modulations within the final hours of the stage. When we reduce salt consumption, (since carbs are already cut) the water that is left under the skin has no vessel to be pulled into the cells and will make keeping that nice shredded look and the idea of getting a pump nearly impossible. Similarly, lowering water too low to look ‘dry’ will trigger a release of hormones from the kidneys called aldosterone which will trigger a response in the body to pool water under the skin and around the vital organs as a survival mechanism.
So, what does all this mean? Treat this week as the end of a race where you keep the pace just to cross the finish line and collect your glory. This isn’t a time to make crazy alterations, try something new in your diet or supplements, or not the time to wing it. Take all the feedback from previous alterations and make your final edits that will truly compliment your transformation and not rely on Hail Mary passes to solidify a myth you read in the forums of Reddit.
Well Then Now It’s Time to Get To Work!
All the information out there and feedback from other competitors can be conflicting and intimidating. That being said, the best final advice I can give as a two-time Mr. Natural Universe and world champion, and three-time Mr. Natural Olympia is this… the sport is supposed to be fun and rewarding. Don’t lose sight of why you started and what the milestone is supposed to mean once the day arrives. Focus less on how to win against others and focus more on how to be the best version of yourself that you or anyone who knows you has seen thus far. Winning titles and focusing on rivalries can come later, although anyone in the sport long enough learns that those people are your best friends and the only people who truly understand your struggle and aspirations. For first-time competitors, focus on being proud of being the 1% of the population that saw what they wanted and went after it. Regardless of how tough it gets and the obstacles against you, be proud of your outcome if you put your best foot forward and stick with your program! An $8 trophy is nothing compared to the memory you will recap to another competitor someday or the pride of remembering the crowd roar when you hit that rear double bicep.
Now… GET TO WORK! There are shows to win!
Brandon Lirio is a Hall of Fame inductee
3 Professional Natural Olympia Titles
2 Professional Universe Titles
Numerous World Championship & Continental Titles
Brandon has been a professional fitness coach for over 8 years.
Founder and owner of several fitness corporations including Battleground Fitness & Battleground Nutraceuticals.