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Its Always Darkest Before the Dawn

In many monumental struggles, victory has come only after defeat seemed certain and death tolls and misery reached a sickening pinnacle. Take World War II: Until things finally turned around for the Allies, the Germans and Japanese laid waste to Europe and Asia like a biblical plague, murdering and enslaving millions.

In the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s, the final years before laws and amendments were passed witnessed widespread lynching, arson and other kinds of lawlessness. Even on “Star Trek: the Next Generation,” in every episode either the USS Enterprise or the entire galaxy was bound for certain annihilation until the last five minutes of the show. The solution was usually to reverse the polarity of the warp—something to that effect. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, congratulations. You’re probably not a total geek. Point is, when you’re preparing for a bodybuilding contest, you can pretty much bet that your condition will get worse before it gets better.

Weeks will go by with your strict diet and cardio regimen working like a charm. The bodyfat is melting away right on schedule, and every day you can discern a new striation, a new vein or a separation between muscle groups that’s deeper and clearer than it was the day before. It’s a euphoric feeling, and it’s the reason so many of us love to compete.

Watching your body change and respond is more thrilling than anything Playstation 2 or XBox ever offered. It’s probably the one training experience that fits virtually all bodybuilders into the narcissistic stereotype society has of us, mesmerized as we are by any surface that reflects our own creation of muscular perfection.

Mirrors are best, but a true narcissist can make do with car or store windows, a pool of water or perhaps the highly polished head of a bald man. I’ve even heard of bodybuilders nearly crashing their cars because they were flexing their left arm for the side mirror as they drove. I’d be particularly vulnerable to that danger, as my left arm is a half inch bigger than my right.

Yes, you love the way you look more and more each day. Then it happens.

At a point around three to six weeks from the date of the contest, your progress grinds to a halt. For some inexplicable reason your fat loss comes to a standstill. Worse, you may retain water from eating something with a bit more sodium than usual, and it can seem that you’re actually getting fatter. If you’re going really low on carbs, your muscles are flat and appear to have shrunk. As the contest approaches, your physique gets smaller and fatter—it’s enough to drive even the most mentally tough bodybuilders insane.

With his contest three weeks out, Randy found himself living exactly that nightmare. I was working with him on his mandatory poses, forcing him to hold each one for a full 60 seconds and doing my best to calm him down as he grew more and more alarmed.

“Look at that!” he shouted, causing a couple of gym members on cardio machines to look our way. Randy noticed and couldn’t contain his irritation. “What?” he yelled at them.

“Randy,” I said. “Lower your voice, for God’s sake. They’re going to kick us out of here if you keep it up.”

“Where did my intercostals go?” he demanded. “They were crystal-clear a couple days ago; now they’re blurry. What the f**k?!”

“You’re probably just holding water,” I assured him. “Unless you’ve been eating pizza and ice cream recently.” I had my eye on the clock’s second hand. “Relax. Front lat spread.”

He got into the next pose and continued his diatribe. “Pizza and ice cream? I wish! Try chicken breasts, broccoli, salmon, lettuce and other bland, boring crap.”

“Wait, the frozen chicken breasts from Costco?” He grunted an affirmative. “Dude, those are loaded with sodium. No wonder you’re holding more water than Hoover Dam.”

“Water or no water,” Randy said, “I’m looking worse, a lot worse. It doesn’t make any sense. I haven’t cheated on my diet, and I’ve been doing all my cardio. I should be getting leaner.”

“You’d think so,” I said, “but it’s not always so simple. It’s very common to hit a sticking point in the diet where you don’t make any progress for a while, but then it all starts moving right along again. Relax. Either side, side chest.”

Randy hit the shot. “So what am I supposed to do? Just wait it out?”

“Your metabolism has probably slowed down a bit from all the low carbs. I’d have a high-carb day tomorrow. Double your usual amount. Have those sweet-potato fries you make in your toaster-oven; you have my blessing. That should help get things going again. You’ll fill out and look pumped too.”

“Whole-wheat pancakes?” he perked up.

“Whatever you like. Just don’t go too crazy.”

The look of doubt returned to his face. “I don’t know. What about looking for another contest that’s a few weeks later; wouldn’t that be safer?”

I shook my head vigorously. “No, no, no. You’re doing this one, and that’s that. I already got the day off work.”

“But you’re self-employed!”

“Don’t argue with me. You’ll be ready. Just have faith in the diet.”

“I don’t get it. I got into shape faster last time.”

“Yeah, but last time you started the diet with less bodyfat, and you were lighter. Generally speaking, the bigger you get, the longer you’ll probably have to diet. Relax. Either side, side triceps.”

Talking while holding his poses was making it much more difficult, but that was good. It was the bodybuilding equivalent of running with a weighted backpack.

We finished the posing, and Randy headed off to the locker room to change. I’d been through the same trying circumstance more than once, so I knew I wasn’t just blowing smoke up his butt. He’d get over the hump. A lot of guys freak out when this happens and back out of the contest, when they simply need to stick it out. Randy wasn’t backing out. I wasn’t going to stand for it.

I also wasn’t going to let him get us kicked out of the gym where we both trained and where he made his living as a personal trainer. The gym is close to my house, and I’m far too lazy to drive more than 10 minutes to train. I approached the sweet old lady who was on the elliptical trainer nearest the door, moving at roughly the same pace she probably did when perusing the fine wares of Walmart—most common garden snails could outrun her. Still, she was at the gym and moving her limbs, which is more than most seniors of her advanced age can say. I thought she’d looked shocked and horrified earlier when Randy was having his hissy fit.

“Hi, ma’am, I just wanted to say I’m sorry about the hollering,” I said. “My friend was having a rough day.”

“Oh no,” the old lady laughed. “I was looking because he was in his underwear, and I’ve never seen such a perfectly sculpted body before.”

“In that case, hold on. I want to go get him so you can tell him that yourself.” She blushed and giggled as if she was 16 instead of 70. It was going to make both their days, and I hoped it would get Randy’s mind off how his body seemed to be changing for the worse, as that was about to turn around very soon. My protégé was going to look his best ever, whether he believed it now or not.

Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding: Muscle Truth From 25 Years in the Trenches, available at IM

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