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My Mr Universe Contest Diet

ironmanmagazine.comAs I reported last month, I won my third Mr. Universe title, 20 years after my second victory—at 49 years old. I outlined my training, so now I want to discuss my nutrition leading up the event.

My diet for the show was closely regulated, but I ate  more calories than I had allowed myself during 2011. I kept my protein at about 250 grams per day and my fats at 50 grams. My carbs were approximately 300 grams per day, but I would have one high-carb day per week with 400. My calories were 2,600 to 2,700 per day in the off-season.

After a full year of dieting in 2011, I made great gains when I started to eat again. I put more than an inch on my arms, and my thighs increased by two inches. I was keeping my waist under control, actually weighing myself and measuring my waist every morning before breakfast.

In order to make sure I was really ripped for the Natural Mr. Universe contest, I started my precontest diet 24 weeks out. I began eating 240 grams of protein, 240 to 250 grams of carbs and 50 to 55 grams of fats per day. My goal was to lose the fat slowly—one to 1.5 pounds per week.

I included one high-carb day per week in which my carbs went up to 350 grams, and I dropped the protein to 220 grams and the fats to 35 grams. Because I had given myself so much time, I could keep my calories pretty high as I was losing the fat, which helped to keep my strength and muscle mass up during the dieting process.

Remembering my horrendous showing the year before, I wanted to compete in at least one warm-up show before the Natural Mr. Universe in order to feel more comfortable onstage. I wanted to go through the whole process of registering for the contest, pumping up backstage for both the prejudging and night show and, most important, hitting the mandatory poses onstage as well as performing my routine at night.

When I competed in 2011, I badly mistimed my peak and was very flat onstage. To avoid that mistake, I hired a “contest-prep guru” as the show got closer. It seems as if everyone now has a so-called guru consultant for contest prep. The idea was new to me. For my entire career in bodybuilding I had never used a coach or guru to help me prepare for a contest. I knew enough about nutrition to prepare myself—and as long as I gave myself enough time to lose the fat, I would usually peak for the show.

I thought it wouldn’t hurt to have another set of eyes to make sure I peaked perfectly for this contest. I decided to hire this particular coach because that’s what he is known for. He uses a high-carb approach right before the contest to ensure that his clients are full and ripped on the day of the show. Because I was so flat onstage the year before, he sounded like the right guy for me.

I wanted to see how well his methods worked, so I experimented at my warmup show, which took place approximately five weeks before the Natural Mr. Universe. Although I was not in peak condition yet, I was interested to see if his strategies would bring me in fuller and harder. If it worked, we would be on our way to success the following month.

Unfortunately, his plan completely backfired! My coach had me lower my carbs two weeks out from my warmup show and then gradually increase them during that final week. On the day before my show, he increased my carbs to 400 grams for the day. When I woke up Saturday morning, I was shocked to see my weight up five pounds from the day before and my waist a full half-inch larger. I called him, panicked that I’d overspilled by consuming too many carbs the day before.

He calmly replied that it was okay because my body was processing the glycogen from the extra carbs and I would be fuller when I got onstage. To my surprise, he advised me to add a half teaspoon of sea salt to my breakfast that morning to help assimilate the carbs. Throughout the day I was further instructed to eat two ounces of chicken, a half cup of quinoa and two Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups every 1 1/2 hours.

I was so uncomfortable from eating all the sugar and carbs, I knew something was wrong. The contest was a nontested NPC show, and I was in the masters division. I definitely felt full as I was pumping up, but I knew that the excessive carbs, sugar and sodium had made me smoother than I’d been in the days leading up to the show.

I ended up placing third out of four competitors. I was extremely disappointed.

The next day, I was shocked to see my weight up another five pounds and my waist another half inch bigger, making it a full inch bigger than it had been a week earlier. Needless to say, I dropped my “guru” and decided to rely on my own judgement to get into condition for the Natural Mr. Universe.

I did consult with two natural bodybuilders who also help advise others on contest prep. Layne Norton and Dave Vignasse have a lot of experience as competitors as well as helping others peak for the stage. I went to Layne after my warmup contest and asked for his opinion.

Layne advised me to bring my carbs down to 170 grams five days a week and then increase them to 270 grams two days a week. The carb cycling approach would help get me lean enough for the contest, which was only about a month away at that point.

I tried following his advice, but the carbs were much too low and I felt I was on the verge of sacrificing muscle tissue. I brought my carb intake up to 185 grams per day and kept the numbers for the high-carb days the same. That worked great, and I was making significant progress each week.

As the contest got closer, I could see that I was going to be more ripped than ever before. I had vascularity all over my thighs and calves that I had not seen since I was in my mid-20s. The skin over my lower abs and lower back—usually the last place to go—was getting tight. I had striations popping out over every muscle group, and I was looking significantly better every few days.

During the final week, I made the decision not to change anything. Although I had been given a “peak week” schedule, I thought it would be better just to make small adjustments from day to day. My reasoning was that I was already looking great, so why change anything? It didn’t make sense to me to deplete my carbs and then load with carbs while eating more sodium and then less sodium, etc. If I was looking good already, why mess with it?

I talked with Dave Vignasse ( every day for the last two weeks leading up to the contest. I told him exactly what I was eating and how I was looking, and we made adjustments based on my condition. I wanted to avoid being flat on the day of the show, but at the same time I needed to be as ripped and lean as possible. It’s a very fine line to walk, and I was a little apprehensive about peaking perfectly on the day that it counted. I wanted to win the show, but I also really wanted to look my absolute best.

I liked Dave’s approach because he used a lot of common sense when we were making minor adjustments to my diet. For example, on the Thursday before the contest, I was doing two television appearances to help promote the contest and bring more attention to natural bodybuilding. By the end of the day I felt that I was on the verge of getting sick. Because my bodyfat was so low, I was running on empty and running the risk of overextending myself.

Dave recommended that I completely rest the following day and just eat my meals on time and do a little posing. I was scheduled to drive downtown into the city for a photo shoot on Friday, but we came to the conclusion that the best course of action would be complete rest so I could peak perfectly for the show on Saturday.

It worked. I won.

Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a three-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at for more information about how you can be a part of his exciting, new Natural Olympia Fitness getaway. Send questions or comments to [email protected]. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, Listen to John’s radio show, Natural Bodybuilding Radio, at  IM

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