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Naturally Huge: Peak Week

Pre-contest sodium loading, finding the right meal replacement.

Q: I’m thinking of competing soon, and I was wondering what I should do during the last week before the contest. I read about a bodybuilder who uses sodium loading and depleting, carb depleting and loading, takes in extra potassium and only drinks distilled water in the last week. I was thinking of using his routine for my contest, but it all seems so confusing. What exactly should I do during that critical last week?

A: Whoa! Slow down there, my friend. I’ve seen so many bodybuilders blow a whole year of preparation during the last three to six days before a contest, I couldn’t even count them all. In fact, if my memory serves me right, I was one of them.

The techniques you’ve mentioned’sodium loading and depleting, carb depleting and loading and water depleting’are all designed to put the finishing touches on a contest-ready physique so you peak perfectly for a competition. The trouble is, they may work great on paper, but in the real world they rarely work as well as expected. In fact, they may end up destroying the look of your physique.

Carb depleting and loading is a good example. It usually involves depleting your carbohydrate intake for three to four days at the beginning of the last week before the competition. Most bodybuilders reduce their carbs to 50 percent of what they’ve been eating in order to deplete the stored glycogen in their muscles. Training should consist of more sets and reps than normal to ensure that the muscles are severely depleted of all carbs.

The carb-loading phase begins two to three days before the contest. You load up on carbs, eating twice the amount you used during the diet phase. The muscle cells should suck up those extra carbs, making the muscles full and the skin Saran Wrap tight. The manipulation of carbohydrates should give you bigger, more-pumped-up muscles than normal.

The carb-depleting and -loading technique is great if all of the carbs you eat during the loading phase are stored inside the muscle cells and if none of that excess fluid spills outside the muscle cells. If it does, you’ll end up holding water under your skin and looking smooth.

Another problem is that you can deplete yourself too much and not allow enough time for the muscles to refill. That will have you looking too flat. So you can see the problems with this kind of carb manipulation. You go through all that extra work and planning and still show up at the contest too flat or too smooth.

Sodium loading and depleting is based on the same principle. You load up with excess sodium by salting all of your food and drinking lots and lots of water. That causes your body to hold water underneath the skin. In the final days before the contest you eliminate sodium from your diet and your body flushes out all the sodium, resulting in no water retention. In theory, the skin will be very tight.

The obvious potential drawback is that your body may not eliminate all the water in time and you could show up onstage still holding water under your skin. Another problem is that the body starts to retain sodium only a couple days after it’s been eliminated from the diet. That can cause your body to fight to hold onto the sodium while you’re trying everything to get rid of it.

After years of experimentation I’ve finally found a good and safe game plan for hitting my peak for a contest. First of all, I always plan my diet so I’m ready to step onstage one week before the actual event. That eliminates any last-minute stress and prevents me from being tempted to experiment with some crazy precontest technique.

Second, I don’t mess with carb depleting and loading anymore. Every time I’ve ever used it, I always competed holding a little bit of water. The technique was originally designed for endurance athletes, who needed the extra carbs to compete in their grueling events. Competitive bodybuilders don’t need those extra carbs just to hit a few poses onstage. Just the possibility of blowing your whole diet by holding excess water from the additional carbs makes it a risk not worth taking. If you’ve dieted correctly, you should be ripped and full one week before the contest and won’t need to deplete and load your carbs.

I do, however, manipulate my sodium and water intake. Although I don’t eat an excessive amount of sodium while I’m dieting for a show, I do take in some through foods such as egg whites, meal-replacement powders, butter substitutes, tuna and salad dressings. Add the fact that I normally drink close to 2 1/2 gallons of water per day and you can see that I’ll be retaining a small amount of water under the skin.

The last week before competing, I eat my normal diet during the first part of the week. Depending on my condition, I may even eat slightly fewer calories and carbs than normal, but it depends on how fast my metabolism is operating at that point. About three days before my contest’Wednesday if the contest is on Saturday’I eliminate all the foods that contain excess sodium and eat only plain, dry food. I continue to drink about two gallons of water on that day because I want to flush out any sodium I may be retaining.

On the next day’usually Thursday’I drastically cut back on my water intake. I go from drinking two gallons a day to only about a half-gallon on Thursday and much less than that on Friday. The last day before competing (Friday), I only sip small amounts of water while I’m eating and don’t drink any between meals. That’s a modified version of dehydrating myself. Normally, my body keeps eliminating water during those last two days because it’s been digesting more than two gallons a day for the past couple of months.

If I follow those techniques to a tee, I show up on contest day big, full and ripped. I know I’m ready when the skin over my lower abs is pulled taut, with no excess fat, water or skin anywhere in sight.

Getting ready for a contest is a long, slow process. What you do in the last week is not as important as what you do during the three to four months prior to that point. Sometimes, it’s more important to avoid messing up what you’ve worked so hard for than to take a chance on some ‘magic’ technique that will transform your body in a matter of days.

Q: It seems as if the supplement industry is all about money and that there’s really no difference between those bullshit ‘miracles’ and the usual products [advertised in bodybuilding magazines]. How can I know those aren’t scams also? Since I read IRONMAN, I’ve been using Muscle Meals. For the money I spend on that, I want to know it’s legit. I’ve been using meal-replacement powders due to my busy work and school schedules, so they’re very handy, but are they necessary? Have you used supplements throughout your career? Is there a way to gain without them? I’m losing faith in the supplement industry.

A: I can understand your skepticism. Many of the products being sold today have some pretty outrageous ‘druglike’ claims attached to them. Most of us who have been training for any length of time know that exaggerated promises hold little substance.

To answer your question, yes, I’ve used supplements throughout my career, and I continue to use them. Products such as meal-replacement powders (MRPs) and protein powders are very convenient when you have a busy schedule. Bodybuilders need to feed their muscles continuously throughout the day, and it’s impossible to eat six to seven meals of regular food every day when you work for a living.

Many products are backed by legitimate scientific evidence. They can help bodybuilders add more muscle, build more strength and greatly enhance recuperation’a huge benefit if you’re a hard-training natural bodybuilder. To ignore those products is to fail to take advantage of the latest technology.

I really believe that some supplements are effective. I was skeptical myself several years ago, and I’ve spent lots of money experimenting with all the new supplements. Most of time I came away disappointed; however, I found some that I use every day. I wouldn’t want to be without them when I’m training heavy.

Using protein drinks in addition to regular meals allows you to get the amount of protein you need on a daily basis to increase muscle size and strength. I eat approximately 23 percent more protein now than I did a few years ago, and I’m competing about 10 pounds heavier than I did then. I feel there’s a direct correlation.

Also, protein powders such as Muscle-Link’s Pro-Fusion and Muscle Meals are made with a formula that ensures the protein is digested at both fast and slow rates for better assimilation. They combine fast-acting whey protein with the slower-absorbed milk protein. After all, it’s not just what you eat that determines your results, it’s what you eat, digest and assimilate.

Creatine creates more strength by providing a backup energy reserve for adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the initial source of power during anaerobic exercise such as weight training. Creatine also stores fluid inside the muscle cells, which makes the muscles look bigger and fuller. If you’ve never tried creatine, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results you get from it.

Finally, there are supplements that help improve your recovery ability. That’s very important for growth. It’s actually fairly easy to go to the gym and train heavy and hard with the basic exercises. It’s much harder to make sure that you not only fully recuperate from those intense training sessions but also grow bigger and stronger. Natural bodybuilders are especially susceptible to that problem, since the body will always resist growth after a certain point, and it’s almost impossible to go beyond the sticking point.

The supplements I use to improve recuperation include Ribose Size, which helps restore ATP levels much faster than normal rest between workouts alone would; Cort-Bloc, a supplement that helps control cortisol levels brought on by high-intensity workouts; and Flex Stak, a product that contains research-proven glucosamine and chondroitin, which help to protect the joints from heavy training.

Those products go above and beyond the benefits I could derive from just eating good food and getting plenty of rest’and as a natural bodybuilder I need all the help I can get to continue building a bigger, stronger physique. By using Cort-Bloc, for example, I’m preventing my body from producing large amounts of cortisol, a muscle-eating stress hormone, as a natural reaction to heavy, intense training. Steroids also help to suppress cortisol levels, which explains why bodybuilders using drugs don’t have to worry that much about overtraining or about their joints hurting.

To sum up, yes, I do feel that you can gain many benefits from some of the bodybuilding supplements that are available. I agree that you should be very wary of outrageous claims and not believe everything you read. Make sure the products are backed by scientific research and/or try to get some feedback from other bodybuilders who have used the products. You can build size and strength without supplements, but you’ll achieve greater results faster by using the right ones.

Q: I know you’ve been competing for a long time, and I was wondering how you stay motivated to keep doing it. What do you consider the best and the worst things about bodybuilding competition?

A: You’re right, I have been competing for a long time. I began bodybuilding at 14, and I entered my first contest at 16. Since that time I’ve competed a total of 32 times over a 21-year period.

What I like most about bodybuilding competition is the challenge of improving my physique over my last showing. That goal of self-improvement is really what keeps me going and continues to motivate me. I have plenty of trophies and lots of titles at this point, but the excitement of working hard all year to exceed my previous best gets me pumped up to get onstage again.

I also really enjoy the incredible amount of discipline that’s required to be a success in bodybuilding competition. I tend to get so focused the last few months before competing that normal distractions (such as bills, problems at work and women) fade into the background while the contest is clearly in view. It’s refreshing to be so focused that the petty things in life no longer have any importance.

Finally, there’s a great joy in reaching the destination. Realizing that I’ve done everything right and have achieved peak condition is the ultimate satisfaction. When my reflection in the mirror reveals a sculpted physique that I can hardly believe is my own, I know I’ve achieved my goal and all my hard work and self-sacrifice were worth it.

On the downside, there’s the dreaded diet to shed excess bodyfat. Although I no longer get intense cravings for foods that I cannot eat while dieting, cutting calories is never a pleasant experience. Because I’ve been doing it so long, I can handle the dieting process better than someone who has never done it; however, I still find myself becoming more irritable and impatient than I’d like.

I remember one time when I was in the gym with Chuck Sanow, Heavyweight winner at the ’98 IFBB North American Championships. We were just hanging out when a bodybuilder who was getting ready to compete walked in. He was in a good mood and happily greeted several gym members as he walked through the gym. Chuck, a veteran bodybuilder who has endured the dieting process dozens of times, looked at me, and I nodded as we shared the same thought. ‘He’s not dieting hard enough,’ Chuck said.

I also dislike applying the tanning agent that’s required to attain the correct color for competition. I know that it’s a necessary evil, but it’s a real pain. Most tanning agents are messy and get all over your clothes, but I realize that many contests have been lost by worthy competitors who didn’t have the right color onstage.

Finally, I really dislike shaving my legs. Again, it’s necessary for competition, but I can think of many other things I’d rather be doing.

Editor’s note: John Hansen is the ’98 Natural Mr. Olympia and a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Visit his Web site at www.natural You can send correspondence to P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561, or call toll-free 1-800-900-UNIV (8648). IM

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