Learn what a top competitor goes through in the final days before a contest.
By Mike Carlson
Most of us have a pretty good idea what a Physique competitor goes through in the 10 weeks before a competition: fasted cardio in the morning; high-protein, low-fat meals; six days a week in the weight room; carb-cycling; posing practice. But what happens that very last week before showtime, when the little tweaks are made that thin the skin and make abs pop and veins bulge?
Welcome to Peak Week. This is where the frosting is put on the cake. A good Peak Week can’t make up for mediocre training and a lazy diet, but a bad Peak Week can ruin months of perfect preparation. Peak Week is more than just micromanaging macronutrients and workouts. Grooming, travel, relationships, diet, sleep—nothing is left untouched by the preparation to get onstage.
To take you on a tour of Peak Week, we enlisted new IFBB pro Jerdani Kraja, who is uniquely qualified to explain the intricacies of the process. Over the summer, Kraja competed in three shows in a single month. That means that Kraja successfully navigated three Peak Weeks in a four-week span. The rampage netted him one division win, two overall wins, and culminated in capturing his pro card at the NPC Universe in New Jersey.
“There were times I was so tired I actually thought that I would rather wear a diaper than get up off the couch and use the bathroom,” Kraja laughs.
Kraja has a few things going for him when it comes to Peak Week. A lifelong multisport athlete, he grew up in a strict household that demanded discipline and accountability. A stint in the US Marines served to strengthen his mental discipline. When he left the military, he joined Ryan Bentson’s Team Zero Gravity. Bentson is an old-school bodybuilder who has a reputation for two things: He is one of the strictest prep coaches in the industry, and he has a knack for bringing his athletes to competition in razor-sharp shape. It’s a good match for the ultra-disciplined Kraja.
“I get obsessed in the final weeks before a show,” he says. “It’s all I daydream about—I picture them calling my name and the trophy, and that’s it. I get so dialed in.”
The Sunday before the show, which typically happens on a Saturday, is unofficially the first day of Peak Week. Carbs drop to 100 grams a day, which is the low day of Kraja’s usual four-day carb cycle. Protein stays high and fat intake is almost non-existent—basically what Kraja will get from his chicken and rice. Water intake is pumped up to two gallons a day, which is more tedious than it sounds since Bentson cut Kraja’s artificial sweeteners three weeks earlier. That means no pre-workouts formula, no protein powder, no BCAAs, no diet soda, not even gum. He can’t put Splenda in his coffee, but that’s okay because coffee is off the menu, too. Kraja will use caffeine pills pre-workout, but even those are on the no-fly list after Thursday.
For the first few days of Peak Week, Kraja sticks to his split routine in the gym. Monday is chest day, followed by 45 to 60 minutes of cardio. He prefers incline treadmill walking at a speed of 3.5 miles per hours and the incline set at 15 (anything more intense will start to burn up his muscle). Carbs are still at 100 grams and water at two gallons. Kraja might get a haircut today. Usually a weekly occurrence, he gets his hair trimmed twice in the week leading up to a show.
Sodium gets dropped from his diet about four days before the competition. Bentson is positively forensic when it comes to eliminating salt. Egg whites are forbidden because of their natural sodium content, and Kraja’s beloved hot sauce, as well as all other condiments, are eliminated. For the next few days, his meals will be composed of various combinations of boiled chicken breast, tilapia, jasmine rice, and rice cakes. Monday is back day, along with 45 to 60 minutes of cardio.
The diet remains the same as the day before: high-protein, low-carb, zero fat, and a lot of water. Kraja is still in the gym, but at this point he drops his split routine for a high-volume total-body workout and an hour of incline treadmill walking. This is also the day Kraja prefers to travel.
“When you fly, you bloat,” he says. “Not a lot of people know that. I fly in on Wednesday. Then I have Thursday and Friday to make sure I get dialed in. Guys who fly in the day before can hold water from the altitude.”
The plan starts to accelerate a bit by Thursday. He does another long total-body workout, followed by an hour of cardio, both done in a fasted state. After training, his carbs go up to 600 grams for the day. At seven grams of carbs per rice cake, that’s a lot of rice cakes.
Kraja practices posing—formerly a weakness of his—every day, but the closer he gets to a contest the more complicated his posing strategy becomes.
“Weeks out, I’ll hit my favorite pose and it will look like shit. Then a week later it starts looking amazing. It constantly changes,” he says. “Your posing can be completely different week to week. My coach will tell me, ‘That one is your best look.’ Then a week later he’ll say, ‘No, let’s go back to the first one.’”
The drought begins. Kraja gets one 16-ounce bottle of water in the morning and one in the evening. Even though he doesn’t train, his mouth gets dry quickly. Before check-in, where competitors pick up their paperwork, Kraja meets with his coach for a once-over. This is where art collides with science. Bentson’s practiced eye will tell him which athletes need some extra carbs and fat to fill their muscles and give them more vascularity. At a recent show, Bentson prescribed a steak and baked potato. Even though Kraja had been hoping for a hamburger—and the steak and spud were naked and salt-free—the extra fat and the break from boiled chicken still felt amazing.
On Friday, Kraja kicks his grooming into gear. After shaving his whole body, he’ll get his first layer of tan applied to his body by one of the pro tanning companies at the show. (He pays about 150 dollars for one to three coats throughout the weekend.) He’ll also trim and shape his beard.
“I always trim my beard to a one, and I get it lined up. It keeps me from looking too zombified and lean. The beard helps me keep somewhat of a full face,” he says.
The day of the show is a waiting game. A very thirsty waiting game. Kraja eats a meal of boiled chicken and 50 grams of carbs every two hours, but has nothing to drink. The protein isn’t the important part, it’s the carbs, without which he wouldn’t be able to get his muscles to pump up. Few people realize how unpleasant unsalted carbs can be, and when you’re dehydrated and staring at what Kraja describes as “a bucket of rice,” it can be almost depressing.
“It is so hard to get down,” he says. “You haven’t had water and you’re eating boiled chicken breasts and rice cakes. You have no saliva and you are choking trying to get anything down.”
Backstage before pre-judging, Kraja gets the second coat of tanner on his body and his first face application. Before he hits the stage, the tanning techs will apply a glaze that adds a little shine. He’ll get a touch-up before the finals and a re-glaze as well.
Between pre-judging and finals, Bentson will weave one more magic spell and hit Kraja with some fast-acting carbs. He might have a serving of GlycoJect by Evogen, a pure carbohydrate formula that helps him pump up, or he might rely on whole food. Before finals at the NPC Universe, Bentson told him to have a plain hamburger, just meat and bun.
“I came back to finals and looked better than pre-judging. More full, more veins, more pumped up,” Kraja says. “Then I had a Pop-Tart before I hit the stage and I felt like I was twice the size as pre-judging.”
“When you come offstage after the finals, they have cookies, cake, and everything you can imagine there,” Kraja says. “I don’t go for any of it. I dive into a gallon of water because my mouth is so dry. It’s the best feeling ever.”
Competition Tip: Find A Girlfriend
After speaking with IFBB pro Jerdani Kraja, you get the idea that behind every successful Physique athlete is a very kind girlfriend. Contest prep is notoriously hard on relationships, and the soreness, hunger, and carb restriction can make athletes incredibly moody.
“Peak Week is probably more hell for my girlfriend because so much gets put on her shoulders,” Kraja says with a laugh, even though it’s clear he’s not joking.
While the easygoing Kraja says he rarely gets cranky with his girlfriend, model and Bikini competitor Danielle Eells, he admits to being “useless” during Peak Week. Eells will make meals, massage sore muscles, and if his legs are cramping, will even drive Kraja the 90 miles from their home in Carlsbad, California, to the Team Zero Gravity gym in San Dimas. The day before the show, Kraja will lie down on the hotel room floor and she’ll shave his entire body. Now that’s love.
Name: Jerdani Kraja
Lives: Carlsbad, CA
Profession: Full-time fitness model and student
Likes: The beach, movies, Netflix series, shoes, music
Dislikes: Rude people, licorice, traffic
Favorite clean meal: Protein pancakes with an egg white omelet
Favorite cheat meal: Pizza, sushi, frozen yogurt
Listens to: Acoustic covers, rap, hip-hop
Favorite/most inspirational book: The Seven Spiritual Laws Of Success by Deepak Chopra
Favorite movie: It’s a tie between Django Unchained and The Martian
Sponsors: Evogen Nutrition, Fitmark Bags, Macro Plate, Darc Sport, Buff Bake