The major goals for bodybuilders engaged in precontest training are to lose excess bodyfat and preserve muscle mass. The primary objective is to show a physique seemingly devoid of superfluous bodyfat, which maximizes the appearance of muscular definition and vascularity. In short, it’s the vaunted “ripped” look that bodybuilders seek when preparing for a contest appearance.
Acquiring that ripped appearance most often involves a stringent diet combined with increased exercise to burn off calories stored in bodyfat. While some bodybuilders still opt for an increase in training volume—that is, more sets and reps—others maintain volume and intensity in an effort to preserve as much muscle as possible. The focus is on losing bodyfat but maintaining maximum muscle. In truth, however, there is always some loss of muscle under extreme dieting conditions, such as when total calorie intake is severely curtailed. Most competitive bodybuilders prefer to use aerobic training for bodyfat loss while trying to lift as heavy as possible to maintain their previously developed muscle.
One reason many bodybuilders resort to using anabolic drugs is that they banish most of the problems commonly encountered during precontest prep. The drugs, including anabolic steroids, growth hormone and insulin, counteract the body’s tendency to drift into a catabolic state, where muscle is lost as a result of intense training combined with stringent dieting. Using anabolic drugs dramatically boosts recovery ability after training and enables bodybuilders to maintain higher levels of training intensity and strength, which in turn not only maintains existing muscle but also encourages additional muscle acquisition, despite considerably decreased food intake. In actuality, however, the major goal of even those who do use anabolic drugs when preparing for a contest is to maintain muscle mass developed during the off-season, when food restriction is far less severe than it is during precontest dieting.
Still, the use of anabolic drugs is officially banned in bodybuilding competition, although the prohibition is not enforced at the professional level, except in regard to diuretic drugs. Many bodybuilders, particularly at the amateur level, prefer not to use pharmaceutical aids, instead relying only on more natural methods to achieve contest conditioning. That means exercise and diet are the primary routes to success for those who don’t use anabolic drugs. Well, what happens to anabolic hormone levels in bodybuilders who diet strictly but avoid taking steroids and other hormones? That was the precise focus of a new study.1
The study lasted 11 weeks and involved 14 bodybuilders, average age 25, all of whom had trained for an average of nine years. Half of them were preparing to compete in a national-level contest, while the other half just trained and dieted as usual. An important point was that none of the subjects used any drugs during the study and had not for two years prior to the study. They’d all been drug tested at contests and between contests; no one had failed any tests.
The bodybuilders preparing for competition were on energy-restricted diets. Both groups were tested for body composition, diet analysis and fasting hormone measures 11 weeks before the contest, five weeks before and three days before.
Those in the competitive group increased their training volume each week leading up to the contest. As it drew closer, they upped their aerobic training in an effort to burn calories and get rid of bodyfat. The nutrient content of both diets was similar, with those in the contest group getting 28 percent protein, 60 percent carbs and 12 percent fat. As the contest approached, however, the contest bodybuilders lowered their carbs. Their total energy intake dropped 13 percent from the 11-week-out point to three days prior to the contest, while energy expenditure increased. At the three-days-before mark the contest bodybuilders were showing a 978-calorie-a-day negative energy balance, which led to significant bodyfat loss. Bodyfat percentages dropped in the contest athletes from 9.6 percent at the start to 6.5 percent three days before the event. The lowest measure of bodyfat was 4.8 percent in one contest bodybuilder.
From a hormonal standpoint, insulinlike growth factor 1 and insulin dropped along with the calories. Testosterone dropped at the start of the study but later rebounded, an effect thought to be due to a training-induced stimulation. Those in the contest group took in an average of 2.5 to 2.6 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight—significantly more than the recommended 1.8 to 2.0 grams per kilogram. Despite all the protein, the contest bodybuilders did lose lean mass, including some muscle. How is that possible?
The authors think that the low calorie–induced drops in anabolic hormones, mainly IGF-1 and insulin, were the culprits. They note that the two hormones are required to maintain muscle, and if they drop below a certain point, muscle may be lost. Indeed, emerging evidence shows that an insensitivity to insulin may be a major reason that older people tend to lose muscle.
In fact, the authors implicate higher protein intake in the mass loss observed in the contest bodybuilders. That goes against conventional wisdom, which is that following a high-protein diet helps maintain muscle under low-calorie conditions, as occurs during a precontest diet. The scenario is worsened when carbs are restricted, a common practice among precontest bodybuilders. The authors think that the lower intake of calories and carbs, coupled with more protein, forces the body to increasingly rely on protein as the major source of energy. Under severe calorie restriction the body not only burns up much of the protein it gets but also begins to tap into what’s stored in muscles, which explains the loss of lean mass the subjects experienced despite their higher-than-usual dietary protein. That catabolic scenario, say the authors, is more likely to occur when bodyfat levels dip under the 7 percent mark.
There is a cure to this problem, however: Eat enough carbs to bring on insulin release, which will also lead to increased IGF-1 release. That will spare body protein, as in muscle. The carb-sparing action in relation to protein is actually an old concept. It’s particularly vital to down a protein-and-carb drink following a workout, since that’s one of the most effective methods of releasing insulin and IGF-1 and triggering amino acid uptake into muscle.
The study, however, raises a few curious points. Even in the complete absence of carbohydrate intake, the body and muscles are capable of relying on alternate fuel sources, including ketones, which are by-products of fat metabolism and have established anticatabolic activity in muscle. When carbs are scant in the diet, a process in the liver called gluconeogenesis ramps up and converts amino acids, lactate and the glycerol portion of fat into glucose. In fact, it’s estimated that 57 percent of excess dietary protein is converted into glucose in that manner. That scale of glucose production should not only maintain lean mass but also help maintain insulin and IGF-1. On the other hand, as the authors suggest, the scenario may change with a combination of very low bodyfat and low calorie intake. In that case, a certain amount of body protein may be sacrificed for energy.
Another problem with the bodybuilders in the study had to do with the fat they ate, which averaged only 12 percent. When carbs are reduced, it’s a good idea to increase fats for a source of calories that will help prevent catabolism by controlling cortisol, which is the major catabolic hormone in the body. Low fat intake has a direct relationship to greater cortisol concentration, particularly under high-stress conditions—for example, a precontest diet. In addition, a 12 percent fat intake is too low to support testosterone synthesis. Most studies show that men need to get at least 25 percent of total calories as fat to maintain normal testosterone levels. The lowered T level that results from getting too little dietary fat may also contribute to muscle loss during dieting.
Most nutritionally savvy bodybuilders are aware of those problems and make sure that they eat enough fat (saturated or monounsaturated, as found in olive oil; fish oil won’t help here). They also load carbs at least one or two times weekly during a contest diet to maintain insulin, and boost glycogen production in the muscles used during intense training.
1 Maestu, J., et al. (2010). Anabolic and catabolic hormones and energy balance of the male bodybuilders during the preparation for the competition. J Stren Cond Res. 24(4):1074-81.
Editor’s note: Jerry Brainum has been an exercise and nutrition researcher and journalist for more than 25 years. He’s worked with pro bodybuilders as well as many Olympic and professional athletes. To get his new e-book, Natural Anabolics—Nutrients, Compounds and Supplements That Can Accelerate Muscle Growth Without Drugs, visit www.JerryBrainum.com. IM