by Dani Shugart T-Nation
Here's what you need to know...
Competitors make progressive changes to lose fat. They don't try to do too much at once in order to get lean.
Bodybuilders and figure athletes are deliberate about their "cheat" food. They either avoid it or they plan for it and factor it in.
Competitors don't let the scale detract from their progress. They pride themselves on behavioral changes and improvements they see in the mirror, not arbitrary numbers.
Physique competitors screw up and then use their mistakes as a tool to do better the next time around.
Maybe you never plan to step on the stage as a bodybuilder or figure competitor. Maybe you even think the whole idea of getting spray tanned and then flexing half-naked in front of a panel of judges is a little, well, strange. That's okay. Because there are still seven lessons about aesthetics that you can learn from physique competitors. No posing suit required.
1. You're the Terminator. Not a Care Bear.
Most competitors can flip a switch in their minds and become more machine than human. Adopting a little bit of that mechanical mindset would help a lot of non-competitors drop the wishy-washy thinking and execute their plans consistently.
Competitors don't eat based upon their emotions. They also don't let their emotions determine whether or not they'll get a workout in. So the phrases, "eh, why not?" and "YOLO!" never become reasons for screwing up their diets, seeking comfort in containers of ice cream, getting drunk with friends, or watching TV marathons instead of hitting the gym.
And when they get to the gym, competitors don't meander or look for people to chat with. Most of them have to put on their "go-away face", avoid eye contact, and get it done. When they're at home they don't snack randomly or put off eating only to find that there's nothing readily available and healthy to have for dinner. They always know what their next meal is going to be, and they either have it ready or easy to assemble. There's no guesswork in the gym or the kitchen. Here's what competitors avoid:
Getting too hungry
Getting too tempted
Eating for emotional relief or escape
Not having anything healthy around to eat
Rationalizing spontaneous junk food
Not thinking ahead
Going to the gym without a plan
Skipping a planned workout
Letting feelings determine execution
Action Plan: Have a physique goal in mind? Think like a machine, not an emotional wreck who needs permission and approval and happy feelings at all times in order to be consistent. Moods come and go. Motivation comes and goes. So train, eat well, and prepare regardless.
Have an objective and a plan before you get to the gym. It should challenge you enough to make you a little nervous. If your workout plan doesn't scare you just a little, it's probably not going to change your body much. Don't walk into the gym without knowing exactly what you'll be doing.
If you're not big on preparing meals ahead of time, then at least have healthy food available and easy to prepare. The thing that messes people up most is a lack of preparation and a lack of structure.
2. Don't Fire All Your Bullets at Once
Competitors start conservatively with fat loss. They don't go overboard on any one fat loss strategy, and they don't implement multiple fat loss strategies simultaneously, at least not when they're first starting to lean down.
A smart competitor wouldn't go all-out on cardio, slash calories, add extra workouts, take fat-burners, eliminate carbs, and manipulate water three months out. Why? Because there's no advantage in doing so. It would be hard to maintain, and the body would adapt, stalling progress. Extreme short-term fat loss methods may also lead to muscle loss, wrecking not only the metabolism but the final product: a lean, muscular body to present on stage.
Conservative fat loss adds up over time, and sometimes minimum doses don't even need to be pushed to all-out maximum hell if the competitor achieves a look he's happy with when the deadline rolls around. By leaving the most strenuous techniques for the very end, they keep their bodies sensitive to such changes, and only have to do them temporarily.
Action Plan: Take a closer look at what you're doing with your diet and your workouts. Assess your food by writing it down or logging it somewhere. Once you start seeing obvious dietary pitfalls, slowly improve those. (Check out some diet solutions here.)
Once you've taken care of major blunders, start strategizing. But remember, experienced physique competitors don't unload every fat loss strategy in their arsenal at once. Neither should you. Here's a list of things that you can do:
1. Track what you're eating for a few days. See where you're at with calories and macros. Asses how you feel at this level. Write it all down and make sure that it makes sense. Are you fueling up around workouts or are you fueling up for bedtime? Are you short on protein? Do your carb choices make sense? Are you getting enough dietary fat from the right sources? Competitors have an acute awareness of what they eat and why.
2. Reevaluate what you're doing in the gym and what you're doing when you're not in the gym. Competitors don't want to look like they sit on their butts for most of the day, so they take measures to counteract sitting on their butt for most of the day. For many this means a secondary workout. If you have to spend most of your workday seated, then be deliberate about moving. Plan for a walk or do a burst of exercise that'll get your heart rate up. Offset the sitting.
3. Use proper workout nutrition even when you're trying to lose fat. Competitors never sacrifice workout quality - they fuel up, supplement as needed, and never settle for crappy workouts because they're dieting. Many will still hit it hard just days before a show. And think of fat burners and very low carb calorie strategies as temporary tools before a deadline or event.
3. Build Muscle or Protect It
Competitors never sacrifice muscle. Even when leaning down takes precedence, they'll do their best to minimize catabolism. Why? Because muscle is pretty, and it's metabolically expensive. Why would they want to destroy something that eats up calories and makes their bodies look harder, tighter, and aesthetically appealing?
Even if symmetry is at stake, a smart competitor will bring up the parts that are lagging and maintain the parts that are well developed. (Ladies, if you think your legs are "too big", the dumbest thing you could do is try to atrophy your entire lower body.)
Competitors also know that nutrition is a gigantic piece of the muscle-building puzzle. You won't see very many physique competitors going on long-term ketogenic diets because a lack of carbs just doesn't do much for hypertrophy. And you certainly wouldn't see a competitor following the USDA's "My Food Plate" recommendations which allot about 6-7 ounces of protein a day to adults. Competitors know you simply can't build muscle with inadequate amounts of protein or carbs.
Action Plan: Don't get so weird about trying to lose weight or shrink body parts that you end up making yourself weak and skinny fat. This is what happens when muscle gets placed on the backburner.
Weight train for the purpose of building more muscle, not losing fat. Fat loss will happen easily and inadvertently if you become a fanatic about building muscle and being able to see that muscle.
Stage competitors want visible muscle. They're looking for both mass and definition (even bikini competitors to an extent). Strength is important to them, but to get the right look, their biggest priority is hypertrophy - muscle growth. Bodybuilders will steal from anything - powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or CrossFit - if it'll help them get bigger or leaner. Unlike specialists in narrower strength or power sports, physique competitors use a wider range of sets, reps, and techniques:
If the way you lift is always slow and controlled, add more power movements, and give yourself the opportunity to be explosive.
If the way you lift is always some variation of fast power movements, then add more time under tension. Focus on a slow eccentric and control the weight with smooth, steady movements.
Experiment with different rep ranges. Don't get so obsessed with feeling a muscle ache for tons of reps that you keep yourself from increasing the weight.
Don't get so obsessed with increasing the weight and setting PRs that you never feel the muscles actually working. Find your sweet spot.
4. Love the Process. Screw the Scale.
Seasoned competitors don't expect huge results overnight. They celebrate tiny improvements in their looks and their own behavioral changes. They enjoy the grind because of the results they get little by little in the mirror, and they trust that the right behaviors will give them the body they want. So the number on the scale never derails their efforts. And it shouldn't. There's no scale on stage.
Seasoned competitors know the inaccuracy of scale weight when it comes to measuring overall progress. They know that scale weight depends on a whole host of other things going on in the body. They know muscle cells shrink and expand with glycogen and glycogen depletion, and they know their bodies can hang onto extra water. So they don't freak out or get discouraged when the scale doesn't say what they want it to.
But many people don't have the ability to see beyond the scale. In addition, they're so fixated on the results of working out and eating well that they don't make working out and eating well a goal itself. And this fixation usually boils down to wanting to weigh less (or more) at any cost.
Chasing a number blinds people from seeing all the progress they're making, it blinds them from enjoying that progress, and it often discourages them from continuing. Many regular folks would be happy losing 10 pounds of "weight" and seeing the scale go down. But a competitor would not be fooled so easily. She'd want to know what that weight was made of: glycogen, fat, water? And muscle loss would not be acceptable.
Action Plan: Building muscle though constant nourishment and weight training is the best thing you could do for your body. But it'll never be pleasurable if your only reason for doing it is achieving lower weight. When you intentionally build muscle you sacrifice fast weight loss for higher metabolism and the kind of look you can only get from having muscle.
People who fixate on weight loss often will lose weight, but without maintaining or building muscle they'll lower their metabolism, then gradually gain that weight back, and finally end up with a higher number on the scale, less muscle tissue than they had to begin with, and a squishy, weak body.
Realize that your weight depends on a whole host of other things going on in your body. Don't freak out or get discouraged when the scale doesn't say exactly what you want it to.
5. Cheat on Purpose. Or Not at All.
There are a couple schools of thought with cheaty food. Certain competitors have pre-planned cheat days all the way up to the week of their competition, other competitors cut the junk completely, and the third type of competitor will keep the hedonic stuff in his or her diet every day as long as it fits in their macronutrient and calorie allotment.
All three methods work, but some are better for certain people. A self-proclaimed sugar addict knows not to treat herself daily if it's going to make her just want more.
The thing they all have in common? They treat cheats with intention. They either eat certain foods deliberately or they skip them deliberately. There's no mindless munching or accidental pig-outs. Those things don't happen with seasoned competitors.
Action Plan: If you're going to have it at all, plan for it. Be intentional about what you eat. Sweets are always more enjoyable when you plan for and anticipate them. Why blow that on a spontaneous treat that you don't get to look forward to?
So either cut them out, learn to make them healthier, allow them in calculated amounts on a regular basis, or allot them to a specific day of the week. Just do it with a sense of purpose.
6. Read the Signs and Adjust
Mistakes happen. If a competitor slips up and overeats, or has food that wasn't part of her plan, she won't go on a free-for-all binge-fest. A competitor who's paying attention to the signs will know that multiple slip ups mean she's not getting enough nutrition or that her meal timing is off.
Constant cravings and lethargy several weeks out from a competition are signs of being underfed, and incidentally, signs of a metabolism that's about to get sluggish. Smart competitors won't intentionally put themselves in this underfed state for too long because they know the consequence: a body that'll cling to fat despite plenty of exercise and fewer calories.
Chronic dieters struggle with this idea. It's counterintuitive for them. So instead of adjusting their nutrition upwards and allotting themselves more calories or higher carb days, they'll become even more rigid and neurotic about their eating, which will lead to more slip ups. It's cyclical.
Action Plan: Keep screwing up? Figure out why. Interpret constant hunger or missed workouts as a sign to change what you're doing. Sure, it's ok to feel off once in a while. But don't try to make these feelings your default lifestyle. It'll only backfire and lead to weight gain in the form of fat. Get to the bottom of why they keep coming up so that you can prevent them from happening again.
You might need some lighter workouts here or there, more calories on a regular basis, or a day or two in the week with extra carbs or fat. There are a lot of things to test out. Just pay attention to the cues your body gives you instead of overriding them. Discipline and willpower are good, but not if they're applied to the wrong areas.
7. Don't Get Butt Hurt. Get Hooked.
Confidence is a byproduct of the consistent hard work that gets a competitor on stage. Yes, they want to win, but if that doesn't happen they don't let it wreck their self-worth or drive. They realize that aesthetics are subjective and judges have differing opinions.
Self-assured bodybuilders and figure athletes enjoy competing even when they don't win because they know their bodies are phenomenal regardless of the score at the end of the night. Seasoned ones wouldn't dream of hanging their heads and pouting for days after losing a competition. Nope, they would celebrate all the hard work it took to get there.
Validation is always nice, but competitors don't require it in order to continue training hard. They don't need approval to continue grinding. They know how remarkable their bodies are without getting a trophy for it. Their hard work, and the body it got them is their biggest trophy.
Action Plan: Build muscle with abandon. Get hooked on it. Not for the accolades, but because doing so will make you more self-assured and driven. Work hard. Fall in love with working hard, and you'll know what a remarkable physique you have without needing anyone to tell you so.