Competing In A Bodybuilding Show - It’s All Mental
I went over specifics last month in Part 1 about what I eat when preparing for a bodybuilding show, but the most important parts of dieting are adherence and acceptance. Yes, one can have a carb day once a week up until five to seven weeks before a show, but the rest of the time, its the same thing every day and just doing it without hesitation is the way to go. Train, cook, eat clean, do cardio and keep doing it all without fail. And listen, anybody can do it for a week, or even two weeks. But to keep it up for eight, twelve, fifteen weeks takes sacrifice, commitment and an inner drive that will not let you fail. I want to eat ice cream and Mexican food and drink a bunch of beers each day. The problem is that all of that leaves me tremendously empty inside, my joints feel like crap, my sleep is disturbed, my face looks like a bowling ball and my training sucks. And I didnt start realizing just how all that bad food makes me feel for a long time. But it's true and when you diet for a bodybuilding show or an event and stick to it, you may feel hungry at times, but you will always feel better than eating and drinking junk. And the acceptance part? Accept the diet and the training and cardio, but maybe even more important is to accept how you feel. Usually the first couple of weeks, you will feel fine, you will have energy. But then as the weeks go on, you accumulate fatigue through the training and cardio and then your calories drop and pretty soon, you are asking yourself, why do I feel like shit? But you get used to it, especially with experience.
How do I describe the way that you feel as the bodybuilding show approaches? Like you have the flu without the fever. Just like a wet noodle. Your limbs are weak feeling and you must force yourself to do all that you need to do. And anything extra, mowing the lawn and doing household chores ain't gonna happen. And I get to where the last few weeks before a bodybuilding show, I don't want to answer the phone, I don't call anyone, even my best friends. I don't want to go into a store, go to my kids games (I do anyway), or go anywhere except to the gym. One year, I cancelled Thanksgiving dinner at my parents. Boy, was my mother pissed off at me. It's just the way it is with me, and that's it. And I'm so freaking irritable. Short on patience, is more like it. If I tell my kids to do something and they don't do it right away, I start freaking out. If I'm eating what I want, I give them a break once in awhile. I don't feel like smiling or being nice and especially no idle chit chat. I sit with my dog outside and I don't talk to him, I just pet him and he puts his head on me and we get lost for awhile. I spend a lot of time sitting in my truck, reading and writing. I'll finish training and drive to the lake near my house and just get away. The last few weeks, from about five weeks in, I don't sleep much. I usually go to bed around 9:30 pm and get up between 2:00 am and 4:00 am. My theory here is that my brain and body are like, HEY! You need to go find us some food! Like it's an evolutionary instinct that is calling me to go hunting. I always tell myself, you aren’t on the Bataan Death March, you haven’t been shot down over Vietnam and captured and forced to walk in shackles, so I think that you can survive riding a recumbent bike and eating fish. I mean, there is always someone out there who has been through much more than I have been through. I use stuff like that all the time, comparing what I am going through to real hardship that others have suffered through.
I have heard some pro bodybuilders say that one of the main reasons that they hire coaches is just to have someone there to tell them that everything is going to be alright, and that they are right on track, someone else to take the anxiety off all the crazy thoughts that come into your head when you are preparing to do a show. The calorie deprivation and the cardio and resistance training make you not act or think like yourself. I have my good friend Rich Salke who has advised me for years with bodybuilding stuff (He’s a former class winner in the Mr. America and former Pan American Champion), and he answers all my paranoid questions without hesitation because he has been there before. I get pretty nuts. First off, I can't believe that people eat like they do (like shit), even though just a few weeks ago, I was tossing whoppers down my throat like M&M 's. How dare the stores feed the citizens cheetos and cake and all that crap? I also think that if they just gave it a shot, they too would enjoy fish and chicken. And I think everyone is fat, and out of shape. And I’m pretty tough on myself. Ah, you look like crap, you are fat, you ate too much, etc. And I just can't believe that everyone I know has not stopped their lives to appreciate the sacrifices that I am making during this time. Don't they know what I am doing? But it’s such an insular thing, you are so into yourself and looking at yourself and wondering if your body is ever going to “come in” i.e, get in condition, that the outside world ceases to exist in a sense. All that matters is the next cardio session or meal or weight session and how you are going to get it all in. And all of your energy goes towards the contest.
Countdown to the Show
The last week before the bodybuilding show, I go a couple of days with zero carbs to deplete the glycogen from the muscles. I'm usually pretty depleted anyway, so it's no big deal to go zero carbs. All during the buildup to the last week, I salt my food freely. And then in the last four days or so before the show, I switch to distilled water to drink and no salt, and I boil all my food in distilled water, sweet potatoes and chicken, my body flushes away all the sodium and you can see the muscles more clearly. And then I start to reduce the distilled water as it gets closer to the show and keep adding carbs and the muscles fill out nicely. I usually am so depleted during this time that I have now realized that I need more carbohydrates to fill out and I need to start a little earlier. The fear with over carbing is that you will start to look smooth, “spilling over ‘ is what it's called. And I get pretty paranoid about it. The problem is that in my last two shows, I looked better the day after the show or even two or three days after the bodybuilding show. So next time, I will be more aggressive with the carb up. The first time that I did the sodium tricks and the carb up, I couldn't believe the difference losing all that water made. All of this is tricky though, because if you deplete sodium too soon, your body will hold the water, and if you take in too few or not enough carbs, you may screw the whole thing up. Or at least you may not be at your best.
The last week, weight training is supposed to end on Tuesday but usually I do a little something on Wednesday also, just because I don't want to be out of the gym that long, and the cardio also. I get paranoid that if I don't go to the gym, I will be small and lose muscle. I know it isn't true, but I can't help it, it makes me sort of crazy. And I'm thinking, I have come this far, just do a little extra, it can't hurt.
I am pretty relaxed going into a bodybuilding show the last few days. By this time, all of the work is done. Just do your tanning, and get your food in. The tanning is an adventure. You are buck ass naked and you're spray tanned in these little booths. Most of the time, I have had a female applying the spray tan. At first, you are self conscious and wondering just what the hell is going on (Don’t I need a sock or something?), but after a while, you realize that nobody cares, everyone is hungry and the person putting on the tanning solution has “ seen them all” as one girl put it and it's best just to get in there and get it done. Then you are dark, super dark, because the lights on stage will wash you out if you aren't. The day of the show, there is a prejudging and a night show. The prejudging is where the real judging is done, and the night show is more for the audience. Either way, at the amateur level, you are not on stage for very long. You come out with everyone and do some comparison poses and then that's the prejudging. At the night show, there are the comparisons but then you have seventy seconds to perform a routine. Some guys go for classical music or rap, but I have always posed to hard rock, Pantera, Motley Crue, Zeppelin, Godsmack. And I’m not dancing or doing the splits. Just some basic poses. Then they call out everyone and announce the winners. Before we went on stage last time, I was talking to a fellow competitor and he was especially nervous. He was a farmer from Virginia and was a super nice guy. But this was his first bodybuilding show, and he was asking me all kinds of questions: Which way do we turn when we are on stage? What way do we exit the stage? I told him that the expediters will help him and not to worry. And then right before he went on stage, he kept saying, I don't want to do this, I don't want to do this. And then he did fine and I'm sure that he is glad that he stuck it out and finished the show. I think of it this way: You don't have to do it. It's your choice. And you made that choice, so enjoy it and relax.
I was fortunate enough to win the last two shows that I entered and that is a thrill, no question. It’s strange, but I never thought about winning a bodybuilding show. I just did them for the challenge, to see if I could, for example, lose thirty pounds in eight weeks. The competition was just a date, a deadline that gave me something to shoot for down the road.
To me, it's no different than anything that anyone else does to challenge and test themselves. To reach for places deep down inside that you haven't felt in forever or maybe have never felt at all. I don’t do it for vanity, although I like to be in contest shape.
Sometimes I go days without checking my condition, after awhile, I can just tell if things are going well by the way that I am feeling. If I am feeling like death warmed over, then I know that I am losing fat. It's all about suffering and striving and not quitting and finishing no matter what once you set your mind to it. And if I dont test myself like that once in awhile, I forget who I am.
And you think that the contest day is never coming, but it does and you are always happy that you finished.
Read Part 1 here.
About The Author
Jim Steel has been immersed in athletics and the Iron Game for most of his life. He has been a college football player and coach, powerlifter, Muay Thai fighter and is currently a competitive bodybuilder. In 1999, Steel was named Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved up to Head Strength and Conditioning Coordinator in 2004. He is the owner of the blog basbarbell.com, and is a motivational speaker, frequent podcast guest and the author of two books, Basbarbell Book of Programs and Steel Reflections. Steel is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association.