Alternative Dieting, A New Approach To A Contest Physique

Natural bodybuilder Sean Sullivan takes a look at pre-contest dieting, and presents information on an alternative dieting approach.

Bodybuilding Diets HormonesAs a coach with more than 25 years of experience I have become well versed with modern contest preparation practices. In fact I use them, all of them. My clients have had great success and I feel I have a firm grasp on getting anyone contest ready. I pride myself on being able to find just the right diet type based on the individual. I have used carb dominant, carb cycling, low carb keto and just about every combo in between to get my client in they’re best shape. Most of the time it works, and is a challenge, and every time it leaves the client on the brink of exhaustion and in an overtrained state post-contest. What happens next is all too common. They quickly add the fat back on, and in a matter of weeks have fallen back into the pre-contest condition. Sometimes it’s worse. I have developed procedures to come off the contest diet that seems to work well when followed to the letter, but you’re still restricted as you bounce back. The problem with modern dieting is not calories, activity or food choices. It’s hormonal. When you diet your hormones suck!

Let's look at the contest approach for most people. You start a diet, any diet. Whether it's carb, fat or just calorie restriction, all focus on the same pathway - a reduction below maintenance of a caloric intake. Now as the diet progresses, you will add more and more cardio to increase the deficit. You also continue to reduce food and nutrient intakes so you have fewer nutrients for recovery. On top of that, you weight train more frequently and more intensely. Every time weight loss stalls what do you do? Decrease calories and increase activity. This pattern continues until you hit the stage in a highly overtrained state suffering from a variety of endocrine issues, and your entire hormonal profile is out of whack! It may take up to six months to return to the baseline as leptin, thyroid, testosterone and many other key hormones slowly come back to homeostasis. In that period, your physique does not look like that sculptured statue that stood on stage. So in a nutshell. you spend 12 to 18 weeks over-dieting and over-training for 60 seconds on stage, just to go back to the pre-contest look two weeks later and look and feel like crap for the next six months. Hmm, there must be a better way to get ready. Some way to get in contest condition and limit the amount of damage we do to our endocrine system? Read on and I will present the first of two alternatives. The second will be presented at a later date.

First, let's take a quick look at what happens when we diet. No mater what type of diet, it’s all based on the same principle...creating an energy deficit. Your body is regulated by the hypothalamus, a part of your brain. The hypothalamus will always attempt to regulate your body fat, the body after all has been conditioned more than 100 million years of evolution to hold onto fat. A natural bodybuilder physique may look good but in evolutionary terms is destined to go extinct. Muscle requires more calories to maintain than fat, and the more muscle you have the more calories you need. Muscle also has poor energy conversion compared to fat, so the more fat you have the better off you will be on a deserted island with little food. So the hypothalamus will use leptin, thyroid and other hormones to regulate this. Cut calories too long and the hypothalamus will slow the metabolism. Fat loss slows and we cut more calories causing the hypothalamus to correct for the cut and slow metabolism more and so goes the cycle. On top of that, we increase activity and weight training and that affects the nervous system. Remember, the muscle may be able to recover from shock workouts in a short time but nervous system recovery may take up to five times longer! So you reduce calories, train six days a week do two hours of cardio and cut your calories by up to 50% over the contest cycle, and then wonder why your nervous and endocrine system is shot after 12 weeks?

Ok, now we have the basic premise on why what we are doing may not be ideal, so let's cut to the chase...what works best Sully! Well the simple solution was discovered about a decade ago by steroid guru Dan Duchaine. Dan knew the problems with modern dieting, but he also knew the body could go through short periods of extreme dieting and actually lose almost nothing but fat. These periods ranged from 3-4 weeks. Yes, within a few days the body would reduce metabolic output by around 5%, but it would level off at that point for up to four weeks before the hypothalamus did its thing and started messing with your hormones and causing big diet problems. Another thing was that the nervous system actually became even more receptive, and the body released more fatty acids as fuel. This was again only for about four weeks. Duchaine wondered what would happen if someone dieted hard for 3-4 weeks then took 1-2 weeks off and ate at maintenance. Well what happened was that his human Guinea pigs lost nothing but fat, had few metabolic issues, and retained - or in some cases increased - muscle. The drawback was most people did not give him enough time and wanted to do simple 8-12 week diets. Remember, he was a steroid guy and could correct every metabolic problem with the proper dose of the proper "supplement" and gets everyone looking like Mr. or Ms. Olympia. So the idea was shelved and a few years later Duchaine passed away.

Dan Duchaine Body OpusYears later Lyle McDonald came out with versions of this simple strategy and that is where I first found out about this type of approach. I shelved the idea and kept with my old school thinking, after all I had attained a great deal of success and I were producing champions at a fast rate. Why change? Then last year I had five clients approach me with two concerns.  First, to be contest ready, and second, to not screw up their metabolism too much. They all planned on doing fall then spring shows and needed to rebound quickly. The thought of dieting through the holidays was not appealing and all of them had done the rebound thing too many times. I decided to try the 4-2 approach Duchaine used, after all I had almost six months to get them ready. So I began to research the variables and find the proper ratio of caloric deficit, activity and length of caloric deficits and what we could sustain as fat loss.

Now I don't have the room to get into the specifics, and they were different for each individual, but I will present the basics. For the diet period we needed a big deficit and I set that at between 30% and 60% of baseline needs. This number was ascertained by first finding the baseline, or the number of calories required to maintain current body composition. This is described in my article Base Line Dieting. Next, I set the deficit based on the following criteria: age, body fat percentage, muscle mass index and sex. All four variables affect the amount of the deficit. Body fat percentage for example; the more fat you have the greater the deficit can be. Someone with 30% body fat can have a 60% reduction but someone with 10% may only be able to tolerate a 30% reduction.

Next I set the duration at various lengths, first three weeks on two off and worked up to six on and two off before we found the four on two off that Duchaine arrived at to be the best. Every client continued to lose fat at a fast pace for four weeks before it began to stall and metabolic problems arose. I had everyone monitor morning heart rate and body temps to make sure we had a jump on potential issues. So the magic number there is four on two weeks at maintenance. It also must be pointed out that maintenance weeks need to be adjusted for body fat losses. For example one client who was 34% body fat and on a 65% deficit was at 3400 calories for maintenance. He lost 9% body fat the first four weeks but had a slight rebound the first cycle because we set his base line at his "fat" weight and did not adjust it down for the fat loss. He required fewer calories for maintenance after losing 9% of his body weight. So every four week cycle needs to be adjusted for fat loss.

Macronutrient composition varied for each person. The bottom line was the greater the deficit the more the diet centered on protein. Protein was set at around 1.5 to 1.8 grams per pounds with fats and limited carbs making up the difference. I also scheduled refeeds but those too varied by person. The refeeds were always in the evening and centered around complex carbs and some fats. See any Beverly or Scivation for examples of this. The basic premise is glucose loading, and to off set some of the leptin issues. It’s also easy to stick with if you know you can have 300-500 grams of complex carbs every 3-5 days.

Supplements were at a minimum. Again I referenced Lyle McDonald on supplements when on a diet. And while on the topic I highly recommend his books UD 2.0 and Rapid Fat Loss. Anyway, supplement standards were fish oils, a good multivitamin, extra calcium and magnesium, BCAAs (Scivation Xtend) some whey protein and creatine monohydrate. Water is always 1 oz per pound of body weight and all meals were salted. Yes the evil salt! I can never figure out why bodybuilders avoid salt, especially on a low carb diet? After all water follows only two salutes into muscle, glycogen and sodium. No carbs and no salt means flat squishy muscles. Limit carbs and increase sodium and you will still have solid muscles. As long as your drinking enough water there will be no water retention issues.

Activity was next. With a 30% to 60% (or more) deficit there was no way anyone could train four or five days a week do an hour of cardio without tapping into recovery issues. After trial and error (by monitoring recovery) we came out with a three day per week program. I found alternating upper and lower body work was best, so the body was split into two workouts and the two were alternated over three days: A, B, A one week and B, A, B the next. Because the deficit caused recovery issues we needed to limit volume so one exercise per body part for 3-5 sets was about right. To hit various areas like mid-back and lats or pec major and pec minor the "A" and "B" workouts were varied to include different movements like chins and rows or inclines and dips. Movements were limited to primary movers and core exercises and the load was maintained to pre-diet levels. If they were benching 315 for 6 then they needed to maintain that through the diet phase. Cardio was limited and most did less then 60 min a week all low to moderate intensity.

After four weeks average fat loss was around 6% or 1.5% of body fat per week. This was not a uniform loss, normally it was more at the start and dropped weekly as the diet progressed. Loads were maintained through the four weeks and no one lost strength the first two phases but strength did begin to drop in later cycles. To compensate I had them maintain loads by doing short "break sets.” For example my 315 pound for six bench presser could get 3-4 reps on his heavy set in his final cycles. I had him do his heavy set of four, rest 20 seconds and do two more for a total of six reps at 315. This way we still maintained loads in all exercises.

Now on the diet break everything changed. We went to maintenance calories, added volume and increased cardio. The first cycle I found most people still lost weight so I did a little tweak of my own. I increased calories 10% ABOVE maintenance, went to a five-day split and added 1-2 HITT cardio sessions per week along with around 90 min weekly of moderate cardio. There was zero fat gain and because of the increased calories the volume workouts provided an almost anabolic effect. Every client reported huge pumps and maniac workouts. Those with lagging body parts did weak area training by doing 2-3 workouts for the weak area and maintenance work for the rest of the body. All reported improvement in the weak body parts. This is an area I will continue to explore in the future, after all everyone reports huge pumps and great muscle gains post contest (along with huge fat gains) so this could be a valid way to actually increase muscle on an extended contest approach.

Now how did the diet work? Four of the five people came in 1st or won the overall, and the one who came in second lost to one of the clients who won the whole show. All achieved the best condition ever, with more mass retained and little to no fat gain. We actually used the two-week diet off period as the carb up and peak week and I just adjusted a few things the last 72 hours and it worked to perfection. Several of them had me modify the plan for off seasons by sapping the on and off cycles to two weeks of diet and four weeks of maintenance. For off seasons I limited the cardio on the maintenance work but other then that it’s essentially the same program.

This is an oversimplified view of an alternative diet approach. Although this is a small sample size, I believe this approach worked to perfection and will work for just about anyone. All you need is enough time to implement it and to be coming off an extended maintenance cycle. If your 12 or 16 weeks out and 20% or more body fat or have been dieting for an extended period it will not work. However, if you have 5-6 months to spend getting ready, this may be one to try.  And as always this is not something I invented and am not taking credit for any information presented. I borrowed this from a variety of sources to include Dan and Lyle but also Eric Serrano (the guy behind the Beverly and Scivation diets) Rheo. H Blair and Vince Gironda. I recommend doing some research and revamp how your plan your diets for a better, healthy and safe approach to contest prep. For more about me and my services you can contact me through my website www.peakedphysique.com.