As a San Diego Personal Trainer to figure and bikini competitors, models, athletes and women wanting to get into peak shape, I’m constantly asked variations of one specific question: What are the secrets to bikini and figure competition prep? Given the understanding we currently have of how the body responds to diet and exercise, combined with the internet’s ability to share that knowledge, it’s hard for me to believe that there are any secrets. The information is out there. However, it is buried in a pile of complete training and prep nonsense. In this post, I’ll touch on a few items where I feel people are getting confused.
Cardio is not the best way for competitors to get lean. The general population who probably will not adhere to the kind of diet necessary to singlehandedly produce results is well served to rely somewhat heavily on cardio to produce the caloric deficit needed to lose weight. However, this is not nearly as effective an approach as letting the diet do its job, and is not at all effective for competitors or anyone looking to reach their peak aesthetic. Unless there is a significant amount of weight to lose in a short period of time, competitors will be best served to rely on their diet to get and/or stay lean, particularly in the offseason when building/rebuilding muscle is a priority.
A common mistake by competitors trying to stay lean in the offseason is doing tons of cardio. This is usually out of fear that their increased caloric intake (necessary for building) is going to add more fat than they would like, and also as a buffer for their tendency to indulge in “extra” cheat meals. There are three problems with this approach: a) it conflicts with the need to keep calories above maintenance to support muscle growth, b) it can lead to endurance adaptations to muscle fibers that need to instead be adapted for strength, and c) it may increase your body’s need for cardio when the time comes to diet for a show. Ever try eating in a (significant) deficit while doing tons of cardio while trying to lift heavy (on fumes) to get lean and preserve muscle? Not a good idea (can you say rebounding?). Take my word for it: If you want to set yourself up for a good prep, don’t overdo the cardio at any point. Keep it to 3 days a week @ no more than 30-40 minutes when building (offseason) and rely more on diet for fat loss when prepping.
HIIT is great, but can be tough to recover from when prepping. I can’t and won’t argue that High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is the best form of cardio for rapid fat loss. It’s been proven time and time again, both scientifically and anecdotally. I just want to say that as you start to lean out, recovery from your workouts will become a major factor. What do you think a depleted body would have an easier time recovering from: HIIT Sprints and Plyos or a low intensity walk on the treadmill? Sure, the sprints are better for developing your lower body, but not nearly as good as what you’d get from your weight training if you were positioned to fully recover from it. My experience is that many competitors can do just fine with HIIT once or maybe even twice a week, but others need to consider eliminating it and opting for Low Intensity Steady State (LISS) when lean and calories are low. Listen to your body and always remember that diet and lifting heavy are the two most important parts of your prep. Unless you’re going into your prep still carrying significant bodyfat, cardio is supplementary.
There is no need to take frequent eating to the extreme. The frequent meal myth is one that will probably not go away anytime soon. This is likely because of how convincing its supposed benefits are to those who’ve tried it. Common sense: If suddenly you’re commited enough to make sure you eat every 2 to 3 hours, don’t you think you’re probably doing your body more good than you were two weeks ago when you ate gigantic portions of unhealthy foods twice a day…and topped it off with ice cream at night? These are the extremes I usually see from people who’ve made the switch to frequent meals (and swear by it’s magic metabolism boosting powers). They never seem to appreciate the likelihood that a dozen other factors in their change of habits had more influence on their fat loss than simply obsessing over when their next meal would be, and whether they had enough food prepared.
My experience is that competitors can do very well with 4 meals per day, as long as the pre-workout meal is timed right (about 60-90 minutes prior). The main benefit of not eating ridiculously often is that your meals are bigger and more satisfying…which means you will be less likely to “graze” between meals. This is particularly important when calories are low, since more frequent eating would make for some very small, non-satisfying portion sizes.
Further, the “metabolism boosting” effect of frequent eating is and always has been known (albeit, not by many) as a myth, as human metabolism is not changeable over a 24 hour period (it actually takes a few days of severe undereating, irregardless of meal frequency). Take home message: If you prefer smaller more frequent meals, go for it…but don’t feel as though you have to. There is something to be said about your life not revolving around your next meal, and being able to eat with friends and family without finishing 15 minutes before they do. Don’t worry though, there will be plenty of other major inconveniences in your prep that you won’t miss this one
Conclusion: So did I make your day, or are you wondering how on earth a prep coach could give 3 pieces of advice that actually makes your prep easier while enhancing effectiveness? I hope it made your day, because there really is a lot of fat to be cut out of typical figure and bikini competition prep (pun intended). My mission as a coach is to educate people on how to eliminate the typical “shotgun approach” to contest prep and create an environment conducive to long term, healthy, AND successful competition.
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