Cutting down for a fitness competition starts off much the same as how anyone might want to lose body fat - with diet and training protocols providing a fat burning environment in the body. Of course, there are good and bad ways to go about this and the plans people follow will differ from individual to individual, depending on starting point and diet + training history. However, the really tricky part comes after there has been adequate reduction in body fat and the trainee is experiencing either a fat loss plateau, extreme fatigue or a crashed metabolism.
These symptoms may be somewhat tolerated, and maybe relatively 'normal' when trying to reach very low body fat percentages. The problem is that a lot of the time the trainee still needs to get leaner for the stage but their food intake is already very low and they hardly have any energy to workout intensely. A lot of the time the only answer is to reduce the food further or increase the training, or both. This ends up being extremely stressful and fatiguing for the trainee and can increase the chances of both poor stage condition, and a bad rebound post-competition.
Usually, although not always the case, these dilemmas might have been avoided if the trainee conducted there preparation for the competition with a little more patience and a little more know-how. Sometimes problems cannot be completely avoided and one should expect them to arise, but there is plenty a trainee can do to reduce the chances of these things happening. See below for 5 Tips to help avoid these problems and achieve great stage conditioning.
1. Start Early
Traditionally a competition prep might start 8-12 weeks prior to the competition date. This is actually not very much time and normally applies to the seasoned pros or trainees who are already fairly lean. Much better advice would be to start preparation 16-20 weeks prior to the competition (especially if its the trainee's first time). Of course, it all depends on the start point - but one can use the rough guide of 1lb Fat loss per week being what is realistically achievable naturally. This means if there is 15lbs to lose it should take 15 weeks, but things don't always go to plan so it really does pay to start early just incase a plateau in fat loss occurs. If the trainee starts too late and hits a fat loss plateau then it may result in huge food cuts, which can and will crash the metabolism, leading to further problems with both condition and post competition rebounds of excessive weight gain.
2. Start With A Macro-Nutrient Exchange Not Calorie Reduction
If on the first day of a competition preparation the trainee reduces the amount of overall calories they eat, it could result in many more unnecessary calorie cuts along the way. Calorie cuts will no doubt form a big part of the preparation as a whole, but it simply may not be needed for the first couple weeks. Instead of immediately reducing calories, try exchanging some calories from Carbohydrates to calories from Protein. More often than not trainees can experience fat loss by simply getting more Protein and less Carbohydrate, even if total calorie intake stays the same. This is because Protein takes more energy to digest than Carbohydrate and more energy is lost as heat through Thermogenesis. This, coupled with lower overall Insulin levels due to reduced Carbohydrate intake, will create a fat burning effect within the body. Then, after Initial calorie exchange methods have stopped yielding fat loss results, calorie intake can then be reduced slowly.
3. Reduce Calories Slowly
The only thing a trainee needs to potentially do for an optimal rate of fat loss is create an energy deficit of about 3,500-4,000 calories per week (about 1lb of Fat worth of energy) - any more than that and the trainee risks reducing muscle mass and metabolic rate unnecessarily. This amount of calorie deficit is easily done through both diet and training. With roughly 500-570 calories worth of body fat per day to lose a trainee can be in an diet energy deficit of 300 calories per day maximum, with both intense training sessions and the 'after burn' from training making up the other 2-300 calories. Generally, any more than a diet deficit of 500 calories per day will eventually result in fatigue long term, so if food is kept higher the trainee is able to maintain high intensity in the gym and make up the difference just through training. Over time as body fat reduces the calories will have to drop little by little, and/or training frequency increased, as the amount of energy it takes to fuel the body will decrease.
4. Monitor All Indicators
More often then not too much emphasis is placed on the scale for judging progress in fat loss. This is potentially detrimental to the trainee as it provokes emotional responses to their body weight and less attention is paid to what they actually look like. The scale is important, but should not be used exclusively, instead it should be used in conjunction with visual markers. Conversely, just because the scale is looking favourable does not mean the body is responding favourably. If body weight is dropping dramatically in short periods of time then this could be concerning, as every effort should be made to reduce unnecessary muscle loss. Of course, there are many variables and reasons for why body weight may be dropping too slowly or too fast, as fluid is held around the body in quite different ways when dieting for extended periods of time. This depends on training intensity and/or electrolyte intake, as well as hormone fluctuations. This is why visual indications are sometimes more important for gauging progress than the scale.
5. Feeling Depleted Is Good For Fat Loss
Half the success of competition preparation will be down to managing the mental state, and it will be the hardest near the end. At some point a trainee will feel their muscles are very 'depleted' or 'flat'. Men usually notice this more than Women as they have more muscle mass. What it means is that muscle 'volume' has reduced considerably and feelings of being weak or less shapely set in. Once adequate fat loss has been achieved, the last 3-4 weeks is where 'stage conditioning' occurs, which will mean burning off very stubborn areas of Fat that may or may not have been on the body for many years. This requires an extended period of feeling quite physically depleted and a little bit weak in the gym. Despite the amount of Carbohydrate consumed, at this stage the overall food intake is low enough that the body cannot retain Glucose within the muscles and because Glucose retains water, a lot of fluid is therefore lost from the muscle cells. Even though this can make the trainee emotionally distraught, it is actually this very state that is optimal for achieving great stage conditioning over the remaining weeks.
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