Healthy contest prep – An oxymoron?


Whether you’re interested in competing as a bodybuilder/figure competitor, or whether you’re just looking to drop body fat as fast as possible, it’s important to understand the difference between training for aesthetics and training for health.

Note from JB: In a dozen years as a high performance coach, I’ve found that many folks who exercise hard and eat right usually get to a point where they consider competing.

Maybe you’re one of them?  Maybe you’ve considered finding a coach and stepping on the competitive stage as a bodybuilder, fitness competitor, or figure model?  Maybe you’ve considered a powerlifting contest.  Or maybe you’ve considered running a marathon.

And maybe you think these are “healthy” things to do.  Well, if so, there’s some stuff you need to know.

So pull up a chair and listen closely as natural bodybuilder, drug-free powerlifter, and Lean Eating Coach, Krista Schaus mentors you toward a healthy understanding of the competitive process.

Extreme competition unhealthy?

Men and women come to me from far and wide to get advice on how to get to the competitive stage in a “healthy” or “balanced” way. You see, that’s sorta become my thing. Yes, I’ve paid my dues as a high performance coach. And as competitive strength and physique athlete.

But I’ve also spent a lot of time learning about health and physiological function from some of the best in the business – like Charles Poliquin, Dr Berardi, and more. And I’ve made it my mission to help people find a way to balance out the two. To get maximally strong for power lifting, to get maximally lean for physique competition, to get maximally fit for running, while also protecting the body from injury.

Now, it might not seem self evident – at first – that these “extreme” activities like physique competition or marathon running are unhealthy.   And it’s for this reason that most people see them the logical end to some otherwise healthy activity like lifting weights or jogging.

Yet, if you think about it, there’s nothing all that natural or healthy about running to the point that you can’t walk for 2 days after, or about dieting down to abnormally low body fat levels.

Coach Krista - A strong, lean, and fit woman
Coach Krista – A strong, lean, and fit woman

Getting super-lean and managing imbalances

For example, younger females typically carry around about 25-30% body fat; older women about 30 to 35%. And younger males typically carry around about 12-17% body fat; older males about 15-20% body fat.

So, attaining the body fat levels of a bikini model (12-15%) or a bodybuilder (5%) means struggling against millions of years of evolution.  And the high volumes of training, coupled with the low quantities of food necessary to attain this level of leanness, are very stressful.  Especially if the negative energy balance isn’t managed correctly!

The same is true with long distance running.  Logging all those miles creates the same type of negative energy balance.

It’s for this reason that musculoskeletal injuries are common during pre-contest/pre-competition periods. As are hormonal problems like adrenal burnout, sex hormone depression, and much more.

I’ve seen so many folks come to me having prepared badly in the past due to due to lack of information or misinformation. They’ve damaged their metabolisms, hormonal systems, digestive health, sleep rhythms, their body images, and their relationships with food. It’s sad actually.

But don’t think that just because some people prepare for contests badly, it’s impossible to prepare well.  After all, these problems are totally manageable. And that’s what I do. I enter into every contest preparation period with the idea that competing is never healthy. And then I do my best to manage the imbalances and unhealthy nature of competing.

Is competing beneficial?

Ok, so there are some risks with competing.  But there must be some benefits, right? Well, that’s an important question.  And the answer depends on you. In some cases, competing is totally beneficial. In other cases, it’s a bad idea.

Some of the most significant physical and personal growth myself and my clients have experienced has come from pushing beyond our comfort levels and beyond what we thought was possible. From challenge comes growth.

Indeed, everyone at some point in their lives…or many times… should find their equivalent of preparing and training for “the stage”.

Coach Krista in Bodybuilding Shape
Coach Krista in Bodybuilding Shape

But not everyone needs to choose this particular vehicle to expand their horizons and excel at a higher level. There are many vehicles for growth and various opportunities to challenge yourself. Physique contests, endurance events (triathlons, marathons) or strength/power events (powerlifting, olympic lifting) are just some examples of how you can prepare, push and peak.

But each of these examples involves risk, commitment, sacrifice and yes, degrees of imbalance.

And sometimes what we get in the end is very different than what we expected. Some see competing as the ultimate end point – only to discover it is just the beginning. There is no “end”. You just set your sights higher or focus your attention to different things and see things differently than you did before.

One of my favorite songs from the musical Wicked is “For Good.”  And one of my favorite lines is: “I don’t know if I have been changed for the better, but I have been changed for good.”

This goes for competing. It will change you – whether it is a positive change is another question.  And only you can decide the answer to this one too.

But, whatever you decide to do and however you decided to push yourself, you must educate yourself and be prepared for the good, the bad and the ugly.  Plus, expect the unexpected. And get rid of any fantasy now that it is healthy, normal or easy.

A new fitness goal: Always be 3-6 weeks away

Let me be really honest about something here. There are some folks who have an advantage when it comes to physique sports. Indeed, those who find getting ready for physique contests easy are those that are naturally very lean; those that walk around with a near contest-body year-round. In essence, they’re 3-6 weeks from being ready for a contest year-round.

Personally, that’s exactly what I aspire toward. Indeed, my goal has always been to be a well-rounded representative of what I value most – strength, leanness, health and fitness. What that means in concrete terms is that I want to be able to participate in or compete in anything health and fitness related at almost any time.

  • If I want to step onto a lifting platform – I’m only 3-6 weeks of training away
  • If I want to step on the stage – I’m only 3-6 weeks of training (& dieting) away
  • If I want to enter a CrossFit challenge – I’m only 3-6 weeks of training away
  • If I want to participate in a team sport – I’m only 3-6 weeks of training away.

Maybe this is really what most people in the health and fitness world aspire toward.  Maybe it’s not the contest per se that people find most important.  Maybe it’s being strong, athletic, and lean enough to compete in any number of activities with only a little preparation.

Now, beyond the comfort (and ego boost) of knowing that you’re fit enough to participate in most sports at any time, there’s another huge benefit of always training for physical preparedness.  When you’re training year-round and staying “3-6 weeks away,” your preparation phase is much less stressful on the body.

Think about it, if you only have 10-15lbs to lose for a competition it takes much less time (and much less of a huge lifestyle overhaul) than if you have to lose 30-40lbs for that competition.  The negative energy balance doesn’t have to be as great.  So, you can keep eating lots of nutrient rich foods while simply cleaning up the diet and ramping up the exercise program.

Health, body comp, and food

Now, I’m not perfect. I have lost my period in the past during training. And I have battled overeating after a long period of contest preparation. But I learned from my mistakes. And I have a good system in place now.

First, I make sure that I pick my battles very carefully. For example, there are quite a few events I’d love to compete in each year.  However, I have to prioritize the most important ones.  If I try to do too many, or if I try to do an event if I’m feeling too burnt out from other work and life responsibilities, the mix will definitely kick me out of balance.  So I’ve learned to just say no.

Second, I make sure that I always have a food plan in place for the “off-season,” for my “contest prep,” and for immediately after my contests.  There’s rarely a time where I just “wing it.”  Because winging it can get dicey.  A little extra turns into a lot extra.  And before you know it, you’re binging and out of control

Precision Nutrition – It’s my secret weapon

The best thing I’ve found for keeping me on track year-round; for both helping me maintain my off-season leanness and helping me avoid the post-contest rebound is Precision Nutrition.

No, that’s not me “selling out.” It’s me sharing my truth, based on my own experience and the experience of the competitors I’ve worked with.

We’ve done intuitive eating, carb cycling, macro counting, quasi fasting, cheat meals, vegetarian fare, detoxes… and more. And PN has worked the best for the following reasons:

  • There’s a support system for you
  • Individualization is built in
  • There’s no counting calories, grams or weighing foods unless you need some troubleshooting
  • Improved body composition and health is the strategic outcome

I use PN year-round with some small tweaks and individualization changes as a contest approaches.  My clients and athletes do the same.

Precision Nutrition 3.0
Precision Nutrition 3.0

The wrap-up

In the end, it seems to me that a lot of gym folks treat physique competition like recreational runners treat their local marathon.  It becomes a holy grail of sorts.

In establishing this milestone goal, they forget that before rushing headlong into such an event, there’s some stuff to do.  Some self-exploration is required.  Some expert advice is to be sought out.  And some serious sacrifices have to be made along the way.

So if you’re thinking about competing in your first physique contest – or your first powerlifting meet – or your first marathon, we here at PN encourage you to “just do it.”  One caveat, though.  Do it right!

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