Many physique fans have been quick to criticized a seemingly alarming trend—the growth (pun intended) of guts on the pro level of the sport. Yet this is not exclusive to the pro ranks; some of the worst “guts” I have seen have been on an amateur stage. While the factors in this physique blunder might vary slightly in between the pro and amateur level, there are a few common attributes that I see many competitors at both levels fail to address: not implementing posing practice and abdominal control exercises during prep, carbing up in too short of a time/being too aggressive with their carb up, using foods during the carb up period that they have eliminated during prep/are sensitive to, eliminating water completely during carb up periods, being in poor cardiovascular shape, and simply being unaware of distention.
The first step to correcting into a problem is to be able to identify it. It’s like many competitors don’t know that standing on a stage and tensing every muscle in there body for minutes on end isn’t going to be hard freakin’ work. Combined with the draining pre-show protocols often involved with prep, and hot stage lights, a competitor should leave the stage after prejudging as worn as if they had been through an intense training session. Look—you’re gonna sweat, you’re gonna be out of breath, you’re gonna be tired. What happens when your cardiovascular system is taxed? Your external intercostals and diaphragm contract more forcefully, and in turn your ribcage expands to a greater degree. If you can’t control this, you can say ciao to being at the pinnacle of professionalism. So how does one combat this?
Fortunately, the cardiovascular exercise and loss of bodyweight that is typically employed during a prep period leaves most competitors in fairly decent cardiovascular health. But when one employs extreme peak week strategies that leaves them drained and exhausted, no level of cardiovascular readiness can save them. DON’T do anything extreme during peak week—DON’T cut water early, DON’T load on tons of carbs in a short time, DON’T implement an excessive amount of diuretics. On the day of show, DO rest as much as possible. DO employ strategies that help you relax (reading, listen to music), DO have all your paperwork and schedule mapped out so that doesn’t become a stressor. DO make sure you have all food needed ahead of time.
Furthermore, we can add some extra “insurance” in the weeks preceding the show to make sure that we have real-time experience facing this issue. Isotension posing is crucial in simulating game day. It can also provide an additional pathway for expending more calories without having to add in any more of that evil cardio. Most of these sessions should be rigorous and leave you out of breath, but consider implementing ones that are also geared more towards focusing on a neural connection with each “showcase” muscle of a pose.
In the same vein as isotension posing is incorporating ab strengthening exercises. Vacuums have been a long time go-to staple, but consider implementing exercises for the rectus abdominis as well. This addition, again, can add extra calorie expenditure while not bringing with it a “catabolic” AMPK response. And while it varies between each individual and their structure, targeting the rectus abdominis can present a more aesthetic midsection. Furthermore, while the rectus abdominis isn’t the most heavily utilized muscle in controlling breathing, it DOES have an effect and will aid in controlling one’s wind on stage. It also aids in correct posture, another critical asset for those with a “pro” mindset.
An all too common reason for an excessive waist line on stage is carbing up without an understanding of human physiology. The common bodybuilding mantra is a simple—cut water to dry out, add carbs to perpetuate muscle fullness. Voila, awesome physique! Woah, not so fast. Besides the fact that this is simply not true from a physiological standpoint and can often leave one flat and soft, it can also cause distension. An acute and short-lived drop in water may not have a huge impact on digestion, but the protocols that call for cutting water early or tapering water throughout the course of a few days certainly will. Dehydration results in a stomach acid that is insufficiently acidic. When the body senses this, a valve called the pylorus says “ain’t nobody got time for that,” and refuses to open and allow a food bolus to pass into the duodenum. Ever have heartburn before a show? Now you know why—the stomach contents want to go somewhere! Most the time they just sit in the gut—turtle power!
Another carb-ing up blunder is a misconception that one can eat “clean” all prep and then load with “dirty” foods. In all honesty, it can be extremely lucrative to load with things like pancakes and burgers. The issue is that when people totally cut these items out for sixteen weeks and then try to re-introduce them right before a show in mass quantities, disaster can happen. The body can become unaccustomed to digesting specific foodstuffs, resulting in an inflammatory response. And along with it, bloating and water retention. If you plan to load on these items, either do a test run 2-5 weeks out from your show that includes what you plan to load on to make sure your body has not begun to down regulate their digestion, or include them in your “cheat” meals throughout prep. The bottom line is to load on what you can digest. What carb sources have you responded to well throughout prep? There is nothing “magic” about a burger and fries. This meal can be replicated in a more hypoallergenic setting extremely easily: white rice, sea salt, and ground beef, with russet potatoes baked in olive oil.
Lastly, loading with too many carbs too quickly can do one a disservice. Although some large bodybuilders might need up to 1500g of carbs over a 36-48 hour period, most of us are not superheavyweights with high energy expenditures. The bottom line is that a trial run is needed pre-contest to identify exactly how many carbs you need. If you find that you’re on the higher end, consider starting your load a bit earlier to minimize bloating.
With a little common sense and preparation, one can ensure that they get on stage with a midsection that doesn’t resemble the marshmallow man. I don’t know about you, but I don’t judge a physique highly when it resembles Violet from “Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory.” Let’s use our noggins, people.
-Nick Tong, INOV8 Elite Performance Physique Coach