Pre-Contest Diet

Flexibility Workouts

As a competitive bodybuilder, you'll need to constantly change your training techniques and nutrition strategies throughout the year. The way you train and eat during the bodybuilding off-season, or the time of year when no competitions are taking place, will be very different from the way you train and eat during the competition season. As your strategies change, so will the ways in which bodybuilding affects both your body and mind.

Competitive bodybuilders often describe competition preparation as one of the most challenging, strenuous and exhausting experiences of their lives. As with any experience such as this, however, competing in a bodybuilding competition - win or lose - may be one of the most rewarding activities you'll ever experience.

While it may be exciting to compete in a bodybuilding tournament, no one wants to lose. Hence, the importance of designing a pre-contest dietary routine to ensure that you hit your peak on the day of the competition is imperative. By equipping yourself with the required knowledge now, you'll be ready for the challenges that come with preparing for a bodybuilding contest.

This means knowing what to expect in terms of nutrition, strength training, cardio, water depletion, supplementation and rest. Even if you have no bodybuilding competitions on your schedule, this guide will help you to decide whether you're ready to compete.

Transitioning from the Bodybuilding Off-Season to the Competition Season

During the bodybuilding off-season, your goal is to make the largest possible gains in muscle mass, strength and density. As the competition season approaches, however, you'll need to begin shifting your focus to increasing muscular definition without experiencing significant losses in the three aforementioned factors. This means reducing your body fat percentage and (eventually) depleting water content in order to achieve the appearance of hard, lean, sharp and massive muscles.

Of course, it's difficult to reduce your overall weight without reducing your levels of lean muscle mass. Some bodybuilders gain 40, 50 or even 60 pounds over their targeted competition weight (i.e. the weight level the bodybuilder intends to compete at during the bodybuilding competition) during the bodybuilding off-season. If you gain this much excess weight, you'll find it very difficult to lose weight and achieve ideal muscle definition in time for the competition.

As such, it's a much better idea to keep your off-season weight within 10 pounds of your targeted competition weight. Losing just 10 pounds as the bodybuilding season approaches will be much more realistic, and not nearly as detrimental to existing muscle strength, mass and density, as compared to losing 30, 40 or 50 pounds.

When competition season begins to approach, you'll need to decide when to start losing weight in pursuance of your targeted weight. As a rule of thumb, you should try to lose approximately one pound per week. Losing weight at a significantly faster rate will have you losing muscle mass instead of just fat. If you weigh 220 pounds during the off-season and you're looking to target 210 pounds as your competition weight, for example, you'd need to start losing weight 10 weeks before the competition. If necessary, you may be able to lose closer to 1.5 pounds per week, though it will be more difficult to retain your existing levels of muscle mass, density and strength.

Adjusting Your Diet in the Weeks Prior to a Bodybuilding Competition

Flexibility Workouts

In the weeks leading up to a bodybuilding competition, your goal will be to enhance the apparent definition and striations of your muscles as much as possible while minimizing losses in muscular mass, strength and density. This is a difficult balance to achieve and your physical and mental toughness will be tested.

However, by following a simple seven-step plan you can achieve this delicate balance, and you'll look extremely ripped and shredded on competition day while retaining your existing, off-season levels of muscular bulk. Some of the advice outlined in this plan will seem highly unintuitive in the context of general overall health. Keep in mind that the goal of this plan is to have you peak on competition day, and not to improve your health and well-being.

Step 1: Drastically Increase Your Sodium Intake

Approximately two weeks before the scheduled competition day, you'll want to increase your sodium intake to between 3,000 and 4,000 mg per day.

The amount of water your body contains is directly related to the amount of sodium it contains. However, your body will stop retaining water at some point even if you continue to increase your sodium levels. As such, your body will retain more water when you initially boost your sodium intake. After several days on a high-sodium diet, however, your body will adapt by returning your water levels to where they were before you starting loading up on sodium.

The purpose of this step is to prepare you for Step 4 of this program, in which you'll reduce your sodium levels in order to deplete water content from your body.

The following are excellent food choices for boosting your sodium intake because they also contain high levels of protein:

  • Chicken
  • Canned tuna
  • Lean deli meat
  • Anchovies
  • Sardines
  • Low-fat cheese
  • Cottage cheese

Of course, you can always add additional sodium to your diet by salting your food.

Step 2: Drastically Decrease Your Carbohydrate Intake

When you initially decide that it's time to shift your primary focus from developing muscular mass to developing muscular definition in preparation for a bodybuilding competition, you should reduce your daily carbohydrate intake to 0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight. Although this sounds low, you'll need to drop it even more as your contest approaches.

Starting exactly one week before the competition date, you should reduce your carb intake even further. Accomplish this by consuming one cup of vegetables with each of your meals. Aside from this, the only carbs you should consume are 20 to 30 grams of simple carbohydrates immediately after your workout as part of a protein shake. These carbs should be as fast-digesting as possible, so candy will work well. Good options include sorbet, gummy bears, sweet tarts or pixy sticks.

The diet recommended in the above paragraph should be maintained for three days. After this, you'll want to remove the post-workout carbs from your diet for the next two days. This will be exhausting, but it's necessary for depleting glycogen from your muscles. Glycogen, of course, is how your body stores carbohydrates originating from everything from candy and fruit to potatoes and bread.

The main reason for depleting glycogen levels is enhancing fat burning. In the absence of glycogen, your body will use fat as an energy source. Depleting glycogen will also cause your muscles to retain less water. When you boost your carbohydrate intake in a later step, your muscles will be able to store more glycogen and water than before, increasing their apparent size.

Step 3: Consume a Creatine Hydrochloride Supplement

Since your diet will contain very few carbs in the last week leading up to a bodybuilding competition, you'll need to turn to a different source of energy - namely creatine. Creatine is a common bodybuilding supplement used to fuel strength training workouts by providing ATP to the muscles.

Some bodybuilders advise against the use of creatine as a component of a pre-contest diet because some forms of it can cause bloating and reduce apparent muscle definition. This is because any creatine that fails to enter the muscles will sit underneath the skin and absorb water. However, this phenomenon is only known to occur when taking creatine monohydrate.

Instead, you'll want to take creatine hydrochloride, which has been shown in studies to absorb more thoroughly into the muscles. This will also cause more water to be drawn into the muscles instead of directly under the skin.

For best results, it's advisable to take one to two scoops of creatine hydrochloride before and after each workout. This applies to both your strength training and cardio workouts.

Step 4: Drastically Reduce Your Sodium Intake

Flexibility Workouts

In the final week leading up to the bodybuilding competition, you'll need to drastically lower your sodium intake. By now, your water levels should be normal despite the fact that you've been consuming a high level of daily sodium. By cutting sodium out of your diet now, you'll eliminate significant quantities of excess water from your body, hence amplifying the striations in your muscle tissue.

Start by reducing your sodium intake to 2,000 mg on the seventh day before the bodybiulding competition. Lower it further to 1,000 mg the next day, and 600 mg for the next three days. In the final two days before the bodybuilding competition, stay below 500 mg, or as low as you can possibly go.

Lowering your sodium intake this drastically can be difficult, especially when you consider that most meats (beef, fish, chicken) contain around 70 mg of sodium in each 3-ounce serving. Avoid meat products that have sodium solutions added such as frozen chicken breasts, and carefully read the label of everything you eat. Eggs are a rather inefficient protein source at this point because they contain 65 mg of sodium and only 5 grams of protein each.

In terms of supplementation, you'll need to carefully read the labels of your whey protein supplements as they often contain up to 200 mg of sodium in each scoop. Instead of whey protein, it may be wise to use a casein protein supplement which may contain as little as 35 mg of sodium in each scoop.

Avoid restaurant food at all costs during this period, as it always contains sodium (and often much more than you'd ever consume when eating at home). Instead of using salt to flavor your food, use natural seasonings that contain zero sodium.

Step 5: Load Up on Water

At the same time you drop your sodium intake (one week from the competition), you'll need to greatly increase your daily water intake to roughly 1.5 to 2 gallons per day. Doing so will help to eliminate any remaining traces of sodium from your body, subsequently removing water content from your body as well. This may sound strange, but the reality is that your body will easily pass the water you're consuming rather than retaining it in your current sodium-depleted state.

Drinking such a huge quantity of water each day may feel unintuitive because you'll need to rely on a system rather than just your thirst. Most bodybuilders find it convenient to drink from a gallon jug or another large container in order to facilitate this. If you use a small glass, you'll inconvenience yourself and likely fall short of your daily water intake goal.

Step 6: Drastically Reduce Your Water Intake

Starting two days before your competition, you'll want to greatly reduce the amount of water you drink each day. Since your body contains very little sodium at this point, it will also retain a very small amount of water. However, it will only take a few days for your body to adjust to its current state of sodium depletion, at which point it will begin to retain a normal amount of water. Drinking too much water at this point will cause your body to retain water and blur muscle definition.

On the second day before the competition, try to drink less than 0.5 gallons of water. This should be easy compared to the final day before the event, when it's best to limit your water intake to just 20 ounces. Drinking some water on the actual day of the event is fine, so long as you sip slowly.

During the day of the competition, monitor your body to ensure that you're not drinking too much water. Stop drinking all water if you notice your muscle definition diminishing.

Taking a diuretic supplement at this point can also assist you in further depleting water from your body. However, if you start to experience symptoms such as severe weakness, headaches, nausea or dizziness, it's important to drink some water to maintain your personal safety.

Step 7: Load Up on Carbohydrates

At the same time you drop your water intake (two days before the competition), you'll need to reload your muscles with glycogen by consuming 3 to 4 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight. This will ensure that your muscles look full and massive on the actual day of your event.

Since you've been consuming very few carbs over the past few days, your muscle glycogen levels will be nearly nonexistent. This will allow the muscles to store far more glycogen than they could under normal circumstances. When you load your muscles with glycogen, you'll make gains in both apparent muscle mass and apparent muscle definition. This is because the glycogen will pull water into the muscle tissue and out from under the skin, enhancing the size of the muscles and reducing the amount of material separating the skin from the muscles.

Ideally, you'll want to consume carbs that contain very little water, such as yams, sweet potatoes, white potatoes and fat-free candy. The carbs you consume should also contain very little sodium. Air-popped popcorn is also acceptable, so long as you pop it yourself and skip the butter and salt.

Adjusting Strength Training and Cardiovascular Routines

Your diet isn't the only thing that will change as you prepare for a bodybuilding competition. You'll also need to make some specific adjustments to both your cardio and strength training routines.

Strength Training

Flexibility Workouts

Since your primary pre-contest bodybuilding goal is to increase muscle definition, you'll want to incorporate more and more rhythmic exercises into your strength training routine around the same time you begin to shift from your off-season weight to your competition weight. Unlike explosive exercises, rhythmic exercises require you to lift a relatively light amount of weight in a set that includes many reps, such as 15 reps per set.

Of course, you'll still need to perform some explosive exercises in order to maintain your existing levels of muscle mass, density and strength. The point here is to strike a good balance between the two.

In the final two weeks leading up to the bodybuilding competition, you will want to avoid training to failure since being stiff and sore for the competition itself will reduce your chance of succeeding.

Try to complete each set approximately four reps before you reach failure. It's also a good idea to discontinue your strength training exercises entirely approximately two days before the competition, particularly since you'll have very little dietary energy at this point to complete the workouts.

Special consideration should be paid to how you strength train on the third day before your competition, when your primary goal is to deplete glycogen from your muscles. On this day, perform a total-body workout involving plenty of reps (15 to 20 or even more) per set and very little rest (no more than 60 seconds) in between sets.


Since your goal in the immediate period before a bodybuilding competition is to reduce body fat levels in order to enhance the appearance of muscular definition, cardiovascular activity will be a major component of your pre-contest bodybuilding preparations.

During the bodybuilding off-season, you'll likely maintain a schedule in which you perform roughly 30 to 60 minutes of cardio each day. While this is perfectly fine for maintaining existing weight levels in light of the large quantities of food you'll be eating, you'll probably need to amp up your cardio regimen when it comes time to lose weight in pursuance of your targeted competition weight.

As such, many bodybuilders perform between 60 and 120 minutes of cardio each day as the bodybuilding competition season is approaching. In order to maximize the fat-burning potential of your workouts, you'll want to implement a concept known as high intensity interval training, or HIIT. This means alternating between lower-intensity and higher-intensity exercise every couple minutes during a workout. If you're running or cycling over hilly terrain, for example, you'll be practicing HIIT automatically. If you're on flat ground, or if you choose a different cardio activity such as aerobics, rowing or using a stairclimber or elliptical machine, you'll need to actively decrease and increase the intensity of your workout as you're performing it.

Rest and Sleep Prior to a Bodybuilding Competition

The process of preparing for a bodybuilding competition is absolutely exhausting. Many of your immediate goals, such as depleting water from your body and glycogen from your muscles, will leave you feeling weak, tired and lethargic. Since you'll be limited in how much energy you can receive from what you eat, you'll need to make absolutely sure that you're restoring your body with another source of energy: sleep.

In order to increase your energy levels, improve your concentration, reinforce your mind-body connection and enhance your overall sense of well-being, you'll need to sleep at least 8 hours per night. If you can manage to fit more sleep into your daily schedule, even if it's from short naps that you squeeze in during the day, doing so is advisable.

Keep in mind that the vast majority of muscle growth occurs during sleep. If you find yourself missing sleep during your pre-contest bodybuilding preparations, your muscles will be unable to properly utilize the protein you consume, and you'll be far more likely to lose muscle mass in addition to just fat during your weight loss efforts.

Flexibility Workouts

As you can easily see, preparing for a bodybuilding competition is no easy task. On the contrary, it will likely rank among the most challenging and downright difficult experiences of your life as your goal is to maintain as much muscle mass as possible while maximizing the striations in the muscle tissue.

This will become especially true in the two weeks prior to your bodybuilding competition, when you'll need to take some seemingly strange actions in order to maximize your body's apparent muscle definition, while at the same time, avoid sacrificing any muscle mass and density. Remember that the challenges you face when preparing for a bodybuilding competition are only temporary, and that the reward of competing and hearing the crowd roar as you hit your poses will be well worth the effort.

As a final note, it's important to remember that preparing for a bodybuilding competition is an activity only appropriate for experienced bodybuilders. The rigors through which you'll put your physical body are extremely intense, and many of the specific processes (such as water depletion) are highly exhausting. If you ever sense that you're putting yourself at risk for injury, such as if you're feeling extremely weak or fatigued, contact a doctor immediately.

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