Physique athletes are those who structure their training, nutrition for bodybuilding and lifestyle in a quest to achieve their ideal body.
They are different to endurance athletes as they do not need to perform at a high rate aerobically, and are different to strength/power athletes as they don’t need to be the biggest or strongest.
What they do seek is an aesthetically pleasing physique showing lean muscle mass, balanced muscle groups, symmetry, muscle conditioning and low body fat levels.
As you can imagine this requires detailed nutrition programming and expertise to get that right. This article will look at the fundamentals of getting the ‘prep’ and ‘peaking’ phases for these athletes correct.
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Nutrition for Bodybuilding and Physique Competitors
There is a likelihood that physique athletes will use a combination of all training styles in order to achieve the look they want.
They will use strength and power training in order to build and strengthen the muscle groups, and combine this with aerobic exercise to enhance fat burning and conditioning.
These athletes will therefore demand a combined nutritional approach to match and support the training that they do at one given time.
When it comes to competition, physique athletes will commonly classify this period as ‘on-season’ and a rigorous training and nutrition for bodybuilding ‘prep’ will be conducted.
This prep phase typically lasts from 12-20 weeks, and is when the athlete will do what is required in order to achieve the ideal physique in line with their competition guidelines.
For most athletes the goal during this time is to showcase the years of hard work that has gone into developing their physiques, which involves achieving the lowest body fat possible.
This is a common requirement for most competitions as it represents the true conditioning aspect that these athletes can achieve while better showcasing lean muscle mass.
Throughout this ‘prep’, many athletes will speak about ‘peaking’, meaning they want to be at their best for the end of prep phase. Due to the extreme look they need to achieve for their given event or competition the results cannot be maintained long-term, so reaching their goal on time, but not too soon is very important.
For most athletes a consistent calorie deficit will be required throughout the prep, along with a focus on retaining as much lean body mass (LBM) as possible during this time.
Therefore their nutrition should be tailored to reflect this throughout the entire prep. Let’s break it down into more detail.
As previously mentioned throughout a physique athlete’s prep they will be needing a calorie deficit to reduce body fat levels.
Current body fat levels tend to dictate how long athletes will need to be in this calorie deficit, and thus the length of the prep. Many recommendations suggest that a 12-16 week is best, while some say 16-20 weeks.
There are no set rules to this and it is highly individual to the athlete and their starting point. Many athletes will find that over time and more prep, this period can be reduced. So novices to the sport may require longer preps initially.
An important point that must be understood is that the lowest calorie deficit should be used in order to retain as much lean body mass as possible – this is of top priority to a physique athlete.
We know that the rate of weight loss is directly related to the size of the calorie deficit used. Research also shows that the lower the caloric intake the increased chance of losing more LBM. This is why preps should be slow and controlled as this appears to be more effective for physique athletes.
The starting point is to then calculate the athlete’s required caloric intake to start fat loss. For example, Steve is a competitive bodybuilder, aged 28, 195lbs and is competing in 16 week’s time. He currently does resistance training 4 days per week with 1 session of HIIT.
We therefore need to calculate his basal metabolic rate (BMR), as in his daily energy expenditure in calories without any contribution from exercise or digestion:
Bodyweight (in pounds) x 10 (multiplier) = 195Ibs x 10 = 1950kcals
We then must account for total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) that includes his BMR, non-exercise associated thermogenesis (NEAT), exercise associated thermogenesis (EAT) and thermic effect of feeding (TEF). We can do this using the below calculation:
We know Steve is exercising hard 5 days per week in order for him to complete all his training. Therefore,
TDEE = BMR x Activity Level TDEE = 1950kcal x 1.55 = 3022kcal
Another method to get a good starting point for these athletes is to complete a detailed food log using an online app that will show the current intake of calories. After consistent tracking for 3-5 days, an average of the calories can be calculated. If the athlete has been maintaining or gaining weight, then a reduction of calories will need to be made.
We know that fat is metabolized at 3500kcals, so a daily drop of 500 kcals should see a weekly drop in body fat of 1 pound per week. This is around the ideal amount of fat loss that these athletes should see weekly, as any more may result in loss of LBM. From our previous example, it can be calculated as:
Fat loss = TDEE – 500kcals
Fat loss = 3022kcal – 500kcal = 2522kcals per day
Of course the caloric intake will need to be adjusted throughout the prep stage due to changes in bodyweight and metabolic adaptation that can occur.
These changes to caloric intake should be small and gradual, ranging from around 100-200 kcals at a time. Remember - the goal is to create the smallest caloric deficit required for progress.
This caloric deficit is therefore the key factor at play when it comes to these athletes achieving low levels of body fat. Consistency during the entire prep is a must.
Despite the best efforts to reduce lean tissue loss on a reduced caloric intake, it is still likely to happen.
The leaner the athlete gets then the more likely they are to suffer a loss of LBM. Strength and hormone levels are key indicators of this occurring, and it may therefore be beneficial to track these throughout the prep.
With time, a low carb or calorie diet can lead to a reduction in metabolic rate, thyroid hormone output, sympathetic nervous system activity, reproductive hormones (testosterone and oestrogen) and much more. This is when the inclusion of a planned and structured ‘re-feed’ (or classically known as a cheat meal) can be of benefit to the dieter.
A re-feed meal or day should be put in place if the athlete is consistently under eating on a daily basis to provide the body with a break from reduced calorie intake and to reduce any fat loss plateaus. It can also provide them with a short break to their fat loss efforts and offer increased variety in the diet.
Here are some pointers when setting up a re-feed during fat loss:
Guidelines for this are:
Protein intake is one of the most heavily research topics, and is a subject of much discussion in relation to physique athletes, as it is well known that getting this element right can produce great benefits.
As we’ve established, retention of LBM is a key factor during prep, and adequate protein is essential in aiding this. It is also the key driver in supporting the growth of LBM.
Research has shown that for leaner individuals, protein requirements will be higher too.
On top of this, we know these athletes will be undertaking a combination of training styles, such as resistance training, cardiovascular training, again increasing the demand for more protein.
It’s safe to say protein intake for these athletes is an all time high. This high protein intake is necessary to ensure that a positive nitrogen balance is consistently achieved, with studies showing this is a key factor in retaining LBM.
The latest research on protein requirements for these athletes shows 2.3-3.1g/kg of LBM is highly effective for bodybuilding.
It should also be noted that a high protein diet needs to remain a balanced one, as low fat and carbs can be detrimental to the athlete too.
Carbohydrate levels should always be personalized to the individual, and usually make up the remaining calories when ideal protein and fat intake has been calculated.
Many physique athletes find that a high carbohydrate diet can greatly benefit them during a prep.
Low carb and the ketogenic diet can and have been used by competitors, but performance markers appear to improve (or remain) when carbohydrates are given priority in the diet.
Resistance training along with cardiovascular exercise primarily runs on glycogen as main fuel source.
Having ample amounts of carbohydrates, and thus glucose in the diet, ensures performance markers are kept high and glycogen levels remain topped up. Research has also shown that a drop in performance can also lead to loss of LBM.
We can also see hormonal and metabolic advantages with keeping carbohydrates in the diet.
Studies have shown that once an athlete is ready for their competition, increasing carbs by even 25-50g pre-show can reduce any negative hormonal and metabolic adaptations occurring from the intensive diet.
This is due to the high volume of exercise, low calorie intake and low levels of body fat that are commonly see at this stage of the diet, potentially leading to a cascade of negative effects and greater loss of LBM.
We know that fat plays an important role in the diet, yet for physique athletes this seems to be the most ignored macronutrient during prep.
Many athletes in an attempt to reduce calories, will drop fat levels to unhealthy levels and neglect a balanced diet in the process.
A moderate intake of fats is important in these athletes’ diets, as fat influences anabolic hormone concentrations which improve health and retain LBM. Furthermore, saturated fat appears to be best at this.
However, studies have shown that overall body fat percentage and calorie restriction is the largest factor at play on hormonal output.
A healthy intake of fat should be set around 20-30% of the total caloric intake, but due to the demands of lower calorie diets as well as an increased need for protein and carbohydrates, intake for these athletes is commonly 15- 20%. Of course the ratio of carb : fat is highly individual.
The factors influencing this include muscle fibre composition, diet, age, personal preferences, training, glycogen levels and genetics.
The recommendations above are therefore starting points only and you will find some clients will fall outside these.
With endurance athletes, considerable variations can be made with regards to nutrient timing due to a high use of glycogen during endurance exercise.
This means that for exercise lasting 2+ hours, replacing the used glycogen should be a priority to aid recovery.
Therefore most nutrient timing recommendations are related to studies conducted on endurance training. Although physique athletes may be undertaking a large frequency of training it’s not usually for more than 1 hour at a time.
It should also be noted that weight training is not as depleting on glycogen stores.
As a result, the issue of nutrient timing for these athletes does not appear to be as important, with studies showing that adequate recovery from training and glycogen replenishment can occur just from meeting recommended intake of daily carbohydrates.
Studies support this theory and suggest that the total macronutrient intake each day is more important than specific timings.
With this in mind, any nutrient timing recommendations should be added to an existing, already good diet.
For athletes who want to reap the most from their performance and recovery while retaining as much LBM as possible, some studies show that some nutrient timing recommendations around the workout window can be of benefit.
Resistance training is known to be catabolic in nature, and a mixture of amino acids and carbohydrates taken just before or during training can boost muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
With a heightened state of MPS throughout training, the athlete will maintain an anabolic state, thus improving LBM.
Studies have also shown that a similar mixture of carbs : protein upon completion of training will help to improve gains in muscular size and strength.
It therefore makes sense for a competitive athlete who wants to maximize their results and be at their best to cover all their bases and apply some nutrient timing around the workout window.
Research shows that a 1:1 ratio (approx. 30-40g) of carbs to protein from fast acting sources, taken pre and post training will help to improve muscular size and strength. A simple protocol could look like:
Pre-training (3-5 hours) – Balanced macronutrient meal from whole foods
Pre-training (0-1 hours) – 30g protein with 30g carbohydrates from fast acting sources e.g. whey protein powder and large ripe banana (half this for females).
During – The above mixture can be used during training instead. Fast acting carbs could come from carb powder such as waxy maize starch, for easier consumption. Otherwise, water or BCAA powder is an ideal choice.
Post (0-1 hours) – 30-40g protein with 30g carbohydrates from fast acting sources e.g. whey protein powder and large ripe banana (half this for females).
Post (2-3 hours) - Balanced macronutrient meal from whole foods.
Research supports the view that metabolism is not directly affected by meal frequency.
This breaks the tradition of eating as many meals as possible daily, to boost metabolism or the thermogenic effect of food – it’s not needed.
What is of more concern for the physique athlete during prep is remaining in an anabolic state. The key consideration to achieving this is maximizing muscle protein synthesis.
For maximum MPS, studies show 3g leucine per meal is required. This makes the quantity and quality of protein per meal the most important factor.
There is a key reason why physique athletes eat a lot of lean animal meat: it makes for a complete amino acid profile (with >3g leucine content) and typically offers the ideal 30-40g protein per serving.
MPS has shown to peak at 2 hours following elevated amino acid levels (to allow for digestion), therefore it is not necessary to space meals too close together, as the athlete will see diminishing returns through doing this.
An optimal eating strategy is around 3-6 meals per day, spaced 3-4 hours, with a high quality protein source of at least 20g per serving.
Physique athletes are notorious for using a multitude of supplements, including illegal substances. It’s important to consult the research on what supplements can be of true benefit, and we have covered that in a separate module.
Below are some key supplements that may prove effective for the physique athlete:
Green Tea – Fat Loss, Energy Production & Health Supplement
Green tea contains compounds called catehins, including EGCG, the primary active ingredient for its thermogenic properties. EGCG has the ability to inhibit an enzyme that breaks down norepinephrine, the neurotransmitter involved in regulating metabolic rate and fat burning.
Green tea also contains caffeine, which helps boost energy levels and provide further fat burning actions. It can also serve as a great anti oxidant, and may help reduce certain cancers and provide other health benefits such as improved joint healing.
How to take:
The research shows that for maximum fat burning and metabolic capacity from using this supplement, a high dosage of 400-500mg EGCG will be required daily. A green tea extract is therefore recommended to help you achieve this, as one cup of green tea will provide approximately only 50mg of EGCG equivalence. I suggest taking this alongside food, as some people can experience nausea after taking it on an empty stomach.
ZMA – Health, Strength, Muscle Builder & Fat Loss Supplement
This is a combination of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6. Its benefits are supported by research as it has been shown that hard training individuals (people who sweat a lot) may be deficient in these important minerals. They will see improved hormone levels aiding better recovery, sleep and strength.
How to take:
Zinc – For a hard training individual, a higher dosage of 25-45mg daily is ideal. If no training is taking place, 5-10mg is likely to be sufficient.
Magnesium – The type of magnesium is important. Citrate or other bio-available forms such Diglycinate or Gluconate are your best options to provide optimum absorption rates.
A daily dosage of between 200-450mg of magnesium is ideal.
Whey Protein - Mass Builder, Strength, Energy Production, Fat Loss, Health
Whey protein makes up to 20% of the protein in milk. Whey is an effective protein for increasing muscle protein synthesis, the process in muscle cells that results in muscle growth. There are numerous reasons why whey is so effective, such as its high content of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and its ability to boost blood flows to muscles.
However, the most important characteristic of whey is its rapid rate of digestion. Whey protein is one of the fastest-digesting protein sources that you can get.
How to take:
Typical recommendations are 20-40g first thing in the morning, within 30-60 minutes before workouts, within 30- 60 minutes after workouts, and between meals as needed.
Creatine – Mass Builder, Strength, Energy Production
With regard to athletic performance, creatine has continually proved itself to be one of the most effective and safe nutritional supplements to increase strength, muscle mass and performance.
To date, there have been hundreds of studies conducted on creatine and they have included such areas as the ways to maximise creatine storage in muscle; which types of exercise may obtain the greatest benefit from supplementation; the potential medical uses of creatine; and the long term safety and efficiency of creatine supplementation.
Approximately 70% of these studies have shown positive results from creatine supplementation in the chosen areas. Also, safety reviews within these studies show that creatine is safe and well tolerated by most individuals.
Enhanced benefits to be had are:
- Increased muscle mass and strength
- Increased single and repetitive athlete performance
- Enhanced glycogen synthesis
- Increased work capacity
- Enhanced recovery
We typically store around 120g of creatine, yet are capable of storing up to 150-160g. It therefore makes sense that if you want to enhance the effects of the benefits it can bring, topping up the total creatine pool and keeping it full is advisable.
Most of the studies on creatine supplementation were conducted using pharmaceutical creatine monohydrate in powder form, so this is what I’d suggest to use.
3-5g per day is the recommended dosage, and you shouldn’t need to cycle it using this amount. You should consume this alongside a meal, or at least some carbohydrates to maximize uptake by the muscle cells.
Multi-Vitamin - Health
Supplementing with a multivitamin/multimineral will help eliminate the possibility of deficiencies that often result from reduced dietary variety or calorie intake and increased loss through exercise.
How to take:
Take this supplement once or twice daily with meals. Choose brands that provide 100% of the daily value of C, D, E and the most of the b-complex vitamins, as well as 100% of zinc, copper and chromium.
Advanced fat burning supplements
There are also a number of researched supplements that can be used to really enhance fat burning efforts.
When combining these supplements together, as in a ‘stack’, it’s important to remember that this can have a synergistic effect and therefore supplementing stimulants should be done with caution.
When done correctly, we can create a potent fat burning supplement stack that is ideal to use during fat loss plateaus or within the final phases of a strict fat loss diet. It is suggested to only use these ingredients for short periods of time, say 4-6 weeks.
Lastly, if the athlete does not tolerate stimulants well, or has little stimulant experience, it’s recommended to start with half the suggested dosages.
Caffeine not only acts as a stimulant but is effective at fat burning due to its ability to increase the release of fat from fat cells. These fat burning properties can be attributed to its thermogenic effect, increasing heat production.
How to take:
For fat loss and weight management, take 100-400mg daily. For strength and power, take 200-400mg one hour before workouts.
This is an increasingly popular fat burner in fat loss supplements (usually called ‘bitter orange’) as it appears to elicit a similar effect as its stronger counterpart ephedrine. It is a natural compound found in citrus fruits and causes a stimulatory and fat burning effect in the body.
How to take:
Take two doses of 20mg per day.
White Willow Bark
This is the plant source of salicin, which is commonly known as aspirin. The effects are the same, and this appears to therefore produce a strong synergistic effect to promoting fat loss when combined with caffeine and synephrine.
How to take:
Take two doses of 90mg of salicin per day.
This is another stimulant derived from the bark of the Pausinystalia yohimbe tree. It has been shown to increase fat burning in multiple studies, particularly when combined with other stimulants such as caffeine. It’s important to note that excessive yohimbine dosages can cause elevated heart rate and anxiety.
How to take:
When using as part of the above stack, use 2.5mg twice per day.
The peak week is considered the final phase of the physique athlete’s prep, and thus the one that typically gets the most attention to detail.
Traditional approaches put a large emphasis on the results that can be obtained from this phase.
The basics of it are to aid short-term manipulation to body composition in final stages before a show/event, by adjusting fluid, electrolyte and carbohydrates intake.
There appears to be many mixed reviews from those ‘in the trenches’ using these manipulation strategies, with some claiming they do nothing while others say they find them very powerful.
Associated research and studies are minimal, and the very act of dehydration and thus electrolyte imbalance may prove dangerous.
Tradition has it that the physique athlete will use water manipulation techniques with a goal of then dehydrating in order to reduce fluid on the subcutaneous layer of the body.
This is to enhance the look of the muscles against the skin, yet the negatives to this are dehydration, reduced muscle size, reduced pump/vascularity and electrolyte imbalances. In some cases, a worse appearance could occur.
A safer and potentially more effective method would be to maintain hydration levels in the body and balance electrolytes.
This means consistently meeting fluid requirements to stay optimally hydrated and reducing any large intakes of certain minerals in the body to reduce any fluctuations of electrolytes.
Similar to endurance athletes, many physique athletes will undertake a ‘carb loading’ phase during this peak week, usually for 3 days prior the event.
The goal of this is to fill muscles’ glycogen stores to give muscles that ‘full’ and saturated look. Again, research and studies conducted on this do not prove how effective this technique can be in enhancing visual appearance.
However, it does make sense that dieting athletes may have reduced glycogen levels after months of reduced caloric intake and ‘topping up’ these levels can only be of benefit in final phase of the prep.
It’s important to trial run the carbohydrate load with the athlete if time permits, as everyone’s response is individual. The carb load can range from one day right up to 2-3 days, and may be planned in the final days before a show, or a few days prior.
The timing and length of the load will be dependent on the athlete, how they are currently looking, feeling and responding to high carb load levels in general.
The same can be applied on the day of the show, and the athlete should look to maintain his/hers balanced approach as much as possible during the event.
In general, if the athlete doesn’t look stage ready a week or two prior to the event, no special tricks or techniques are going to suddenly make that happen.
With experience, many athletes will find their own ideal nutritional set up for the final weeks of prep, meaning a ‘one size fits all’ approach might not be best.
Due to the intense and restrictive nature of a physique athlete’s prep there can be a cost in following this.
What are commonly seen are metabolic adaptations to weight loss including adaptive thermogenesis, increased mitochondrial efficiency, hormonal attenuations that favour decreased energy expenditure, decreased satiety levels and increased hunger.
Because to this, many athletes can suffer from a ‘rebound’ effect after such a prep. The scope of this can depend on the individual, their prep style and how long it was undertaken.
What tends to occur upon finishing the prep is that body mass often reverts towards pre diet values. The body mass gained also tends to be fat mass due to a process known as post starvation obesity.
The higher the initial caloric intake after the prep, the higher the rate of fat mass storage. This is not what a physique athlete ever wants. This ‘yo-yo’ effect of dieting can also make it harder to lose that weight again in subsequent diets.
Therefore, more common practice is to use reverse or metabolic repair diets to reduce or limit these negative aspects. It’s therefore recommended to slowly increase caloric intake in a controlled and calculated fashion.
The goal should be to create a small caloric surplus that will help restore circulatory hormone levels and energy expenditure toward pre-diet values, while closely matching energy intake to the recovering metabolic rate, in an effort to reduce fast accretion.
A practical approach to this is to increase the athlete’s calories by small increases (100-200) on a weekly basis, adding to carbohydrates and fats.
It’s important to monitor measurements and pictures, to limit weigh gain. It is common that weight will increase slightly, as water and muscle mass increase again.
Studies conducted on bodybuilders showed that 46% of males in one group reported binge eating disorders after competitions, along with showing unhealthy and obsessive behaviours.
One study in females showed that 25% suffered menstrual dysfunction following traditional show prep.
Many athletes will also have difficulty socializing, will miss out on certain events or meetings and put most of their commitment and time into their sport.
As coaches it’s also our role to help them with this and to be aware of unhealthy signs or behaviours in our clients. Specialists with expertise in competitive bodybuilding should be relied upon for guidance and support.
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