A normal contest prep for a male bodybuilder is usually in the 10-12 week range – but if you stay lean year-round (something I recommend) you can probably get away with half that. It doesn’t need to be all that complicated. Drop carbs, up the protein and add some daily treadmill or stepmill sessions of 30-60mins. Throw some fat burners in the mix. Rinse and repeat until lean.
Ok, maybe not that easy all the time, so let’s talk about women. If they try to emulate this strategy it usually doesn’t work very well. Evolutionary speaking, while men are hunters who thrive on higher activity levels and fasting and gorging patterns, women are gatherers and nesters. Women’s bodies are basically the ultimate survival machine and via hormonal and neurobiological means have an advanced set of defense mechanisms against starvation and (too much) activity. I find women’s bodies wildly fascinating and it has taken me many years to figure out how to get them contest lean, while retaining as much muscle as possible. And more pleasurable to be around as an added bonus.
So how do I go about solving the puzzle of contest dieting?
First of all, patience! Take your time. This goes for both first time competitors and women in general. Unless you stay really lean year-round, double the time you THINK you need for a contest prep. I’d say 20 weeks (yup, that’s almost 5 months) of slow and steady dieting is a necessity if you want to get really lean. Then you won’t have to kill yourself with PSMF-type diets (basically veggies and protein and nothing else) and 2 hour cardio sessions because you’re not progressing as fast as you thought you would. The first half of the diet might seem like piece of cake (even if you can’t have any), and the upper body usually leans out nicely, but the stubborn fat deposits on your buttocks, hips and legs might take a full 8-10 weeks alone to get nice and tight.
I won’t go into food choices in great detail, but the standard fare should consist of chicken, fish, eggs, dairy proteins, rice, potatoes/sweet potatoes, some oatmeal – and meat. That’s right. I believe humans are biologically programmed to eat meat. Women in general should eat more animal proteins, wild game (reindeer, elk, deer) or (preferably grass-fed) beef in particular. Yup, if it’s furry and breathes oxygen – eat it. I’m not a fan of vegetable oils, and I think *overindulging* (emphasis added) in veggies and sweet fruits will clog up your digestion. I’ve seen women eat 3-4lbs of veggies just because they’re so hungry all the time, and then constantly complain about bloating and constipation. Use common sense. I know I just pissed off a lot of vegetarians/vegans, but I feel safe knowing my meat-fed legs can outrun both you and your sharpened cucumbers any day of the week. For some women into their 30s, a small amount of soy milk or soy protein and its phytoestrogens will provide some added fat burning effects, and should be considered as a daily diet addition.
I usually set calories at 14-17 x bodyweight depending on activity level, which translates into 1700-2000 kcals for a 120lbs girl, and go from there. Most will usually drop a pound or two in a few days just from cleaning up their diets and eliminating the sugars and junk food.
Now for the macronutrient ratio management. I know low carb diets are popular among women, but in my experience this isn’t a good long term strategy. I’ve successfully “reprogrammed” several girls from low to higher carbs, and the contest prep is a lot easier – or at least more predictable. The downside can be more variable hunger levels and energy, but if they get leaner and stay fuller it’s worth it.
Even though insulin sensitivity is generally lower in women and you don’t handle carbs as well as guys do, the lower calories for a 100-120 lbs fitness or bikini girl automatically takes care of that. I don’t think protein should be set higher than maybe 1.3g per lbs of bodyweight and I start with 1g per lbs while carbs and calories are still high. This is purely observational but too much protein in the ranges commonly prescribed for fat loss diets (1.5g/lbs+) seem to lead to poorer digestion, more bloating and water retention, and also compromises carb intake.
For the first part of the diet when bodyfat is higher, I find low carb dieting (in my world this is below 80g per day) a nice introduction to get things moving. I can also get some quality weight training for the delts, back and glutes/hams in this phase (the most important muscle groups for a female competitor) by dropping cardio to just some easy walking. Meaning: no intervals or 2 hour spinning/aerobic classes – but more on that later. Carbs are eaten post-workout and for the final meal of the day (yes, indeed…read my article on the Biorhythm Diet to see why). One or two higher carb days at 150g or thereabouts focused around priority muscle group workout days, just to keep the machinery going and various enzymes upregulated for the reintroduction of more carbs later.
As the competitor leans out, 90% of the time I transition into a more carb-based, and lower dietary fat diet. I add in some interval-based cardio at this point. I will keep carbs at a 120g minimum per day, and will keep omega-3 and 6 fats in there as they are essential, meaning your body can’t make them, you have to source them through your nutrition plan. This will only be for a short period, as fats are vital to proper hormone functioning and general health. I rarely do regular high-carb refeeds as they seem to be very unpredictable for women. Sometimes they work great, sometimes it takes up to a week to drop the added weight and it just feels like wasted time. I will, however, bump up carbs here and there if you get very tired or lethargic, in the range of 50-100g extra for 1 or 2 days, then drop back down. Slow, gradual adjustments are the key. Try cutting calories too hard and progress will invariably come to an abrupt halt. Try doing anything fancy, or wildly and randomly fluctuate calories, and progress will also slow or at least appear to be and frustrate both me and the competitor. Patience will be your best friend during a diet, so aim to lose only 1 lb – or 2mm average if you use skinfold calipers – every 10-14 days. Instead of worrying about daily weight fluctuations, they are not only inevitable but also normal – calculate a running average. Take the sum of the last 5-7 daily measurements and divide by number of days to get the average. Do the same a week later and compare – it evens out the daily variations.
To give you an idea, calories are rarely dropped by more than 150-200kcals per week and more often just 100kcals. Depending on how much training and cardio is being done, I will add more training instead of dropping calories the next time an adjustment is needed.
Still scared to up your carbs when low-carb diets have worked better for you in the past? Well, paranoia of getting in shape prevents most from experimenting with alternate approaches, and I can certainly understand that – so see for yourself what of the following categories you fit into:
This is what I notice is common in girls who do better with higher carbs:
Their extremities (hands and feet) are cold, they freeze a lot but will heat up and feel energetic after a high carb meal (a sign of good insulin sensitivity). They are usually the OCD type, stressing over minor details and don’t like frequent changes or deviations from their daily routine. They usually tolerate a lot of volume and struggle and feel burnt out if you have them do a lot of power type movements and heavy training. They beg me for the 1hr+ cardio sessions, but I prefer to take their need for volume out in the weight room – not on the treadmill. I will handle the cardio topic soon, though.
The low-carb girls are the opposite: run warmer body temps and experience hot flashes, give them carbs and they get sleepy and bloated. They love intervals and lifting heavy weights, are usually more laidback, and thrive on variety. Will follow the program if you tell them to, but get bored easily and just go through the motions and lose interest if you don’t change stuff around every week. I’ll just shift the carbs and proteins or food choices around a little now and then, change a few exercises here and there, just enough to keep them motivated. Carbs should be focused around workouts and/or in the last meal of the day, give them carbs for a whole day or consecutive days and they seem to lose their conditioning almost minute by minute. Some of this tends to go away over time, though, which is why I usually increase carbs as they get leaner.
A top national fitness competitor I’ve worked with for almost 3 years now used to be a low-carb girl, and she would bloat up if she even looked funny at a bowl of rice. This last contest prep her carbs were in the 150-200g range for a majority of the prep, 130g at the lowest point the final 3-4 weeks. She got into the shape of her life, and this was without ANY fat burners, thyroid meds or hormone usage.
Now for the training.
Women tend to think they need to do pump and toning with light weights to avoid getting too muscular. That’s not going to happen with testosterone levels 1/50th of a guy, and it’s even less likely on a diet. Then just to top that off, you do cardio like a long distance runner because you want to burn as much fat as possible. While lengthening the muscles by doing Pilates and Yoga. Sure. What you’re really doing is sending mixed messages to your muscles, and even though Oxygen magazine or the buff personal trainer at the gym tells you that confusing the muscles is a good thing, this strategy will have you spinning your skinny-fat, cellulite-ridden wheels forever.
A planned and strategic change in certain variables will have a profound and positive effect, but trying to force your body adapt to what is essentially conflicting training goals is what I refer to as Jack of All Trades, Master of None. In simpler terms: Try to be good at everything and you will end up being beaten every time by the specialist. Crossfit is a perfect example of this fallacy, but I already pissed off the vegetarians earlier in the article, so I won’t go there. Today.
Tell your body to build its tolerance to long and slow enduring miles via a properly applied long-distance running program and you will be a good marathon runner. Tell your body to build large muscles by lifting a sufficiently heavy load, sufficiently many times (sets and reps), sufficiently often (frequency) to make the muscle adapt and grow larger and stronger and you will be a good physique competitor.
Tell your body to become faster and more explosive by doing short sprints with full recovery, low rep and explosive training with some strategic plyometrics and agility drills – and you will become a better track & field athlete, sprinter, fighter or dancer.
So why do girls think they will end up like some sort of superhuman hybrid if they combine all these different types of training into one Perfect Program? Long, slow miles build endurance champions, but they tend to look completely different from sprinters or dancers, don’t you think? Because the former is telling their muscle to become more energetically efficient, i.e. smaller and with increased oxidative capacity, i.e. strengthening the “aerobic engine”. The latter requires muscles displaying highly powerful and explosive contractions, with a highly developed ATP-CP and glycolytic system which – incidentally – is a fantastic sink for incoming carbs. A typical workout for a sprinter is 10-15 repeats from 10-100 meters with full recovery (walking) of 2-3 minutes in between. A total distance of 2000-3000m/1.5miles. They don’t even diet but think of food (and especially carbs) as fuel – and a lot of them could probably step right up on a fitness contest stage and place in the top 5 with ease. Far from the 60+ minutes of treadmill or spinning classes done by 95% of girls in gyms around the world, and how many toned butts do you see there?
And I don’t even like lots of running for women. Due to biomechanics, faulty technique and overuse of high-tech running shoes (read: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/magazine/running-christopher-mcdougall.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1) injury rate statistics actually show that only 15-20% get away with it long-term. Funny how those 80-85% who end up hurt think they belong to that 15-20% of Mommy’s special snowflakes who don’t.
Most of you probably put in hours of gym time every week to achieve a leaner and more athletic looking physique, so why would you even begin to think that training like a middle- to long-distance runner would accomplish this somewhat rare feat? You see, it’s not all about the caloric burn, it’s about what stimuli your body is receiving and adapting to. Since the heart rate monitor is telling you that 30 minutes of cardio burnt 200kcals, and since a magazine article told you that low/moderate-intensity cardio burns the most fat (%age-wise at least), you should go for 1-2hrs sessions if you REALLY want to burn fat. Right? Wrong, and it’s actually been shown both in research and in real life that the female body can preferentially mobilize fat from the upper body and store them right back in their lower bodies with long duration moderate-intensity cardio. Also, this type of cardio directly inhibits muscle growth, so you’re basically sabotaging your Butt Blaster/Thigh Master efforts as well. But hey, if you really want to keep that skinny-fat ass and legs, stop reading now and forget everything I just told you.
Sure, you may burn more fat DURING the session itself by doing low- and moderate intensity cardio, but what happens the remaining 22-23 hours of the day is of far more importance, don’t you think? There’s a reason why most long-term studies show high-intensity intervals to be superior for fat loss. Even if it’s mainly glycolytic in nature and burns less calories on an acute basis, it will effectively tell your body to refill muscle glycogen stores from the carbs you’re eating, while burning fat as fuel when you are resting and recovering. You can probably see where I’m going with this – I like interval based cardio, and especially so for women.
With a caveat; and let me reiterate what I said earlier, women’s bodies are a complex survival machine. Cutting calories too much or doing too much activity will stop progress in its tracks, so don’t overdo the cardio aspect. You’re most likely already doing intense weight training 3-4+ days per week, which has a very similar neurological and biological impact and signaling effect as intervals, so stay on the conservative side and gradually build up your work capacity.
My favorite types of cardio for women:
- Sprint intervals. Start off with dynamic mobility work, followed by about 5 minutes of gradual warm-ups. Then it’s the sprint intervals: the next 5-15 minutes (start with 5 the first time out) you go hard (90-100% effort) for 5-15 seconds, easy for 45-60 seconds and repeat. End with a 10-15 minute cool-down (walking or easy jog) and stretching. Total duration for the whole session will be in the 20-30 minute range. Start with 1-2 sessions per week and increase up to a max of 2-3 sessions. And no, I don’t recommend Tabata intervals for most people. There are more interesting ways of killing yourself. Recommended activities for sprint intervals: hill or stair sprints, prowler/sled pushing or dragging, elliptical or rower set at high resistance, Airdyne bike.
- Tempo intervals, where you go at a slightly lower intensity (around 70-80% of max) for 30-60 seconds, easy for 90-120 seconds, and repeat. This is a popular type of workout for sprinters to add training volume without overtaxing the fast and explosive type II fibers. I limit total duration to 20-30 minutes here, as well. Get an idea of what 100% is to you, because when I say 70-80% speed/intensity that’s exactly where you need to be. Elliptical, rower, Airdyne bike, skipping rope, swimming, barbell/dumbell/kettlebell complexes and soft track or grass field running (with barefoot shoes). I don’t recommend longer 2-4 minute intervals for physique- or power and strength athletes, at all.
- Long duration moderate intensity cardio is something I use in moderation, as you’ve probably picked up on earlier. Also, no lactate threshold training, stick to lower intensities if you insist on longer duration cardio sessions. For recovery purposes or if you’re sedentary during the day – a brisk walk for 30-60 minutes is great, and it can be done on a daily basis as long as you don’t exceed a heart rate of 130-140bpm. I sometimes recommend this option exclusively, meaning no intervals if you’re already doing 4-5 high volume weight training sessions, and trying to improve your leg size and strength. Adding lots of intervals to this would probably destroy you and I’ve seen it happen all too many times.
If you’re competing in Athletic Fitness, you obviously need to row a lot for cardio, and you also need to imitate contest conditions where you’re often limited to 1min rest from the rowing event until dips and chins.
Progress from 2-3 cardio sessions per week all the way up to a maximum of 4-6 sessions, of which sprint intervals no more than 2-3 days per week, and tempo intervals 2-4 days per week. Watch for signs of overtraining/overreaching and sub in brisk walking if your legs begin to flatten out and feel tired. Doing too much high-intensity work when your recovery is already compromised by a caloric deficit is a seriously stupid idea, so don’t. Splitting it up into 2 or even 3 short sessions during a day is better than 1 long session, meaning 15 minutes morning and evening is better than 30 minutes in the morning. Something about stimulating the metabolism more often, as well as avoiding cortisol accumulation.
Also forget about that “pump and tone” stuff and making your workouts into cardio sessions. The same stimulus which built the muscle will be the one maintaining it. I know Crossfit is all the hype now, but I’m very ambivalent towards training complex lifts requiring both skill and coordination until failure with short rest periods. Yes, you can get strong, but in my experience you will get stronger and fitter by separating strength and cardio – and with less injury potential to boot.
Also consider the fact that women in general will do more reps at a given intensity than men due to neurological inefficiency, so do 5-8 rep training on a regular basis to keep strength levels up during a diet – even delving into 1-3 rep territory as long as you stay explosive and use long rest periods (2-5mins).
Here’s a typical training week deep into contest prep, about 4 weeks from the competition date – and this ONLY an example, not a template to copy indiscriminantly:
Morning: Tempo intervals, 5min warm-up, 30secs high intensity, 90secs low intensity for 20mins, 5 min cool-down. 30min total duration. .
Afternoon: Shoulder pressing, side and bent laterals for shoulders, some triceps work
Morning walk/jog for 15-20 minutes. Afternoon/Evening: Sprint intervals – 5 min warm-up, 10 x go hard for 10 secs, easy for 40 secs. Easy walking for 7 minutes. Total duration 20 minutes.
Morning: 30min brisk walk
Afternoon: Barbell or DB complex: 8 explosive reps each of Bent Rows, Cleans, Front Squat, Shoulder Press, Squats, Good Mornings – moving directly from one exercise to the next. It’s a natural progression. Rest for 1 minute. Repeat the circuit 6 times.
40min brisk walk in the morning.
Afternoon: Lats and biceps, added delt work
Morning: Tempo intervals, same as Monday
Afternoon: Chest, back – horizontal pulling focus (rows and deadlift variations) with some added glute/ham work.
20-30 min brisk walk and easy mobility work or rest
20-30min brisk walk in the morning (I occasionally have someone do sprint intervals on the same day as legs as it leaves more days for recovery)
The final week
I don’t play around too much with carbs at this point. The judges usually prefer the dry, hard look, and not fullness or vascularity as in a bodybuilder – so don’t try to carb up like a bodybuilder. What usually works best is just dropping down cardio to a bare minimum and increasing carbs ever so slightly for a few days at the beginning of the final week. Depending on conditioning, drop back down for the last couple of days to get rid of any subcutaneous water retention. If you need more fullness on contest day, add a couple of meals of carbs, fats and sodium before pre-judging and you should be good to go. Only if someone is really lean, somewhat stringy and flat and/or under-muscled will I try to improve their look by carbing them up more, but I still prefer to do that early in the week (Tuesday-Wednesday) and drop carbs back to diet levels Thursday and Friday (for a Saturday show) if they start spilling over.
Just keep water and sodium high throughout the week (5-8 liters is a good range – it will be hard the first couple of days then you adapt) and only drop sodium (don’t eliminate it) for the first meals on Friday, then bring it back in for the final meal or the first meals on Saturday depending on when pre-judging starts. Water is kept in the whole time, but Saturday you only need small sips between meals if you’re really thirsty. The rest is an individual adjustment process, so I can’t give you any cookie cutter routine here – it will depend on how you have responded to various diet manipulations on the way and how lean you are.
A trial run 2-3 weeks out will save you a lot of trouble, and take note on what days you look the best, but when in doubt – KISS. No, it wasn’t a romantic invitation. It means ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’ and don’t waste 20 weeks of dieting by doing something overcomplicated and silly the last couple of days. Having a coach with a good eye to give you honest feedback and keep your head in check is not only a bonus, but a requirement unless you’ve competed many times and know your body inside out.
So there you have it, my contest prep tips for female fitness and bikini competitors, based on 50% science, 50% experience, and 50% stuff I made up as I wrote it. Yeah, I know it adds up to 150% but don’t let my math skills get in the way of rethinking your old strategy and taking something useful away from this article.
Coach Borge A. Fagerli