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Countdown and Carb-up for Competition

Here's a three week program to help you hit your peak and feel energized

by Neal Spruce -- 1991

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Bodybuilders seem always to be looking for new and better ways to get awesomely ripped for competition. In the 1960s, competitors discovered anabolic steroids. This led to problems such as incredible amounts of water retention, so the the 70s zero-carb diets and the routine use of powerful diuretics became common practice among competition bodybuilders.

Sanity began to reestablish itself in the 80s. Drug testing plus a better understanding for the pitfalls of anabolic use eliminated or reduced the bloating problems cause by steroid induced water retention. Bodybuilders realized that zero carb diets robbed the body of both muscle tissue and energy and began using nutritionally sounder approached to contest dieting.

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But one element of contest preparation that has hardly changed over the years is the "three day carbing-up process." Bodybuilders have traditionally waited until the Wednesday preceding a Saturday show to begin introducing carbs back into the body as a means of filling the muscles with glycogen to achieve the maximum in fullness and shape.

This approach has worked -- up to a point. But bodybuilders who have looked good onstage using this plan have achieved their conditioning more in spite of the three day process than because of it.

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After dieting strictly for 8-12 weeks before a contest, your metabolism will have changed considerably from its normal function. For example, your body has gradually adapted to functioning on fewer calories as you've cut back on your caloric intake. For a typical bodybuilder over 200 pounds, dieting means cutting back to 3,000 calories, then to 2,400, getting stuck and cycling down to 1,400 for three days to try and get past the sticking point. Well, the reason you have to keep dropping your calories like this is that your body adapts and learns to function on a lesser caloric intake, so you don't continue to burn excess fat unless you reduce your calories.

That's one reason it's a mistake to continue to diet until three days before a show, and then start to carb up. Your body is adapted to function on fewer calories, so it can't handle a sudden caloric increase like this. Even though the total amount of calories you may take in during this period is less than your normal maintenance level, your body will be unable to handle the sudden increase and will turn a significant amount of these additional calories into fat.

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This is even worse if you go through a three-day period of total depletion at the beginning of the week, especially if you reduce your carbohydrate intake to zero. This results in such total depletion that there's no way you can replenish your body's glycogen stores in such a short time. Not only that, but you risk the serious problem of "spilling" -- exceeding your body's ability to adequately metabolize the extra carbohydrate, resulting in excessive water retention between the skin and the muscles.

The reality is that most bodybuilders who try to carb up in only three days end up smaller, smoother and/or fatter than they ought to be. And much of the additional amounts of carbohydrate they eat during this time end up being turned into triglycerides by the body and stored as fat, which is the last thing they want when they're trying to get into shape.

Of course, some bodybuilders have metabolisms that can handle the last-minute caloric increase better than others. So they are able to "peak" fairly well for contests. But although they look good, they don't look anywhere near their best. If they're satisfied with this it's because they don't know how good they could look. Their standards are simply set too low.


But long periods of severe dieting do more than deplete the body of glycogeri. Strict dieting also results in the loss of muscle tissue, and unless this tissue is given time to rebuild and recover, no bodybuilder is going to look his or her best onstage.

If you're dieting hard enough to lose a significant amount of body fat before a show, you're going to deplete your muscle cells as well. That's just about inevitable. Especially when it comes to getting that last bit of fat off to bring out maximum definition, separation and striations. No matter who you are or what your body type, this is going to cost you muscle.

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Of course, following a proper contest preparation program, in which you include a sufficient amount of aerobic training so that you are able to keep your caloric intake relatively high, you can keep the loss of muscle tissue to a minimum. But even this minimum loss is unacceptable if your goal is to achieve your best possible condition onstage. so given that muscle loss is inevitable, the best strategy is to finish dieting well before the show and give your body time to rebuild and restore this lost muscle.

The way to achieve this is to diet down so that you are at your lightest and most depleted at least three weeks (and maybe as much as four weeks) before a show. At this point, you begin to increase your calories slowly, especially carbohydrate calories, given our metabolism time to adapt and change. dieting for fat loss involves lowering your caloric intake gradually, and carbing up involves the exact reverse of this process.

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Actually, considering that you should be continuing to train and do aerobics during the three-week period, these extra calories will be utilized primarily in the rebuilding of muscle tissue. So not only will you not get fat, you'll probably continue to improve your muscle-to-fat ratio.

For example, a 210-pound bodybuilder gradually reduces his calories over a period of time to 3,000 achieving adequate fat loss by doing tow 45-minute sessions of aerobic exercise every day.  His diet is timed to bring in to the point of maximum depletion three weeks before his contest. at that point, it's time for him to start coming beck up -- but this has to be a careful, gradual process. Again, it's important to stress that just as you increase your calories slowly over a period of time, you have to increased your calories slowly as well. Otherwise, your body will not have time to adapt to the caloric increase and you're liable to get fat.

So this bodybuilder should increase his calories only by 200-300 calories at a time, and maintain this level for a few days before increasing his calories again. Any further period of depletion in the week before the contest is both unnecessary and undesirable. After weeks and months of strict dieting, further depletion will result in limiting your ability to rebuild muscle and make it more likely that your body will make fat rather than glycogen when you finally begin the carbing-up process.

As far as what kind of food to eat during this two-week process, the pre-contest increase in calories should consist of both protein and carbohydrate. The optimal amount of protein will depend on your oxidative type, with the average being about 1 gram of protein for each pound of bodyweight. The rest of the increase should be in the form of carbohydrate, both complex in the form of vegetables, and starches and simple, mostly in the form of fruit.

During this period, the bodybuilder should maintain his daily aerobic training, beginning to decrease the amount of aerobic activity about 10 out and stopping altogether three or four days before the contest.


Of course, when we've described above is an average approach to contest preparation. Some bodybuilders have much faster metabolisms and others much slower, so they'll have to make individual adjustments. Troy Zuccolotto, for example, has such a quick metabolism that he doesn't need to go much below 4,000 calories at the lowest to get ripped for a show. mike Quinn, on the other hand, needs to dip down below 2,000 calories for a short time, even with the addition of plenty of aerobic training.

Using this approach, you don't have to worry much about diet in the week before a show. You consume normal amounts of sodium through Wednesday, then limit sodium intake somewhat - but not cut it out altogether - on Thursday and Friday. You continue to drink plenty of water, cutting your water intake somewhat the night before the show simply to make certain your body has time to process an excess water out of the system overnight.

The day of the contest, drinking water and taking in normal amounts of natural sodium is not only allowed, it's recommended.

The best part of using this method is that by giving your body time to adjust to altered caloric levels, you don't end up feeling deprived and craving all kinds of strange foods before a show, You don't go nuts and eat too much after a show, either, which means you can stay in shape longer and you don't tend to gain excess weight in the off-season. In fact, many bodybuilders on this program actually end up feeling guilty. They east so well, feel so good, have such a sense of fullness and well-being that they think they must be doing something wrong,. 'How can I bet getting in shape if I'm not suffering?' they ask. But the idea that you have to suffer in getting ready for a contest is based on the wrong methods of contest preparation.

Slow-carbing like this also makes it possible to peak several times in a row, which is what the pros have to do when competing on the Grand Prix circuit.  All you have to do is cut your calories somewhat the day after the show, the begin to slowly increase them again.  As you increase your calories a little at a time over a period of a week or two, and continue to train at the same time, you'll just get bigger and more muscularr, not fat.  If you do everything gradually you'll continue to lose fat even as you gradually start eating more and more.

Within the three-week carbing method, you don't really peak -- you plateau on a higher level, and you can hold the plateau condition, and even make it better, for a considerable period.


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