Preserving Muscle in a Contest Prep
(Photos from my 1st place finishes at the NPC Maryland National Qualifier)
Contest prep and competing in a bodybuilding competition requires hard work, dedication, and consistency. It takes time and patience to grow a muscle base that is required to do well on stage, and the contest prep diet should be aimed at preserving that lean muscle tissue while dropping body fat. This article will briefly go into strategies and components to preserving muscle mass in a contest prep.
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Table of Contents
Calories and Rate of Weight Loss
Energy availability (EA) describes how much energy is available for basic metabolic functions including reproduction, immunity and skeletal homeostasis.
Low energy availability leads to metabolic and hormonal adaptations such as reduced metabolic rate, reduced NEAT (non-exercise induced thermogenesis), drops in thyroid hormones, and alterations in sex hormones (for males, specifically testosterone and for females, estrogen and progesterone).
In females specifically, low EA can lead to amenorrhea, aka loss of the menstrual cycle. It’s imperative to prevent HPA (hypothalamic pituitary axis) dysfunction that can occur in contest prep dieting. Low EA also leads to psychological and physiological distress. Keeping food as high as possible and maximizing EA helps limits the negative effects that occur with dieting in contest prep.
Rate of weight loss and the amount of a caloric deficit should be tailored to creating a sustainable, slow, and progressive deficit. Greater deficits and fast weight loss can lead to greater losses of muscle mass.
Weight losses of 0.5-1% of bodyweight per week is suggested to maximize muscle retention. For example, for a 150 lb person – that means a maximum loss of 1.5 lbs per week. Not only does a large amount of weight loss per week create increased loss of lean muscle tissue, but it can also put one at risk for gallstones.
Though weight loss is expected, one should also keep in mind the potential for body recomposition (increase of lean muscle mass and decrease of body fat). The scale is not a sole indicator of progress. A focus should be made on using the scale as a tool and utilizing progress photos, body measurements, and valid markers of body fat testing such as a DEXA to assess progress.
Protein intake is critical for reducing the loss of muscle mass, enhancing the anabolic response to training, and promoting recovery. Protein also plays a major role in increasing satiety and reducing hunger levels.
The needs for protein during a contest prep exceeds protein needs in both a caloric surplus and maintenance period. Increasing protein to 30% of calories can reduce lean mass loss compared to a lower protein intake of 15% of calories. Protein needs range from 1.5 to 2.5 g/kg of bodyweight.
There is some evidence to protein overfeeding (greater than 3.0g/kg of bodyweight) not having negative effects on fat loss and potentially helping with fat loss. This is likely due to the thermic effect of feeding.
In regards to protein timing, spreading protein intake throughout the day is suggested at 20-30g per meal (more in meal timing). Spreading meals out every 3-4 hours is suggested.
High Quality Protein
Protein intake should also be high quality and athletes should ensure that their sources contain all essential amino acids in order to maximize muscle protein synthesis.
For vegans or vegetarians, this may mean combining multiple sources of dietary protein. It has been shown that a pea and rice protein blend may be able to stimulate similar changes in fat free mass and strength as a whey protein alternative. On the contrary, low quality proteins such as soy or wheat protein fail to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS) to the same degree as high quality alternatives.
High quality sources of protein containing all essential amino acids include:
- Egg whites
- Lean cuts of beef or pork
A “complete protein” has all essential amino acids, however this does not take into account leucine content which is also important when choosing dietary protein sources. One should also pay attention to leucine content, where 2-3 g of leucine is suggested per serving to maximize the anabolic response.
A high protein intake at the suggested amount of 1.5-2.5 g/kg of body weight does not show detrimental effects on kidney/renal function in healthy individuals. If one has altered kidney function, they should be seeing a health professional.
I will not be diving into anabolics that are used by elite and professional bodybuilders. It should be noted that the use of steroids, anabolics, and prohormones is not suggested by me, and that their use can greatly compromise health, including renal/kidney, liver, and cardiovascular function.
A Quick Note on Fat
Dietary fat is essential (specifically omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids), but I will not dive into dietary fat in this article. Dietary fat needs should be kept as high as possible to prevent negative hormonal changes. It has been shown that higher fat diets can help decrease HPA dysfunction in females and maintain circulating testosterone in males.
It is also important to note that fat soluble vitamins (such as Vitamin A, D, and K), require fat for absorption. Not having dietary fat can prevent the absorption and use of these essential vitamins in the body. A percentage of 15-30% of total daily kcals minimum from fat is recommended. I never let my athletes go below 30 g of fat (goal of 35-40 g minimum).
Carbohydrates should be maximized for energy and recovery. There are many strategies that can be used to create a caloric deficit. These strategies include a moderate carbohydrate, low carbohydrate, ketogenic, and carb-cycling based diets.
In you are an insulin resistant individual, a lower carbohydrate approach may be beneficial. Carbohydrates should be used and timed to help one perform optimally in the gym and have adequate recovery. They can also play an essential role in maximizing insulin sensitivity, which is highest around training sessions. Strategies to help include ensuring to consume a pre and post workout meal high (30-40g) in carbohydrates with adequate protein of 20-30 g.
It’s important to note that glycogen replenishment after weight training is not essential, as muscle and liver glycogen stores are far from depleted. However the ingestion of carbohydrates post workout can be highly beneficial in maximizing insulin sensitivity and promoting recovery.
Pre and post workout meal consumption depends on timing of the previous meal intake. If one consumes a meal within an hour of working out, the post workout meal is less important and waiting a few hours to eat a post workout meal will not lead to detrimental effects. The protein digested in the previous meal will prevent muscle mass depletion and blood amino acids levels will still be elevated.
Consuming a meal a few hours after your lift when amino acid levels fall can be a great way to spread meals out and still achieve adequate recovery and spike muscle protein synthesis. If one consumed a meal 3 to 4 hours prior to working out and/or had a carbohydrate only pre-workout, then the consumption of a fast digesting protein would be warranted immediately post workout to spike muscle protein synthesis for growth and recovery.
There is some evidence to intra-workouts of EAAs and a carbohydrate blend (branched chain cyclic dextrin) helping to minimize muscle loss and improve recovery. However, more data is warranted to conclude the benefits of an intra drink to changes in body composition.
It should be noted that carbohydrate choice can influence one’s blood sugar levels, insulin response, and rate of glycogen resynthesis. Different types of carbohydrates can also be metabolized at different rates in skeletal muscle through different glucose transporters within cells.
The majority of dietary carbohydrate should come from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and whole foods with limited added sugars and refined grains. However, if one meets all micronutrient needs, refined carbohydrate options can serve as fast digesting carbohydrates that one can incorporate into their diet in moderation. Carbohydrate intake after training will not enhance the anabolic response to a meal but can help aid in recovery and glycogen resynthesis.
In regards to overall meal timing, consuming 3 meals at minimum is suggested to ensure maximizing the MPS (muscle protein synthesis) response. There are no benefits to consuming 5 or 6 meals over 4 meals.
One should focus on their needs and what fits best in their schedule. Overall caloric and macronutrient intake, taking advantage of the insulin and MPS response to training, pre-workout fuel, and post workout recovery are what matter the most.
Some competitors find 4 larger meals more satiating than 6 smaller meals while others find 6 meals are better for their digestion. Others may find that intermittent fasting is a tool to help reduce hunger, balance blood sugar levels, and spread their meals out.
The focus should be on the individual, their needs, and their lifestyle. Note: the ingestion of a casein/whey or casein blend prior to sleep may help to increase MPS rate and aid in preserving lean muscle mass. It also may play a role in improving recovery.
I will not be dividing into intermittent fasting (IF) in this article, however IF can be a tool used in a contest prep. There is a potential down side of muscle loss due to less spikes in muscle protein synthesis and an anabolic response throughout the day. (Intermittent fasting refers to time restricted feeding, which is typically done with an 8 hour feeding and 16 hour fasting window).
Refeeds are a great tool to use in both general dieting and contest prep to help negate the negatives effects of dieting and help break plateaus. To explain, a refeed is when you increase carbohydrates while staying roughly at or slightly above maintenance calories in order to elicit a leptin, thyroid, and hormonal response.
When dieting, leptin gets depleted. Leptin is the “thermometer” that tells your body to raise or lower your metabolism and essential acts like a switch for fat loss, telling the body when there is enough energy and fuel available. The higher body fat is, the higher leptin is. As weight loss progresses, leptin decreases, which also decreases the metabolic rate and leading to a plateau. Drops in leptin also increase ghrelin, the hunger hormone.
Refeeds utilize carbohydrates specifically because leptin is more responsive to carbohydrate than fat. Consuming added fat instead of carbohydrate does not produce the same effect. This is why refeeds are a calculated tool for dieting, whereas “cheat meals” or “free meals” are more beneficial for psychological purposes.
In general, a refeed should be for a period of 2-3 days. 24 hour refeeds don’t provide much of a leptin response, however, some individuals do respond well to a 24 hour refeed. My suggestion is to perform a 2 day refeed. Diet breaks may also be highly beneficial and can reduce stress levels and aid in breaking a plateau as well.
Refeeds can be powerful to use to help refill muscle glycogen levels as well as prevent catabolism of the muscles. The extra fuel from a refeed can help one push harder in workouts, and not only improve leptin levels, but also thyroid hormone levels. The conversion of T4 to T3 (in which T4 is the inactive hormone and T3 is the active hormone), responds specifically to carbohydrate intake. This is why lower carbohydrate diets can cause trouble in thyroid function and hormonal regulation, due to changes in the HPA axis.
Refeeds should utilize a carbohydrate intake of 1.5-2x your current carb intake, with protein and fats adjusted to either set calories at or slightly above maintenance. Your choice of carbohydrates should be made to prevent gastrointestinal upset.
A refeed is essentially an aid for dieting and helps “prime” the metabolism for continued progress. Refeed frequency depends on how long one has been in a deficit, their current deficit amount, as well as their level of leanness. The longer you have dieted and leaner you are, the more often you should have a refeed. Refeeds are unnecessary in the beginning stages of dieting, when the physiological effects have yet to occur to have an influence on metabolism.
Key note on refeeds: they may produce spikes in bodyweight due to water weight and gastrointestinal upset. Since carbohydrates hold on to water (3g of water for every 1 g of carbohydrate), this spike in weight can be hard on competitors mentally. Push through!
Training Frequency & Intensity
In contest prep, the goal is to minimize muscle loss. Though strength is not the focus, maintaining strength plays a critical role in helping to maintain muscle mass. In a contest prep, one should attempt to maintain their training volume and intensity. Switching to a “higher rep, lower weight” program can lead to muscle loss, especially if it creates a reduction in overall workout volume. I typically have all my clients train the same both during and outside of contest prep.
Muscle groups are recommended to be trained 2x a week or more (depending on physique focus and program block), with rep ranges being mostly in the 6-12 rep range. 40-70 reps per muscle group or more is suggested with rest intervals at 1-2 minutes. Lifts should be controlled with proper muscular tension, aka no “swinging” of the weights.
There are many splits that can be utilized in a contest prep, including full body, push/pull, or an upper/lower split. What matters most is overall volume, intensity, and frequency of training. As training volume and frequency deserve their own article and discussion, I will be recommending to minimize muscle mass losses and preserve lean muscle tissue, to maintain volume and intensity throughout a contest prep, aiming to continue to push in the gym just like you would outside of a contest prep.
Cardio should be used as a tool and kept to a minimum during contest prep. LISS (low intensity steady state) or MICT (moderate intensity continuous training) can help increase NEAT and caloric burn, act as a recovery agent, and limit interference with training recovery. However, it can be time consuming.
HIIT (high intensity interval training) may be used and may help to increase caloric burn as well, but special attention must be made to its potential detrimental effects on recovery. Though HIIT saves time and can alleviate “cardio boredom,” HIIT may reduce strength, workout recovery, and relies on the oxidation of carbohydrates for fuel, whereas LISS relies more on fat oxidation.
Cardio choice should be made based on personal preference and time available. In a systematic review by Keating, SE, it was concluded that MICT and HIIT provide similar benefits on body fat reduction. The choice of either type of cardio also does not appear to effect energy intake throughout the day.
In regards to fasted cardio, fasted cardio does not have benefits over fed cardio and can be detrimental, leading to muscle mass losses. My suggestion is to perform all cardio AFTER resistance training to ensure all energy and strength is utilized in weight training prior. Some competitors like to break up their sessions into a lifting session and cardio session. My biggest suggestion is doing what works with your schedule and helps you perform your best!
Supplements can also be used to help preserve lean muscle mass, aid in recovery, and help maintain muscle fullness. (I will not dive into the science behind these supplements, but just provide a list for you here)
Commonly used supplements:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- BCAA’s and EAA’s
- Arginine and Citrulline
- Phosphatidic Acid
- ZMA (Zinc & Magnesium mixture)
I hope this article provided you some insight on things to keep in mind when preserving muscle in a contest prep or diet! If you enjoyed this article – please free to share it and leave a comment (: Happy prepping!
Xoxo Lacey Dunn, RD, LD, CPT
- “Macronutrient considerations for the sport of bodybuilding (Lambert et al., 2004)”:
- “Training practices and ergogenic aids used by male bodybuilders (Hackett et al., 2013)”
- “Recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: resistance and cardiovascular training (Helms et al., 2015)”
- “Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation (Helms et al., 2014)”