Is Intense Contest Prep Healthy?

Extreme achievements are often associated with a perceived lack of balance and risks.  Bodybuilding is no different.  Pushing your body to extremes can be dangerous.  However, athletes can achieve physiques they are proud of while maintaining high levels of physical and mental health.

I am a wife, lawyer, gym owner, drug-free professional bodybuilder, and contest prep coach with a degree in Neuroscience from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  I was a two sport athlete at Wisconsin and have been fascinated with nutrition and athletic performance for over 15 years.  This combination of education and life experience has allowed me to achieve a strong, healthy, and lean physique without jeopardizing my health.
Aesthetic physique competition presents physical, mental, and emotional risks that very few people expect – and some people deal with in unhealthy ways. I list several examples below but these are by no means exclusive.
Risks of Contest Prep

First, the demands of a contest prep can seem physically and mentally overwhelming. First-time competitors don’t know what to expect, they are unsure of what they are “supposed to” look like in any particular week, they are unsure of how they are “supposed to” feel, and generally unsure of every step in the process.  Many people during their first contest prep begin to feel lost along the way and sometimes search for quick fixes that either simply don’t work, or they jeopardize their long-term health. Both are avoidable with some guidance and planning.

Second, contest prep seemingly permeates every facet of life, which can be mentally taxing and overwhelming to athletes that are not prepared for it.  This sport is impacted by your actions 24 hours a day.  Your sleep (or lack of), diet, training, hydration levels, and stress levels, are all players in the game.  All athletes who are successful in this sport over the long-haul learn how to manage the mental stress as well as they do the physical.  Some competitors choose to take this intensity and make them better, others allow the demands of this sport to overwhelm them.  Again, this is avoidable, but it requires discipline and a good plan.

Third, reaching the low levels of body fat that the sport demands is risky if sustained too long.  Young females typically carry 20-27% body fat.  Young males typically carry 12-17% body fat.  In order to be reasonably competitive on a bodybuilding stage, female competitors need to be at single digit body fat levels, and males need to be in the low single digit range (5%).  It should be obvious then that these athletes face an uphill battle against millions of years of evolution.

Attaining these levels of body fat requires relatively high training volumes, coupled with relatively low quantities of food.  The end result is a human body under a substantial physiological stress due to prolonged negative energy balance.  These physiological conditions can lead to musculoskeletal injuries, hormonal disturbances, sleep disturbances, and unhealthy relationships with food. I have seen dozens of competitors come to me following bad preps due to either lack of information or misinformation.  They usually have some combination of a stunted metabolism, digestive health issues, a distorted body image, and hormonal imbalances.  Again, all of these risks are avoidable,  to some extent, when managed properly.


Several Keys to a Successful First Contest Prep

First, one of the best ways to manage all of the unknowns is to hire a contest prep coach or find a very (not one show) experienced competitor who is willing to help keep you on track.  A coach who can clearly and succinctly communicate plays dividends in helping first-time competitors understand the process.  Good coaches can help you prepare for and navigate the ups and downs that come with prep.  They can prepare you for increasing hunger and can help you manage it.  They can prepare you for the low levels of energy that are part of any prep.  They can prepare you for the moments of uncertainty and can help you through your moments of doubt.  Contest prep does get a bit easier as you learn to manage some of the day-to-day difficulties better and understand how to work through them.  However, every prep is difficult, and every prep presents new and unexpected challenges. Find an experienced coach who is willing to provide references, who is candid with their history, and is willing to teach throughout your prep.

Second, learning how to manage the mental challenges that come with contest prep is usually the most difficult part for all athletes to master.  Work hard to maintain some normalcy.  Try to maintain social commitments, go to parties, plan events with friends and family, and find ways to get out and enjoy life.  This will obviously require some planning to make sure you stay on diet and on track with workouts. However, staying engaged with the world in a way that makes you feel “normal” will make contest prep easier and more sustainable.  When it is time to train, train hard.  When it is time to head to the office, work hard. When it is time to spend valuable time with you family, be with your family.  Your outlook during a contest prep will drastically change once you learn how to do this, and it will no longer be this all-consuming event.

One of the things that me and my team at Bakke Athletics focuses on is not letting prep negatively impact the other important responsibilities and commitments in life.  That is not to say that you won’t have to make any sacrifices – you will.  But, with some careful planning, you can make your prep fit into your life rather than making your life fit into your prep.

Third, while the threat to our health is real, all of the potential problems are manageable with the right guidance.  One of the safest ways to approach any elite contest prep is to assume that any and all drastic athletic preparation is not healthy, and then work with the athlete to manage the imbalances that present themselves along the way.  Experienced and knowledgeable contest prep coaches will be able to implement a variety of tools to help continue to lean out while keeping food intake as high as possible.  This doesn’t mean you will be eating large meals at every turn, and it doesn’t mean you won’t be hungry – you will be; however, it does mean that you won’t sacrifice your health in order to stand on stage.


General Guidelines for Contest Prep

Have a Plan

The best way to manage all of the potential downfalls is to have a plan in place and have the discipline to follow that plan and make corrections only when necessary.  I strongly advocate finding a quality contest prep coach for your first contest prep at the very least.  Learn everything you can from this individual.  Spend time evaluating how you are feeling, how different training methodologies impact your body, and how different foods impact your body.  Spend time figuring out what your body responds – and what it doesn’t. This process will help you make progress without sacrificing your health.  Nothing replaces a good plan.

Also, it’s ok if your plan isn’t perfect. There is value in that too, as long as you are willing to be objective and make the necessary corrections along the way.


Measure your Progress

Don’t just wing it.  Progress, whether that is getting stronger or getting leaner, may happen very quickly with just some small modifications to your normal approach to diet or training.  However, you will run into a point where your progress will slow to an eventual halt.  Tracking your progress allows you to make a strategic next step instead of blindly picking a new path – which can ultimately lead to health risks.


Be Consistent

Contest prep presents ups and downs. Some days will be harder than others, and many outside influences can affect your preparation. Keep your goal in mind and stick to the plan.  Take one day at a time, one workout at a time, and one meal at a time. Most importantly, don’t give up on yourself or slip into a negative headspace.  If you cheat on your diet or miss a workout stay positive and get back on course as soon as possible. This will ensure one cheat doesn’t turn into a negative spiral of cheats.


Stay Positive

Despite the risks there are a whole lot of advantages – for the right person with the right mindset. I have witnessed some of the most significant mental, emotional, and physical growth in clients who were willing to push beyond their comfort levels and beyond what they thought was possible.  I was no different.  Seemingly insurmountable challenge allows for growth.

While challenges that have a physical component are not for everyone, there is something very special about athletic endeavors  because they are both physical and mental.  They are to some extent, all-consuming, which in my opinion makes them exponentially more challenging than those things that are purely mental.   Indeed, everyone at some point in their lives should find their equivalent of preparing and training for a really big “stage” whatever that is for them.  I am not an advocate for everyone to choose contest prep as the vehicle to push themselves.  The key is finding something that involves uncertainty, commitment, and sacrifice.  This type of challenge will change you forever.


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