Recently a pro client was getting ready to compete and as his body fat became low enough to see daily changes; his questions began to get more complex. He was paying attention to tightness and fullness and trying to make sense of what was causing "good" days and "bad" days.
As I explained fluid dynamics and how carbs can make you hard or soft depending on timing and quantity, how training factors in, and how the body cycles through stages of trying to recover homeostasis (balance), he would say he understood and all was well.
A couple days would go by and as he tried to predict his look or base it on the previous day or two, things just weren't lining up and he'd ask again. After about the third or fourth exchange over a two week span, he exclaimed, "I JUST DON'T GET IT!!" He didn't enjoy my laughter as much as I did so I went back to the drawing board. My explanation went something like this:
Bodybuilders have two goals regarding peaking. Huge. Tight. Huge to most means getting to an off-season level of fullness; we all want a mind-blowing pump onstage at the right time. Tight means... well... tight; no loose skin, no puffiness or "spilling over," and good vascularity.
Historic peaking lore has moved through time unchanged. Competitors believe that increasing carbs will increase muscle fullness and dropping water will make them dry. Sounds logical, doesn't it? But you know it doesn't work because you've done it a dozen times and you always end up flat, smooth, and soft. Or, if you're ectomorphic, you may not end up soft, just flat and much less impressive than you know you could have been.
Forgive me for being remedial for those who have read my articles before, but muscle tissue is roughly 60 to 70% water. Water is what makes a muscle full and hard.
No matter how much glycogen you've stuffed into the muscle, without enough water it just won't be as full or hard. And when a muscle isn't full, the decreased volume isn't pushing out against fascial separations as far and the skin isn't stretched as fully. This leaves you with smaller (and softer) muscle volume, less separations, and slightly thicker-looking skin.
Don't get me wrong, we need carbs - carbs are what attract the water into the muscle, but the amount of both and the timing are critical to how you look. Think of carbs and water as an axis. Conventional competitors will increase carbs and decrease water.
At a certain point in that process there is enough carbohydrate to fill muscle stores and enough water still in the body to be drawn in. As these lines intersect, one would be thrilled with how they look - usually about a day after starting the carbs back in and while water is still present in the diet.
For the typical Lemming following the crowd over the cliff (three days of carb depletion, three days of carb loading, and cutting water Thursday and Friday), that means the best look of the week will be sometime between Wednesday night and Thursday night. Then water is limited and carbs keep going up.
Most of the time since the immediate flatness caused by the lack of water is misunderstood for "needing" more carbs; the competitor keeps carbing up. Being dehydrated that person is getting flatter and flatter but now by over-carbing, spillover is occurring and no amount of carbs can make the muscle fuller (because there isn't enough water).
In this scenario, there is so much glucose that it's now present in high concentrations outside the muscle cell and some of what little water is left in the body is pulled there - outside the muscle and under the skin. Sorry if I'm causing some stress as I describe your usual contest morning nightmare, but I offer hope - please tear up the number for the Hollywood Miracle Diet you wrote down from that late night infomercial and sit back down.
I'm going to focus on water and carbs in this article because they are the two biggest variables by far. Sodium and other minerals, training, protein and fat... they all play a role, but let's tackle the big boys first.
In order to really understand the Peaking Axis, you have to be sold on the fact that carbs (glycogen in the muscle) attract water and without an adequate amount of each, you're going to end up with some degree of both flatness and softness.
The key then is how to get the best amounts of each and time it correctly. I freely admit there is more than one way to intersect these two variables. Even those who follow what I described as the exact wrong approach do see a great peak - just on the wrong day.
Ironically, if you did just the opposite - kept water high but dropped carbs, you would be very, very tight, just flatter as carbs came down. To most, this would still be a welcomed change (hard, crisp, and separated) compared to flat, smooth, and small. But, we can do better.
Think of carb levels in your body as slower to change in quantity and water as the easier of the two. A relatively unknown fact about muscle tissue glycogen is that it's not very dynamic. Once it's in the muscle, most of it stays there until that muscle is forced to use it.
If I do a leg workout on a day I'm consuming a large amount of carbs, proceed to deplete for several days, and then I was able to measure glycogen levels in that muscle - it would still be quite high. That's why conventional peaking that forces depletion involves working out like a madman while depleting.
Here's an interesting nuance with the stated goal of "super compensation" for those that deplete for 3 days then go sedentary while slamming their body with carbs: everyone knows that the "post-workout window of opportunity" for carb absorption closes rapidly after a workout.
Why then would anyone with an IQ greater than a toad think that THREE DAYS LATER, the worked muscle tissue is just waiting for super compensation? The greatest time to be eating carbs for storage is on the days you're working them.
My goal in peaking is to get the muscles full and stable and then water can change hydration levels in minutes, not days. Due to the muscles being chalk-full of carbs and maintaining a high degree of water, most will experience some spillover at the beginning of what I coined years ago as "peak week." Don't worry; that's normal.
Half way through that week, the hard workouts should be over, they should have created great glycogen storage - not depletion, and now you're ready to fine-tune the rest of the way with subtle carb changes and managing water.
With activity decreasing and wanting to make sure spillover is eliminated, I will bring carbs down to some degree in the middle of the week. As water now has less superfluous glucose to bind to, you'll notice you're getting harder and harder as you enter the last half of the week.
The amount of carbs early on, and the level of decrease of carb consumption after workouts have stopped for the week, completely depends on your body size, metabolic rate, your actual condition/body fat level, body type and how your body processes carbs. This is where you either really need to know your body and how to read the changes day-to-day, or you need an expert who can do that with you. (Shameless plug, I know - but I've spent a decade studying and doing it.)
As you look toward Friday and Saturday morning as the transition to the finish line, subtlety is better than whacky extremes. Your muscle is full of glycogen, although you may need to be increasing again if your body warrants it (or you may need to keep things pretty level if you tend to be carb sensitive).
Regardless, you need to keep your water high at this point. If you have enough carbs going into the muscle through a stable or increasing intake, if you're coming into the show without an overage of carbs hanging outside the muscle, water will just flow through you. The glycogen in the muscle will take what it needs to stay hydrated, but there will be nothing to hold extra water in.
This of course leaves you with the potential for full muscle bellies that create deeper separations and due to no spillover; you're as dry-looking as ever. Hard to swallow, I know - it flies in the face of what most do - but how many times will you go over the cliff with the crowd before you decide it's time to win?