Preparing for your first men's physique competition isn't something you learn from a textbook. The best advice comes from professionals who compete and prepare others to do the same. Contest prep is a balance between following the numbers and following the mirror. By tweaking your diet, you'll be doing both to make your physique hit its peak just as you climb onstage.
In this nutrition guide, IFBB Men's Physique pro, two-time Mr. Olympia Men's Physique Showdown competitor, and contest prep coach Tonnell Rodrigue shares eight tips on getting stage ready.
1. Set Your Schedule
"The first thing you want to do as a first-time men's physique competitor is to know the exact date you're going to do the show," Rodrigue says. "For a first show, I'd highly recommend getting ready for 30 weeks prior to the show. That gives you enough time to grow muscle."
For the first five weeks, Rodrigue suggests that you train hard and clean up your diet a bit. Then, at week 25, start a full-on contest prep diet. Rodrigue's favorite method is to eat more carbs on some days than on others—a method known as carbohydrate cycling. Carb cycling is the first of a 1-2 punch to lose body fat.
Rodrigue's carb cycling recommendations for a 200-pound male at around 15-percent body fat calls for one high-carb day, two-medium carb days, and one low-carb day.
High day: 600 grams of carbs
Medium days: 400 grams of carbs
Low day: 200 grams of carbs
Keep up this protocol until two weeks before the show.
2. 5 Sets in the Gym, Plus Cardio
Once you're 25 weeks out, start doing 5 sets of each exercise in your workout. First, do one light set, then one medium set, two heavy sets, and a dropset. Do this every training day, says Rodrigue. Cardio doesn't stay the same every day; it will vary based on how many carbs you're eating:
High-carb day: no cardio
Medium-carb days: 30-minutes high-intensity cardio
Low-carb day: 45 minutes steady-state cardio
The idea is to exercise harder on days when you consume fewer carbs, forcing your body to burn stored fat for fuel.
3. Know Your Foods
"You want to eat complex carbs for your entire prep," Rodrigue insists. "Brown or jasmine rice, oatmeal, red or sweet potatoes, and rice cakes are good examples of complex carbohydrates. When you're training hard, you want something that's slow digesting so you get long-lasting energy."
As for protein, Rodrigue recommends consuming 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.
The remainder of your macronutrient mix will come from healthy fats such as almonds, peanuts, almond or peanut butter, cooking oils, and sesame seeds.
Once you're two weeks away from the competition, drop your carbs down to whatever amount you've been eating on your low-carb day. Our 200-pound guy at 15-percent body fat would consume about 200 grams a day. Stick to this number until you carb up during peak week, the last week of prep before the contest.
4. Load Water and Sodium, Then Cut Sodium First
Drink one gallon of water a day until you're two weeks out from the show, then increase the amount, Rodrigue advises.
"At the two-week mark, 1.5-2 gallons of water per day flushes your body and gets it fully hydrated before you start removing water from your diet," explains Rodrigue. "I won't go above two gallons per day during prep. Once you cut the water at two days before the show, you'll start looking a lot tighter than if you didn't load water in the first place."
Most men's physique contests are held on Saturdays. Assuming your first show is Saturday, Rodrigue advises drinking two gallons a day from 14 days out until Friday, when you'll drink a half-gallon of water by 6 p.m. At 7 p.m. on Friday (day before the show), switch to a 16-ounce bottle of water and sip from it up until the show begins.
Sodium manipulation is also a staple of men's physique diets. Rodrigue suggests lowering or completely cutting sodium from your diet three days out (on Wednesday for a Saturday show).
"When you're right up against the show date, you have two main protein options," he says. "You want to eat either boiled chicken or baked fish. Don't add any seasoning. I like boiled chicken because boiling sucks everything, including the salt, out of the chicken. Start eating boiled chicken on Wednesday and continue all the way up to the show."
5. Bring Back the Sodium
"The best way to bring sodium back into your diet is the night before and morning of the show," Rodrigue says. "I like to eat something with a lot of sodium in it—like a burger at 10 or 11 p.m. the night before. You can also go with a cleaner version and bring back the proteins you were eating during the beginning of your prep."
The late-night sodium boost will help with cramping and make you look fuller. If you cut sodium and don't reinsert it, you may end up looking flat. This is the last thing a competitor wants to be onstage, says Rodrigue.
6. Early Wake Up
"The day of the show, you want to wake up at 6 a.m.," says Rodrigue. "That's the magical hour because it gives you enough time to carb up if you're looking flat."
Rodrigue suggests eating a breakfast of pancakes, with sugar-free syrup or no syrup, and eggs. And make it a dry breakfast, he says. No water!
"The wrong thing to do is to eat whatever you want and drink water at the same time," explains Rodrigue. "Then you'll spill over for sure."
The day of the show, he says, make sure you have extra carb sources on hand, such as rice cakes, rice, and red potatoes. Be over prepared. If you're flat two hours before the show and you've already eaten breakfast, you'll need more food to fill out. A useful rule of thumb for the morning of the event is to eat around 25 grams of carbs every 30-45 minutes all the way until the show.
7. Relax After Pre-Judging
Pre-judging is the first part of a men's physique show, where the judges gain an initial look at the competitors. Finals will decide the winners. The two events are typically separated by 5-6 hours. After the morning pre-judging, Rodrigue recommends drinking 8 ounces of water right away. Continue sipping water until the finals. As for food, continue to eat 25 grams of carbs every 30-45 minutes.
"The best thing to do after pre-judging is to lie on your back, put your feet up, and relax," Rodrigue says. "You don't want to walk around and hang out. You want your body in the most relaxed state possible before finals."
8. Don't Work Out the Day Before the Show
"The goal of training during peak week is to deplete the muscles as much as possible before you carb up," says Rodrigue. "You'll train all upper body Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, then take Friday off for a Saturday show."
Peak-week training style looks like this: 15-20 reps, medium weight, brief rest periods. Don't train until failure. Rodrigue likes to do Thursday morning workouts before a show on an empty stomach before the carbohydrate fill-up.
"There's no workout the day before the show," Rodrigue explains, "because when you carb up, you want to store all of the glycogen, and the best way to do that is to not do anything but eat."