So, you think you want to enter a figure competition, do you? "Yes," you say. After all, you workout hard, eat well, and maintain a relatively lean physique. You have a strong work ethic, are determined to reach your goals, and love meeting new challenges. Well if that's the case, I say go for it! Of course, that leaves you with much to be learned and accomplished.
The journey to physique competition is probably the toughest you'll ever endure, but it's also one of the most rewarding. Being able to prove that you've got the mental and physical ability to get in contest shape and stand on stage that day is enough to give you the self-confidence boost to go after any and all of your lifelong dreams, not to mention, you get in great shape!
When I first had these thoughts and desires several years ago, I began by spending hours a day on the computer, researching the ever-scattered tidbits of information an aspiring competitor could get her hands on, which left much to be desired. Two years later, I entered my first show. Two years after that brings me to this point - preparing to enter my seventh physique competition and try my hand at the NPC national-level.
I love helping out new competitors; I offer it as an online service and also hold monthly competitor workshops at my gym. What I've also decided to do with this article is to write a complete guide for preparing for a figure competition - everything you need to know from start to finish, diet to training, suits to hair, heels to posing. I hope this helps ease your mind and lessen the stress you will encounter during your prep, and bringing home a trophy wouldn't be too bad, either!
Choosing A Show
The first step in preparing for a show is to choose an organization and a division in which to compete. We're assuming the second has been done, as this article is geared towards figure competitors. There are also divisions for fitness, bikini, and fitness model.
As for choosing an organization, attend local shows in your area and research the different organization websites online. Check out results and photos from the shows you are looking to enter to see what the desired look is, and decide which look you prefer and could likely attain.
For a figure competition, you should allow yourself 3-6 months of preparation. This ensures enough time to take care of all the details, while also focusing on your training and diet, without added stress of being pressed to meet a deadline and wondering if you'll be ready on time.
After selecting several shows of interest, research the chosen organization's criteria, rules, and judging requirements. You will have to submit your entry form and registration fee, adhere to any drug-testing requirements, and put together posing routines and quarter turns according to that organization's standards.
It's a good idea to contact the show promoter to sort out any questions you may have at this point. If the show requires traveling, ensure you find a means to get there and make any necessary reservations, including airfare or hotel, if required.
12 - 8 Weeks Out
At the 3-month point, you should begin the first stages of preparation. They include hiring any professionals to assist you and mapping out the first stages of your training and diet. People often question why I use a nutritionist for my prep; they assume that if I am at an elite level of fitness, that I should know enough to do my own nutrition. This simply is not true.
There is nothing wrong with hiring a nutritionist or a personal trainer that is skilled in the area of physique competition to assist you in your efforts. The extra support is also very helpful!
Due to budget constraints, I suggest hiring one person to take care of the one area in which you feel you need the most help. For me, and many competitors, that area is diet. What to eat, what not to eat, in what amounts, when, and how to peak during that final week are beyond most workout enthusiasts' basic knowledge.
At 12 weeks out you should begin counting calories and starting to eliminate the junk foods from your diet. Get into the habit of eating 5-7 meals per day, each meal containing a protein, carbohydrate, and some fat, and drinking one gallon of water per day.
Limit cheat meals to one day on the weekend. Start preparing your daily meal plans, buying and cooking food from scratch as much as possible, and weighing and measuring portions. Also be sure to track your calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fat for every item you put in your mouth.
Begin limiting simple sugars to what is found in fruits and complex carbohydrates - no junk food sweets or candy. Replace any full-fat dairy products with low-fat or fat-free versions. Start increasing your fiber intake gradually, and aim for 35g per day.
A great tool to track your daily food intake is http://www.fitday.com. It's free, and contains a huge food database and the option to customize your own foods. It can be accessed from any computer with internet access, or there is a desktop version you can download to your home PC or laptop.
If you are doing your own diet, begin by putting in 1g of protein for every pound of bodyweight, as a minimum. You do not need to go higher than 1.25g per pound. Make sure to keep healthy fats in your diet as well. Keep about 20-30g of fat in your diet, and supplement with nuts or nut butters to ensure you're reaching those numbers.
When it comes to carbohydrates, much is determined by your individual body type. Are you overly sensitive to carbohydrates and tend to store fat easily? You will probably want to keep this number equal with your protein intake. If you are thin-framed, have a fast metabolism, and have a hard time putting on fat or muscle, you can stand to add more carbs in your diet.
These first few weeks, you want to make sure you are consistent with whatever numbers you go for. You will then be able to track your progress and make changes according to what your body does.
Consistency is the key in any successful nutrition program. If you aren't doing the same thing from day to day, how do you know if you are getting enough protein, too many carbs, or not enough water? Eliminate all but one variable (carbs), and use your weight and energy levels to determine if you need more or less calories.
A lot of new competitors hear the false rumor that to lean out, they need to increase their reps and decrease their weight to get more of a fat-burning effect. This will increase your heart rate, but it will also allow your body to give up much more of its hard-earned muscle. With the primary goals of contest prep being to lean out and to conserve muscle, you definitely do not want to go this route.
What you should do is continue on the same lifting routine that got you the physique you have right now. Whether it's a 4-day split in the 6-10 range, or an upper/lower split in the 8-12 range, you want to keep the weights as heavy as you can throughout your prep period. It will get difficult; your energy levels and strength both decrease dramatically on reduced calories and lower body fat levels.
Your weight workouts should focus on high intensity. You can make any type of workout a high-intensity one. There are many techniques in which to do this. You can reduce your rest periods to 45-60 seconds between sets, and begin super-setting exercises together.
You can throw in a few high-rep sets to really get your heart-rate up, but remember not to sacrifice weight in your other exercises and sets. Negatives, drop sets, and forced reps are other great ways to increase your training intensity. Your heart rate should be soaring, you should be sweating, and your muscles should definitely be burning and fatigued!
It's difficult to recommend a proper cardio regimen for anyone without knowing their training history, body type, and how much fat they need to lose for a show. In general, I recommend starting with 3 30-minute sessions per week and take it from there. If you are already doing more than that, do not increase your cardio at this point, just maintain where you are.
Cardio should only be increased upon the occurrence of two things: one, you stop losing fat for at least 2 weeks without having changed anything else in your program; two, you first drop your calories by 100-200 consistently for 1-2 weeks and have still not lost any body fat.
Always manipulate your diet first, and do it slowly and gradually, before increasing your cardio. Once you have to increase cardio, add 5-15 minutes to each session for the first week and that will likely do the trick. Once your sessions reach 45-60 minutes in length, you can add in another day of cardio.
I always recommend taking one day out of the week where you rest completely from all weight training, cardio, classes, and practice. Your body needs the rest and it's a nice perk to look forward to at the end of the week, helping rest and recharge you physically and mentally for next week's training and diet.
Since there is so much controversy regarding particular supplements and whether they work or not, my supplement recommendations come in order of importance and in order of effectiveness based on popular research and my own experience. If there is something not on the list you wish to take and can afford to do so, then there is nothing wrong with adding it in to make your preparation and life a little easier.
Multi-Vitamin/Mineral - First and foremost, this is a necessity. I even double the dose and take one each in the morning and evening during contest prep. While on reduced calories and strenuous exercise, you are depleting your body of its necessary vitamins and nutrients, so doubling up on this supplement is a great idea.
Extra Vitamin C - This is also a necessity for me and all my clients in contest prep mode. The extra vitamin C is needed to help boost the immune system, which is severely weakened from all the rigors of contest prep.
Extra Calcium - This is very important for female competitors and should not be ignored. Women need a minimum of 1200-1400 mg daily, and most multi-vitamins only contain 500 mg. Add 500 mg of calcium in your morning and evening doses to ensure you are meeting the minimum requirement.
Glutamine - While there are many debates as to whether or not supplementing with glutamine is effective in what it promises, I believe in its powers and always add this in precontest. Take 5-10 g daily, split into 2 doses. Pre or post-workout is a great time to take glutamine, and also right before bed.
Echinacea and Gingko Biloba - I am an adamant believer in the effectiveness of herbal remedies, so I've added these two herbs to my supplementation program. The Echinacea helps boost the immune system, important for reasons mentioned above, and the Gingko helps with mental clarity, alertness, and concentration, all of which are depleted on a low-calorie, lower carbohydrate contest diet.
Glucosamine Complex - This is very important during contest prep. As you lean out, your joints, tendons, and ligaments become more susceptible to injury; there is less fat around the joint to cushion and protect it. In addition, the high volume of weight training and cardio puts a lot of stress on your joints. Adding in glucosamine helps rebuild the cartilage around your joints and prevent injuries.
Water - Don't forget water! Get into that habit now of drinking 3-4 liters per day. It might take you a while to build up to that, but it is definitely a necessity. Water is so important for many bodily functions, and has the added bonus of keeping your skin clear and helping you feel full while dieting.
Also at this point, you need to begin reviewing posing suit designers and narrowing down some suit styles and colors you like, that also fit your budget. Contact 2-3 designers whose work you like, and let them know the date of your show and what division you'll be competing in.
Tell them what suit or suits you need, and ask them to send you sample photos and fabric swatches. Many designers are booked 3-4 months out, so reserving your spot by 2-3 months is very important to ensure you're getting the designer and the suit that you want.
Here are my recommendations for suit designers:
If you've never competed, you should begin learning and practicing your poses immediately. These differ as well, so research your show's organization to ensure you are meeting their exact requirements for quarter turns, presentation walks, and routines.
I also suggest using online resources, such as Bodybuilding.com, for instructional articles on posing. There are several DVD's available for purchase, including one by IFBB Pro Tanji Johnson ("Instructional Posing DvD") and NPC Judge Sandy Ranalli ("What are the Judges Looking for in Figure & Fitness?").
You should begin practicing your poses 1-2 times per week, aiming to hold each pose for 30-60 seconds and repeat 3-5 times. Observe yourself in a full-length mirror, and be sure to practice in the actual shoes you'll be wearing for the show!
Practicing on a hardwood floor, such as your gym's group exercise room, is also great, as most competition stages are hardwood. If possible, have someone take photos or a video of you posing so you can assess your poses and make appropriate changes.
Sample Workout Plan For Figure Contest Preparation
Day 7 - Total Rest.
About The Author
Alissa Carpio is a 4-time champion in NPC Fitness & Figure contests. She is currently preparing for NPC Junior USAs, NPC Pittsburgh, and NPC Nationals. Alissa is also helping several athletes prepare for their first competition through her unique online contest prep services.
She offers Fitness & Figure Competitor Workshops to girls in the Washington, DC area. For more information, visit Alissa's site at www.alissa.net.