Professional bodybuilders, fitness and cover models are specialists in body transformation, both in the long and short term. In the days leading up to a show or photo shoot, these athletes make more dramatic physique changes than most people make over the course of a given year.
You may have no interest in competing on stage, and that's totally fine. However, if you need to look your best for an upcoming photo shoot, class reunion, or important date, you could learn a lot from people who have been there and done that many times before!
What you are about to learn are the Cliff's Notes for the pre-contest physique competitor. This is not a lifestyle diet; it's a guide to look your absolute best for a specific event, using pre-contest strategies from the world's top bikini, fitness model and figure competitors. I don't recommend putting your body through this more than twice each year—and trust me, you wouldn't want to.
Still on board? Let's shred. Figure out the day you want to look your best. This day will be called Day 1, so when you're 10 days away from your big day, you can post "I'm 10 days out!" and all the physique athletes will know what you're talking about.
How Much Can You Really Improve In 10 Days?
You can make dramatic improvements to your appearance in just 10 days, but only if you put in the proper work prior to starting this diet. In order for this guide to work, you need to start it with a decent degree of muscle mass and be sure your body fat levels are close to your goal look. For men that will be around 6-8 percent body fat, and for women, approximately 13-15 percent body fat.
Your body fat stores should be low enough that you already sport a six-pack. Your six-pack doesn't need to pop, but all six abdominals should be clearly visible in the mirror while flexing. If they are not, keep training and eating clean, and revisit this protocol when you're ready for the finishing touches.
It's almost impossible to lose more than 3-5 pounds of pure fat in 10 days—even on the most extreme diets. So don't kid yourself into thinking you've lost 10-plus pounds of fat once this diet is over.
On the flipside, it is possible to drop more than 10 pounds of weight in 10 days. Most of it will be in the form of water, but that's OK, because when you drop water from an already lean and muscular body, you look tighter, hotter, and more defined!
This is the key to your success: learning how to manipulate your fluid levels so you look as good as possible for your big day.
The 10 Rules To Achieving Extreme Muscle Definition
1 Taper Your Calories
During each day of the week, you're going to consume 10 calories for every pound of body weight. This means a 180-pound male (or female) will take in 1,800 calories in a day.
Why don't we drop your calories even further? Because you can't shed that much body fat in one week—it's impossible! No matter how much you cut back your calories, you can't force fat off your body. The goal here is to reduce your calories significantly, but not so much that you start burning significant amounts of muscle mass. When you go on a low-calorie diet—body weight x 10 is low—it's almost guaranteed that you'll start burning muscle mass to some degree as your body hunts down any ready source of fuel.
Before you start this guide, you should taper your calories to the point where you're eating body weight x 12. This should allow you to shed some body fat without burning any of your hard-earned muscle.
2 Protein Up, Then Down
It should be no surprise that protein intake is absolutely critical when you try to achieve extreme muscle definition. From Day 10 through Day 4, you'll consume 1.5 grams of protein for every pound of body weight. This means our 180-pound subject will consume 270 grams of protein per day. That's almost 2/3 of your daily calories! On your carb-loading days (days 3-1), we'll cut back the protein intake to 1/2 gram of protein per pound of body weight for the day.
Why are we consuming an excessive amount of protein? The additional protein promotes fat burning and muscle sparing, but you should take in plenty of amino acids so your body won't be put into a position to break down muscle tissue to access that protein. Don't worry, you only do this for a few days, not the rest of your life.
As for protein sources, stick to foods your body is familiar with. This is no time to experiment. If your diet has been primarily chicken, turkey, and beef, then stand fast to those three items as your protein sources. My top protein sources are white fish, extra lean beef, chicken, turkey, and salmon.
It's best to avoid liquid protein such as protein shakes and egg whites during this process. Liquid meals make the diet more difficult to follow, because of their rapid digestion. I also eliminate dairy for the final 10 days to prevent water retention.
3 Manipulate Carbs
One of the trickiest factors in contest-prep is carb manipulation. During Days 10 to 6, you cut carbs to 1/2-gram per pound of body weight per day. That works out to 90 grams for our 180-pound subject. On Day 5, you reduce your carbs to a quarter gram per pound of body weight, or 45 grams per 180 pounds.
Then it gets interesting. On Day 4, you reduce your carbs to zero—except for fresh vegetables, which are considered "free foods." For the final three days, you increase your carb intake dramatically, to at least 2 1/2 grams per pound of body weight each day. This works out to at least 450 grams for our 180-pound subject. Carbs hold water, so during these final three days I back away from my vegetables.
Throughout the 10 days, consume carbs at about the same time you were consuming them during your diet leading up to the shred. It's best to spread carb intake out across smaller meals—for example, eight or nine meals instead of four or five. Also, consider supplementing with a digestive enzyme to help break down carbs during your carb-load.
The hardest part of the diet will be the first seven days. If you can make it, your body is going to act like a sponge when we carb-load during days 3-1! During that first week, the goal is to deplete your body of glycogen stores by gradually eliminating all carbs—this encourages significant fat burning! It's OK if you look soft and skinny after several days of depleting—that's the point.
Over the last three days, you fill out your muscles by taking in plenty of complex carbs such as rice, potatoes, yams and oatmeal. This increases your glycogen stores and pushes water into the muscles, giving you a full and round appearance for your big day. The carb-loading phase is the fun part of the shred and ensures you look as good as possible.
4 Cut The Fat
Reel back on your fat intake to just a quarter gram per pound of body weight, which is 45 grams for our 180-pound subject. Cutting back on your fat is what might make you feel miserable, because fat helps produce your "happy" hormones and produces feelings of satisfaction.
If you really want to drop your body fat on Days 10 to 4, then drop your fat intake to zero. But I'll warn you, you're going to feel like crap! If you choose to keep in the fats, stick to whole-food sources such as mixed nuts or avocado.
You will consume your fats at the same times you were consuming them during your diet leading up to this. Nothing changes in fat timing. Why do you have to cut back on fats so much? Even though they are healthy, fats are caloric, and, since you need to cut your calories back by 15 percent, it makes sense to start there.
5 Salt = Bloat
Sodium can cause you to bloat up and or hold water under your skin. Manipulating salt intake is crucial to looking as defined as possible. From Days 10 to 2, start actively salting your meals and even consider adding some small amounts of salt to your water. By doing this, you'll encourage your system to start actively excreting both salt and water. You will continue this until two days out from the big date.
On Days 2 and 1, drop the salt completely and become very cautious of any form of salt. Now is the time to start reading labels and make sure none of the foods you're eating have sodium in them. For example, no more liquid egg whites or protein shakes—both have a lot of sodium. Unfortunately, this means no more sodium-heavy hot sauces, or most sauces in general. You will find out how tough you really are!
Why is your salt intake so critical? Sodium has a remarkable effect on fluid balance, both inside and outside of your muscles. The goal in cutting is to suck fluid from the outside of your muscle cells to their inside, giving them a full and shapely look.
A salty story: I recently competed in the Muscle & Fitness Model Search in Las Vegas. It consisted of a fitness challenge and physique challenge, and after I competed in the fitness challenge I was told that only the Top 10 would compete in the physique challenge. I wasn't in the Top 10, so that night I went to celebrate at Yellowtail, the sushi restaurant at the Bellagio, where I consumed more than 20 rolls of sushi. And what did I dip them in? Lots of soy sauce, loaded with sodium!
The next morning I got an email saying I actually did qualify for the physique challenge. I screamed at my computer, "No! I can't believe this!" Standing in front of the mirror, my abs had seemed to disappear overnight, even though they were popping 12 hours earlier. I ended up competing and did well, but I would have looked better if I didn't pound back that soy sauce the night before. Lesson learned!
6 Water Load, Then Dry Out
If you did nothing else but manipulate your water intake, you would see a dramatic change in appearance.
The first step is jacking your water up to a set amount, 2 liters higher than your normal daily intake. So if you normally drink 3 L of water per day, consume 5 L. Measure it out—don't guess or eyeball it.
On Day 2 you cut your water in half from the high level of the previous days. Then, on Day 1, the day of your big event, don't drink more than a liter of water. Many physique athletes cut their water to nothing, but in my opinion this is extreme. I don't recommend ever cutting your water to zero.
So why do we water load and then dehydrate? The amount of water you consume determines how your body handles fluid balance. When you take in excess water, your body just flushes it out. By drinking a higher amount of water you trick your body into flushing more when you cut back, which results in your muscles looking tighter.
The combined effects of carb-loading, salt avoidance, and water depletion will suck as much fluid into the muscle tissue as possible. In the end, your muscles are going to be fuller, rounder, and harder. You'll see definition you never knew you had!
7 Don't Mess With Your Workouts
Believe it or not, almost everyone does this wrong. With your big day coming quickly you probably think you should train longer and harder. That's a bad strategy.
Instead, from Days 10 to 5, continue doing the exact same workouts you were doing before starting to cut. This is no time to try something new, either in the weight room or in terms of cardio. If you want to do anything, shorten your rest periods between sets to help you burn through your glycogen.
The only trick I could recommend—and only if you really need to drop some extra weight—is to add one additional 20-minute cardio session, or do some quick intervals at some point in the day.
You must not do any training on Days 3, 2 and 1. Nothing! Take the time off and rest. Practice your posing if you have a photo shoot. This is not optional; this is mandatory!
Why no training on the last three days? Your initial goal over the 10 days is to deplete your glycogen levels with the diet and workouts; the end goal is to replenish it. You can't replenish your glycogen stores and achieve a full look if you're working out! If you stop working out while jacking up the carbs and cutting your water, your glycogen stores will hit their limits! However, any form of exercise will burn through the glycogen you need to look full, round and hard.
8 Get Rest
As you get closer to your deadline you'll begin to feel the effects of the diet and training and start looking gaunt. Your body will also increase its cortisol levels which can result in losing muscle and storing water around your midsection.
A great way to avoid this is to rest. Strive for at least eight hours each night, and if you can get more, do so. If you can take a nap during the day, take it.
9 Get A Massage
Getting a good quality massage will help relieve the discomfort you feel from your training and diet. But you'll be surprised how much loosening your body can improve your spirit and help you make the most of your final few workouts.
Pleasures are few and far between during a major cut like this, so pamper yourself where you can. If it helps, you can justify the increased expense because your food budget goes down over the 10 days.
10 Get A Tan
This is an easy one. Tanned skin simply looks better under the lights, and it will showcase more definition. If you're afraid of getting a real tan because of the dangerous rays, well, a fake tan never hurt anyone—although bad fake tans have bruised a lot of egos!
For $30 you can get a professional spray-on tan, which is well worth the cost if you're preparing for a show or photo shoot. Keep in mind, that even a good fake tan almost never looks as good as a natural tan, so if you can get some natural sunlight in gradual increments each day, you'll look much healthier.
Ideally, you should start the tanning process a month out, and increase the time slowly and gradually. If you were to tan heavily in the final 10 days with no base, you'd likely burn. A good month-long tanning schedule could be:
- Week 1: 5 minutes max every other day
- Week 2: 10 minutes max every other day
- Week 3: 15 minutes max every other day
- Week 4: 20 minutes max every other day
I recommend you journal your 10 days, because this is a learning experience. You may find you lose too much weight and just look flat and ultra-skinny. That means your calories and carbs are too low. You'll want to adjust higher next time.
For example, at the Fitness Atlantic Championships last year, I looked too skinny while loading on 8 oz of carbs every three hours and didn't place high enough to win my pro card. Two weeks later, I competed again at the Quebec Championships and loaded on 10 oz of carbs every 2.5 hours, and I looked better, but still not as full as I wanted—although I looked good enough to win my card. A few months later at the WBFF World Championships, I loaded up on 10 oz of carbs every 2 hours and looked my absolute best! It took me three shows to nail it, and without tracking it carefully, I would not have been able to manage the outcome.
Keep in mind: this diet is about looking your best. It's not about performance and I fully understand this is not considered "healthy." Don't put your body through this extreme experience until it's going to be worth it!
You will be hungry during the depletion phase. Accept it. But once you get the compliments and pictures from your big day, you'll look back and say, "That wasn't so bad!"