Why Most Fail...
The one thing I want to eliminate from your mind at the beginning of this article is to blame your body fat percentage on peaking. Some people start peak week at 14% body fat and think that by doing one neat, new little trick that they read about, they'll wake up Saturday morning looking like Frank Zane. You've seen them. The ones at 8% body fat who say, "Yeah, I was just holding a little water today." This article isn't for them. This is for people who know how to dial in on contest shape and now want to know exactly what to do in order to wake up Saturday morning and shout, "Eureka! (or 'Damn!' -if you're on the East Coast) - I did it!! I finally nailed my peak!!"
First of all, let's begin with how you should plan to enter peak week. If you still have to be concerned with losing "the last couple pounds" in the week before the show, you won't be able to peak properly. Peak week should be thought of as recovering slightly, being fresh, and focusing just on making sure the muscles are full and hard yet visible because of proper subcutaneous water elimination. Fat elimination should be over before this last week.
The next thing I want to erase from your thought process is the myth that you have to make extreme changes to manipulate your body into looking good on contest day. You've no doubt experimented with massive sodium loading and depletion, varying carb loading schemes, and endless water depletion schedules to try to be your biggest, hardest, and driest all at one time. You also have probably experienced the shock at looking at a flat, shriveled up, smooth physique (with it's mouth gaping open in terror) in the mirror six hours before prejudging. DO NOT PLAN ON DOING ANYTHING DRASTIC DURING PEAK WEEK!
Your body is constantly being monitored by your brain with thousands of chemoreceptors that are sending feedback on millions of chemical reactions happening in the body. It's how your brain manages to balance the chemical necessities for life. This vast neuro-hormonal-chemical network is brutally dynamic and always in flux. I'm not smart enough to predict and override these millions of reactions in my body to create an unnatural super-compensation effect exactly at prejudging and then maintain it all day.
Neither are you. What we can do is understand the cycles that our body goes through in directing water into muscles or outside of the muscle cells, the way our body stores carbohydrates, and how to gently massage these cycles so that we ride the right wave into the right day and predictably peak perfectly and naturally instead of trying to force a freaky, extreme response. That is a gamble you'll lose nine times out of ten.
How To Properly Peak...
When I peak a bodybuilder, I control protein, carbs, fat, sodium, water, and training. We start seven days from the show and I provide a chart that tells the athlete exactly what to do in what amounts each day for the entire week. I use these variables to control the normal cycles of water and glycogen flow in and out of the muscle tissue. We start out the week in a certain pattern and then each day the variables change in a subtle way to be able to predict and control peaking. Obviously, every bodybuilder is different in the amounts of each of the variables.
Some people have unbelievably fast metabolisms and some people are very carb-sensitive - two extreme differences which dictate different amounts of each nutrient variable and a slightly different schedule. But, the actual flow and cycle is still very similar. It is important to know and understand what to expect on each day so you know how to adjust. For this reason, even my "long-distance" clients have daily communication with me during peak week. I want to go through each of these variables and give you some physiological insight to why peaking is so elusive.
Carbing-up is the great myth started and continuing with 250-pound steroid using bodybuilders who consume huge amounts of food anyway and then take prescription diuretics to eliminate the steroid bloat. If this describes you, traditional carb depletion and loading may work. If you're body isn't an eighth grade science experiment out of control, let's stick with normal physiology. Even the hardest, leanest bodies cannot metabolize and shuttle glucose into muscle cells at a maximum rate without having some extracellular spill-over. Read that sentence again. You cannot deplete carbs and then supercompensate and expect all of the glucose and water to end up in the muscle.
You'll certainly fill out, but you'll also smooth out. Some a little, and some a great deal. Yes, a lot of carbs will go into the muscle, but a little or a lot will end up outside the muscle cell with a lot of water which makes you smooth. Next time you're dieting and you're fairly lean, log some comments every day in a journal. "Woke up pretty lean. Very smooth - must have been the sodium in the chips. Very vascular. Hard as a freak'n rock!" Just write down comments on how you look in the morning. Get a Bodybuilding.com workout log, they are great! I guarantee that you'll consistently be your hardest after a couple of low-carb, high-water intake days.
You may not be your biggest because the carbs aren't as high, but the lack of extraneous carbs and water under the skin makes you very tight and you appear much bigger. Who wins the show: the big soft guy or the bone-dry striated competitor? The way I carb up my clients catches the wave of glucose and water entering the muscle on the way up, but not at the expense of smoothing out on the rebound effect of over-carbing.
Saturday & Sunday
My general carb cycle for peak week is to start at the highest point on the weekend before. I start at a slightly above "normal" level on Saturday and Sunday and schedule no training. I want this weekend to be a recovery time with a refilling of glycogen. As training starts again on Monday, I slowly drop carbs each day. It's a subtle drop, not a severe depletion.
Monday Through Wednesday
The training each day, Monday through Wednesday, with the slight drop will create a sufficient carb deficit without total depletion. Depending on the client's metabolism, I keep the carbs coming down and keep the water very high all the way through Friday.
For a very high metabolism bodybuilder, I'm not going as low on the carbs during the week, and I may start re-carbing on Friday. For carb-sensitive clients it's very important to wait until Saturday to reload. By waiting until later in the week to carb up, you eliminate the chance of glycogen and water spill over. Your body can metabolize glucose very quickly and you don't have to start three days ahead of time especially if you haven't completely bottomed out with a severe carb depletion. There are also some issues with the type of carbs you use to reload. There are some that create more subcutaneous swelling due to being food allergens. It's important to know which are the most common and how they affect you.
Water is just as misunderstood as carbs. The traditional carb and water theories have people drop their water sometimes days before the show. Nothing will flatten and smooth you out faster! You have to maintain a high water intake because your muscle tissue is around 70% water. No water, no hardness - just flat, squishy muscle tissue. The reason people typically start dropping water is because they've over-carbed so much that they're already spilling glycogen and water under the skin and think, "Oh, my gosh!! I've got to get rid of this water!!" With the carb reload as I described, you won't have that problem; you'll actually get harder and harder throughout the week.
Keep the water intake up and let it follow the carbs into the muscle! If you're not over-carbed, the rest of the water will be eliminated!
Sodium also has to be cycled. Start with a moderate amount of sodium, up to two grams at the beginning of the week and around Thursday start dropping it slightly but don't eliminate it completely. If you do, you'll force water out of the muscle cell, you'll look flat and smooth, and you'll cramp like there's no tomorrow. You need approximately four times more sodium than potassium for your muscles to contract normally. Again, don't let the myths from the pharmaceutically dominated side of our sport lure you into doing things that aren't physiologically correct.
You don't have all those drug side-effects to combat in peaking properly. If you sodium load and/or deplete in a big way you're gambling with extreme chemical rebound effects that you can't possibly time. If you're lucky enough to stumble into a good effect, it will be short lived because you're on a pendulum swing that your body will adjust to and you'll look absolutely lousy in a very short time.
I also use specific tricks regarding fat intake and schedule very specific contest day meal strategies for the individual needs and characteristics of my clients. As I get to know their metabolic rates through the dieting process, I'm already planning their peak and everyone's a little different. These general guidelines, however, I hope will dispel some common mistakes and put you on a path to learn your body type and peak perfectly every time!!
About The Author
Dr. Joe Klemczewski is a WNBF Pro and has graduate degrees in health and nutrition. From his office in Evansville, Indiana he works with clients all over the country, including top WNBF Pros, using his online consulting program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.