I have been competing as a natural competitor in the NPC for four years. Make no mistake; I have no problem with bodybuilders that choose to use pharmaceuticals. We are all in the same subculture and have far more similarities than we do differences. However, I know that the education processes of a natural and unnatural trainer can be quite different.
It can be confusing to many young natural competitors as to what to expect and how to maximize their results. What should be done in the off-season? What supplements work best? What should your mindset be?
I will attempt to answer these questions and many others in the following article. This article is intended for those people that compete, are thinking of competing, or if you have an occasion to be ready for, i.e. a wedding, vacation, reunion, etc. Some of this knowledge is supported by science, and some of it is supported by personal experience.
As they say, "What happens in real life is sometimes different than what is found in the laboratory." I have the unique perspective of being educated extensively in the fields of Exercise Science and Strength and Conditioning as well as being a competitive bodybuilder.
Cardiovascular Exercise: Off Season
First things first, cardio should be done year round. Not aerobics though, what you want to do is high intensity interval training (HIIT). No, it does not burn muscle. Where are all these people that are burning massive amounts of muscle anyway? They seem to be the exception rather than the rule.
From my experience, performing cardio all year has had many beneficial effects. One benefit is that I can recover better in between my lifting sets. I like to keep a quick pace, and a higher aerobic and anaerobic threshold enhances my recovery. It helps to keep me leaner than I normally would be in the off-season.
Many of you probably wonder, "What is the point to being leaner in the winter months?" Well, it will allow you to visually assess your progress more, such as how much size you are putting on and where. And, it will make life easier for you when it comes time to diet and get rid of excess body fat. So, for that wannabe bodybuilder that tells you cardio is no good for muscle, explain to him that the long aerobic cardio he does before a contest is no good for muscle, but interval training can be quite beneficial. The benefits far outweigh any negatives.
Resistance Training: Weights
Do not begin to train lighter when you start your cutting diet. It will not help to cut you up any more. Your goal at this stage is to maintain what you have worked so hard to build. If the body senses that it doesn't need the muscle, it will get rid of it in a hurry. And there is no better way to send this message to the nervous system than to start training with lighter weights. If you have a good nutrition plan in place, you don't even need to get weaker. Don't get fooled into becoming weaker because people say, "That is what is supposed to happen."
That brings me to my second point. You are going to have many "gurus" tell you that what you are doing isn't going to work. They will say that what you are doing is not the way it is supposed to be done. Ignore them! Just because people have been training a certain way for so long doesn't mean that it is the best way or the only way. Do the majority of bodybuilders train like Dorian Yates and Mike Mentzer, with their low amount of working sets? No! But would you argue their results?
I don't think so. Every gym has their "expert". But many times, the expert has never competed, or if so did not place. Find what works for you and continue to evolve. The body is always adapting, so don't stick to a program that has stopped working just because your "expert" says so.
Don't accuse other bodybuilders of being on the juice. Who cares if they are! Ultimately, this sport is a personal journey. You are competing against yourself only. If you take a first place trophy, great, but if you are in this for the trophies, you better re-think your choice of hobbies. We have what Freud termed an ego. Don't let this cause you to be jealous of bodybuilders that are bigger and better than you. Maybe they have been doing it longer, or maybe they are gifted.
You can learn something from everyone. So, even if the guy you love to accuse of being "not natural" truly is using, that doesn't mean you can't strike up a conversation and even become friends.
And don't waste time criticizing other people in the gym. If they want your help, they will ask. Criticizing others does nothing positive for you; it will only lead to a negative state of mind. Focus on yourself and improving. Yes, you will see some of the craziest looking exercises, but what gym doesn't have these?
Bodybuilding And Modesty
Be modest. If someone asks what you are getting ready for, tell him or her. Don't brag and constantly talk about it. There is nothing like arrogance to make people want to see you fail. If, on the other hand, you are humble, people will support you all the way through until you finally reach your goal.
Research And Reading
Read as much as you can. Many times, you will read conflicting information from different authorities in the sport. That is okay. You can take what you need and throw the rest out with the garbage. Educate yourself on the sport, and you will be that much more confident with your training and nutrition.
Knowledge is power and that applies to bodybuilding as well. From reading and experience, you will or should develop your own philosophy on bodybuilding. Your philosophy should reflect your goals. Again, it may differ from your friend's philosophy, but that is okay. As long as it works for you, that is what matters.
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From Reading And Experience, You Will Or Should Develop
Your Own Philosophy On Bodybuilding.
Ketogenic diets work for getting ripped when done right. For those of you new to this, a ketogenic diet is one that is basically five percent or less of your calories in the form of carbs and an increase in the amount of fat you take in. It will switch your metabolism over to using ketones (a by-product of fatty acid oxidation) as an energy source.
Your brain will do everything in its power to trick you and convince you that you shouldn't go on some type of keto-diet. Remember, it isn't permanent; you are trying to get ripped. If these diets are done right, you will have a carbohydrate based day which can manipulate your hormones to help you hold onto or even build muscle while getting ripped up. Bottom line, trust me, these diets are the best and most sure-fire way to get ripped for the majority of us.
Judging Your Results
Use body composition and the scale as useful tools, but don't rely completely on them. Whether your goal is to get shredded for the summer or for an actual contest, rarely will any one ask you your body fat or how much you weigh. They care about what you look like. Don't get a false sense of security because your "expert" says you are 9% body fat, yet you lift up your shirt and there is no sign of any abdominal definition. Trust the mirror, it doesn't lie.
Another great test that I have learned to use is the double mirror test. This applies to those of us that are trying to push the limits of what they body can do and get down to a ridiculously low body fat of 4-6%. Take a small mirror and hold it in front of you with a big mirror behind you. Remember, this is to be done in nothing but your birthday suit (naked). Look at your glutes, are they lean and tight, or do they still look like they are holding a lot of fat? Be honest. If it is the latter, you still have a lot of work to do.
Because of the fat cell receptors located in the lower body, this will usually be the last place for the fat to melt off, if at all. But like I said, if your goal is to be truly shredded, this test comes in handy.
Remember why you are doing what you are doing. Nobody is making you do it. Don't walk around with an attitude because you are hungry. If you are that miserable, stop! You have a goal in mind that you started with, and that should be your motivation.
If things come too easy to us in life, they usually aren't worth having. Don't you want to know that you have what it takes to be in better shape than you ever thought possible? It is the journey that you will look back on and realize that is what helped to build your character. It is not the actual contest or event. I find that writing my goals out every day helps me to stay on track. Have a support system of friends and family as well.
Eat real food and have a sound nutrition program before you start packing away the supplements. There are no shortcuts. Make sure your calories and macronutrient breakdown are on point. Then, make sure your hydration is up to par. I don't know if it has actually been proven in the labs, but a dehydrated body doesn't burn fat efficiently.
Your body was built to survive, and water is essential to survival. If you are dehydrated, do you really think your body is going to respond well to a training program? Secondly, when water level is adequate, our muscle cells will be nice and hydrated which means more potential for growth. Once this is taken care of, a good starting point for supplements would be some flaxseed or fish oil and a good whey protein, such as Optimum Nutrition. Start with the basics and go from there.
Finding A Competition Mentor
If you are going to compete, have a plan or a go-to person ready for the final week. Don't just think that you will go see that contest guru who hasn't been helping you all along, and all of the sudden this person will know how your body works in the final week. Your brain will again start playing some nasty tricks on you as the day nears.
Don't mess up all your hard work. There is no magic trick. If you did your homework and put in the work, you will be fine. Do not cut out sodium, load potassium, cut water or sit in the sauna. Your body is much too smart for this. You are playing Russian Roulette if you dare try to manipulate any of the above factors. As a natural, the only thing that should be manipulated is the amount of carbohydrates you are eating. You should know this before you start.
Believe in what you are doing. In my opinion, this is the number one factor of whether or not you are going to be successful in reaching your goals. My best condition came when I started to train my mind just like I trained my body. You cannot separate the two. Arnold Schwarzenegger used to visualize his biceps as mountains. He believed so strongly in what he was trying to accomplish that it was not a matter of if, only when.
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If You Are Going To Compete, Have A Plan Or A
Go-To Person Ready For The Final Week.
Lastly, have fun with this journey and think outside the box! Don't take your health for granted. There are many people out there that are disabled and would trade places with you in a second. Nothing lasts forever. One day when you are older, maybe with grandchildren, you will look back on your years in the gym and wish you could have them back!