As a new year begins, it is natural to seek out new challenges and set goals for the months ahead. This is an excellent exercise to practice, and if you haven't already, we suggest you find a pen and paper and write out some affirmations for 2019! What do you want to achieve? How do you want to feel? Where will you be 12 months from now?
January is a popular time for people to start a diet full stop. Most take their foot off the gas over Christmas. It's normal to have gained a little more weight than you are comfortable with and now is the time we start looking ahead to that 'summer body'. You may even be looking to do something more extreme and be considering dieting for your first bodybuilding competition. I myself have competed in 6 shows between 2016 and 2018 so am well aware of what it takes to get up on stage.
Unfortunately, many people rush into this process. Prep for a show requires much more sacrifice and dedication than achieving a six pack for a holiday. If you have ever been lean enough to be competitive in bodybuilding, I can guarantee that you felt horrendous and your health suffered as a result. The consequences may have been short term, such as; fatigue, always being cold, poor sleep. Or they could be more long term and severe, such as; loss of period (amenorrhea) and other hormone irregularities, in both men and women, which can affect mood, fertility, and even lead to things like hair loss/growth. You owe it to yourself to be as educated as possible going into this process and decide whether you are willing to potentially spend years dealing with the repercussions.
1) Are calories high enough?
If you are currently on very low calories and a lot of cardio but still carrying excess body fat, you're going to have a pretty miserable time of prep. Starting a 16, 20 week diet like this gives you very little room to push without experiencing some nasty side effects. Metabolism needs to begin in a great place. One of the easiest ways to increase metabolic rate and therefore the amount of calories that you can eat, is by increasing lean tissue. We will discuss this more in point 3.
Your first goal should be getting to a place where you are able to maintain an aesthetically pleasing physique on high calories (for a smaller female 2000+, but preferably higher, some female competitors can push 3000 with good body composition) and little to no cardio in the offseason. The more calories you have to play with initially, the longer and more efficiently you can diet with less side effects. This is not to say that you won't have to dig deep in the latter stages still, it is almost inevitable that the process will become unhealthy eventually.
It is often beneficial to have a coach to put you through a small mini cut then a structured reverse diet/building phase to get food as high as possible before beginning a prep. If you are serious about doing well in bodybuilding, playing the long game shouldn't be an issue.
2) How is your relationship with food?
If you are prone to binge eating, or have ever suffered with any sort of disordered eating, this is not for you. Dieting down is often the easiest part emotionally. Post show, it's not unheard of for someone to gain 20lbs in the first couple of weeks. After spending months working towards a few short minutes on stage, competitors often feel lost and without a goal. Some will indulge in all of the treats they haven't been able to have, or can't accept that their show day physique was completely unsustainable, and spend the rest of the year trying, unsuccessfully, to re-start diets to get back to that look. Even if you haven't had problems with food before, it is impossible to predict how you will react to post-show in that vulnerable, depleted state.
From what I've seen, the people who deal best with post-show have minimal emotional attachment to food (tend not to have cravings, can eat the same meals day in day out no problem, don't treat food as a reward or punishment) and can see their body objectively ie. 'I'm gaining some weight to put myself in the best position to build muscle', 'I'm extremely lean right now but only short term for the purpose of competition'.
3) Have you built enough muscle to be competitive?
You might be able to follow the diet, do the cardio, pose like a pro, but if you haven't built the foundations it will be for nothing. Certain body parts, such as glutes and biceps, tend to look better when we're carrying more fat. If you're not confident that you've got a good shot at winning your qualifier when the fat has been stripped off, it is probably worth investing at least another 6 months into growing.
Spend time around people who have been successful in bodybuilding, and look at as many photos of line ups as you can. Can you hold your own against them?
4) Can you afford it?
Competing in bodybuilding is not a cheap hobby. Don't get 8 weeks into a prep then realise you're in over your head with the cost as it builds up. To give an idea of some prices (and this is nowhere near a comprehensive list).
-Show entry (not including federation membership): £30-100+
These are a few key things that you might not be thinking of right now. That's not to mention travel, posing coaching, food, supplements, gym membership...
Take a long think about if this is realistic, and if you are willing to sacrifice other things through the year such as holidays or a nicer car for the sport.
5) What is your motivation?
I can promise you here, you can tell the people who get on stage 'for the experience' from the people who live the bodybuilding lifestyle 365 days a year a mile off. If you are ok with not placing, fair enough, but as we've discussed, prep requires sacrifice, money and may come with a whole host of health problems. If your motivation is social media, promoting your business (as a personal trainer, for example) or anything less than complete passion for the sport, you might want to question if it's worth it. Save yourself some money, and diet down for a fitness photoshoot. That way, you can still have pictures to post and something to be proud of.
With these things in mind, we hope that you have a better idea of what it takes. We're certainly not trying to deter people from competing, but it isn't all glitter and trophies! Whatever your goals in and out of the gym this year are, we wish you the best of luck in achieving them.