By Lara McGlashan, CPT | Photos by Gregory James
Contest prep is a tricky beast. Everything needs to be perfectly balanced in order to hit that stage like a sledgehammer and make a dramatic impression on the judges. Everyone walks their own mile when it comes to individualized training protocols, but there’s something to be said about learning from the pros. Since Brandon Curry is known for his spot-on conditioning and paper-thin skin, he’s the one to heed when it comes to advice on leaning out. We picked The Prodigy’s brain to divine the most pragmatic strategies for cutting up and emerged with some nuggets you can use in your own efforts to shed those winter pounds.
Be Smart Off-Season
For many guys, the off-season is license to run through the Costco candy aisle with their mouths open, but in order to make his contest prep easier, Curry doesn’t play that game. “Off-season I eat a lot of the same foods I do pre-contest. I try to stay within 20 pounds of my last contest weight, more or less, and am consistent with that from year to year,” he says.
This strategy allows Curry to maintain his moderate 12-week contest prep without having to do hours of cardio to strip off excess fat. He also doesn’t need to slash his calories so severely that he risks losing muscle along with body fat as he leans out. During the first four weeks of his prep, however, Curry does allow himself one cheat meal a week, but the final eight weeks pre-contest are mean and clean with no junk in sight.
Take-Away Tip: “Everything in moderation” is an essential mantra. Yes, you can have the occasional pizza and beer night with your friends, but if that starts to become three or four days of gluttony, remind yourself that it’s always easier to maintain some level of conditioning than completely lose your shape and fight to regain it.
Skip the Scale
Curry has a general idea of his starting weight going into his prep, and of course he knows his stage weight from his last competition, but that is where the numbers end. “During those three months of contest prep, I don’t weigh myself at all,” he says. “The goal is to get as lean as possible, and stepping on the scale could completely throw me off mentally if I see the numbers dropping quickly. If I’m worrying about losing muscle size rather than shedding body fat, it could completely tweak my focus and make me lose faith in my program.” Instead of relying on the scale, Curry uses photographs and the advice of his trainer to keep him on track and leaves the numbers for the pre-contest weigh-in.
Take-Away Tip: Mental focus can make or break your journey, so avoid things that could freak you out and divert your attention. If you easily obsess over numbers, maybe the scale isn’t the best way to track progress and a friend or trainer can give you a better perspective.
Not all protein is created equal, especially when dieting down for a show. “The first thing I do is cut out the steak I enjoy during the off-season, since beef typically has more fat and calories per ounce,” Curry says. He replaces that beef with skinless chicken breasts and extra-lean ground turkey for each of his seven meals at the inception of his plan. As the weeks tick by, he drops the turkey and replaces it with white fish such as tilapia and orange roughy.
“I might also drop the chicken and go to all-white fish for all my meals, depending on how I’m shaping up,” he says. “Fish gives you that thin-skinned look since it is very lean and has fewer calories per ounce than poultry. It also boosts your metabolism, as it’s quickly assimilated by the body. You’re never hungrier than when you’re on an all-fish diet, trust me!”
Take-Away Tip: Protein is the big kahuna of all macronutrients and should be eaten with every meal. It supplies the essential amino acids your muscles need to maintain size even when you’re dieting down. Take a good, hard look at your meal plan and see where you can make adjustments to keep your protein intake the same while simultaneously cutting calories. Eat the same protein portions gram for gram for each meal, but replace high-fat foods such as beef and salmon with lower-fat ones such as chicken breast and fish to drop body fat more quickly.
Carbs have different effects on different people: some guys eat a baked potato and lose all their cuts, while others can destroy a box of Cap’n Crunch and be ripped to the bone. Curry is one of the lucky ones who can eat carbohydrates all the way through his contest prep and still get great results. “I have rice, grits, oatmeal and sweet potatoes as well as vegetables for all my meals most of the time,” he says. “I might drop the starchy carbs out of my last two meals and replace them with just vegetables as I get closer to the show, but it all depends on what I’m looking like.” Curry doesn’t shy away from simple carbs, either; he has a Gatorade postworkout to quickly replenish his glycogen stores and spare his muscles from becoming metabolized for fuel.
Take-Away Tip: Everyone needs carbs for energy and stamina, but what carbs you eat and how you time them throughout the day is a personal issue that depends on your metabolism and genetics. A good strategy is eating starchy carbs before and after your workout, and fibrous carbs the rest of the day. This timing gives you plenty of energy beforehand to power through your workout and then replenish glycogen stores afterward while still creating a good deficit for fat loss. Play with your carb intake and timing in the off-season and see how certain things affect you. Make notes about their effects on your body and formulate a get-lean plan based on your results.
Eating a lot of carbs does have a tradeoff, however, and for Curry this means eating very low-fat. “I don’t have added fat in my meals for most of my prep,” he says. “I do cook my meats with a tablespoon of olive oil or coconut oil, but that’s pretty much it for fats.” Occasionally as he approaches show time, he might throw in some extra olive oil or avocado to add fullness to his muscles, but that’s something he discusses with his trainer in the final few days of his prep.
Take-Away Tip: Fats are tricky since they are very high in calories (nine per gram), and many guys shy away from them when trying to get lean. But if you’re carb-sensitive and have been slashing your starchy carbs to get lean, the satiety provided from fat can be a saving grace. Coconut oil and other medium-chain-triglycerides (MCTs) are easily assimilated and have actually been studied for their ability to oxidize fat. They will provide you with energy during your workouts while helping you maintain your muscle mass as you cut your calories. Again, it’s a balancing game and everyone needs to experiment with their fat intake and see how it affects individual chemistry.
Like most pro bodybuilders, Curry has a pill box the size of a briefcase for all the supplements he uses to stay in the game. In terms of training enhancers, he’ll have 15 to 20 grams of BCAAs and 5 grams of creatine postworkout along with a whey shake of 60 grams of protein and water. “This is essential for recovery,” Curry says. “Postworkout is when your muscles are in the most need of nutrients, so providing them with everything they require means faster recovery.”
In addition, Curry takes zinc and vitamins D and E, as well as ginkgo biloba “for mental sharpness and enhanced blood flow.” For energy he uses yerba mate or green tea, and at night he’ll take some extra fiber to keep things moving along without bloating and for a healthy GI tract. As he gets closer to his contest date, Curry may also add a shake made with whey and water to give him a final amino boost before bed.
“Hydrolyzed whey protein is a more anabolic source due to its higher leucine content,” says Curry. “My understanding is that in the whey versus casein battle, whey always came out on top as far protein synthesis is concerned, so I stick to whey for my shakes.”
Take-Away Tip: Everyone can benefit from a postworkout dose of nutrients in the form of protein and fast-acting carbs to replenish muscle glycogen and enhance recovery. And extra vitamins and minerals are always a good bet, especially if you’re eating a restricted diet that might not contain the full spectrum of micronutrients.
Rub It Out
Curry is a big proponent of massage. “Soft-tissue massage helps reduce inflammation and brings up details in my muscle bellies that I wouldn’t see otherwise,” he says. During contest prep, Curry has a massage once a week for one to two hours to help heal his body and aid in recovery, flushing the waste products out of his tissues.
Take-Away Tip: A 90-minute deep-tissue massage may not make your definition pop the way it does for a pro bodybuilder in peak condition, but it’s a great way to accelerate recovery. The downside is the cost. If you can’t talk your significant other into lending a hand (or elbow), look for a local massage school; students always need practice bodies, and you can get great deals on hour-long sessions.
Though many might consider contest prep a time to ease back in the gym and focus on the minutia of muscle groups and details, Curry ramps up his intensity over each week of his preparation. Though it sounds counterintuitive, Curry explains it this way: “Off-season you’re carrying a little more weight, so you’re not very conditioned. As I start to lose body fat, I have more energy and more stamina, and can do more sets, more reps and even more training days than I can off-season.”
Another variable that changes as he comes closer to contest time is rest between sets. “Because I’m getting more conditioned, my recovery is faster and therefore my rest time between sets is automatically shorter,” he says. “It’s not something I do on purpose but is the result of getting into shape and being able to pick up the pace.”
Take-Away Tip: Boosting training intensity during contest prep is a surefire way to burn more calories, strip body fat and make your program that much more metabolic, which can mean less cardio. Listen to your body; if you’re finishing a workout with energy to spare, push it harder next time by cutting your rest or doing more sets and reps.
Pump Up the Volume
If you’ve ever seen how a powerlifter eats, it’s obvious that there is a very close relationship between strength and calorie intake. As Curry gets closer to contest time and takes in fewer calories, his peak strength begins to diminish, so he replaces heavy loads with training volume in order to maintain size. Here is where techniques such as drop sets, supersets and giant sets come into play. “These techniques are a great way to challenge yourself without having to worry about how much weight you’re lifting,” he says. “I especially like drop sets and supersets for the big muscle groups like back, chest and legs, and will do a couple drop sets or supersets each training session to add volume to the workout while getting that cardiovascular effect that is inherent with this kind of training.”
Take-Away Tip: Use drop sets for the last set of each exercise in a workout, or do an entire workout of supersets or giant sets to change things up. Because they add intensity as well as volume, use a slightly lighter weight and go for reps to burn it out and boost your heart rate. You’ll get a sick pump and will drive blood and nutrients into the muscles to make them grow.
Curry isn’t just a pretty face — he has a college degree in exercise physiology from Middle Tennessee State University, and he uses his smarts when planning his training schedule. For all three months of his contest prep, Curry implements a 3:1 periodization strategy that would annihilate most guys, even in the off-season. “I’ll do three weeks of twice-a-day training, and then one week of recovery training,” he explains. “Increasing my frequency like this, I feel, increases density in the muscle, and if you can recover from it properly with good nutrition and rest, then why not hit the gym twice a day?” During Curry’s recovery week, he drops down to one training session a day using high-intensity but lower volume, with a little added rest between sets to give his body a chance to heal up and get ready for the next round of two-a-days.
Take-Away Tip: Overtraining is always a risk with doubling up on workouts, so paying close attention to your body is a necessity. (If you’re always fatigued, aren’t sleeping well and the loads you lift aren’t going up week to week, you’re probably overtraining.) Move slowly into a two-a-day plan, adding one or two extra training days per week until you build up your stamina and strength. During your recovery week, get plenty of rest and sleep, and make sure you’re completely ready before beginning another tough week of two-a-days.
Curry has been blessed with a quicksilver metabolism and does not require a lot of cardio to get peeled. “The first month of my prep I do 20 minutes every morning at home before breakfast, increasing that to 30 minutes as I get closer to the show,” he says. He likes to change things up, using a variety of equipment such as the bike, StepMill, Cybex Arc and a Rebounder. “I love the Rebounder to wake me up, get my lymphatic system going and get me loose,” he says. “I’ll do 10 minutes on there, then move to another piece of equipment for the duration of my session to switch it around.”
Take-Away Tip: When is the best time to do cardio? When you’re most likely to get it done. One guy might swear by doing it before breakfast on an empty stomach, another might do it right before bed. Determine what’s best for you. If you’re training super-hard, you might want to do it separately from your weightlifting session in order to improve the quality of the workout and minimize catabolism.