By Ken "Skip" Hill
You’re pumped. You've worked hard during your offseason and made obvious changes by adding considerably more muscle than you had for your last contest. It's now time to implement the plan that will somehow get your hairy, fat, white ass onstage, all oiled up in a posing suit and shredded. Though there are many variables to consider when switching gears from an offseason plan to a contest-prep plan, one that I have found to be most often overlooked is the issue of recovery.
We tend to cover the obvious components of contest prep. We get the supplement plan just right; we work hard to make sure the workout and cardio plan are stepped up; and we certainly have to make sure the nutritional plan is as perfect as it can possibly be. We spare no expense paying a "guru" to help with our diet, and we'd never consider buying anything but the best supplements as well. But as important as these components might be, if you're not paying attention to your workouts in relation to recovery, you're not only gambling with your condition and ability to get freaky lean; you're also going to be lucky to hang onto that muscle that you worked so hard for during your offseason. Think about it: All those nights of heavy breathing due to stuffing yourself with food, farting constantly while being out with your friends, having to do number two so many times during the day that you wish you were ambidextrous so you wouldn’t have to worry about symmetry issues -- clearly, no one wants to go through the work of gaining muscle mass in the offseason only to mismanage their prep plan and put that muscle in jeopardy. So let’s take a closer look at training and recovery so you can keep what you've earned.
It's unusual to gain muscle mass during a contest prep diet. Sure, we all know a genetic freak who can do it, but last time I checked, 99% of us don't fall into that category. So it would behoove (nice word, I know -- that's why I’m getting paid the big money) you to forget about what everyone else does when you're planning your diet, training and supplementation. When you start worrying about what everyone else is doing, you're taking the focus off of the only person you should be paying attention to: you. Now, we all understand that we aren't going to be growing or adding more muscle mass during a contest prep phase, so the goal at hand while dieting for a contest is very simply to hang on to your current muscle. Pretty simple, right? It is if you can maximize your recovery. If you can’t control recovery, good luck maintaining that muscle.
One of the ways you can maximize recovery is by controlling your diet. Clearly -- and I would think this is pretty obvious -- you would have to be sure to make relatively subtle and incremental cuts to your calories while making subtle and incremental increases in calories that you burn, over the duration of your contest prep plan. This part doesn’t get overlooked all too often. But what gets missed are the changes you need to make to your training program.
Most competitors tend to overtrain during a contest prep phase. They do more reps and more sets, and they sometimes even train more frequently than they did in their offseason. Quite frankly, this flies in the face of logic. Follow me closely: You're increasing your volume of work, increasing your reps per set and even the frequency of your training while restricting calories consumed and burning more calories through cardio. Admittedly, this lapse in logic doesn't surprise me because most bodybuilders don't consider logic when they plan things anyway. The typical response from a bodybuilder is more. If I want to get bigger, I eat more, I take more supplements, I train longer and more often, right? Well, that's about as logical as a police officer shooting a criminal 47 times because he “just wanted to be absolutely sure he was dead.”
Logically, the correct response to training volume and frequency during precontest caloric restriction would be to decrease the workload over time. This basically means that over the course of your prep, you'd want to cut the volume of work being done and/or cut the frequency of the workouts. This is the absolute best way to ensure that you're able to recover and keep from overtraining. Recovery is no less important in a prep phase than it is in the off season.
Let’s assume that your workouts in the off season looked something like this:
Monday – Chest 12 sets, Delts 9 sets, Abs 8 sets
Tuesday – Back 12 sets, Traps 4 sets, Lower Back 4 sets
Thursday – Quads 12 sets, Hams 5 sets, Calves 8 sets
Friday – Triceps 10 sets, Biceps 8 sets, Abs 8 sets
Let's say, for example, that you're doing a 15-week prep. In this scenario, you may be able to work this schedule just fine for the first 3-5 weeks. In the first part of a prep phase, your calories shouldn’t have to be so low that you're running out of energy, so your recovery may be just fine. But by week 10 you'll likely start to feel like you'll be facing some consequences if you don't make a change. It is at this time that you could consider a few different moves.
The first option would be to drop the total workload by dropping the amount of sets done for each bodypart. You could go from doing 12 sets for back to eight or nine sets and go from doing 12 sets of quads to about eight sets. Keep in mind that as the cardio increases during a prep phase, your legs are going to take on more work, so your legs will likely need changes before most other muscle groups to keep recovery maximized.
Option two would be to reduce your workout schedule from training four days to training only three days. This change would give you one more complete day of rest, and extra recovery time will make a huge difference as your prep progresses, because as you get closer to a show, your energy drops while your need for cardio usually increases. It could end up looking something like this:
Monday – Chest, Delts, Tri's
Wednesday – Quads, Hams, Calves, Abs
Friday – Back, Traps, Biceps, Lower Back
Option three would be to take your four-day offseason schedule and keep it as a four-day rotation but only workout three days a week. This would stretch out the time before workouts are repeated and would add a good amount of time to aid and increase recovery. It could look something like this:
Monday – Chest, Delts, Abs
Wednesday – Back, Traps, Lower Back
Friday – Quads, Hams, Calves
Monday – Triceps, Biceps, Abs
Wednesday – Repeat cycle: Chest, Delts, Abs
This option adds two days to aid in recovery, yet it doesn’t change the structure of the offseason plan.
The fourth option involves doing what would be called "cruising" with or "deloading" your training. This simply means that after a certain amount of weeks you would take a week to either train very light or not train at all. Whether you train light or you don't train at all would depend on how beat up your body is at that point. If you needed more recovery and you were really feeling overtrained, you'd be wise to take the week off entirely and come back stronger the following week. These cruise or deload weeks need to be scheduled proactively, in that they shouldn't be taken when you feel beat to hell but rather when you feel pretty good but recognize a few subtle signs that you need to recover. Knowing when to take this time off will take some getting used to, but the rule is that when in doubt, that week is needed. If you choose this route, I'd recommend taking a cruise or deload week once every 5-7 weeks.
The Right Choice for Recovery
Keep in mind that you don't have to choose one of these four options exclusively. Your best bet is to tailor what you need based on a combination of these options. Personally, I prefer not to cut back on my volume, opting instead for increasing the days between workouts, and I also always use cruise weeks both during my offseason and my contest prep. What you may want or what you may need to maximize recovery may well be entirely different than what I need. Recovery is an individual issue.
The bottom line is that if you're paying attention to all of the components of your contest prep plan, you can't overlook something as important as the relationship between training and recovery. The fastest way to lose that hard-earned muscle is to not maximize recovery while on a restricted-calorie diet. It isn't always easy to consciously do less work, but you have to remember that you want to work smart first and hard second. Forget the clichés -- no one gets onstage and wins a contest because they worked harder than someone else. They win because they have the most muscle and the least amount of skin.
Ken "Skip" Hill has spent 30 years in the trenches of bodybuilding. He owns TEAM SKIP Nutritional Consulting, where he specializes in conditioning for bodybuilders and high-level athletes. You can reach Skip through his website, TEAMSKIP.net.