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Fly Solo for Your First Contest

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Do you need a dieting guru or trainers to help you get in shape? Here’s what you really need to make improvements in the gym and still have a quality of life.

Author: By Mark Dugdale, IFBB Pro; Photography: Michael Butler; Model: Mark Dugdale

[Q] Mark, I’ve read that you don’t have a coach or guru helping you out. So how do you know when you’re dialed in and what improvements need to be made? Do you just rely on the mirror?
 

[A] I’ve been competing for 17 years now and within that period I only used a trainer for about eight months. The most valuable lesson I learned is that I know my body better than anyone. I think part of the beauty of bodybuilding is that everything rides on your shoulders. Nobody is going to bust your but in the gym for you. Nobody is going to eat the boring food for you. Nobody is going to get up at the crack of dawn, tired and hungry and tear through a session of HIIT cardio for you. I relish the fact that in the end, it’s all about what I put into it.

Now, it’s somewhat easier for me because I’m confined by the 202-pound restriction of my division. I use four tools to track my progress for a contest – the mirror, bodyfat calipers, the scale and my wife. The mirror doesn’t BS you like the dude with man boobs at your gym who thinks you’re the reigning Mr. O. Bodyfat calipers are a good gauge of progress, but the mirror still trumps the numbers – both bodyfat and scale – in terms of accuracy. My wife, who has seen me prepare for tons of contests since we got married more than 12 years ago, is often my harshest critic.

 
[Q] Hey Mark, I’m a low-level amateur competitor. Do you think it’s important for me to find someone to do my show-prep diets for me, or are there some basic rules I should follow to get ready?

 
[A] I’ve seen a number of trainers take people’s money without being of much benefit. That said, I did have an uncle who competed and he helped me out with the dieting basics back when I was a teenager. My personal feeling is that you should educate yourself. Read some books, flip through MuscleMag every month and then put together a plan. I’ve found that most highly motivated competitors will obtain the knowledge and exhibit the drive to get in shape without a so-called guru. Often it’s the lazy ones who hire a trainer so they will have someone to blame if they don’t win. To track your progression, a good rule of thumb is if the skinfold numbers trend lower and the scale drops by no more than one pound per 100 pounds of bodyweight each week is. And don’t forget to consult the mirror; numbers can deceive, but the mirror won’t.
 
[Q] My wife is super-fit, and because of that, she eats anything she wants. She doesn’t really understand that eating cheesecake in front of me is torture when I’m dieting down. First, what is it like for you at home; second, do you think there’s a good way to bring this up with my wife without causing WWIII?
 
[A] You’re a man, so I will speak to you like one. Shut your mouth and be thankful you’ve got a hot wife despite her cheesecake fetish. Honestly, Christina can pretty much eat whatever she wants and stay in shape. She often orders pizza the last few weeks before a contest for her and the girls. I don’t think she consciously does it, but without fail it happens. Man up, brother. Your wife didn’t sign up to compete for that nice little trophy ⎯ you did. Be thankful she is sexy and is willing to put up with you.
 
[Q] I’m kind of a loner, but I’m dedicated. Over the years, I’ve built a solid base of muscle. I feel like the one thing that’s missing is a reliable training partner to challenge me. Do you think training partners matter, or should I just keep finding ways to push myself training solo?
 
[A] Training partners can be a huge benefit or a huge detriment. Thankfully, I have two highly motivating training partners that fuel the workouts with their energy. The last thing you want is someone who is low-energy and brings you down or who is so inexperienced that you have to carry him. I’m highly motivated, so I can certainly get great workouts going it alone, but if you can find a motivating, consistent lifting partner, then even better! It’s like a marriage though – don’t settle just because you want someone to sweat with!
 
[Q] I’ve only done a few local shows, but I take it pretty seriously. When I’m getting ready, I don’t have much time with family or friends ⎯ most of my free time is spent on the treadmill, in the refrigerator or sleeping. Not surprisingly, I feel like my wife and kids are suffering. I need balance. Help!
 
[A] Some of this cannot be avoided. The last month before a show can be very draining. I don’t turn into a monster, but Christina says I turn into a ghost. My best advice is to continue competing, but only as long as you don’t forget your primary responsibility of loving and romancing your wife and spending time with your kids.
 
What works for us given that we have three daughters? I’m given my space during those last 4¬–5 weeks and then the rest of the year it’s daddy-daughter dates for my girls and Friday night dates with Christina. In terms of time management, I do most of my cardio before the rest of the family gets out of bed. I’ll also turn Sunday afternoon into sprints at the track and make it into a game with my daughters.

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