By Brian Whitacre, Ph.D.
If you are reading this article, chances are you have experienced the rigors of preparing for a bodybuilding or figure contest at least once in your life. This means that you are already significantly more dedicated than the vast majority of gym-goers, not to mention the legions of people who neglect their health altogether. And you might also differ from these people because you share in the opinion that I am about to express. In no uncertain terms, the easiest part of preparing for a physique competition is the time you spend training!
To those on the outside, it appears that the most difficult aspect of what we do is the time spent in the gym straining and sweating while constantly pushing ourselves beyond the comfort zone. True competitors know, however, that training is really the least
challenging part of a physique athlete’s regimen. In contrast, the most demanding aspect of being a competitor in this sport is the rest of the day when we must mesh our “real lives” with the hobby that we dedicate ourselves to so fully.
The psychological component of bodybuilding is without question the most challenging part of competing. And it’s often what separates winners from losers. For example, it’s relatively easy to knock out a set of heavy curls in the gym and then take a minute break to prepare for your next set, but regulating every gram of food that goes into your mouth for months on end? Now, that’s a challenge! And maintaining high energy levels and a positive attitude in other aspects of your life can also be extremely difficult as the diet continues and your body fat bites the dust. For this reason, many competitors find their personal lives suffering as the contest grows near with most of their attention focused on that single day in the future when they hope that all of their hard work will pay off. Unfortunately, regardless of the eventual outcome, damage done to other aspects of your life during this period can be irrevocable. I have competed at the Worlds in six of the last seven years and while I have enjoyed a good measure of success, I’m certainly not immune to the psychological challenges associated with our sport. So, with this in mind, I will offer my perspective on being a bodybuilder by focusing less on the specifics of training and dieting (after all, there are more than enough articles written about those topics) and more on the mental facet of competing. I am hoping that at least some of the elements of my own contest preparation might resonate with other competitors to help them through their difficult time. This includes my approach to dieting (26 weeks without a cheat meal), having a demanding real-world job (college professor) and normal family commitments (happily married with first child born last year). When you prepare for a contest over a relatively long period of time, there are bound to be instances when your job or family life interrupts even your best-laid plans. Travel commitments that are part of your job (often to places not in proximity to a decent gym) or sicknesses in your family (including you!) can wreak havoc on the carefully-crafted routine of a competitive bodybuilder. But I’m happy to report that I have developed a solution or at least a coping strategy to counter events like these. In challenging times, I revert to what economists call “constrained optimization.” That is, I try to optimize every aspect of my contest prep; however, only within constraints associated with things that are, frankly, much more important to me than a bodybuilding contest will ever be. So, for example, is it optimal to train in a hotel gym? Absolutely not! But is it the best I can do given work commitments that I do not
want to shirk? Yes, it is. Therefore, it’s a logical compromise. Similarly, is it optimal for bodybuilding success to miss a scheduled workout when your child or spouse is sick and needs you at home? Of course not, but the way I see it, any bodybuilder who chooses a workout over family has their priorities completely out of whack. So, in such circumstances, the trick is to optimize your bodybuilding preparation subject to the commitment you make to your family. So, for example, a logical strategy might be to tend to your family first and then either shorten your workout or re-schedule it for later in the week.
Constrained optimization will help you keep perspective when getting ready for a physique competition, but you must be careful not to use it as an excuse to cheat your preparation. For example, is it optimal to eat completely clean food that you prepare for yourself all of the time including when traveling? Absolutely. But is it feasible to do so when traveling for days at a time? Many people would think not, but I strongly disagree. For example, I have perfected the art of bringing 4-5 days worth of food in a carry-on cooler and even prepping two weeks’ worth in advance over the course of one weekend if necessary. So, in this case, optimization calls for no constraint: It merely requires a greater level of dedication, which is ultimately what separates champion from also-ran in our sport.
Consistent with “Murphy's Law,” an inevitable part of contest preparation is that something will always go wrong at some point. The important thing to remember is to stay focused no matter how bad it seems at the moment because how you respond in such circumstances speaks volumes about you as a competitor and, more importantly, as a person. I have gotten to the point where I actually look forward to something going wrong because it increases the challenge and consequent reward once I reach “the finish line” (although I must admit, I do prefer that it happens earlier in the process rather than later!). Overcoming unexpected obstacles is also beneficial for your mindset because after you do so, you can relax a bit and push forward knowing that the worst is behind you.
While the entire contest preparation period is demanding, I find the first couple months of dieting to be relatively easy. The only frustrating part is the desire to get lean quickly despite knowing from past experience that a slow and steady process generates the best results. So, I have to keep reminding myself to “pull in the reins.” The demanding part begins when I have been picture perfect with my diet for 20 weeks and am close, but not quite yet where I need to be. At that point, low-carb days combined with continued low fat intake (and resulting lowered testosterone levels) can challenge the mindset of even the most seasoned competitor. For example, you might find yourself quickly frustrated with co-workers, friends and even family members who simply don’t comprehend the demands you are placing on yourself and the extreme sacrifices you are making. So, as you approach this point, it’s essential to step back and re-evaluate your priorities. For example, if you almost snap at someone when they simply talk about their lunch plans or mention how full they are, you should take a deep breath and remind yourself that you and you alone are responsible for what you are putting yourself through. And any time it is no longer worth your while to maintain such commitment, you can give it up with no strings attached. But if you decide to stay the course, no one should have to suffer alongside you as you prepare. And this is particularly the case for your loved ones. What is more, if you constantly call attention to how meticulous you have to be on your diet or are always moody on low-carb days, you’ll quickly have people around you hating the fact that you compete and wishing that you did not. Trust me when I tell you that this is not an ideal setup for fulfillment from participation in our sport.
Preparing for and competing in a physique competition can be one of the most rewarding experiences for you and your loved ones. But it can also be an extremely detrimental one if you do not keep your priorities in line. I love drug-free bodybuilding because it requires both physical and mental strength. The challenge is to push yourself to the brink in both of these components without going over the edge in either case.
: Brian Whitacre is an associate professor at Oklahoma State University and a four-time WNBF lightweight World Champion. He can be reached via his website (www.brianwhitacre.net
) or by email at