So, You Want To Compete In Your First Show?

Whatever the choice of activity to get fit is, whether running, biking, lifting, swimming, etc., a small population will be taken enough with their chosen sport to want to take the challenge on of competing.  For runners, some will get the bug to prepare for and run a marathon.  For the gym rats who love lifting heavy, some will get the bug to enter a powerlifting meet.  Other gym rats will gravitate to physique competitions.  Since I get asked about the latter pretty regularly, let me share some lessons learned and advice.

Prepping For the Prep

First, look inward and decide how bad do you want it. Achieving contest shape is really, really f*cking hard.  Many people will quit their prep at some point as it is 12-20 weeks of long hours in the gym and a diet that becomes tougher with diminishing carbs along the way.  It will be hard, time consuming, and leave you tired.  You want to achieve an extreme goal, so it will take an extreme investment.  If it is important enough, you will make it happen; if not, you will find excuses and be like most people and quit.  As such, it needs to be something you really want to do – and are prepared to do.  Motivation will allow you to have the discipline to get it done.

Second, before you start, you need to be somewhat in shape.  Typically, you can expect to lose about 1% body fat about every 2 weeks.  If you are 12 weeks out and are a fluffy 25% bf, you are not going to make it.  Going extreme with cardio and diet is not really a smart option as the body will burn a lot of muscle in the process; besides, you will likely plateau with that approach.  Ideally, a male to should be no more than 13-15% at 16-20 weeks out to get in needed condition.

You will also need a prep coach.  Most people can achieve reasonable weight loss on their own, but this is different.   This is about getting on stage at a different level.  You need an independent viewpoint to honestly assess where you are and make changes to diet and cardio accordingly.  People regularly overestimate or underestimate where they are; that is why you need an independent critique.  The last weeks of a prep can also play mind tricks – i.e. you will look small and flat because carbs will decline.  A coach can guide you through what to expect. If you cannot afford a coach, wait until you will have the money to do it right.

Finding a Prep Coach

Unfortunately, being a coach is a low barrier to entry these days.  Many unqualified people start coaching and offer services for cheap to get clients, but you get what you pay for.  There are people who have competed once who think they are capable of coaching even though they have no experience doing so.  Find one that has a track record of winning clients and willing to give you referrals.

To find a coach, ask successful competitors who they used for their prep and their experience with that coach.  Another route would be to visit a local hardcore gym in your area (check out the real gym registry I have on my site to find one).  Gyms like that are wired into the competition scene; you can talk to competitors training there or trainers at the gym on recommendations for a good coach.

Once you identify a candidate, you should meet them and have a consultation.  A good coach should ask you your goals, any health or physical limitations, and so on.  They should assess your physique and make honest assessments on where you are and what a good show would be to target.  Ask questions …a good coach encourages and is never afraid to answer about the rationale behind their approaches and methods to prepping for a show.  Another key is going to be the personal rapport.  A prep goes better with someone who you naturally connect with.

The Prep

Once you hire a coach, there is nothing to do but to do it.  Follow instructions to the letter.  Surprisingly, many people spend money on a coach and then do not follow the diet or cardio instructions.  The reason you hired an experienced coach is because they know more about this than you do.

A coach is going to update your plan based on how you are progressing.  If you have been cheating with extra food or skipping meals, own up to it; otherwise, it makes updating a plan difficult.  As noted above, the prep will inevitably get tougher along the way as the show gets closer.  Feed off the results you are seeing to propel you forward.   As well, you just need to remind yourself this diet and training is short-term, not a new lifestyle.

Peak Week

The days up to the contest often get referred to as “peak week.” Sometimes people will try drastic changes to peak for a show…often, they don’t work.  If you are contest ready the week before (and if you have a good coach and you followed instructions, you should be), you should have to do minimal changes for peak week.  Sometimes, trying to improve your look by 2% has a greater than 50% chance of backfiring…so the risk/reward ratio on such things is low. Particularly after you have spent 3-4 months getting ready, you don’t want to blow it by doing something radical the days before the show.  One common trap is for competitors to go overboard on “drying out” to maximize definition in cases where they did not get fully conditioned.   If you are not fully conditioned, no amount of water loss/”drying out” is going to tighten your physique up to be competitive. You cannot tighten up fat.

Be A Good Sport

The sport is subjective…and, no doubt, there is sometimes politics at play at some contests or organizations that sanction a show.  If you don’t get the placing you wanted, be a good sport, talk to the judges on their feedback, and learn from the experience to be better next time.  Reflect if you did everything you could have…if you didn’t, the blame is with you and not your coach or the judges.  In particular, those that did not follow their coach’s advice and then tell others their coach was not able to dial them into their show really lose respect in the community.  If you did not follow your coach’s advice and blame them, you are short in the integrity department.


If you have any questions or comments, leave a comment or message me on Instagram.  I enjoy helping people get to the stage to grow the sport.

(Contest photo credit: James Allen/NPC Texas.  Photo is from the 2016 NPC Johnnie Jackson Classic held August 2016 in Fort Worth)

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