We analyze the most important points about Nutrition in Fitness Competitors in pre-competitive periods, also known as ‘On Season’.
What is it
On-season is the preparation period which encompasses the point from which the competitor ends bulking, or the post-competitive period (since there does not necessarily have to be bulking in between) and decides to start preparing for competition.
Characteristics of a Fitness Competition
All the preparation of a fitness competitor is intended to reflect on a stage the best possible esthetic image based on the canons of the category.
However, reaching this point leads to a series of psychological and physiological alterations that must be reversed as soon as possible after competition to avoid generating serious health disorders.
Fitness competitors go on stage with a body fat percentage of 4.1-10.9% body fat in men, and 8.6-11.3% in women; depending on the category in which you compete (Chappell et al., 2018).
Achieving this physical state leads to endocrine metabolic alterations such as reductions in total and free testosterone, in IGF-1, in leptin, in dopamine concentrations, in thyroid hormone synthesis, and increases in ghrelin production.
Also alterations in normal sexual, cognitive and physical function: decreasing strength and potency, both maximum and average (Pardue et al., 2017; Mitchell et al., 2018; Fagerberg, 2018), in addition to many other alterations.
Figure I. Endocrine metabolic alterations as a consequence of energetic restriction.
How to start
Before you start preparing for a fitness competition you must have a considerable amount of muscle mass.
This is again relative to the category in which you compete, but I would always recommend that you start an on-season period with more muscle mass than you need to be competitive in your category.
If I say this, it is because the average body weight loss during a preparation is 14% in men and women (with a variability range of up to 20%).
Loss of muscle mass during on-season
It should be noted that although this stage is characterized by the loss of the maximum amount of fat possible without affecting the lean tissue, this is also impossible, especially from excessively low fat percentages.
We have case studies such as Kistler et al. (2014) where a bodybuilder who lost 13.3kg body weight in 26 weeks, falling from 17,5% to 7,4% body fat, also lost 6.6kg lean mass.
So it’s most common for the change at this stage to look like this, at best, because Jeff Nippard is an exceptional case, for knowledge, experience, and genetics:
Figure II. Jeff Nippard, natural bodybuilder.
Even if you look relatively lean, we tend to underestimate the amount of fat we need to lose, and then the trouble comes, aggressive energy deficits and drastic loss of lean mass.
Even under ideal conditions, loss of lean muscle mass is a process that will unequivocally occur to some degree.
Characteristics of preparation
Currently fitness competition trends have changed, from the average 16 weeks of preparation in the years 80-90 to an average of 32 weeks currently (Roberts et al., 2020).
Professionals vs Amateurs
Professionals tend to do longer preparations with smaller weekly weight loss (28,1 weeks with 0,5% body weight loss/week), compared to amateurs who tend to generate more aggressive calorie deficits in shorter preparations (21 weeks with 0,7% body weight loss/week).
Planning for the season should be long, the longer the better, also in case of possible interruptions that may occur (injuries, unforeseen social commitments, illness…).
Longer planning makes the energy deficit is less aggressive, predisposing to a lower-magnitude low-energy availability, and even being able to perform certain strategies in which we will go into later to control some of the negative physiological effects of the preparation.
How much fat should I lose
The higher our body fat percentage and the lower our relative lean mass amount, the more deficit we can tolerate without conditioning our muscle tissue.
The old reliable is the rule of:
- Body fat percentage / 20 = X%
- That X% is the percentage of body weight you can lose per week.
Women who have little muscle mass themselves, especially in categories such as bikini fitness, have seen how they have even gained muscle mass in preparation periods.
In this type of competitor (with low muscle mass and little experience of training with loads), applying an energy deficit that leads to a loss of 0,4 or 0,75% of body weight per week has no negative effects on muscle mass.
Figure III. Bikini fitness competitor.
In competing men, differences between weekly losses of 0,5% of body weight and 0,7 or up to 1% are observed, making the first more effective.
How long should it last
The duration of preparation depends greatly on the individual, and depends on factors such as:
- Initial fat percentage;
- Energy deficit generated;
- Image to be displayed on stage.
It can be calculated in the following way:
If you have competed before:
You should have estimated your body fat percentage, through plyometrics, DEXA, bodpod, or the desired target measurement method.
If your total pleat summation was 32mm in your last competition and the image was good, that is, you defined it to the point necessary to be competitive, you’ll be ready again when your body fat measurement is 32mm.
If you have never competed before:
Calculate your body weight and body fat percentage using objective methods and establish a linear weekly weight loss (although it should be calculated logarithmically but exceeds the characteristics of this article) as follows:
- Have an initial body fat percentage of 17% and weigh 92kg.
- 17%/20 = 0.85% of weekly weight you can lose.
- 92*0,85/100 = 782g you can lose a week.
Considering that weight loss is not stable and as the percentage of body fat decreases the amount of weight to lose is reduced, we establish a stable loss of 350-600g a week, being able to get closer to the higher range at the beginning of preparation and having to get closer to the lower range at the end of preparation.
- (350+600)/2 = 475g average weight loss per week.
If I want to lose 10% body fat before the competition out of my 92kg calculation, I must lose 9.2kg of total fat.
If we establish that for every 475g body weight loss, approximately 175g will be lean mass (63,2-36,8%).
We will end up losing 5.35kg more than calculated (9,2 5,35= 14.55kg total) a value close to what we see in reality of competitors.
We tend to lose 14550g total weight to 475g weekly = 30.6 weeks of preparation.
Let’s add 2.5 more due to setbacks.
Calorie intake is highly variable among competitors, and there is no way to calculate the standard accurately, either absolute or relatively without direct calorimetry.
Weighing ourselves daily, totalling all the days and dividing by 7.
For every 100g of gain or loss of body weight there is 90kcal of surplus or daily calorie deficit, i.e.:
If I want to lose 400g a week and I have earned 200g with this diet I must reduce my calorie intake by 540kcal per day (600/100*90).
A good starting point is 35-40kcal/kg body weight.
Male competitors start at around 37.2kcal/kg and finish preparation at around 36.6kcal/kg (from about 3200kcal/day to 2600kcal/day).
Obviously there is a huge variability in these measurements, and there are competitors who easily go down from 2000kcal/day, and 1200kcal/day competitors.
This will be determined by the % weight loss they are reaching with a certain amount of energy.
RED-S and LEA in preparation
This accelerates disorders of bone metabolism (demineralizing bone), of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis (altering the production of testosterone and estrogens), decreasing glucose concentrations in the form of starvation.
Figure IV. Menstrual alterations based on scores in energy intake reports. The farther to the left, the fewer calories and more cases of endocrine alterations.
Fagerberg’s recommendations (2018) to prevent alterations of the male body as far as possible are:
- Don’t go below 25kcal/kgFFM/day.
- Don’t go below 4kg body fat total.
And yet these negative adaptations will occur, but with less magnitude and the impact on health will also be less.
It is important to note, (and I do not intend to incite anyone), that if the lower limit of daily energy intake does not result in the loss of necessary weight, we must increase the energy deficit:
So if we continue to compete we must put ourselves in the hands of a good sports endocrine and continuously monitor our state of health until we return to normal intake.
But we’ll address that superficially later in the article.
Protein is important to gain and maintain muscle mass, we have many articles on this blog where we discuss it, and you can expand on these concepts through reading Morton et al. (2016).
In this article, the recommendations of 1.6g of protein per kg per day were established to optimize muscle protein synthesis. This article had a confidence range of up to 2.2g/kg/day.
This is consistent with those presented by Schoenfeld and Aragon (2018) which established an optimal intake of 0.4-0.55g/kg/intake * 4 intakes/day.
Protein and organic health
Bodybuilders consume more protein than established in these studies: Men consume an average of 2.9g/kg/day and women consume 3.2g/kg/day.
Can this have any advantage?
Yes, we know that consumption of diets high in protein does not present health problems in young and healthy people (Antonio et al., 2014; 2016) and, however, higher protein diets have certain metabolic advantages (making it easier to achieve an energy deficit at equal calories) (Antonio et al., 2015).
Figure V. Changes in fat percentage between two isocaloric diet groups and different protein content. HP – High in Protein / MP – Normal in Protein.
Recommendation: 1.6-3.5g/kg/day, or more:
- Lower body fat percentage.
- Higher calorie deficit.
- More training and stress.
*As long as you do not neglect other nutrients too much.
Carbohydrates are an energy-efficient, and important nutrient to maintain our performance by training.
Not only because of perception of fatigue, but also because the low availability of this nutrient in the body alters the calcium kinetics of the sarcoplasmic reticulum and the ability to exert force on muscle tissue.
Studies such as those of Lenzi et al. (2019) tell us that the average carbohydrate consumption at the time of definition was 2.3g/kg/day on average.
Many Bros recommend very low carbohydrate diets at the time of definition as a strategy to promote weight loss, and while this happens, it is not significant (Boaz and Raz, 2015) and body weight does not mean body fat.
Two isocaloric and isoprotein diets high in carbohydrates or fats will have the same effect on long-term fat loss, so ideally, establish the dietary approach that best suits you as a competitor.
In women, it is also preferable to use high-carbohydrate diets to prevent binge eating because they report less appetite, more satiety, and satisfaction with high-carbohydrate diets than high-fat diets (Zhou et al., 2015).
Recommendations for carbohydrates
From whole fruits, vegetables and cereals to increase satiety and decrease metabolizable net energy.
It is inevitable that at a point in preparation this carbohydrate intake cannot be maintained.
Bodybuilders greatly reduce their fat intake, because they do not provide benefits such as proteins (plasmic) or carbohydrates (energy).
Again there is a great variability.
Recommendation for fats
- Mostly from sources rich in monounsaturated fatty acids.
- Consume the necessary amount of essential fatty acids (w3-w6) daily.
- Eating dietary cholesterol.
Cholesterol and muscle mass
As for the latter, we are not clear why it occurs, but a correlation has been observed between the amount of cholesterol consumed through diet and the gains in muscle mass and strength (Riechman et al., 2007).
Figure VI. Quartiles of cholesterol consumption and relation to kg of lean mass.
We know that dietary cholesterol is esterified and is not associated with increases in serum cholesterol concentrations (except mutations of the ABCG5 and NPC1L1 gene), as its restriction is not associated with reductions in plasma cholesterol concentrations.
Low fat and low testosterone: Is it a causal relationship?
The associations between low-fat diets and decreases in testosterone synthesis are erroneous inferences because less fat leads to less cholesterol and this to less testosterone synthesis.
Figure VII. Route of synthesis of sex hormones from cholesterol.
The decrease in testosterone concentrations observed in competitor case studies is determined by total energy deficit (calories) and not fat, since there are cases where with energy restrictions, equal fat, negative regulations also occur.
Competitors eat an average of 6 times a day (Chappell et al., 2018). This is due to the belief that it:
- Increases protein synthesis.
- Increases the basal metabolic rate.
- There are ingestion times that are superior to others (anabolic window).
Let’s analyse it:
Timing of protein
One of the models currently being proposed that has led to terrible confusion is the “full muscle effect,” which has led to the misconception that “more than 30g per meal is not absorbed,” which is pure stupidity.
This comes from the refractory period of protein intake (which was treated by Norton in its first study published back in 2010), and was represented very well by Areta et al. (2013).
Figure VIII. Changes in the the fractional protein synthesis ratio for 12 hours depending on the protein administration regimen.
The reason why moderate protein intake and frequency is superior is because we need to achieve a minimum leucine (trigger) content without which we will not achieve the maximum protein synthesis potential (and again, for the refractory period).
Figure IX. Graph representation of the leucine threshold hypothesis as a trigger for protein synthesis.
And protein synthesis over a 12-hour time period is higher with distributed intakes when using protein intakes from sources with rapid digestibility (such as whey); in real life this is not so closed off, as we normally consume meats, eggs, fish…
They have a rate of release of amino acids to the bloodstream slower than the whey.
Post Training protein
Post-training is the anabolic window of bodybuilders, a sensitive moment because we know that load training stimulates protein turnover and we can use it to amplify the effects of protein on MPS.
The ideal amount of protein to be ingested in post-training is 0.32g/kg body weight, provided that we do not train fasting (which is not highly recommended in this case), that we are not elderly or have some serious disease, and the food source has high nutritional quality rates (Moore, 2019).
Figure X. Graph representation of the analysis of protein intake (g/kg) and the % change of the fractional protein synthesis ratio.
We know that there are no differences between protein consumption before or after training, so consume it when it’s most comfortable, there are no advantages between times (Schoenfeld et al., 2017).
Figure XI.Changes in the thickness of the biceps pre- (T1) and post- (T3) Intervention in the group that consumed protein before training (PRE) and after training (POST).
Trommelen is the author who has focused his efforts on demonstrating that the 80s bodybuilding practice of using a source of protein of slow digestion before sleep was positive for boosting nocturnal anabolism.
Figure XII. Night window theory and protein turnover fluctuations throughout the day. A is without providing protein before sleep / B is providing protein before sleep.
He says that protein before sleep is a way to take advantage of the “protein nutrition opportunity” by being so many hours without sleep, and that using a slow digestion source allows you not to wake up in the middle of the night as the most radical bodybuilders did to eat.
For this it uses casein, and has shown that to maximize protein synthesis 40g is sufficient but 30g is not (Trommelen et al., 2017th; Trommelen et al., 2017b). This is due to the leucine trigger we spoke about before.
One of the intakes can be post-training and another pre-bed if a slow digestion source is used.
Still, over a long-term period of time, it seems that if we standardize the content and frequency of daily protein, consuming it around training, pre-bed, or at another time of day has no practical effect on hypertrophy.
The distribution of all other nutrients throughout the day is irrelevant, both in frequency and in quantity, except when we refer to carbohydrates around training.
In sports where glycogen concentrations are seriously affected (such as cycling or triathlon), glycogen repletion through consumption of high glycemic carbohydrate sources before, during and/or after training is key to not conditioning sports performance in future sessions.
In reality, training with loads depletes little of our muscle glycogen deposits, around 30% , so through gluconeogenesis the protein is easily recovered.
In addition a competitor trains each muscle group between 1 and 2 times a week, in extraordinary cases, 3 times, so the advantage of cellular glucose absorption by independent insulin mechanisms inducing training (Murray and Rosenbrom, 2018) this is not something we can take advantage of.
When IT IS interesting to use carbohydrates post-workout:
- If we train fasting.
- If we consume less than 1g of carbohydrates/kg/day.
- If we train a F3+ muscle group/week or do full body workouts.
- If we do double workout sessions daily.
- If we do a lot of high-intensity aerobic exercise (HIIT or MISS).
Delivery of meals
Although more food intakes have always been associated, by bodybuilders, with improvements in body composition by increases in resting energy expenditure, nothing further from reality is true.
Figure XIII. Changes in body fat percentage depending on the number of meals made.
There are trials that show that smaller and more spread out intakes increase food desire and anxiety for food, leading to more unplanned diet changes(Perrigue et al., 2016).
However, in meta-analyzes such as Schoenfeld, there is no consistent change that associates the highest dietary frequency and body weight.
The reality is that you eat as many times as you want/best suits you.
In any case you should try to do 4 daily intakes, maybe 5 if your diet is high in protein and you are awake many hours so that you can respect the refractory period, but there’s no problem with 3 protein shake intakes and a large intake with all your nutritional requirements for other nutrients.
It may not be ideal from a sports performance point of view but it will have no effects on your body composition, and thus you adapt better to the diet…
Many authors have investigated a very common practice among competitors, which are the diet breaks.
First of all, we must bear in mind that both linear diets (everyday 100kcal deficit) versus nonlinear (2 days normocaloric and 5 days total deficit 700kcal weekly) are equally effective on changes in body composition (Cioffi et al., 2018).
Refeed to correct the impact of preparation
Strategies such as refeeds, which are 12-72h periods of feedback, where the consumption of dietary carbohydrates is severely increased, claim to be able to counteract the attenuations of adaptive thermogenesis by caloric deficiency, regulate leptin, replenish normal testosterone synthesis…
You don’t have to look around a lot, we have case studies that show that after a preparation of natural fitness competition, an athlete can take up to 6 months to recover (Rossow et al., 2013).
Figure XIV. Alterations in endocrine metabolic parameters from the start of preparation to 6 months post-competition.
In fact, I already hypothesized years ago that some regulators (such as leptin) do not recover after 6 months of ad libitum feedback, and that perhaps that is why each definition suffers more anxiety and we are more resistant to fat loss.
One more time or not?
It is ridiculous to think that a refeed can attenuate this because besides energy intake, it is conditioned by the loss of fat, since leptin is an adipose hormone, that is, it is the fatty tissue that produces it, and if it is reduced, its concentrations do so, regardless of the refeeds that are made.
Diet Breaks to correct the impact of preparation
Other approaches that may make more sense are diet-breaks, which consists of doing long periods of normocaloric with sufficient carbohydrate intakes.
This is effective, it can even have benefits (promoted by the dopaminergic system and motivation) when it comes to losing fat as stated by Byrne et al. (2018).
The problem is that for weight loss to be equal, you need to either double the deficit in the energy restriction seasons or double the length of preparation, that’s counting on the fact that we don’t go overboard estimating our maintenance calories…
It doesn’t seem very smart for most competitors…
This is not an absolute truth, as authors like Layne Norton defend completely that refeeds serve to mitigate the endocrine metabolic impact of energy restriction on athletes with low fat mass percentages.
Cheat meals to correct the impact of preparation
Another widely used strategy is the cheat meals, which of course have no physiological benefits and can send a whole week of calorie deficit to waste.
Figure XV. Graph representation of net calorie surplus by a cheat day.
Moderate Approach – Success
What is the smartest strategy? The one that best suits you.
Personally with my athletes I use a flexible IIFYM approach with a set of established guidelines but allowing them to be able to configure the daily or quasi-daily consumption of hyperpalatable foods (ice cream, pizza or similar) in small quantities.
In the end, because the source of nutrients is irrelevant to energy and protein equality, only a little time has to be spent calculating intakes and not reduced to a “x7 diet day” since no one can stand a preparation like this.
Figure XVI. Characteristics and effects of the 3 most common diet rest strategies in fitness competitors.
Personally I use cheat meals with my athletes when they have a social commitment, I educate them that there are no “good” and “bad” meals or “clean” and “dirty” food and that if they want to eat X food, they simply take it into account to adapt it to the nutritional guidelines I have set them.
And so, everyone (those who listen to me), progress to points below 8% body fat, that is where their resilience to the hypophagia maintained over time comes into play.
There are a large number of supplements that can be used directly for muscle hypertrophy, to boost sports performance, and indirectly to control certain health parameters that may be altered by nutritional deficiencies resulting in improvements in performance and body composition.
Those with more direct relation to muscle mass maintenance are:
|Supplement||How to take it|
|Creatine Monohydrate||0.3g/kg over 7 days + 0.07g/kg indefinitely, or|
|HMB||3 to 6g in periods of high energy restriction|
|Beta Alanine||From 4 to 6g for at least 28 days.|
|Caffeine||From 3 to 6 mg/kg an hour before training.|
|Citrulline Malate||8 grams pre-training. Best combined with 3g of L-arginine HCl|
|Nitrates||500mg pre-training (2-3h)|
- Antonio, J., Ellerbroek, A., Silver, T., Vargas, L., Tamayo, A., Buehn, R., & Peacock, C. A. (2016). A High Protein Diet Has No Harmful Effects: A One-Year Crossover Study in Resistance-Trained Males. Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, 2016, 9104792.
- Boaz, M., & Raz, O. (2015). Low Fat vs. Low Carbohydrate Diet Strategies for Weight Reduction: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Obesity & Weight Loss Therapy, 05(05).
- Chappell, A. J., Simper, T., & Barker, M. E. (2018). Nutritional strategies of high level natural bodybuilders during competition preparation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15(1), 4.
- Chappell, A. J., Simper, T., & Helms, E. (2019). Nutritional strategies of British professional and amateur natural bodybuilders during competition preparation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 16(1), 35.
- Fagerberg, P. (2018). Negative consequences of low energy availability in natural male bodybuilding: A review. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 28(4), 385–402.
- Lenzi, J. L., Teixeira, E. L., de Jesus, G., Schoenfeld, B. J., & de Salles Painelli, V. (2019). Dietary Strategies of Modern Bodybuilders During Different Phases of the Competitive Cycle. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1.
- Mitchell, L., Slater, G., Hackett, D., Johnson, N., & O’connor, H. (2018). Physiological implications of preparing for a natural male bodybuilding competition. European Journal of Sport Science, 18(5), 619–629.
- Roberts, B. M., Helms, E. R., Trexler, E. T., & Fitschen, P. J. (2020). Nutritional Recommendations for Physique Athletes. Journal of Human Kinetics, 71(1), 79–108.
- Rossow, L. M., Fukuda, D. H., Fahs, C. A., Loenneke, J. P., & Stout, J. R. (2013). Natural bodybuilding competition preparation and recovery: A 12-month case study. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 8(5), 582–592.
- Fitness Competitors’ Nutrition: Off-Season in this link
- Fitness Competitors’ Nutrition: Getting ready in this link
- Fitness Competitors’ Nutrition: Post-Competition in this link