A very clear societal line has long separated nerds and jocks. Either you crunch numbers and derive formulas with little popularity or athleticism, or you excel in athletics while resembling a modern day Neanderthal in the classroom. To suggest the same person could achieve both brains and brawn was blasphemy.

Luckily things have changed since days of classic 90s movies pitting geeks and jocks against each other. Also, fortunate was the fact I grew up as nerdy as they come, but somehow decided one day that I would like to begin playing football and basketball during middle school. An unlikely sight, after a few early years of rude awakenings to an out of shape, nerdy kid- I gradually improved and turned into a decent player.

But “decent” was about where my ceiling capped. In high school, after realizing I wasn’t quite college sports material, my passion quickly changed from being a nerd and playing sports, to being an even bigger nerd and lifting weights! Fast forward a few years, and when it came time to choose my college thesis, the idea of pursuing one of the first case studies on natural bodybuilding contest prep and its subsequent effects on various health and performance markers was a fit geek’s dream come true!

Considering at that time, very few research studies had been performed on competitive natural bodybuilders, it was the perfect circumstance to perform a 13-month case study surrounding my own contest prep and subsequent reverse diet. Throughout the entire process, tests were conducted in which everything from hormone levels, sleep quality, power output, metabolism and even mood alterations were measured, and man oh man did I learn a lot, much of which has helped me in developing processes I use with my own clients through APFitness.

The rest of this article outlines many of the take-aways I gained from the research that have helped guide my personal development, and can help others in approaching their own contest preps.

 

The Study

To provide some background into this study, it spanned from the time my contest prep started, the 7 months of preparation for my first show, the month of both competitions, and 5 months of post-show reverse dieting. [1]

During this study, we tested a variety of metrics, in a variety of frequencies based on what was approved by the Institutional Review Board, allowed for the most efficient use of our research funding, and were the most practical given their often time consuming nature. Below is an outline of each factor test.

Body Composition

  • Dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) (Month 1, 8 (show month) and 13)
  • BodPod (Monthly)

Hormone Levels

  • Blood Testing (Every ~3 months)
    — Total Testosterone, T3, T4, Cortisol, Ghrelin

Power Output

  • Wingate Bike Test (Monthly)
    — 30 Second Version

Metabolism

  • Resting Metabolic Rate (Monthly)
    — via Parvo Medics TrueOne2400 Metabolic Cart

Sleep Quality

  • Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) Survey (Monthly)
  • Actigraph Data Collection (Monthly)
    — via Actigraph GT3X+ Accelerometer

General & Mental Health

  • Blood Pressure (Monthly)
  • Profile of Moods State Survey (Monthly)

 
Of all the above measured metrics, the disruption in my hormones and metabolic rate are some of the most notable, especially as a preface to the following section of this article. Regarding the hormones measured, every one of them was pushed out of its respective reference range- the range deemed healthy for most individuals. Specifically, total testosterone dropped from 623 to a measly 173 (ng/dL) by the time I reached the stage. To give an idea of just how low that is, the reference range for my age group was (348 – 1197 ng/dL). Being a major factor in muscle growth and retention, fat metabolism, and even libido, one can imagine the drawbacks a physique athlete will deal with when experiencing such a drop.
Paired with the very substantial disruption in testosterone and ghrelin (often termed the “hunger hormone”), thyroid hormones also experienced less dramatic, yet still very notable disruptions. Many of these measurements were not only thrown out of whack during the actual diet, but also took over 5 months to return to normal levels after I finished competing, which is the perfect segue into what this research helped to highlight regarding ideal growth seasons.

 

Your Growth Season May Be a Waste of (not enough) Time

We all know athletes that compete year after year, after year…after year. As emerging research is helping to support, we can be confident in saying this repeated dieting will suppress metabolic rate,2 and not to mention, create a huge mentally taxing demand on the athlete. I hear athletes refer to their “growth season” as the months between the same annual show. In my research, after finishing my last show of the season and beginning to immediately reverse diet into my growth season, even after 5 months of steadily increasing calories and reducing cardio, many of my hormones had still not returned to baseline levels measured just prior to the start of my diet.

So consider this: John Doe plans to compete in the 2018 Generic Show Championships and after dieting 4-6 months and stepping on stage, isn’t happy with his placing. Full of piss and vinegar, he decides he’s going to come back to the 2019 Generic Show Championships to show those judges just how great a bodybuilder he really is.

If John is smart, he’ll implement a steady reverse diet right after the show, gradually bringing calories back up, and cardio back down to pre-diet levels, something, which may take up to 3-4 months before baseline is reached. 4 months post-show, John is finally back to the strength, energy, hormones and metabolism he had before beginning his diet… finally in his sweet spot for muscle growth. For sake of argument, we say he’s now 20lbs above stage weight. Conservatively, we’ll estimate he needs a 25 week prep for 2019 to make sure those 20lbs come back off and he has a few weeks to spare in case life events or setbacks occur.

At roughly 1lb weight loss per week, John is left with 5-5.5 months of dieting before the show. If you’re still with me, that means John is left with maybe 3 months of “growth season” to make improvements before getting back into a deficit. For those who follow much of the research on drug-free muscle and strength growth rates in athletes, you’ll realize just how small of a time frame that is. We can all agree that if John repeats this cycle multiple times, “making gainz” isn’t a phrase his buddies will be using to describe him for a while.

Moral of the story: don’t be a John. As much as you may feel you have to prove on stage- you aren’t doing yourself any favors by competing year after year. Enjoy your season, then keep in mind the many benefits you’ll reap from being patient, putting in significant time in your offseason, and putting yourself in a much better position to step on stage noticeably better the next time you compete.

 

It’s More Than Physical

Most topics discussed in the fitness industry are merely physical in nature. Maximizing weight lifted, muscle tissue gained, fat lost, best booty progress pic on Instagram- you know, the usual. Especially in research, we tend to measure more easily identifiable, objective metrics like lean body mass and force output.

To make for a more well rounded study, I included a profile of moods state (POMS) survey, which essentially helps to put a measurable value on mood and attitude alterations over time. The problem is, most of us have a hard time even knowing exactly how we feel during a period of high stress or enjoyment. We’re often “left speechless” or “at a loss” in many instances. So, getting an objective measure with such a complex aspect of the human condition can be a bit difficult.

That being said though, my POMs scores did help reflect the increasing stress, fatigue, and irritability I dealt with as my diet progressed (score more than doubled throughout prep). By the end of my reverse diet post-show, measurements dropped down a bit less than initial values at the start of prep.

Although relatively much more relaxed, I can say that personally, I was far from feeling back to normal. Even 6 weeks after the study was completed, while visiting family for Christmas, I distinctly remember driving home and thinking to myself how much I still struggled with nearly insatiable hunger, low libido, and a lack of enthusiasm for training in the gym.

*Outside of reference range
**Both contests were held in this month

Based on all my scores 5 months after my last show, I should have been feeling like a million bucks. Lean body mass was completely restored, and actually up a bit from my baseline measurement (gainz anyone?), most of my hormone values were at least near baseline, body fat was back to a healthy offseason level, sleep had improved some, yet I still struggled quite substantially from a mental standpoint. My view of food was quite skewed, my excitement to train was barely existent, and my digestion still wasn’t back to what I was used to.

All this is said to help people understand that contest prep will affect you much longer than the 12-20 weeks you prepare for the show. Changes to your body extend past your outward appearance, and can take quite some time to rebound. This isn’t said to discourage newcomers to the sport, but to help others realize that contest prep isn’t as simple as many “fitspos” on Instagram try to make it out to be.

Athletes can struggle both mentally and physically for an extended period of time, even in the best of circumstances, so finding the right coaches and resources to base your programming off of isn’t just good for placings, but prudent for your long-term health as a human being.

 

Time Testosterone (ng/dL) Cortisol (ug/dL) >T3 (ng/dL) T4 (ug/dL) Ghrelin (pg/mL)
Month 1 623 25.2* 123 5.8 383
Show Month
(Month 8)
173* 26.5* 40* 4.1* 822*
Month 13 524 16.5 88 5.6 n/a
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