Doing a show is hard. Heck, just following any kind of structured, calorically-restricted diet for long enough to see real results is hard. Whether the goal is to get on stage and compete or just look your best off stage, it’s going to take equal parts planning, consistency, and discipline.
What follows here are my best five pieces of advice for not just surviving but also thriving during the process of cutting body fat. It’s certainly a grind, but there are easy things you can do to set yourself up for success, so let’s dive in and count ’em down.
#1 – Maintain The Right Perspective
The first tip is an easy one, and it’s all mental.
Remember that this is voluntary.
No one is forcing you to do this, you’re partaking of this willingly. Don’t be a diet martyr, and don’t make your prep anyone else’s problem. You’re the one doing this, not your spouse, not your friends, not your co-workers. It’s hard, but it’s a good lesson in ‘suffering in silence’ – a good coach will absolutely have a receptive ear, because sometimes those complaints mean that some action needs to be taken to adjust things – and sometimes you’ve just gotta suck it up.
Always remember: if it were easy, everyone would do it. It’s not. It’s damn hard. And that challenge is often a big reason WHY we do this.
#2 – Make Sure Your Body, Metabolism, and Calendar Are Ready
File this one under “shit you should have done months ago”, but you need to make sure your body is healthy, your metabolism is active and functioning, and that your schedule is clear of conflicts and things that are going to make this hard process even harder. Let’s break ’em down:
Make sure your body is ready – dealing with nagging pains or injuries? Get ’em resolved now. Get in to see a physical therapist, get some body work done (massage, cupping, tempering, etc), and work on your flexibility and mobility. Your body is going to get beat up during prep, so give it every advantage. Start this routine NOW, and work to maintain it through prep.
Make sure your metabolism is ready – this is a big one, as your metabolic rate determines how many calories you burn while doing nothing else. If you burn 2 cals/min at rest but manage to increase that to just 2.5 cals/min, that’s an additional 700+ calories per day you burn doing nothing. THIS is the power of focusing on a healthy metabolism. What does that mean? Maintaining cardio but not overdoing it. Enjoying some time OUT of a caloric deficit without overeating. Building more muscle on your frame. Being active throughout the day when not in the gym (walk the dogs, take breaks from work…sit less, basically). Keeping a good, consistent routine and a squared up diet in place help tremendously in keeping your metabolism pumping.
Make sure your calendar is ready – this one is a bit more basic but easily forgotten and oft overlooked. If you’re planning to compete (or otherwise just finish your cut) 2 weeks after a scheduled vacation, guess what? You’ve failed to plan well. If you’re an accountant and Jan->April is your busy season, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that an April/May show is probably a terrible idea. Think about all the things you say ‘yes’ to typically, and how much easier prep might be if you selectively say ‘no’ to a few things instead. For me this typically means fewer music gigs, not planning recording studio time during a cut (which is VERY time intensive), and planning vacations and trips outside of prep time.
#3 – Time Your Nutrients For Performance AND Better Compliance
This one is assuming you’re following a macronutrient based diet and have some control over your food timing and meal composition.
There are a few basic guidelines I follow when making recommendations on nutrient timing for clients:
- Get your protein evenly distributed throughout the day, in a MINIMUM of 4 meals (5-6 is better)
- Make sure you have carbs pre and post-workout at least, if they are limited.
- Fats, don’t worry about – just put ’em in where you like.
Having pre- and post-workout carbs means that you’re going to have fuel and recovery nutrients in your peri-workout window.
But also consider something that’s easy to forget – how you like to eat.
Me? I dig a larger meal at the end of the day. I’m less busy then, so that “I’m not hungry I’m just bored” feeling has a tendency to kick in, and if I set aside macros for a larger dinner this helps a ton. Some days I can’t and that sucks, but whenever I can…I do. In addition to protein I’ll save a carb serving for there and also I save a big chunk of fats so I can add a fatty dressing to a big ass bowl of salad to generate some added bulk (see #4). Doing this makes it easier for me to stay on plan at night – without that, I’d do ok still… but feeling less food-related stress is a big deal for me and makes the process less like a huge mountain that has to be climbed and more like a steady uphill trek.
If you’re following a meal plan provided by your coach, talk to them about making changes here – if a client is anything other than 100% in adherence to their plan and they have a suggestion on how to tweak it to make it easier to follow every day, you’re damn right I’m going to listen to that and we’re going to implement something. Don’t fall in love with the idea of a “perfect plan” because what’s ‘optimal’ in the clinical sense isn’t always going to be terribly easy to follow or practical, and if a couple small tweaks can reduce the degree of difficulty a bit, those are changes you need to make.
#4 – Play the Volume Game
This is a big one. When calories go down and expenditure goes up, we get hungry. That’s human nature, and being hungry is the one absolute guarantee of being in prep. If you can’t hang with that idea, think twice about whether this is for you.
Now that being said, we can be intelligent about food choices here to make it less of a problem. First consider the number of meals – 6 is common, but personally I like 5 because it means that each one is a bit more substantial, and it also generates fewer forced breaks during the day and I feel I can be more productive.
A few quick tips when it comes to adding volume to your diet, because volume = more food = less empty stomach = less growling.
- Skip the protein shakes. Nothing is less filling/satisfying than a protein shake. If you need something convenient, great – if you’re starving, you will be immediately after finishing a shake too. Go with a solid food option instead.
- Volumize your carbs – in the off-season I love dry cereal as a carb source, I can get 80-100g of carbs quickly and easily and it’s not super filling. In prep, I love rice cakes – my post-workout carbs currently are closer to 50g, but that means like SEVEN rice cakes, which is a pretty substantial amount of stuff to chew and for your gut to process.
- Free veggies – leafy greens, cucumbers, celery, etc – you can make a pretty substantial salad out of those while adding very few (if any) calories. Add a Walden Farms dressing (or similar) for some calorie-free flavor too. Check with your coach to make sure you’re on the same page regarding what a ‘free’ food is, if there is such a thing in their world.
- Stick with lean proteins – fatty proteins can be tastier, but they are generally no more filling than lean proteins. And if you keep your proteins lean, that means you can add in additional food from a separate fat source, which leads us to…
- Create meals with multiple courses. Imagine 2 scenarios: a bowl with 80/20 ground beef and 1/3 cup of rice, OR a bowl of 99/2 ground turkey, a slice of toast, and a large salad with a tasty fatty dressing. One of those is going to feel like kind of an event to get through, the other you’ll plow through in no time. Creating a meal with multiple components makes it feel way more substantial, even if calorically it’s pretty much the same.
#5 – Make it Tasty
Keep in mind that as of this writing, the year is currently 2021 and there are multiple companies that exist that cater specifically towards bodybuilders and making their meal prep less bland. If you are having plain, unseasoned proteins and boring-ass meals, it’s only a matter of time before you say “screw this” and start looking for anything else.
Seasoning, spices, sauces, flavored products, you name it – there’s a whole host of options out there to keep you from having boring-ass, bland meals. While at 6 weeks out (presently) I’d of course LOVE to be eating more, I can honestly say that every one of my meals is something I look forward to…and if it wasn’t, I’d keep adjusting it until it was.
Standard seasonings and spices to explore that calorie-free (or close to it):
- Soy sauce
- Frank’s Hot Sauce
- Tabasco sauce
- Just about any seasoning/spice/rub – experiment!
Keep in mind here that, as bodybuilders, we do NOT want to try and maintain a low sodium, diet, so avoiding sodium should NOT be a priority unless your doctor has given you an individualized reason to do so (based on genetics or family history, usually).
A few companies to check out that cater specifically to bodybuilders and have a whole host of great options to explore:
Like I said, it’s hard, but in reviewing that list above – nothing in there is particularly difficult to implement. It’s all about just thinking about your diet and asking the question: “this is supposed to be hard, but is it harder than it’s supposed to be?”
So play around with stuff. Explore some new recipes and flavor combinations. Play with volume. Plan better. Keep in the right mindset. If you do that, you’ll find that every diet or cut tends to get a bit easier because you’re learning more each time about what works and what doesn’t for YOU specifically.