Raise your hand if you’ve tried to prep for a show and didn’t reach the finish line? Yeah I see you out there. You in the back, it’s ok – put your hand up, I can see it in your eyes…ok, there you go. Now raise your hand if you MADE it to show day, but weren’t happy with the package you brought. Ok, yep…that’s about 80% of us in total here. The rest of you can go. I want to talk to the 80% in this post. There are so many reasons that a prep can go south. Some of them involve bad planning. Some revolve around poor execution. Some are more mental struggles, and some are physical. Let’s dig in to some of the biggest ones I’ve dealt with from my experience and see if we can learn from other people’s mistakes and avoid making these ourselves in the future!
#1 – You picked the wrong show
Having a successful prep starts with picking the right show. I’d estimate that about 90% of this equation revolves around the date of the show, not any other particular like the promoter, venue, or anything like that. Sure there are some truly toxic human beings who promote bodybuilding shows, but they are few and far between and typically don’t last long in the industry as word gets out that they put on a lousy show. So since 90% revolves around the date, what are we considering here? A few things:
- How long does this leave you to prep? If the date is a ways off still that’s great – picking a show correctly means you do NOT select the show and then immediately find yourself jumping into prep. That’s a good first sign you might not be giving yourself enough time. Look farther out on the calendar, and consult with your coach or someone with a trained eye to give you an idea of an appropriate time frame.
- What does your known schedule look like? Planning a show so that you will have minimal interruptions and challenges (like vacation, business trips, etc) is ideal. Also, think about your job and the demands it places on you. Example: if you’re an accountant, planning a show for the Spring right around tax day is probably a horrible idea.
- Most commonly I’m concerned about not having enough time to prep, but sometimes you can plan for a prep that’s too long and you’ll find that the mental wear and tear adds up more than expected, and you find you can’t make it to the finish line. Slow and steady wins the race, but a snail’s pace probably won’t generate enough momentum to get you there.
The larger issue is underestimating how much body fat you’ve got to lose, or the amount of work it’s going to take to get it done, or how quickly and steadily things will progress throughout prep (plan for bumps in the road). Maybe a shorter prep is fine, but you’ll have to kill yourself in the process and maybe your schedule simply can’t accommodate the cardio load you’ll need to be placed under. [bctt tweet=”Picking the wrong show is the biggest cause of a lousy prep. Knowing how much time you need to get ready can be exceptionally tricky, especially if it’s your first show! #bodybuilding #contestprep” username=””] So if 90% of picking the right show is about the date, the other 10% would be making sure you’re competing in the right organization for you. If you’re a natural, competing in an NPC show that isn’t drug-tested means a playing field that won’t be level – and that might be ok if you know that going in and can make peace with it. NPC shows are typically larger affairs and more well-produced than a lot of smaller, natural shows, with the OCB being one significant exception. For me, that matters – if I’m going through the process of competing I’d like the show that I’m appearing in to not look like it was thrown together at the last minute. I encourage all my clients to consider all available options, but if you’re a natural and you know you want to compete in a natural show, that both limits your options and makes the selection process a bit easier.
#2 – You focused too much on social media
“The act of comparison is an act of violence against the self” – unknown
So true, so true. I have seen so many people absolutely lose their shit during prep because they could not stop comparing themselves to other competitors they were following on social media. The distortion effect this creates is absolutely insane – you become completely unable to see the positive in what you’re doing while watching only the highlight reel of these other people. It is completely unfair to yourself and will do nothing except sabotage your otherwise inevitable success. [bctt tweet=”Spending too much time on social media – especially comparing yourself to others – will do nothing to help you and EVERYTHING to hurt you. Break that habit ASAP when you’re in prep. #bodybuilding #contestprep” username=””] Many professional sports teams institute a social media ban during the playing season for their players. This is extreme, but the idea being that focus breeds success. I agree with that to some extent – but for many of us, it isn’t practical. Prep is already pretty isolating, and if you cut yourself off from social media you might as well go prep on a mountain top somewhere by yourself with no other human interaction for 4 months. So instead, take some practical measures – stay off the explore tab on Instagram. Don’t follow any social media accounts or hashtags for the show you’re doing. You can still remain connected with close friends without obsessing over your competition and what they’re doing. It takes a little self-control but hey – that’s nothing we’re not used to, right?
#3 – You didn’t have enough development
“Everyone overestimates how much muscle they have and underestimates how much fat they carry” – unknown
Ok that’s not really unknown, I just can’t find the source – I feel it was either Matt Jansen, Matt Porter, or some other Matt who’s name escapes me currently. But it’s very true – especially if this is your first prep, I can guarantee you that both of those things are true. Corollary to those, you underestimate just how lean you need to be in order to hit your proper level of conditioning. It’s happened many times: competitor X asks me what their stage weight is likely to be, I give them a number, and they respond with a combination of shock and horror, assuming I must be joking. It’s a wake-up call that a lot of people need. I tend to break with a lot of other coaches when it comes to development. Many “high level” coaches encourage their clients to spend years getting ready for their first show. Train, diet, train some more, grow, diet, cut down, grow, train some more, and LEARN all the while – then, after enough of that, you’re ready to prep. That’s a good recipe for a good first show. It’s also a good recipe to keep 80% of potential competitors from ever getting on stage. I think there is tremendous value in doing a show earlier in the process, for many reasons. First, you can see what the stage experience is like, and see if it’s something you actually want to invest those years in preparation for. For many (I put myself in this camp), show day is a let down and more of a nuisance than anything else. I’d rather just bodybuild – grow, cut, and live the process, and if there’s a show that I want to do then ok, I’ll do it. But that isn’t my driving factor. [bctt tweet=”Bodybuilding – ALL divisions – requires having some size on your frame. Spend more time OUT of prep than IN prep to ensure you have a chance to grow. #bodybuilding #contestprep” username=””] All that being said, if you lack in development then you WILL have a harder prep (more lean tissue means higher metabolic rate which means an easier time shedding body fat), and you WILL be undersized on stage. For someone looking to compete earlier than they “should”, I make sure they understand those things and that we’re in agreement on all fronts before proceeding.
#4 – You went in without a solid plan
This is for all the people who coach themselves or who have done so in the past (or, possibly, those who worked with some truly terrible coaches). First of all, kudos to you for getting it done. But going in without a solid plan is a recipe to have a bad time. Let’s be clear: the first time you prep for a show, it’s hard because you literally have no clue where you’re going to end up (see #3 above). Once you’ve gone through the process then you can intelligently say things like “I came it at 147lbs and probably should have been closer to 142lbs” – and then boom, you’ve got a piece of the puzzle figured out for next time. You can examine your rate of loss from your last prep using the meticulous notes you kept (right?), and as your off-season phase comes to a close you can have a much more solid idea of how long you should prep for. Of course, things won’t be the same every time you prep – your body will respond differently, things that worked before may not work going forward, etc – it can be full of surprises! But at the very least you need to have a basic plan and schedule in place with targets and markers along the way so you can pace yourself, leave a little gas in the tank for the home stretch, and not flame out before you make it to the stage. It’s far too easy to paint yourself into a corner by being overly aggressive on your diet or cardio right out of the gate, and that’s a big mistake.
#5 – You weren’t mentally prepared
We all know that prep is hard physically, and anyone that’s even attempted to do one knows it’s every bit as hard mentally. You’ve gotta be tough, and there a lot of ways your mental state can totally screw you up during prep. Self-doubt being one of the big ones – which is why it’s important to work with someone who can look at you impartially and point out what’s changing that you can’t see – but there’s more than just that. There are so many things we assume come with the territory during prep – you’re going to be tired, weak, hungry, etc. But if you expect that going in, your body is going to be all to happy to cooperate and be very tired and have you feeling very weak before anything really has a chance to hit you. Don’t assume your training intensity has to drop just because you’re running at a deficit. It may, but fight it. Push hard. [bctt tweet=”Go into prep KNOWING it’s going to be hard. It might not start out that way, but it’ll get there eventually if you’re doing things right. Trust me. #bodybuilding #contestprep” username=””] You also have to be in the right mindset for both the diet and the cardio. Remember that consistency and intensity on both of these is required and not optional if you’re to bring your best. Also remember one very important thing: this is all voluntary. No one is making you do it. When I’m in prep I remind myself of that regularly when I’m having one of those moments (or days…or weeks) where things just seem much harder than I feel they should. Also check out my recent post on Slaying Your Cardio Harder for some additional tips there, and my post from last week on Stepping Up Your Meal Prep Game for some tricks to make that more efficient and easier.
#6 – Your off-season sucked
There was a great quote from Kim Helm in my recent interview with her on my podcast, where she offered this wisdom:
Your off-season determines your prep
And that is really, really true. If you approach your off-season casually, your next prep will be at least as hard as your previous one. What do I mean by casual? For starters if your diet is sloppy and you put on more body fat than is helpful – that’s just more to clean up. If you slacked on cardio, that will contribute as well. If your training intensity was ok, not amazing that’s a big loss – the off-season is THE TIME when your training intensity should be through the roof. If it’s not, that’s a huge missed opportunity. It’s important also that things be structured – that you’re aware of your intake, your controlling your cheat meals, and you’re actively still trying to have a lifestyle that resembles that of a competitive bodybuilder. Yes, your precision can take a bit of a hit and you can get away with some indiscretions here and there – that’s totally ok – but it’s NOT a license to be a lazy turd and eat whatever you want during the off-season. If you do that, expect your next prep to be every bit as hard as the previous one.
#7 – You made it hard for those around you
Maybe you came into your show and did amazingly well and brought a great physique – but you were such an insufferable pain in the ass during your prep that your significant other has threatened to leave if you ever do another show and you now have no friends left. I’d say in that case, you still failed. [bctt tweet=”Don’t be a prep martyr. Having a tough time? Guess what – it’s all voluntary and no one gives any kind of a shit at all. Suck it up. #bodybuilding #contestprep” username=””] My mantra: don’t be a prep martyr. You’re doing this voluntarily because you have goals, so shut up and do the work and don’t complain incessantly to those around you about how tired/hungry/depleted/exhausted you are. You think they’re going to have any sympathy? They shouldn’t. So suck it up, be a normal human, and continue to treat those around you well – like they deserve.
Bring it on home
To be clear there are also a lot of things that can cause your prep to go RIGHT – but we’ll save those for another day. It’s good to go into prep with a solid understanding of common pitfalls so you can prepare yourself for the weeks and months ahead and to help you know when it’s the right time to jump in.