(the article below was originally written for a course I ran for figure competitors… But this is actually the same advice I give anyone who has reached a plateau in their weight loss efforts. it’s simple advice but it comes from training hundreds of women)
One of the most frustrating things about getting ready for a figure competition is when you encounter a fat loss plateau. As a competitor you understand that there is no buffer for not getting in shape – you either hit your mark on contest day… or you don’t (then you kick yourself for training and dieting for 12 weeks and not getting in your best condition). So when you get to a point that fat loss slows or stops, it’s easy to go into panic mode. Slashing calories in half is what some competitors do. For those who decide to do that, they are going to have a miserable time mentally and physically as their body tries to adjust to 50% less calories. This is something you definitely want to avoid at all costs.
When overcoming a fat loss plateau you must attack it from 3 sides:
Diet: First you must tighten up your diet. This may mean cutting your diet by as few as 100 calories a day. You want to avoid cutting too many calories because this may cause your metabolism to slow down and go into ‘starvation’ mode. Once this happens, it’s hard to fire the metabolism up again.
Workout: You must increase the intensity of your workouts. Basically train harder: (1) lift heavier weights, (2) perform your normal workouts (same reps and sets) in less time, (3) add on an extra 15-20 minutes to your normal workout time, (4) take less time between sets so that the workout is more cardio-like etc. There are many ways to increase workout intensity. The important thing is not to ‘coast’ but make sure each workout is at a high intensity level.
Cardio: Step up your cardio intensity. This may mean just going harder for the same amount of time, for example, you may be able to run 3 miles in 30 minutes. What you want to do is try and run 3.2 miles in the same 30 minutes, then eventually 3.5 miles in that 30 minutes.
– Or you may change from a less effective form of cardio cardio workout (ex elliptical machine) to a more effective form of cardio (treadmill or outside running). This is a very effective way to increase the amount of calories you burn in a workout.
One mistake I see is when competitors try to do it all by slashing calories… DON’T do that! You will lose weight initially but your metabolism will slow down too much and all progress will stop. This will make it very difficult to lose further body fat. It’s much wiser to attack it a little from all 3 factors instead of just one.
Another Mistake I see is competitors who decide to double their cardio in order to lose body fat. This will work initially but it may take a toll on your body and mind… this can lead to burnout (mental and physical exhaustion).
So, If you do experience a plateau, don’t panic and do something drastic that will cause your metabolism to shut down or that will cause you to burnout… Just use moderation in adjusting your diet and training. This is the one ‘secret’ behind my success in training fitness and physique competitors over the past 10 years.
When someone tells me that they’re eating good but are not seeing the results they want (usually fat loss), the first thing I do is watch them workout… because when it comes to results, what matters most is effort and the amount of work that is actually done during a workout. Many times a competitor may think they are training hard, they talk about how hard they are training, how many hours they spend in the gym… and even tell others how to train… but in reality they should be working out much harder themselves.
Take a look at the video below. The first few reps of the squat rows look ok… but in reality Laurie could lift heavier weight, which would give her a much better workout.
When Laurie increases the weight from 55lbs. to 140lbs for the last 12 reps, this greatly increases the amount of work she is doing.
Let’s compare the two:
- 12 reps with 55 lbs = 660 lbs
- 12 reps with 140 lbs = 1,680 lbs
Imagine the difference in someone’s physique if they used the heavier weight for 3 months, instead of the lighter weights. This is why I always tell figure competitors to put their work in early in competition prep because there is no making up for lost time …. you can’t catch-up if you slack (at the lower weight) for 11 weeks and think that there is some magical trick that will ‘bring it all together’ the last week before a show – sorry but it’s not going to happen! So train hard everyday so you get the results you want …and so that you don’t have to spend all day in the gym.
Over the past 12 months this issue has repeatedly been raised among newer competitors I meet. Figure competitors often want to know if they need to take steroids to compete in shows that are not drug tested. The answer is no. Many drug free figure competitors compete and are champions at every level. Do steroids give a figure competitor an advantage? If their goal is to gain muscle and lose body fat (depending on what steroids they take) then they absolutely will make it easier for a woman to achieve both of these objectives… but any competitor can gain muscle and lose enough body fat to compete, with time and hard work. Besides, when it comes to figure competition, you don’t need a ton of muscle to do well.
I just had two competitors compete and do very well in the Arnold Classic both are drug-free and one made top 10. Where there bigger more muscular competitors there? Of course there were – but figure is about more than just size, so my competitors never really worry about whether a show is tested or not – I just tell them to go in to competition in their best possible shape.
Although steroids can accelerate muscle growth, larger muscle may not be what the competitor needs. I’ve seen competitors change their physique so much that they began to do worse in figure competitions and had to switch to bodybuilding or one of the newer fitness/physique body categories that require competitors to carry more muscle. So competitor’s need to take that into consideration when deciding whether or not to take steroids.
I tell competitors who are worried because they think a certain competitor is on steroids or because a show is not drug tested, that their goal should be to bring the best possible package to the stage. Muscle size is only a part of winning a figure competition… symmetry, stage presence and proper conditioning are much more important. Just look at the top figure competitors in the world… they range from hard/more muscular to softer/less muscular. It’s the total package the judges are looking for. Therefore you should never let what anyone else does discourage you from competing.
For a few, figure can be a lottery hit the first time they step onstage… but for the vast majority it’s a longer journey requiring patience and the ongoing desire to improve. When I first met laurie she was soft spoken, humble, shy and amazingly nice. Three years and 3 pro cards later… she is still the same person. When she won her last overall (NPC) there was no big celebration, no fist pumping… just a nervous smile as they brought her the trophy. Afterwards, almost every picture she took she made sure her daughter, Paris, was in it… that’s because she has always kept everything in perspective. When she first started competing the victorys didn’t come easy… after finishing 5th in her first competition Laurie could have easily given up… but instead she used that as motivation to become the best she could be.
Now she is on her way to compete in the Arnold Classic in a few weeks!
Known for her intense training, Laurie is well respected by the other competitors she trains with. She’s so focused that she rarely talks during her workout. She finds a corner in the gym, goes 100% during her workout, changes clothes… and goes home.
Precontest fat loss workout: A bunch of hard exercises done back-to-back with no rest… until she is ehausted. The idea is to work the entire body and burn as many calories as possible.
“Get Uncomfortable” – Laurie doesn’t feel she is getting a good workout until she gets into her ‘uncomfortable zone’ – the uncomfortable zone is usually when most would stop and rest… her goal is to get into that zone and stay there. This is why she doesn’t have to do a ton of straight cardio to get lean… because she burns so many calories in her resistance-cardio workouts. What the uncomfortable zone really means to me is: “Leave me alone, I don’t want to talk because I’m trying to catch my breath… please go away!” Check out the short video clip of her showing me that she doesn’t want to be bothered.
Laurie is the tye of person everyone roots for. Just as gracious in victory as she had been in defeat. Never one to put other competitors down or brag on herself. I realized just how humble Laurie was when I went to her Facebook page looking for some good pitures (since I didn’t get too many good shots at the show), when I noticed that she had not posted one picture of herself… after winning a show she has been trying to win for 3 years! The only thing she posted were things about her daughter… I think that says it all! Congratulations Laurie! Oh yeah, and good job at the competition too!
Laurie performing one of her favorite exercises:
As a figure coach I see women who have varying degrees of difficulty losing body fat, therefore it is important that I continue to try and develop new techniques to burn even the toughest body fat off figure competitor’s bodies. Here is one of my favorite techniques – Progressive Intensity
Progressive Intensity is a technique I use to raise the workout intensity level for figure competitors during precontest fat loss training. There are a few ways to do this, the video shows my favorite version of Progressive Intensity…. increasing the reps with each successive set. The goal is to make your body do more work as your level of exhaustion increases.
Basically what happens is that as you go through your circuit of exercises (usually only 2 or 3 exercises) the reps will increase as you progress through the set. In the video, Laurie (who holds several figure pro cards) begins set #1 with 5 reps of Db Duck Squats followed immediately by 5 Jump Squats. Set # 2 is: 10 reps of each (duck squats and jump squats). Set #3 is: 15 reps of each exercise etc etc…. You can see how exhausted Laurie gets as she progresses through the set. The idea is to do this continously until the required number of sets are completed. Try to get to 30 reps of each NON-STOP. You can do this with practically any 2 or 3 exercises as long as you can switch quickly from one to the other. This particular example is tough because both exercises focus on the legs…. give it a try.
One round of this, at the end of your workout, is enough when first trying this out. Eventually you will be able to do an entire 60 minute workout in this manner
(CAUTION: a burning sensation in the legs, exhaustion and heavy breathing are side effects of this workout… ha ha).
Here is another example below. This is a hard one:
Here are my thoughts on dehydration before a figure competition…
I get so many questions about last week prep and dehydration/cutting water. My stance is still the same… It doesn’t work! Although it SOUNDS legitimate when someone explains how it supposedly work… that doesn’t mean it works.
As far as dehydration before a show to increase definition (bring out your ‘cuts’)… I’ve always said that it makes muscles smaller and decreases definition (and women can’t afford to lose any muscle size or definition going into a competition). Below is a video about one of my favorite bodybuilders, Kai Greene, and his prep for the Arnold Classic. This excerp shows how dehydration can have very negative effects on muscle size and definition of one of the greatest bodybuilders in the world. If it can negatively effect him… what in the heck do you think it will do to your physique!?
Not only is dehydration ineffective in making you look more definined… it will most likely have the opposite effect!! The only tricks are hard dieting and hard work. Competitors are always surprised when I accuse them of dehydration (when they sneak and do it against my advice). They don’t realize that I can tell from the audience and from pictures. It may be a day, a week or a month … but they eventually confess. They think they are going to make up for that last 5lbs they should have lost with diet and training, by losing 5lbs of water right before the show… this doesn’t work and you may very well lose placings because of it.