Is Competing in Physique Sports Healthy?

As someone who has been around competitors a lot over the past ten years, I often get desensitized to all of the…unique things that competitors do when preparing for a contest. Recently, I was in a conversation with someone that’s new to our sport, or world I like to call it, and it’s always nice because being around someone like that, you get a fresh perspective on what’s going on. I was having a conversation with this colleague and a local competitor and as he described his peak week, she looked at him and said, “Is this even healthy?!” I really enjoyed the rest of the conversation and thought it was a fun topic to write and talk about.

 

  • In a long-term sense – my answer is yes.

I think when done correctly, in a long-term sense, competing is very healthy. Obviously, the benefit of exercise is undeniable and competing requires a lot of that. One could argue that the general trend for competitors to focus on low intensity cardio isn’t healthy in a long-term sense, but with the rising popularity of HIIT cardio, I think many more competitors are taking advantage of the benefits of intense aerobic training. Weight training also has a long list of benefits, which competitors should experience in spades. Learning how your body reacts to food and learning how to control your weight and body composition are also incredible tools for your long-term health. Competing over a long-term span also requires good health. You can only maintain an impressive exterior with an unhealthy interior for so long. Anyone that wants to compete for years quickly realizes that to look good on the outside, you need to pay careful attention to your internal health.

 

  • In the short term, I believe it’s healthy about 80% of the time.

Many times, we are judged on our behavior in the moment people are witnessing what’s going on. If that’s the case, then yes, there are certainly some unhealthy behaviors required to peak for a show. That’s why I separate long-term and short-term judgement. Is restricting water before a show healthy? No. Is training two to three hours per day healthy? Rarely. Is a severe calorie deficit healthy? No. But all of these unhealthy practices, and many more, are done in short bursts. Which leads me to my next and favorite point…

 

  • All Sports Have Risks

I think it’s unfair to compare competing against itself. Football players get concussions and all kinds of injuries. Motocross racers break bones constantly. Race car drivers die relatively frequently. Are these sports healthy? For the most part, yes. Physique sports get unfair judgement because our “injuries” or unhealthy practices aren’t limited to a playing field or timed event. They are just as much a part of our sport though and are “on the field” injuries all the same.

Don’t Fear the Scale!

The body weight scale can be a very scary thing for many people. People often build up so much of their expectations, their definitions of fitness success, and have a strong emotional attachment to the number that shows up when they step on the scale. It should not be that way! The scale is ONE tool, ONE metric, out of many, that helps you to determine what your body is up to. You would not judge the performance of a car by only looking at ONE gauge. You must look at all kinds of hard numbers: lap times, top speed, rate of acceleration, tire temperature, lateral g-force, and the list goes on. Then you have to pair that with some soft values like the driver’s taste of the car, confidence entering corners, grip feeling, and more. My point with this analogy is that your fitness results and progress come from a wide variety of soft and hard values and you can’t put too much emphasis on body weight.

 

  • View Bodyweight Objectively

One thing I always tell my clients is to try very hard to view their body weight objectively. It should not be an emotional number. Try to view the process in third person, almost like a science experiment. The test subject (you) has a variety of variables: diet, training, sleep, stress, hydration, etc. and that has resulted in an objective metric that helps guide you (and your trainer) in manipulating variables.

 

  • Girls, weight gain can be positive. Guys, gaining weight isn’t always a positive. LOL

This is another funny gender difference in behavior when it comes to the scale. I think all women can relate; the men I’m going to poke fun at though are usually athletes or weight lifting enthusiasts. Girls have a tough time with even the slightest weight gain, but there are quite a few scenarios where an increase in weight can be good. For instance: putting on lean muscle tissue, being properly hydrated, and having proper nutrition, just to name a few main cases. Unless you’re comparing the weight gain to body composition, then you don’t actually know why you gained weight. If you’re doing everything right and the scale goes up, take it into consideration, but likely it’s not a bad thing.  Now for my gain-hungry guys, the scale going up can be bad. I know we all like to think the 20 pounds we put on is solid muscle, but unless you’re a genetically gifted person who has had very little exposure to weight training, that kind of reaction is very improbable. Put the weight on slowly and steadily and you’re more likely to add quality weight over quantity weight. You’ll look better, feel better, and be more likely to hold onto the gains when you go into a diet phase to get off the extra bodyfat.

 

  • Short term weight gain may be necessary for long term weight loss or weight management

A very common and often very scary scenario for some people is that they will need to gain weight, in order to lose weight and maintain a healthy weight in a sustainable, long term way. Many people, although in need of losing weight, under eat healthy calories. To properly restore someone’s metabolism, get them functioning healthier, and set them up for long term success, generally a substantial calorie increase is needed. This almost always results in short term weight gain. Don’t get scared and punk out. Ride it out; you only need to do this once. Allow your metabolism to elevate to a normal or faster than normal rate, and you’ll have sustainable weight loss and weight management forever, and work significantly less-hard to do it.

 

  • Fluctuation is Normal

There are so many factors that affect weight: hydration, salt intake, sleep, glycogen levels, effects of travel, effects of stress, and many more. Bodyweight fluctuation is very normal. I try to advise clients against weighing once to judge progress. For general progress monitoring I prefer to advise clients to weigh two to three days in a row and take an average. In clients that are on very strict programs, their weight is much more predictable and fluctuations can be accounted for. But in more general fitness scenarios, there are simply too many variables changing by the day or even hour to not account for this by taking an average.

 

  • When to Weigh

When you weigh is directly connected to the result you will see. When monitoring progress, the best time to weigh is first thing in the morning. Go to the bathroom and wear the same thing every time you weigh. This will minimize the fluctuations. Assuming you sleep the same amount of time and don’t wake up for any intake of fluids or food, you’ll likely be in a similar state every morning and can rely on good readings. Depending on your diet, fluid, and many other factors, it’s not uncommon for people to gain five plus pounds throughout the course of the day.

Five Tips for Not Missing Meals

Consistency is one of the most important aspects of achieving any goal. Sticking to your meal plan is essential and will produce incredible results quickly. That’s easier said than done! Here are five tips for sticking to your meal plan and not missing those metabolism building meals!

 

  • Plan ahead

Proper preparation is the number one way to stick to your diet. Usually bad decisions or less-than-optimal solutions occur when we are unprepared. Clean food isn’t always available. If you get behind on your meals for the day, you will likely also get very hungry and start to rationalize bad dietary decisions. “I’m starving; I don’t even care; just give me SOMETHING!” Always try to plan ahead. Make a plan the night before about what you’re going to eat and when. Learn how to make a plan that allows for flexibility. For instance, you MIGHT have a lunch meeting that will require you to eat at a restaurant. Plan the meals around the lunch and have a plan before you arrive about what you will order and also what you will avoid at the restaurant. It’s far easier to avoid the bread when you’ve decided ahead of time, “I will not eat the bread served before the meal.”

 

  • Keep a stash

I rely on my stash all the time! In fact, I keep multiple stashes around. I have a truck stash, an office stash, a stash at my Dad’s house, and a gym bag stash. What’s a stash? For me, it’s whey protein sample packs, tuna packs, and raw nuts. A stash should be a quality source of protein, fat, and carbs that are not quickly perishable that you can depend on if you’re stuck without a meal. Life is often unpredictable and sometimes your days just don’t go how you planned! That’s okay if you’re prepared. If you have a stash of foods that fit your meal plan, it’s very unlikely that you will need to miss a meal or rely on unhealthy foods to sustain you because you don’t have access to any clean food.

 

  • Learn to be resourceful

You know those survivor shows, where survival experts can turn a barren desert cave into a livable bungalow and eat a three-course meal before bed? That should be you when it comes to sticking to your meal plan! Make something out of nothing. For instance – how to navigate a convenience store or gas station when you need to eat and you don’t have food, your stash is empty, and restaurants are closed. “Health Foods” can be a trap. Sports drinks, granola bars, mixed nuts, and most other items marketed as “health” food are usually very calorie dense and were designed for people in endurance events. Your road trip may require endurance, but not the kind that requires intra drive glycogen replenishment! My favorite go-to is beef jerky – the sodium content is high, but it’s high in protein and low in fat and carbs. If you want fat or carbs, you can add in a single serving of nuts or be one of the one in 1000 people that buy the fruit at the gas station. Protein bars can be hit or miss and the same with protein shakes. Just make sure you check the nutrition facts to avoid unnecessary calories from sugar or fat.

 

  • Learn how to order at restaurants

Ordering at a restaurant in a meal plan friendly way is a learned skill. There are lots of tricks of the trade. A few of my favorites:

  1. Make sure the meat is cooked with no butter or oil (it often is).
  2. As for any and all sauce, get it on the side (this can sometimes cut the calories by 25-50%).
  3. Get certain items steamed instead of pan fried, fried, or any other method that involves using fat to cook a would-be healthy food choice.
  4. Just ask for what you want! If you can’t make a good combo using their preset menu, just ask for what you want. They’ll often make it for you.

 

  • Set a timer

For me, and most dieters, the stomach grumble is timer enough. But if you’re trying to add muscle mass and living in a calorie surplus that doesn’t leave you hungry or you have a slow metabolism and meal frequency is a struggle, then set yourself a timer. Use a phone or watch and set a timer so you don’t forget. Keep shakes nearby in case it’s time to eat and you’re not in a setting to pull out a meal. That way you don’t end up trying to make up for lost time late at night or missing meals altogether.

Three Questions to Ask Yourself Before Competing (or before competing again!)

Competing can be a big decision and it impacts all areas of your life. I’m not psychologist, nor would I consider myself an expert, but I’ve experienced enough contest preps personally, as a husband to a pro competitor, a coach of hundreds of athletes, and gym owner, to make a few observations. I believe anyone that wants to compete should answer these three questions before they make the decision to compete or before they return to competing after a burnout or a break.

 

  • Is my goal to win or is my goal to be my best?

This might seem like an easy question because the obvious answer is BOTH! But more often than not, these two achievements don’t line up. I’ve seen it many times where an athlete achieves their personal best package to date, but has been disappointed with their placing. I’ve also seen athletes be off their personal best and win. Obviously, the latter is much easier to handle, so we won’t focus on that too much. It’s very hard for competitors and hard for loved ones and coaches to watch someone achieve their best but be disappointed. The fact of the matter is that competing in physique competitions is a subjective sport that often involves the personal taste of a panel of judges. Those opinions and tastes can often create puzzling results. Not that the judges make bad decisions, but it’s just the nature of opinions and tastes. As much as sanctioning bodies try to create standards or judging criteria, there’s always taste involved. I always encourage athletes to create a physique that they think is the best. It should be better than the previous contest and always improving. You can only focus on what you can control and you can only control what you look like. If you have made your best effort to meet the judging criteria, you have a look that you think is your best, and you have improved to a personal best, you should be happy. You can’t control who shows up and you can’t control the tastes of a panel. You can of course be disappointed with the outcome of a placing, but your own happiness should be centered around your achievement of a personal best, not an outside opinion. This kind of outlook will keep you happier for longer and keep you in a sport you enjoy. If your happiness is based out of placings or satisfying others, you should really question if competing will be a good decision for you.

 

  • Am I competing because I like it or is it a means to an end?

This is important to answer for yourself. The first part of the question is pretty straightforward – Am I competing because I like it? If the answer is not a clear yes, you should probably reevaluate. The second part of the question is a bit tougher, and it’s entirely possible that this is not an either/or question. You may enjoy competing, while it’s also a means to an end. Where people run into trouble is when they don’t enjoy competing but hope to achieve something because of competing. Common reasons include: hope for financial gain, notoriety or fame, or a goal with a deadline. If you don’t enjoy competing, financial gain, notoriety, and a goal with a deadline are all achievable without getting on stage and probably more efficient by other means.

 

  • Does competing fit my other life goals and plans?

Probably the most important question of all. I’ve seen competing mesh very well into busy lifestyles and I’ve seen it cause huge disruptions. It really depends on the person, their situation, the intensity of their prep, and a few other factors. If you plan to compete, you should really make sure your family and close friends are on board with the goal. Competing can put a strain on relationships for a lot of reasons: time investment required by you, a heavy focus on yourself, lack of energy in the latter parts of the diet, and more. It’s also important that competing fits your career goals. Not many people can make a living competing and it can be disruptive to a job if you’re not prepared or careful. It’s important to make sure you can maintain your career goals while competing and make necessary safeguards like taking time off near the show to protect yourself.