19 June 2019

Diet Adjustments During Contest Prep

by Jacob Schepis 0

This article is an excerpt from the soon to be released JPS X REVIVE STRONGER: Ultimate Guide To Contest Prep Ebook written By JPS’ very own Jacob Schepis & Lyndon Purcell and Steve Hall & Pascal Flor. This section is a snippet from a chapter on the ‘digging phase’, discussing the various diet adjustments that can…

This article is an excerpt from the soon to be released JPS X REVIVE STRONGER: Ultimate Guide To Contest Prep Ebook written By JPS’ very own Jacob Schepis & Lyndon Purcell and Steve Hall & Pascal Flor. This section is a snippet from a chapter on the ‘digging phase’, discussing the various diet adjustments that can be made to bust through fat loss plateaus and ensure athletes achieve excellence on the bodybuilding and physique stage.

To get notified immediately upon the release of the ebook and receive PRE-SALE discounts on your copy, fill out the form below!

When, how and what adjustments to make to accelerate fat loss?

Adjusting diet variables, such as calorie intake or macronutrients, is the first place you should be looking at as bodybuilders and coaches when progress stalls. Controlling energy intake is the most potent and reliable means of creating a calorie deficit and furthering fat loss when plateaus arise. That being said, diet adjustments should not be made willy nilly or resemble a linear decreases in calorie intake. Diet adjustments in a contest prep, especially during the digging phase, will often necessitate periods of increased calorie intake, where the athlete is eating to, or slightly above maintenance requirements. This is where most inexperienced coaches and athletes go wrong. They linearly decrease calorie intake and increase expenditure, cutting calories harder and harder as they near the stage with more and more cardio. Although this strategy may ‘work’, it is probably not the best way to approach diet adjustments in the final pre-stage phase. Drastic reductions in energy intake coupled with increased activity levels is not ideal – especially when athletes are lean.

As outlined previously in this chapter, the body down regulates a number of systems to reduce energy expenditure when body fat percentage drops well below an individual’s settling range. These adaptations, such as increased hunger and food focus as well as adaptive thermogenesis, not only make eating fewer calories more difficult, but also make achieving and predicting the size of the calorie deficit a lot harder. This is why the digging phase requires a much more delicate approach to your diet.

Before decreasing calorie intake to bust through a stall, it is important to note is that there is a maximum amount of energy that can be liberated from fat on a gram-to-gram basis, per unit of time. What this means is, the more body fat you have, the more you can use to bridge the energy deficit. However, when you are leaner, your fat stores are lower, and this means that there is less fat available to provide energy. Thus, maximal fat loss will occur at a slower rate, and anything beyond this maximal rate will only result in greater amounts of muscle loss, as amino acids will be required to bridge the remaining energy-gap. Even though maximal fat loss may seem ideal, it is not without risk. Given that athlete’s experience significant metabolic pushback and are experiencing high degrees of diet fatigue, pursuing maximal rates of loss may result in dire outcomes.

Therefore, not only is a slower rate of loss expected, but often a smaller deficit is necessary to minimise adverse outcomes and ensure athlete’s can adhere consistently and thus sustain an energy deficit. Maintaining a smaller deficit is a lot more complex than many realise. At the start of a contest prep, there is inherently a much larger margin of error. Maintaining a deficit during this time is akin to walking a tightrope – a very fine balancing act.

Even though a smaller deficit is desirable in this phase, a small energy deficit over long durations in lean individuals can still cause a number of problems. This is why we recommend the inclusion of periods at maintenance calories, whether it be within the week or the month. This dietary strategy is otherwise known as intermittent calorie restriction (ICR), or nonlinear dieting and can potentially be used to off-set some of the physiological adaptations that occurs when creating an energy deficit in very lean individuals and provide a powerful means of improving psychological states and thus adherence to the diet. Although eating more food is counter intuitive, the benefits of eating at maintenance calorie levels cannot be overstated and is a dietary adjustment that should be considered during this phase.

Anecdotal reports from contest athletes and coaches, along with new research, have shown that by temporarily raising calorie intake to maintenance levels for 24 hours or more, adherence, mood and performance can be improved, with many competitors also reporting the benefits of non-linear dieting strategies on their energy levels, sleep quality and appetite. We must warn you though, much of the research pertaining to the physiological benefits of higher calorie intakes during prolonged diets is speculative at this stage and very little research has been conducted on bodybuilding populations or extremely lean and dieted down individuals. Nonetheless, the countless empirical reports of the psychological benefits that this strategy can impart does in fact support the use of intermittent periods of calorie maintenance and demonstrates that at times, removing an energy deficit acutely can provide a robust means of sustaining the diet long term.

A common issue and concern many athletes face when increasing calorie and carbohydrate intake is the acute fluctuations in scale weight measurement,  which can often lead an athlete to think that they are regressing and cause further psychological stress. This is not necessarily (or even likely) indicative of fat gain. Provided the increase in intake is not creating too large a surplus, fat storage (on the net-balance) is near impossible and at worst very insignificant – especially if it allows for future deficits to be achieved. Weight gain after eating at maintenance, is generally a result of increases in glycogen storage, water retention and gut residue. Although scale weight may fluctuate more in this phase due to non-linear calorie intakes, we can’t reiterate enough that sustaining the deficit is critical and provided the net-time spent at a deficit exceeds that of maintenance periods, fat loss and progress will occur. Additionally, keep in mind that scale weight is a secondary priority for assessments, and it is changes in physical appearance that are the primary concern, particularly during this time when the stage is near and detectable changes in body weight are rare.

In some cases, especially when athletes are experiencing high amounts of stress, intermittent periods of maintenance can in fact lead to rapid weight loss. Given that high levels of stress and edema can lead to weight gain, short term reductions in diet induced stress (removing the energy deficit) can yield some form of therapeutic effect on stress related mechanisms that leads to rapid reductions in water weight. The theoretical mechanisms behind this likely occur due to an increase in energy availability and thus hormones. The increased energy intake, typically via carbohydrates synergistically combat against stress related mechanisms and through various pathways and actions decrease ‘stress’ signals and thus water retention dissipates.  

The below decision tree helps depict the process for making a decision related to diet as well as cardio and will hopefully help you assess and determine an appropriate decision when making adjustments.

What is an appropriate rate of loss?

In the early phases of the contest prep diet, a faster rate of loss is possible via larger calorie deficits and longer periods of energy restriction (less time at maintenance). During the digging phase, the size of the deficit is smaller and the relative duration of time spent at a calorie deficit should also reduced, with more time being spent at caloric maintenance via refeeds and diet breaks. The back and forth between digging (deficit) and resting (maintenance) will mean that scale weight progress will be painstakingly slow, and often hard to detect, despite the high amount of effort exerted towards diet, training and cardio.

Whilst the weight will have fallen off in the early stages of the contest diet, changes in your scale weight during the digging phase will slow to anywhere between 0.25-0.5% of body weight per week, on average. You need to be fully aware that some weeks may show no loss though and you may need to look at the monthly trend instead (did you lose between 1-2% across the month). Just be concerned with the average and you should be on the right track.

As we have alluded to, the structure of your daily/weekly/monthly calorie intakes will vary a little more and adjustments made more frequently to manage the consequences of being lean.  There are a number of strategies you can use in this phase that can bolster sustainability of lower calorie intakes. We will elaborate more on that shortly, but ultimately it is the size of the deficit across any substantial period of time that will determine how you respond to the diet (both positively and negatively) – so getting this right is paramount.

How large should the deficit be?

As mentioned, the size of the deficit during this phase should be between 5-15% below maintenance calories in order to achieve a rate of loss between 0.25-0.1% of body weight per week. For the most part, the size of the deficit should be scaled with body-fat and time until the show. For example, an individual with a more fat to lose and who is behind schedule may require the upper end of the deficit range, having low days set to 10-15% below maintenance and aim to lose ~1% of bodyweight per week. On the other hand, if an individual has very little fat to lose and is ahead of schedule, then the lower end of the deficit range should likely be used. If the athlete is only a few hundred grams away from stage condition, with weeks until their first show, low days may be set to ~5-8% below maintenance with the aim to lose only 0.25-0.5% of bodyweight per week.

Other situations that may require a smaller deficit are when an athlete (irrespective of their body fat levels or time until the show) is experiencing uncontrollable hunger or reporting serious mood, energy, sleep or performance issues. In this situation, often it is best to reduce the size of the deficit and try to address other factors that may be causing this hindrance, such as lifestyle stress, with the aim of returning to a larger deficit in the future, when it is more readily achievable.

Use the process below to determine the appropriate target rate of loss and the estimated magnitude of calorie deficit required to achieve that rate of loss.

Where to reduce calorie intake from?

If you have followed this book closely then you will have noticed that carbohydrate intake is kept relatively high for as long as possible – unless the athlete has adherence issues on higher carbohydrate diets, or simply prefers lower carb approaches. In the digging phase, by necessity carbohydrate intake will be lower than baseline requirements and so too fat intake. If you have used the decision tree above and the decision you need to make is a calorie adjustment, the next step is to determine which macronutrient that calorie decrease should come from.

Use the process below to assess which macronutrient should be reduced.

Note: If the athlete has preferences or has demonstrated better adherence or lower hunger with higher fat diets, be sure to factor in this information – you should not only be guided by what is outlined here. Exercising care and caution for the impact a calorie/macro cut can have on adherence is pivotal. This model is just an example and aims to keep protein and carbohydrate intakes as high as possible for as long as possible, individual adjustments and context will be required.

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