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12 November 2019

Why muscle growth shouldn’t be a priority in the post-contest period!

by Martin Refalo 0

So, the bodybuilding season has come to an end and competitors are now faced with the challenges of the post-contest period. This is a delicate and potentially problematic period for many; considering the large amount of time committed to the sole goal of stepping on stage, being left with no meaningful goal afterwards can feel…

So, the bodybuilding season has come to an end and competitors are now faced with the challenges of the post-contest period. This is a delicate and potentially problematic period for many; considering the large amount of time committed to the sole goal of stepping on stage, being left with no meaningful goal afterwards can feel slightly perplexing. After several months of dieting and stripping away body fat, many competitors feel that the only logical goal in the immediate post-contest period is to focus on muscle growth; an adaptation that has been limited due to the incoming energy being insufficient to fuel the anabolic processes that lead to the accretion of new muscle tissue. This is the route that many competitors take, increasing their training volume and caloric intake drastically to take advantage of the body’s increased sensitivity to calories, or in other words ‘post-contest anabolism’.

The strategy of ‘bulking’ to maximise muscle growth immediately post-contest seems to be conventional wisdom within the bodybuilding community. Here is an excerpt from an article on bodybuilding.com, a website that many bodybuilders use to retrieve information regarding training and nutrition:

“The best time, in my opinion, to bulk up is after you have been dieting for a long period of time. At this time your body will act like a sponge and absorb all of the nutrients that you give it at peak efficiency in response to the fact that it has not been getting such an influx of nutrients for a while.”

This is a good point; nutrient sensitivity can be beneficial to muscle growth and leads to greater rates of anabolism. After a period of prolonged hypocaloric dieting that leads to significant weight loss, the body has no problems taking up calories/nutrients and storing them for energy. Throughout the period of energy restriction, the brain senses the reduction in total energy availability primarily through a hormone called leptin which sends energy related signals to the hypothalamus – this is a form of homeostatic control which leads to specific internal processes being adjusted in aim of restoring the energy deficit and therefore increasing total energy availability. One of these processes can be simplistically termed ‘metabolic efficiency’; the human body becomes very efficient at utilising energy. To simplify this further, less energy is wasted and more energy is stored – ultimately limiting your ability to lose energy (and therefore lose body mass) but improving your ability to store energy (and therefore gain body mass).

It is important to understand however, that after a prolonged dieting phase or contest preparation, the body isn’t very concerned about storing energy inside muscle cells. Its main concern is to regain body fat, improving your chances of survival and passing on your genetics – as humans, these are our two main objectives. To bypass evolutionary jargon and get to the point of this article ? low body fat levels are not conducive to either of these objectives.

So yes, post-contest anabolism and increased sensitivity to nutrients is a real thing, however, this anabolism is heavily directed towards fat cells within adipose tissue as opposed to the muscle cells in your bicep! 

Research also demonstrates that muscle cells are not as calorie sensitive as fat cells anyway. As calorie surplus size increases muscle growth tends to rise but hits a plateau, whilst gains in fat mass rise exponentially and in proportion to surplus size. Click HERE for some research on elite athletes and HERE for some research on bodybuilders! If you don’t like reading research, here is a graph that displays what I think to be the relationship between calorie surplus size and muscle and fat mass gains.

Figure 1 As calorie surplus size increases there seems to be a steady increase
in muscle mass gains that tapers off but an exponential rise in fat mass gains. 

So, the key takeaways so far are:

  1. After a prolonged period of hypocaloric dieting (energy restriction), the body upregulates metabolic processes that improve energy storage capabilities.
  2. After a period of energy restriction that induces significant weight loss the human body will prefer to store energy within adipose tissue as opposed to muscle tissue.
  3. Fat cells are more sensitive to calories than muscle cells are.
  4. In the immediate post-contest period you aren’t really primed to gain muscle, you’re primed to gain body fat!

These points demonstrate that increasing calorie intake drastically in the post-contest period to maximise muscle growth may be a flawed approach, leading to more fat gain than muscle gain. In saying this however, muscle gain will definitely occur once calories increase in the post-contest period due to the restoration of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) rates which can drop by 27% in an energy deficit. This default increase in MPS will most likely lead to some muscle growth, but eating above what is actually needed will not lead to higher rates of MPS. 

Okay, so if a high calorie intake isn’t going to optimise muscle mass gains in the post-contest period, how about an increase in training volume and intensity? Many competitors utilise this approach – here is another excerpt from the bodybuilding.com forums.

“My friends are always telling me that the week (or at least the first few days) after the contest, your body is super anabolic and you really need to take advantage of that by eating big and training heavy.”

So, should we really be training with maximal volume and intensities in the post-contest period to take advantage of this ‘super anabolic’ state? Sounds like something out of Dragon Ball Z if you ask me – remember the hyperbolic time chamber? Unfortunately, the post-contest period doesn’t work in the same way that the chamber does…here is some physiology for you. Skip to the end if you want the takeaways.

1. Inflammation

Inflammation has a bad rap in the fitness industry, usually discussed under a negative light. Funnily enough, inflammation is actually a regulator of muscle growth…that’s right, it influences the amount of muscle growth you experience. Inflammation is a localised condition, signalling the immune system to pay attention to the inflamed area. When we lift weights, muscle fibres experience tension and microtrauma which results in local muscular inflammation. In this case, the immune system releases anti-inflammatory signalling molecules or proteins called myokines, particularly interluekn-6 (IL-6). IL-6 aids in the repair of damaged muscle and actually induces satellite cell proliferation and subsequent myonuclear addition, a critical component of muscle hypertrophy. 

So, what’s the issue when it comes to inflammation and the post-contest period? Well, competitors usually experience suppressed immune function. This means that the immune system exhibits an abnormal response to inflammation, not releasing the appropriate amount of myokines when necessary – in the context of training this reduces muscle repair rates and may limit muscle hypertrophy. Unrepaired muscle damage due to a downregulated inflammatory response will only mean the body has to direct more protein synthesis towards the repair site, leaving less protein synthesis for new muscle tissue. The only way to regain immune function is to re-gain body fat.

2. Testosterone

We have all heard about testosterone and its beneficial effects on muscle growth. Testosterone is a steroid hormone, meaning it is made out of fat, more specifically cholesterol. Testosterone has the ability to directly communicate to DNA within muscle cells and increase protein synthesis which is desirable from a muscle hypertrophy standpoint. The only problem is, low levels of energy availability reduce testosterone levels quite drastically. This reduction in testosterone is a common occurrence in bodybuilders and can limit muscle growth. It doesn’t matter how hard you train, if your testosterone levels are in the ‘low’ range relative to your ‘normal’ range which is genetically pre-determined, muscle growth will not be maximal. Once again, the only way to restore testosterone levels back to your ‘normal’ is to regain body fat.

Research does show that systemic hormone concentration (including testosterone) in the post-exercise period does not seem to contribute to hypertrophy, however, this is assuming that hormone levels are within their ‘normal’ range. If testosterone levels are low due to chronic low-fat consumption, lack of sleep, excessive alcohol consumption or low energy availability (low body fat), muscle growth will be limited.

3. Estrogen (Oestrogen) 

Testosterone levels may not be as important for females as they are for males but estrogen levels definitely are. Estrogen is another steroid (or sex) hormone that is highly secreted from female ovaries and fluctuates throughout the menstrual cycle. Estrogen, just like many other hormones is highly misunderstood and usually discussed in its relation to fat gain. However, not many understand estrogen’s positive effect on muscle growth. Estrogen’s are highly involved in the regulation of muscle fibre function and force production, satellite cell proliferation, muscle damage repair and rates of muscle protein synthesis! Here is an overview of Estrogen’s functions in relation to muscle growth:

Figure 2 Credit to Brittany Collins from the University of Utah for the figure

Similar to the testosterone scenario in men, females seem to need normal levels of estrogen circulating the blood stream to achieve these muscle related benefits. Lowered estrogen levels may also impact a competitor’s ability to build muscle immediately in the post-contest period – female bodybuilders experience a reduction in serum estrogen concentration throughout contest preparation. Thankfully, regaining body fat seems to restore estrogen levels back to normal, however, it is a timely process.

So, here are the key physiological takeaways:

  1. Contest preparation can impair immune function and lead to a weakened inflammatory response to muscle contraction. Regular immune function needs to be restored before muscle growth can be maximised.
  2. Serum testosterone levels may reduce drastically throughout contest preparation resulting in a limited ability to grow muscle.
  3. Estrogen has important functions that are related to muscle growth. Females may experience a reduction in serum estrogen throughout contest preparation, limiting their ability to grow muscle.
  4. The above factors can only be restored by regaining body fat. Once adequate body fat is regained, muscle growth may be maximised.

This is why training with a very high volume and intensity in the post-contest period may lead to more drawbacks than positive muscular adaptations. I believe the post-contest period is a time for the competitor to focus on gaining body fat at an appropriate rate and worry more about their health, wellbeing and psychological state, rather than the size of their biceps. The post-contest period should consist of a recovery phase that prioritises the following:

  1. Weight regain – 5-10% of peak week bodyweight in 4-6 weeks
  2. Re-establishing connections with friends and family and improving social activity
  3. Reducing dietary restraint, improving relationship with food and introducing 1-2 new foods per week
  4. Strengthening any muscular weaknesses to improve tolerance to heavy loads
  5. Addressing any joint pain and/or niggles with prehabilitation drills to reduce the risk of overuse injuries once training volume rises
  6. Re-incorporating some new exercises to take into the off-season and increase training enjoyment

This is by no means an exclusive list, and there are many other factors that I like to address in the recovery phase. However, as you can see, muscle growth is not a priority here. The anabolic response from increased calories combined with a comfortable training regimen will be more than enough stimulus to elicit muscular adaptations. Trying to maximise muscular adaptations by pushing your training more than you need to may only result in psychological burn out, excessive fatigue and injury. 

The post-contest period is a time to avoid extremes! Balancing physiological recovery with psychological recovery is imperative – placing an emphasis on one will only impact the other and delay complete recovery. 

Don’t take time off the gym…but don’t start training every day.

Don’t keep calories low to maintain a lean physique…but don’t drive calories too high up either.

Remember, the off-season shouldn’t start as soon as the contest prep is finished. Embark on a recovery phase and build a foundation for your off-season. You’ll be much better off and your results will speak for themselves! 

For contest prep coaching or post-contest prep guidance contact [email protected]

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