The Final-Week Contest-Prep Fallacy, Part I by Layne Norton
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Since the theme of this month’s MD is ‘Road to the Nationals,’ a lot of contest-prep topics have been on my mind. Now a lot of what I do in this column ends up being myth-busting, not because I plan it that way, but because there is so much ridiculous information out there that typically telling the scientific reality ends up being ‘myth-busting’ and manages to step on the toes of established methods. Contest prep is no stranger to this, especially when it comes to the final week.
How many times have you heard a competitor say, “I looked so great a week out and then I looked terrible onstage.” That’s easy; you hear it after every show from a good number of competitors. Now how many times do you hear, “I didn’t look very good a week out, but that final week everything really came together and I looked great onstage.” You hardly ever hear that. Why the difference? What if I told you that the ‘established’ methods of final week peaking are almost completely wrong and based on about zero science. Nowadays every gym ‘guru’ has the perfect ‘secret’ plan that is going to make you super-dry, full, and shredded onstage. Stop me if this ‘secret’ plan is any different from what I’ve laid out here:
Sunday-Tuesday: Low/zero carbs. Super high water, high-sodium, and high-rep depletion workouts.
Wednesday-Thursday: Begin super-aggressive carb load (Some may wait until Thursday to begin loading). Beginning Thursday, reduce sodium and water. No more workouts or cardio for the week beginning Wednesday.
Friday: Continue carb load, and continue to reduce water and sodium. By this point, most of these plans will have you taking in less than half your normal water intake and some may even have you at zero. Sodium is usually zero by this point and typically potassium loading begins. Begin taking diuretic (some may begin on Thursday)
Saturday: Continue carb load, almost zero water, no sodium, continue loading potassium, and taking diuretic.
So how close am I? I’ll bet I’m damned close. And if you followed this protocol you probably wonder why it didn’t magically take you into striated-glute land. I’m afraid I have bad news for you: if you don’t have low enough body fat to have striated glutes, no crazy peaking method is going to get you there. There is one secret to looking shredded onstage, and that secret is… BEING SHREDDED!
Over the next few issues of MD I am going to explain why these typical ‘peak week’ protocols are more likely to make you look worse, not better. This month I am going to focus on cutting water and using diuretics.
The idea behind cutting water and using diuretics is simple. If you cut water, there will be less under your skin and you will look more shredded, right? WRONG! The reality is, water is stored in basically 2 compartments inside the body: intracellular (inside the cell) and extracellular (outside the cell). Intracellular water is great; it makes your muscles look full and volumized. Extracellular water is what people are attempting to eliminate by cutting water and taking diuretics.
The body maintains the ratio of intracellular to extracellular water in about a 70:30 ratio and this ratio is EXTREMELY tightly controlled. Anyone who claims that you can eliminate water from one compartment without affecting the other is flat out WRONG. If you pull water from one compartment, you will also pull it from the other to maintain homeostasis. This is basic chemistry/physiology concept taught to freshman-level college students. It is explained nicely by Le’ Chatelier's Principle which states: "If a chemical system at equilibrium experiences a change in concentration, temperature, volume (i.e., water volume), or partial pressure, then the equilibrium shifts to counteract the imposed change."
So if you take a diuretic or cut water, you will lose extracellular water, but you will also lose intracellular water in order to maintain homeostasis. The ratio of intracellular: extracellular water will remain unchanged and all you will have accomplished is flattening yourself out. This is a big reason why you always hear people at shows talk about never being able to fill out or get a pump.
Furthermore, I’m sure many of you have experienced or have heard of competitors who couldn’t fill out the day of the show no matter what amount of carbs they ate— but after the show they went out to IHOP and pigged out and they looked 10X better an hour after the gorge-fest. That’s because what causes carbohydrates to fill muscles out is not the carbs themselves, but the water that associates with carbohydrates.
If you are cutting water, you can eat all the carbs you want and you will never fill out properly. After the show when competitors pig out and can’t believe how much better they look, they assume it’s because of all the crap food they ate and they simply must not have carbed up enough (like 1,000 grams of carbs isn’t enough to fill you out)— when the reality is, it is not the food they ate that made the difference. It was the fact that they drank a bunch of water with the food and that finally allowed them to fill out!
Now I know you are probably thinking, “But Layne, what if I time it just right— can’t I catch myself where I am losing more extracellular water, instead of intracellular water?” Not really. Your body’s water balance is so crucial to cell osmolarity, ion balance, blood volume, and blood pressure that it is regulated by the minute! There is no way you could only pull water from one compartment without affecting the water. Moral of the story with water is: if you are shredded and look great a week out when you are drinking a ton of water, why would you change a bunch of things? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
Part II will discuss sodium/potassium manipulations— be sure to pick up the next issue of MD to see what I have to say about that nonsense!