By Pedro van Gaalen and Werner Beukes. Photography by Soulby Jackson (www.skjphotography.co.za)
As the 2020 competitive season is around the corner, athletes around the country are hard at work trying to dial in their conditioning. One key element in this regard, provided that the appropriate amount of muscle has been developed over the off-season, is dropping body fat to single digit levels. This is not an easy task though as it becomes a fine balancing act to decrease subcutaneous body fat levels while holding on to that hard-earned muscle.
Control your carbs!
Insulin is a powerful hormone, not only for its role in enhanced muscle growth, but also its ability to promote the storage of fat. With all the hype and research around the effectiveness of low carb, high fat diets at the moment it should be clear that carbohydrates are to blame for the accumulation of fat. As such, it is essential that you are strict about the types and amount of carbs you eat each day, and the times at which you eat them.
The general consensus is that fibrous carbs from fresh fruit and vegetables should be the dominant source of carbs in your diet, with as little processed carbs and simple sugars in your eating plan as possible. High glycaemic index (GI) sources of carbs provide the most benefit, while low GI carb intake should be limited to before and after your workout to assist with training intensity and glycogen restoration. You can also play around with carb manipulation techniques like carb cycling to really dial in your conditioning and blast more fat.
Count your calories
At its most basic level dropping weight and shedding body fat boils down to a simple equation; burn more calories than you consume. While there are additional factors involved, such as controlling insulin and other hormones, when there is an over-consumption of calories they will be stored and you will gain weight, most of which will be in the form of stored body fat.
However, Sarah Lotter, a biokineticist and online coach at Sheriff Training Systems, advises that athletes plan their calorie deficits. “You can’t suddenly decrease calories or suddenly ramp up the exercise. This will more than likely result in a loss of muscle mass, or will slow down your metabolic rate when you need it to be working at its most efficient.”
Map out your macros
As mentioned in point two, there are additional factors to calorie deficits that influence your ability to drop body fat in the lead up to a show. One important factor is your macro-nutrient ratios. Lotter, who is also a competitive Bikini athlete, recommends that you give special attention to your diet from a meal plan perspective.
“With a carefully calculated macro-nutrient intake you can transition the glycaemic load of the foods you’re eating, shifting your intake from higher GI to lower GI carbs such as white rice and potatoes, to butternut and sweet potato. Together with this you slowly reduce the fat content of the protein in your diet by replacing fattier cuts of meat with options such as extra-lean beef mince, skinless chicken, hake and egg whites,” she explains.
Bernadine Schwartz, founder of BikiniBoots, a full service training and advice consultancy for competitive athletes, and anyone else who wants to change their life and body, adds that determining your efficiency as a fat or carb metaboliser will help to inform your pre-contest dietary approach.
“Once your coach has established if your body responds better to good carbs or good fats, athletes can adjust their meal plan according to their training schedule.”
Boost your protein intake
Not only will additional protein help to spare muscle tissue during calorie restricted diets and training, but it also increases the thermic effect of food. The higher the protein content of your food, the more work your digestive system needs to do to digest and process it. This means you actually burn more calories (albeit minimal amounts) when eating protein than other foods. When combined with fibrous fruits and vegetables you can boost this thermic effect even further.
Perform fasted state cardio
While fasted state cardio is a double-edged sword – it has the power to burn fat and destroy muscle – when used correctly there are few things as effective at tapping into fat stores.
When we’re in a glycogen depleted state and require energy we force our bodies to get it from other sources. Fat is the most energy-dense and, in general, most abundant form of energy in our body. It is also more efficiently metabolised than muscle tissue, so it will become the preferential form of energy used during fasted state cardio, when the correct intensities are used.
To get this balance right Lotter recommends that you slowly increase the amount of cardio you do, depending on your body type, to further increase the daily caloric deficit.
Schwartz, on the other hand, uses high intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio with her clients. “We start with fasted-state HIIT cardio 12 to 16 weeks before a contest, and increase the duration according to the conditioning of athletes when they get closer to their competition.”
For those worried about muscle loss, sipping on a branched chain amino acid (BCAA) supplement, or having a protein-rich meal before you train can help to limit or mitigate this. Again, the key here is balance; too much protein and you won’t tap into fat stores as efficiently as the circulating amino acids will more likely be used as fuel.
Boost the burn with supplements
The use of thermogenic fat burners and body toners will help to boost your metabolism and preferentially tap into fat stores while you train. In terms of promoting sustained fat loss, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) has been clinically proven to reduce total body fat and increase lean body mass. As it is not a thermogenic fat burner it is also an ideal supplement for sustained, long-term use.
However, thermogenic fat burners remain the most effective products for fat loss. By increasing body temperature, and subsequently your metabolic rate, they are able to burn more calories throughout the day, most of which comes from fat stores. However, prolonged use is ill-advised due to the effect that the stimulants in many of these products have on your nervous and endocrine systems.
A number of coaches also advise that athletes “save” thermogenic fat burners for the final weeks of pre-contest prep. This ensures that they have one last tool to give their metabolism a boost if all other avenues have been exhausted. Those who use thermogenic fat burners all the time blunt their sensitivity to these highly effective compounds, another reason why cycled use is highly advised.
For these reasons Schwartz also advises her athletes to stop all forms of caffeine and other stimulants three to four months before starting their contest prep. “By doing so we’ll get more of a benefit from these powerful aids when we reintroduce them at about 12 weeks out to kick that fat loss up a gear.”
Prime your body for fat loss
Similarly, it pays to improve your insulin sensitivity before entering the pre-contest phase, as this will make the body more responsive to carb intakes and carb manipulation techniques such as carb cycling or carb back-loading. This is best achieved by limiting carb intakes for a period while increasing muscle mass through weight training.
Take your time
Athletes often become obsessive while dieting down for a bodybuilding show, especially when you have to get leaner while the clock is ticking away. This is when many athletes go to extremes to try and achieve the conditioning they’re after.
However, crash dieting can destroy muscle and wreck your metabolism. It is better to diet over a longer period before a show, which requires patience. Think of pre-contest fat loss as a marathon and not a sprint. Winners of this marathon are the ones who maintain their physiques and not those who drop weight in the shortest space of time.
Avoid the rebound
For many athletes who embark on a contest diet, months of hard work and dedication are often undone when their diets end. This rebound weight gain has become synonymous with the calorie restricted diets required to step on stage in the best condition possible.
The problem with this is that most people tend to regain more weight than they lost during these rebounds, as the body tries to prepare of subsequent periods of calorie restriction. It’s a survival mechanism ingrained in our physiology. At its most basic biological level, your brain interprets the dieting process as a form of starvation. It will therefore initiate processes that place your body in ‘survival mode’. Subsequently your metabolism slows and you experience more food cravings.
“The truth is that many athletes invest a lot of time and money in meticulously planning their approach in the lead up to a big contest, but very few have a plan for what they should do afterwards. This inevitably leads to crash weight gain and a rapid loss of conditioning in the days that follow a show,” continues Lotter.
A landmark 2001 study highlighted many of the compensatory mechanisms that lead to rebound weight gain, including involuntary responses to hunger that lower metabolism, reduce thyroid hormones, and produce fat cells.
This makes it harder to regain the same level of conditioning during subsequent pre-contest diets.
According to Lotter, when athletes diet down for contests, following the accepted healthy guidelines, their body adapts to sustaining itself on a lower calorie intake.
“This is known as ‘metabolic adaptation’ or ‘adaptive thermogenesis’. The body initially becomes more efficient at utilising stored energy, the most abundant source of which is body fat, in response to a reduction in energy supplied from your diet. The downside to this, however, is that you burn fewer calories overall, which then forces you to consume fewer and fewer calories over time to keep seeing results. Accordingly, to prevent the negative side effects of diet-induced weight-gain, a natural compensatory response to periods of restricted calorie intake, a structured programme of reverse dieting should be implemented.”
Lotter explains that the ultimate goal of reverse dieting is to increase calorie intake as high as possible while limiting weight gain, particularly body fat accumulation. “In doing so you maximise your metabolic capacity (the mitochondria’s capacity for substrate utilisation and maximum oxygen uptake, or the body’s ability to meet its energy requirements without experiencing fatigue), and make subsequent fat loss efforts easier.”
Another important tool in this regard is your training intensity. Researchers have found that the drop in physical exercise that occurs automatically during calorie restriction is one of the main reasons for a rebound. When you cut back on your food intake while you diet you become sluggish and you eventually move your body less with less energy.
An absolute must to keep the fat off is to continue to up your intensity levels during workouts by all means necessary despite your lower calorie intakes. In this way you can keep the fat off for the long haul and it will become easier when competing in your next show.