There are many ways to train for contest prep—some are very sound in science, some are based on anecdotal experience, and some just make no sense at all. Resistance training during prep is the greatest tool we have to change the physique. Done correctly, it gives the stimulus to initiate a muscle to grow. Lack of stimulus can lead to a muscle atrophying. The main driver for muscle hypertrophy is mechanical tension. Mechanical tension can be generated by a heavy load or a light load taken to failure. Regardless of light or heavy weights being used, to achieve this optimal stimulus you must maintain training intensity (effort) during your prep. This means working sets are taken at or near the point of concentric muscle failure.
You can easily lose muscle tissue in a contest prep because muscle is very costly for the body to run. When you’re in a calorie deficit and adding more cardio and stress, the body wants to be as efficient as possible. You must train correctly to prevent or at least minimize muscle loss as much as possible while dieting. This is not only about dropping muscle though, we have to think about fat loss as well. If you aren’t retaining muscle, your weekly weight loss will have a lower percentage coming from fat and a higher percentage coming from lean tissue. You could very well end up looking skinny fat by the end of prep. To get that really grainy, hard, stage look, let me show you what you need to do.
1. Off-season Intensity Sets the Standard For Prep
The basic concepts of training still apply, whether you’re in off-season or contest prep. You need to use progressive overload, generate a high level of effort, and train with an optimal amount of volume. Out of these three components, the intensity or effort level will fade away most readily on prep. Although the same hard sets in the off-season are likely to feel much harder on prep, you must maintain the same effort. You need to be taking your sets at or near failure. Squatting 405 for 10 reps is going to be a challenge to keep up on prep—you have to fight like hell to keep the weight and reps up to par. If the load or reps drop, you are now reducing the hypertrophy stimulus. So put all your effort into each set and keep the same off-season effort level in place.
2. If Strength Drops the Intensity Still Stays
I told you to fight like hell to keep up with strength, but what if strength really does drop on prep? This might happen at some point, but this is not always the case. I have seen people hit all time best lifts one week out from a show. Don't jump to any conclusions too quickly and change your plan. You might just be having an off day. The main thing is that you still take those sets at or near failure. That mechanical tension you create going to failure is the stimulus to keep muscle around. If you drop off a rep, that is okay. Don’t let it get in your head. Just put as much effort possible into the sets whether strength is off for the day or not. As you get closer to a show, for safety purposes I would not let work sets get below 6 reps. Lighten the load to get more reps, but you must keep intensity the same. Low rep or high rep, put all-out effort into each set.
3. Decrease Training Volume To Maintain Intensity
Intensity (effort) in a set is the main driver in maintaining muscle. I want to see someone put forth the same effort into their sets and keep hitting the same load for the same reps on their exercises. You can actually decrease training volume up to 2/3 and still maintain strength and muscle mass. If recovery is terrible and strength is dropping, decrease training volume slightly. A starting point would be to remove set extenders and only do straight sets. You could take out some drop sets, rest pause sets, and forced reps and move more to just doing straight sets. If that still isn’t enough, you can back down your 12 work sets to 10 work sets and see how that feels. Another option is substituting highly demanding exercises with similar lifts. A barbell squat is going to accumulate a lot more fatigue than a hack squat that allows you to brace your core more. You can rotate in days where you do a different lift.
4. Physical Intensity Starts In the Mind
Mentality is something that can be developed, but I think some people are wired to fight through tough situations. You have to approach training with some mental toughness. If you are weak minded, you will generate thoughts that produce self-doubt and precipitate poor outcomes. It’s like walking into the gym and saying, “I am so tired, this workout will be tough.” Well damn straight it’s going to be tough if you already decided it will be. Instead, walk into the gym and say “I am going to destroy every set on my log book today.” I guarantee speaking more positively will generate more positive outcomes. You have to be mentally focused for your hard work sets to generate the effort needed to take a set to failure.
5. Poor Recovery Will Decrease Intensity
Monitor your recovery closely on prep. With training volume (cardio and weights) at an all-time high and food getting to an all-time low, recovery is going to suffer. If you are mentally and physically bogged down before you get in the gym, it will be very hard to keep up your training intensity. Make sure you are getting enough quality sleep. Look at your lifestyle and don’t overextend yourself too much. Mental stress can affect you as much as the physical stress of training. Use soft tissue work and chiropractic work to keep yourself healthy and aid in recovery. Sometimes an extra off day is more beneficial than forcing in another training session. If you dig yourself into a hole with so much fatigue, you are going to stall fat loss and not have a productive prep.
Don’t let anyone trick you into thinking there is a magical contest prep training plan that will get you shredded. The same hard grinding intensity that built muscle in the off-season is the same grind you need on prep. Train hard everyone.