Meet my old client Sarah Lee. Figure short Alberta Provincial Champion and now an excellent trainer in her own right :)
Choosing A Show
The first step in preparing for a show is to choose an organization and a division in which to compete. We’re assuming the second has been done, as this article is geared towards figure competitors. There are also divisions for fitness, bikini, and fitness model. As for choosing an organization, attend local shows in your area and research the different organization websites online. Check out results and photos from the shows you are looking to enter to see what the desired look is, and decide which look you prefer and could likely attain.
For a figure competition, you should allow yourself 3-6 months of preparation. This ensures enough time to take care of all the details, while also focusing on your training and diet, without added stress of being pressed to meet a deadline and wondering if you’ll be ready on time.
After selecting several shows of interest, research the chosen organization’s criteria, rules, and judging requirements. You will have to submit your entry form and registration fee, adhere to any drug-testing requirements, and put together posing routines and quarter turns according to that organization’s standards.
It’s a good idea to contact the show promoter to sort out any questions you may have at this point. If the show requires traveling, ensure you find a means to get there and make any necessary reservations, including airfare or hotel, if required.
12 – 8 Weeks Out
At the 3-month point, you should begin the first stages of preparation. They include hiring any professionals to assist you and mapping out the first stages of your training and diet. if you have budget constraints, I suggest hiring one person to take care of the one area in which you feel you need the most help. For many competitors that area is diet. What to eat, what not to eat, in what amounts, when, and how to peak during that final week are beyond most workout enthusiasts’ basic knowledge.
At 12 weeks out you should begin counting calories and starting to eliminate the junk foods from your diet. Get into the habit of eating 5-7 meals per day, each meal containing a protein, carbohydrate, and some fat, and drinking one gallon of water per day.
Limit cheat meals to one meal on the weekend, NOT the entire day :P. Start preparing your daily meal plans, buying and cooking food from scratch as much as possible, and weighing and measuring portions. Also be sure to track your calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fat for every item you put in your mouth.
Begin limiting simple sugars to what is found in fruits and complex carbohydrates – no junk food sweets or candy. Replace any full-fat dairy products with low-fat or fat-free versions. Start increasing your fiber intake gradually, and aim for 35g per day.
A great tool to track your daily food intake is the “My Fitness Pal” app. It’s free, and contains a huge food database and the option to customize your own foods. If you are doing your own diet, begin by putting in 1g of protein for every pound of bodyweight, as a minimum. You do not need to go higher than 1.25g per pound. Make sure to keep healthy fats in your diet as well. Keep about 20-30g of fat in your diet, and supplement with nuts or nut butters to ensure you’re reaching those numbers.
When it comes to carbohydrates, much is determined by your individual body type. Are you overly sensitive to carbohydrates and tend to store fat easily? You will probably want to keep this number equal with your protein intake. If you are thin-framed, have a fast metabolism, and have a hard time putting on fat or muscle, you can stand to add more carbs in your diet.
These first few weeks, you want to make sure you are consistent with whatever numbers you go for. You will then be able to track your progress and make changes according to what your body does.
Consistency is the key in any successful nutrition program. If you aren’t doing the same thing from day to day, how do you know if you are getting enough protein, too many carbs, or not enough water? Eliminate all but one variable (carbs), and use your weight and energy levels to determine if you need more or less calories.
A lot of new competitors hear the false rumor that to lean out, they need to increase their reps and decrease their weight to get more of a fat-burning effect. This will increase your heart rate, but it will also allow your body to give up much more of its hard-earned muscle. With the primary goals of contest prep being to lean out and to conserve muscle, you definitely do not want to go this route.
What you should do is continue on the same lifting routine that got you the physique you have right now if you’re happy with it. You want to keep the weights as heavy as you can throughout your prep period. It will get difficult; your energy levels and strength both decrease dramatically on reduced calories and lower body fat levels.
Your weight workouts should focus on high intensity. You can make any type of workout a high-intensity one. There are many techniques in which to do this. You can reduce your rest periods to 45-60 seconds between sets, and begin super-setting exercises together.
You can throw in a few high-rep sets to really get your heart-rate up, but remember not to sacrifice weight in your other exercises and sets. Negatives, drop sets, and forced reps are other great ways to increase your training intensity. Your heart rate should be soaring, you should be sweating, and your muscles should definitely be burning and fatigued!
It’s difficult to recommend a proper cardio regimen for anyone without knowing their training history, body type, and how much fat they need to lose for a show. In general, I recommend starting with 3 30-minute sessions per week and take it from there. If you are already doing more than that, do not increase your cardio at this point, just maintain where you are. Cardio should only be increased upon the occurrence of two things: one, you stop losing fat for at least 2 weeks without having changed anything else in your program; two, you first drop your calories by 100-200 consistently for 1-2 weeks and have still not lost any body fat.
Always manipulate your diet first, and do it slowly and gradually, before increasing your cardio. Once you have to increase cardio, add 5-15 minutes to each session for the first week and that will likely do the trick. Once your sessions reach 45-60 minutes in length, you can add in another day of cardio. I always recommend taking one day out of the week where you rest completely from all weight training, cardio, classes, and practice. Your body needs the rest and it’s a nice perk to look forward to at the end of the week, helping rest and recharge you physically and mentally for next week’s training and diet.
Since there is so much controversy regarding particular supplements and whether they work or not, my supplement recommendations come in order of importance and in order of effectiveness based on popular research and my own experience. If there is something not on the list you wish to take and can afford to do so, then there is nothing wrong with adding it in to make your preparation and life a little easier.
Multi-Vitamin/Mineral – First and foremost, this is a necessity. I even double the dose and take one each in the morning and evening during contest prep. While on reduced calories and strenuous exercise, you are depleting your body of its necessary vitamins and nutrients, so doubling up on this supplement is a great idea.
Extra Vitamin C – This is also a necessity for all my clients in contest prep mode. The extra vitamin C is needed to help boost the immune system, which is severely weakened from all the rigors of contest prep. Add to that the fact that most competitors diet through the winter months when colds are rampant, and you have a potential recipe for disaster. Take 500 mg in the morning and 500 mg in the evening. Even though there is C in your multi-vitamin, it’s not enough.
Extra Calcium – This is very important for female competitors and should not be ignored. Women need a minimum of 1200-1400 mg daily, and most multi-vitamins only contain 500 mg. Add 500 mg of calcium in your morning and evening doses to ensure you are meeting the minimum requirement.
Glutamine – Take 5-10 g daily, split into 2 doses. Pre or post-workout is a great time to take glutamine, and also right before bed.
Echinacea and Gingko Biloba – I am an adamant believer in the effectiveness of herbal remedies, so I’ve added these two herbs to the supplementation program. The Echinacea helps boost the immune system, important for reasons mentioned above, and the Gingko helps with mental clarity, alertness, and concentration, all of which are depleted on a low-calorie, lower carbohydrate contest diet.
Glucosamine Complex – This is very important during contest prep. As you lean out, your joints, tendons, and ligaments become more susceptible to injury; there is less fat around the joint to cushion and protect it. In addition, the high volume of weight training and cardio puts a lot of stress on your joints. Adding in glucosamine helps rebuild the cartilage around your joints and prevent injuries. (If allergic to shellfish make sure to get the shellfish free one)
Water – Don’t forget water! Get into that habit now of drinking 3-4 liters per day. It might take you a while to build up to that, but it is definitely a necessity. Water is so important for many bodily functions, and has the added bonus of keeping your skin clear and helping you feel full while dieting.
Also at this point, you need to begin reviewing posing suit designers and narrowing down some suit styles and colors you like, that also fit your budget. Contact 2-3 designers whose work you like, and let them know the date of your show and what division you’ll be competing in.
Tell them what suit or suits you need, and ask them to send you sample photos and fabric swatches. Many designers are booked 3-4 months out, so reserving your spot by 2-3 months is very important to ensure you’re getting the designer and the suit that you want.
If you’ve never competed, you should begin learning and practicing your poses immediately. These differ as well, so research your show’s organization to ensure you are meeting their exact requirements for quarter turns, presentation walks, and routines.
I also suggest using online resources, such as Bodybuilding.com, for instructional articles on posing. There are several DVD’s available for purchase, including one by IFBB Pro Tanji Johnson (“Instructional Posing DvD”) and NPC Judge Sandy Ranalli (“What are the Judges Looking for in Figure & Fitness?”).
You should begin practicing your poses 1-2 times per week, aiming to hold each pose for 30-60 seconds and repeat 3-5 times. Observe yourself in a full-length mirror, and be sure to practice in the actual shoes you’ll be wearing for the show!
Practicing on a hardwood floor, such as your gym’s group exercise room, is also great, as most competition stages are hardwood. If possible, have someone take photos or a video of you posing so you can assess your poses and make appropriate changes.
Learning and practicing the poses required for a fitness or figure contest is one of the most important aspects of competition preparation.
8 – 4 Weeks Out
At the 2-month point, you should be well on your way to honing that perfect figure physique. You shouldn’t have more than 8 pounds of body fat to lose at this point.
If you have less, just stay on track and still keep your weekend cheat meal in. If you’re right on track or a bit behind, you should definitely eliminate your cheat meals at this point.
Instead, you can opt for a higher calorie day by adding in some extra carbs, at a moderate level, as a “cheat.”
If you’ve done everything I suggested in Part 1, you’ve already been registered for your show, your suit maker is busy sewing and gluing, and your quarter turns are nearly perfect!
You should be keeping your training heavy and intense, and hitting your diet ratios nearly to perfection every day. It should be getting easier and becoming more of a habit at this point.
Your diet should only be changing based on the quickness of your fat loss. If you started on time, you shouldn’t be trying to lose more than about a pound per week. If you are on track or find that you are ready early, add in a little more food every few days to prevent further weight loss. If you are behind schedule, drop your carbs a little lower for 2-3 days and have a higher day once or twice per week. Remember to still stay consistent with everything. Change only one variable at a time so you know exactly what is going right (or wrong) and exactly what to change to progress further.
Training And Cardio
Your training shouldn’t be changing at all at this point. You may have lost a little strength and energy from lower calories and reduced body fat, but the changes should only be minor. Keep training hard and heavy as long as you can!
Your cardio should be steadily but slowly increasing in duration, only as needed. Only increase once you’ve plateaued for a week, dropped calories a bit, and you’re still not losing body fat. Remember, if you increase too much too fast, you will risk overtraining and muscle loss. Cardio should be supplementary in your fat loss goals to diet and training, in that order.
In addition to the supplements I suggested in Part 1, many competitors benefit from adding in a fat-burner supplement program between eight and four weeks out. Why not add it sooner? You can, but the body will build up a tolerance to most fat-burners, rendering them ineffective without going above and beyond the recommended dosage. In addition, you shouldn’t need one prior to 8 weeks, as you are not yet holding an extremely low body fat level until after this point. In order to know exactly when to add in a fat-burner, listen to your body. When you notice a severe drop in energy, moodiness, and hunger, it’s probably time to add it in.
Posing Suits, Jewelry, Heels, Etc.
You probably won’t have your posing suits yet, but your designer should be well underway in making your suits. She may ask for updated measurements as your body fat drops, to make final adjustments for a proper fit. You should expect to receive your suit by 1-3 weeks before the show. Once you receive it, try it on to ensure a proper fit and practice your posing in the suit from now on.
If you haven’t purchased heels yet, begin by researching online stores to find a shoe that fits both your organization’s requirements and that matches your suits. Most girls choose a clear shoe between 4″-5″ in height, but this is not a requirement by most organizations. Just make sure the shoe’s upper material is minimized as not to detract from your physique. I recommend a shoe with a 1/2″ or less platform under the toe, and 4 – 4 1/2″ heel height. But check with the regulations in the circut you choose.
This shoe gives your legs a long and lean look, with just enough height to pop the calf and lengthen the legs without causing difficulty walking.
Once you’ve chosen your suits, buy jewelry to accompany each suit. Hopefully, you’ve picked a silver or gold theme, not both, so you can wear the same jewelry for each round. Don’t buy or wear expensive jewelry, as it will get dirty, and possibly be lost or stolen. I suggest going to Claire’s or Icing and picking a nice pair of dangle earrings (2-3″ in length), and a bracelet.
You should also order your tanning supplies around 4 weeks out or arrange for a spray tan. I highly suggest having backup product in case for some reason the appointment falls through. Bodybuilding.com has a huge selection of items, and they arrive at your door within a few days. I’ve tried almost all the products available, and found the absolute best to be Olympic Tan. It’s the easiest and fastest to apply, and requires minimum coats for a deep, dark color. It’s convenient foam formula serves as both an excellent base tan and a bronzer, in one. One bottle is all you will need for one show. The best applicator I’ve seen are the Jan Tana round sponges. They smooth the tanning agent on evenly and quickly, unlike paint brushes or using your hands with gloves alone. Figure girls don’t need posing oil, so save your money on that.
The Last 4 Weeks
The final month of contest prep is the most grueling and difficult. You are over-trained, underfed, moody, and ready to be done with all this pre-contest stuff already! Biding your time and pressing on until the day of the show is probably the most difficult thing at this point, as time seems to slow to a crawl.
Motivation and energy levels can also drop, so it’s important to do everything you can to stay on track with workouts and diet and push yourself to keep your training intensity high!
There is not much to do differently at this point, except coast on in to show day knowing that you’ve done everything in your power to come in at 100%. If you do this, you will not have any disappointments on show day!
I will list some of my favorite techniques to stay motivated during the tough times of contest prep. Remember, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it!
Post pictures of your favorite competitors & inspirational quotes. Read bodybuilding & fitness magazines. Watch fitness/figure videos. Attend a local competition. Visit motivating fitness web sites. Call your spouse, best friend or family member for support (a good support team is essential!). Treat yourself to a day at the spa. Visualize how you want to look on show day. Pray for mental and physical strength. Schedule a photo shoot (seeing your photos can give you a true view of how good you really look!).
Training, Diet & Supplementation
Your training will be getting more difficult at this point. The number one struggle will be to keep your energy levels and strength up at the gym.
Time your complex carb meals and supplements to give you the ultimate energy right when you need it – pre-workout. You may be up to two training sessions per day at this point, which is very common.
When Is The Best Time To Do Cardio? If possible, I suggest doing cardio on days you do not lift, or at least as a separate training session. The shorter your training sessions, the more energy and intensity you can devote to each session, the better recovered you will be before the next workout, and the more muscle you will retain. A big pre-contest myth is that you have to do cardio first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. All this does is make you hungry and cranky, aid in muscle loss, lower your capability to train with high intensity, and deplete your glycogen stores – sometimes to the point where they are low all day long and can’t recover or refill before your next workout.
The truth is, performing cardio in a fasted state will promote amino acid oxidation and cortisol release. Cortisol is a very catabolic hormone that prohibits fat retention and inhibits muscle gain so make sure you take some glutamine and BCAA’s to give your body an energy source other than your muscle tissue!
To fuel your workouts, avoid muscle-wasting, and recovery quickly. Make sure you are ingesting complex carbohydrates at breakfast and pre-workout. If you have extra carbs to add in, do so post-workout. These are your three most important meals and should be structured first in your meal planning. Your other 3-5 meals should be “filler” meals, where you are getting a variety of lean proteins and fibrous vegetables to give yourself a varying array of amino acid profiles, vitamins and minerals.
As for supplementation, some people find that creatine and natural hormone boosters can cause excess water retention that is most definitely undesirable for competition. If you experience this, I suggest tapering off of these supplements 4-2 weeks out. Supplements that you can and should keep in up until show day include your:
If you haven’t sent in your entry form and made travel arrangements at this point, you have no time to wait! Check with the organization and show promoter to make sure you’ve filled out all the proper paperwork and sent in the fees for entry, membership, and if applicable, drug-testing.
Some promoters require money orders, proof of age or residency, and certain postage standards, so check the fine print and details to make sure your paperwork meets the guidelines. You don’t want to show up on the day of the show only to find that you were never registered to compete!
Also, finalize your travel and hotel accommodations if you haven’t done so already. It’s also a good idea to check with your hotel/airline to make sure your reservations are still good 1-2 weeks out.
Ask the hotel if they have a microwave and refrigerator available in the hotel lobby or in your room. Most often, you can pay a small fee to get a refrigerator delivered to your room once you arrive.
Check Ahead To Make Sure Your Registration Is Complete.
Make A Packing/Shopping List:
You should make your packing list now, so that you can purchase any items you are short on or forgot you needed. This will save you the stress of arriving without the necessary items and conveniences, and having to run around to get them or do without them.
Competition Shopping List:
2-piece swimsuit 1-piece swimsuit (if applicable) Heels Tanning agent, applicator, Bikini Bite, Pam spray (for sheen) Jewelry for each swimsuit round (earrings & bracelet) Stage makeup/applicators & cosmetic bag Hair styling items & products Large cooler for 2-3 days of food Small cooler to take on show day Safety pins, scissors, crazy glue (for suit mishaps) Hooded, zippered front, drawstring waist, loose-fitting pant suit (cotton or velour) Flip-flops to wear on show day Small rolling suitcase to bring to the show Old towels – 2 bath towels, 1-2 hand towels, 1-2 wash cloths (good for applying tanning agent/oil, wiping off surfaces and protecting hotel items from getting stained)
Shower Curtain (for hotel room to preserve theirs)
Choose Your Hair & Make-Up:
Decide how you want to do your hair for both rounds of prejudging and finals. Do a little research and try out your hairstyles 1-2 times before the day of the show to avoid complications. Clean and relatively simple hairstyles are always the best option. Avoid flamboyant hair-do’s that do little but distract the judges and audience from your physique.
Whether you are curly or straight-haired, make sure your hair is shiny, healthy and smooth (frizz-free) to present your best package to the judges. I also suggest a coloring touch-up and/or deep conditioning 2-3 weeks out.
Choose make-up that flatters your palette (warm or cool) and coordinates with your suits. This doesn’t mean it has to match your suit color, just compliment it. Buy your make-up no later than 2 weeks out, and practice several different application techniques and colors to find the best match for your skin tone, facial features and suit colors.
Do A Mock Competition Run-Through
They say that practice makes perfect, and this is preached so often for good reason – it’s true, especially when it comes to figure competition. If you lack the experience of some of the seasoned competitors, you can make up for it by doing a mock competition run-through.
Do your full hair and makeup, apply posing oil/sheen spray, put your suits and jewelry on, and run through each posing round, changing in between. You can do this alone, but it’s best to have a small close audience, like a spouse, best friend or trainer.
Do this run-through 2-3 weeks out so that you can change anything needed before the final week, when you’ll be too busy. Get honest feedback from your “judges” and have them take pictures so you can review your posing and presentation as well.
The Final Week
Your last week of contest prep will be unlike any other. During this week you will manipulate your diet for maximum muscle fullness and minimal water retention.
You will cut back on training so your body can recover for the demands of the competition day. And you will tie up any loose ends with buying and packing items needed and finalizing travel and hotel arrangements.
What you need to realize is that your goal for peak week is to come in full and hard with no water under the skin. You do, however, want the water in your muscles so you don’t appear flat and soft.
The general rule of thumb I tell new competitors is to not try anything extreme the first show. A 2-3 day carb depletion with a moderate increase the day before or of the competition, coupled with moderately-low sodium intake and high water intake, will result in the hardness and fullness they are going for.
A good nutritionist will know this and will plan your week accordingly. If you are doing it on your own, stick with the simple basics, as extreme plans result in extreme (and most often undesirable) reactions.
You may opt to add in a natural herbal diuretic to assist with water loss, but if your food and water are properly manipulated, this isn’t always necessary.
A product that I highly recommend is MHP XPel. It contains natural herbs to help flush out excess water, but also contains a balance of electrolytes to keep the water in the muscles and out of the skin. It is unlike any other herbal diuretic on the market.
Your training should be minimized this week, with workouts being performed at only 80% of your full workload and intensity, with no intense workouts after mid-week. Training during the final week helps deplete glycogen stores and again, get rid of any excess water, prior to carbing up right before the show.
Cardio should be cut back to half or less of what your former volume was, and should be done at moderately-low intensity. You should spend more time polishing up your stage walk and quarter turns this week, but make sure you get plenty of rest Thursday and Friday so you’re ready to go come show day!
The tanning process should begin about 3 weeks out, with exfoliating your skin 1-2 times per week. This will help your base tan apply smoother and more evenly, and your skin will be glowing and healthy-looking on show day. What most competitors do, and what I recommend, is to begin Tuesday night with the tanning process.
Start by exfoliating the skin and removing unwanted body hair, either by shaving or a depilatory cream. Apply your base tanning product with a sponge or gloved hands. If your product comes in a spray bottle, pour it into a disposable plastic cup or bowl. It’s much easier to apply this way.
Tan your entire body up to your neck, but do not tan your elbows, armpits, knees, hands, feet, or face. Let the agent dry for 15-30 minutes before putting old clothes on. Sleep with the agent on and rinse in cold water with no soap the following morning. Moisturize if desired.
Repeat this process (minus the exfoliating, instead just rinse body in cold water) Wednesday and Thursday nights. Friday morning will be your final shower and shaving touch-up, if needed. All coats applied Friday and Saturday should be done with special care, as they will not be rinsed off, so mistakes will be more visible.
Space applications out about every 3-4 hours, to give the agent enough time to dry and enhance in color before the next coat is applied. Repeat this process for 3-4 total coats on Friday.
Apply no more than 1-2 coats to the body parts you previously skipped – elbows, armpits, knees, hands, face, and feet. Apply a final touch-up coat Saturday morning, if necessary. On the day of the show, use a moisturizer or some Pam spray to get a nice even sheen without a wet, oily look.
Trust me it is way easier to arrange with a spray tan company lol.
The Day Of The Show!
Wake up early enough so that you can fix your make-up & hair, pack your show day bag (see packing list at the end) and food, fix your tan if necessary, and arrive 30 minutes before the competitor meeting is set to begin. There is nothing wrong with being early, and this alleviates a lot of stress.
Arrive at the show ready to step on stage, other than a few minor touch ups with hair and makeup, since you never know what will be available once you arrive at the venue.
You don’t have to wear your suit, but have it readily available at check-in. Pay attention at the competitor meeting so you know what time you have to be at each event and location.
Expediters and promoters will not wait for you to start the show, so if you’re not there, you don’t get to compete! Treat everyone and everything with kindness and respect – this will help make your day a positive experience.
Don’t be afraid to eat and drink water on the day of the show. You should be carbing up this day and drinking a cup with every meal, to stay hydrated and keep your muscles full.
Eating and drinking on show day aren’t going to suddenly make you fat after 12 weeks of dieting, and your body needs the food and water for energy and a strong performance.
What to bring.
Posing Suits Heels Makeup Beauty Blotting Papers Small Mirror Jewelry Tanning Supplies (Paint, sponges, washrag) Lotion Pam Cooking Spray (for sheen) Latex Gloves Spare Hand & Face Towels Q-tips Scissors Safety Pins Crazy Glue Hair Ties Hairbrush Hair Products (Gel, Hairspray, Curling Iron, etc.) Toothbrush/Paste Mouthwash Food Bottled Water Flip-Flops Umbrella Music (CD & Tape) Bikini Bite Vaseline for Teeth Sugarless Gum Photo Shoot Clothing Clothing Change (for after show party/dinner) Disposable Camera Snacks (for after the show) Business Cards Photographs Promotional Items Directions to show and hotel Copy of entry form & organization membership card Tampons (girls only unless its been a really bad day for the guys
*I recommend bringing your own towels, sheets and 2 cheap shower curtains. One for the shower and the other for under the sheets. This will avoid any damage charges on your credit card.