Dieting down to get stage lean might be one of the most strict diets on the planet.
Every single thing you consume matters when your goal is creating the best possible physique. Bodybuilding is a physically AND mentally tough lifestyle to commit to!!
Yet a quick scroll through Instagram and you’ll see plenty of women flaunting their lean, muscular bodies with a smile on their face like they don’t have a care in the world.
With two shows now under my belt, I know that a lot goes into those carefully curated photos on social media. It’s certainly a lot more hot mess and a little less ‘insert inspirational quote here’ getting that lean…
I knew that my goal of taking my physique to the next level and earning my IFBB Pro Card was not going to be full of sunshine & rainbows – more like a whole lot of commitment, hard work, and challenging days.
Getting shredded, placing well, and having awesome stage photos to go along with it can seem alluring and make all the sacrifices seem worth it in hindsight, but that should not diminish the mental and physical challenges that any competitor goes through during their journey to getting on stage.
I have now accomplished my goal of turning pro at the Olympia Amateur South America and I pushed my limits even farther for my most recent show! But it certainly wasn’t without its trade offs.
Here are the top 5 lessons I learned on my road to pro and my advice to you if you’re dreaming about stepping on stage!
Extreme Goals Require Extreme Sacrifices
If you take nothing else away from this blog, let it be this. The more extreme and outside your comfort zone your goal is, the more you will need to change your lifestyle to get there. Or, as Thomas Jefferson said,
“If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.”
When I decided to compete again and take it up a notch to try and win my IFBB Pro Card, I knew prep was going to be even harder than my previous show because I had to sculpt an even better physique. I thought I was ready to train harder and be even more strict with my diet, but the reality was still more challenging than I had predicted.
Every day comes with its own challenges that you have to push through again and again.
In hindsight, dieting during the holidays and my birthday was not a good choice for me. I had serious FOMO during those times and it made the sacrifices feel even heavier. I questioned if a win would even be worth it and had way more than one day that I wanted to quit.
But I kept reminding myself that if it was easy, everyone would do it.
I chose to set a crazy big goal for myself and to compete again to see just how far I could push myself mentally and just how far I could take my physique.
My focus was set on winning my pro card and to get there I’d have to win those small daily battles to stay on track. This is where “enjoying the process” can make or break you!
If you are hating every single day of prep, you will likely either give up before reaching your end goal or have zero fun the whole time. Both of those options suck!
I really do believe the people who are the most successful in the sport of bodybuilding have found a way to truly enjoy the process of preparing for a show. Find bits and pieces that you enjoy and you’ll have a much easier time staying on track.
My Advice – If you set yourself an extreme goal, be ready for the challenges that will no doubt arise. Make sure you know exactly WHY you are setting that goal for yourself and make sure the WHY is big enough that you will be able to overcome those challenges.
Getting Shredded ≠ Health
This one goes out to all my ladies – abs do NOT equal health, beauty, or value. I lost my period both times I prepped for a show and my blood work was less than stellar when I was that lean.
Getting stage lean causes a number of hormonal changes such as lower testosterone, decreased leptin, and more. It can take months after reducing stressors and getting back to maintenance calories before correcting some of those health issues.
Not to mention getting to such low levels of body fat can also cause brain fog, fatigue, lack of sex drive, mood swings, ravenous cravings… It’s not cute to be hangry all the time. And there’s nothing you can really do to prevent the deviation away from longevity and health when striving for your leanest physique.
One practice that helped me reduce the high stress that contest prep puts on the body was focusing on mindset work. Each day during prep I would meditate, journal, and do some type of gratitude practice to help me stay grounded.
As I got closer to my show, I also added in “breathing breaks” in the afternoon when I was most hungry. This helped me slow down and refocus so I didn’t give into cravings, but even still the cravings never truly went away.
Getting super lean is not all fun and games and comes with its own health risks. Even though the photos might look great on social media, remember that being shredded typically means putting yourself out of balance with health and athletic performance goals because you are solely focused on aesthetics.
My Advice – Flex your brain like you flex your muscles! Double down on mindset work such as journaling, meditation, gratitude, etc. to help you keep your cool during prep. The more you can manage stress during your prep, the easier it will be for you to recover post-show!
Prioritize & Organize
If I had to pick one word to describe prepping for a show, it would be all-consuming. You must be incredibly organized and prepared to be able to stick to any intense goal with a deadline.
Meal prep becomes required – not an option.
You have to commit extra time to your cardio sessions – even on the days you don’t feel like it.
Weekends still have their temptations – you’ll have to prepare for it.
And you will probably have to ask for help at some point. This is true many times in life, but becomes essential when you’ve got your sights set on an important goal.
Be direct with your family & friends and ask for help when you need it. Nobody ever got to the top all on their own, right?!
My husband and I had many conversations about my struggles. He was my rock and helped me understand that it was OK to actually ask for help when I needed it and to let him take some extra things on.
I hate to admit it, but I couldn’t take care of everything I typically do when I was in contest prep mode. I needed extra help to get the housework done, take care of the dog, run errands, etc. because I simply didn’t have the energy I normally do when eating such low calories.
I also had to be way more dialed in with my personal schedule. I carved out extra time for grocery shopping and meal prep, used time blocks on my google calendar to stay productive during my working hours, and blocked out plenty of time for my strength training and cardio.
I also made sure I kept two date nights on the calendar each month. It’s really easy to let your relationships fade away when you’re prepping for a show, so don’t forget to carve out social time for people in your life and “me” time, too.
It might sound like a lot to stay on top of – and that’s because it is. Every meal and every workout counts so you’ll need to make a plan ahead of time to prioritize what’s important and get your sh*t done. Structure = freedom!
My Advice – Create a schedule you can stick to. The more you can get into “auto-pilot” with the same meal times, workout times, etc. the easier it is to simply follow through and stay on your plan.
Everything Is Individual
In Colombia, I was staying at an Airbnb with five other competitors – 1 competing in men’s physique, 1 classic physique, 1 women’s physique, and 3 of us in bikini.
We all had very different diet protocols, different training routines, different cardio, etc.
We even had these differences between us three bikini competitors who were all in the same division.
That’s because nutrition and fitness is incredibly individual. What works for me will not work the same for you. What makes my physique look one way might not work the same for your body.
For example, I had carbs with almost every meal during my peak week. My teammate and housemate, on the other hand, only had one single meal with a very small amount of carbs each day.
That’s because we needed different nutrition protocols to tweak our individual physiques before getting on stage.
Using competitors during peak week is an extreme example, but it helps clearly drive home the point that individualization matters!
[This is why we believe in a Tailored Coaching Method – Learn more here]
And this applies to comparing your body to another competitor’s, too. Your genetics and your best physique won’t be the same as anyone else’s.
While the sport clearly revolves around comparisons, everyone is unique and has their own strengths, their own style of posing, etc. that will set them apart.
You might think that there’s no way you can beat that person you were getting spray tanned next to, but know that you have strengths that are their weaknesses. It’s no use driving yourself crazy comparing your physique to everyone else’s backstage. Put in your best effort and leave the judging to the judges.
My Advice – Constantly be learning from your body. How do you respond to different training modalities and splits? What about different foods and meal timing? Learn what works the best for you and remember that your best package won’t be the same as anyone else’s.
Give Yourself An “Improvement” Season
It’s normal to feel a little lost after a big goal or deadline, and what I see happen often is competitors either rush into another show or go a totally different direction with their goals.
But just because you have the “post-show blues” doesn’t mean you should rush into another competition or set another huge goal for yourself right away.
Sometimes a dedicated off season (AKA improvement season) is exactly what you need.
Taking time to get out of a calorie deficit and focus on health and strength gains allows your body time to recover and actually get fitter and stronger.
When you are “stage lean” you will very likely have some hormone dysfunction due to such low body fat levels and high stress. This makes it very hard to gain muscle and can lead to other health issues if you continuously keep pushing.
Not to mention having an improvement season gives you a mental break from “the grind.” Take the time to return to maintenance level calories and try to recreate a healthy relationship with food before diving into another diet phase.
Contest prep isn’t a race. There will always be another show.
And that goes for almost all goals. There will always be another photo shoot, sporting event, beach vacation, whatever!
Social media can make it feel like everything is a competition and that you’re racing against your peers – but that simply isn’t true. Give your body the proper periodization to attack all of your wildest and scariest hopes and dreams over the long run.
My Advice – Take the time in between your competitions to give your body proper maintenance phases and focus on health and strength gains. AKA Periodize!!
What You Should Take Away:
→ It’s easy to love the idea of getting on stage, but consider the struggle that comes with it and if those trade offs are worth it to you
→ Your training and diet has to be top priority when you compete so prepare for planning out every single meal and every single training session
→ Know that pursuing your leanest physique requires a deviation from your best health or athletic performance
→ Commit to mindset practice. You will question your motivation, your body image, your life choices… Daily mindset work might be the most important of all!!
→ Don’t be afraid to take time off in between any diet phase. Your off season is your chance to truly improve!
If there’s some part of you that wants to compete – go for it! But make sure you have a very strong “why” and are competing for the right reasons, with the right mindset, and the biggest support system you can find!