Contest diets in a nutshell mean reducing body fat to a minimal level while maintaining as much muscle as possible while doing so. Most every contest preparation does this with a combination of calorie restriction and cardio training. Calorie restriction and cardio are two different methods of doing the same thing, but do so in opposite ways; one reduces input, one increases output. Going heavy on calorie restriction means you won’t have to do as much cardio, and going heavy on cardio means you can eat more, that’s the trade-off. Restricting calories too much can leave you with a nutrient deficit, but too much cardio has a laundry list of drawbacks including elevated cortisol levels, increased muscle loss, overtraining, a fatigued feeling and depleted muscles. For these reasons, cardio should be used sparingly and only increased later in contest prep as necessary as a primary means of cutting body fat.
There are very few people on the planet that are lucky enough to achieve contest shape on diet alone and do no cardio at all, but those people will almost always have amazing musculature and a remarkably full and solid look on stage. Most of us need a fair amount of cardio combined with a restricted diet to achieve our desired look, while some body types will even need multiple cardio sessions per day. While we are all different in this respect, finding a program that allows you to do less cardio for your particular body type will ultimately leave you looking better than a program that incorporates lots and lots of cardio. The problem with a program focusing on excessive cardio is three fold:
• Elevates cortisol levels – Exercise, as a whole, is stress on the body. Stress, be it mental or physical, results in the elevation of the hormone cortisol (the stress hormone). In moderate amounts, exercise (both weights and cardio) will result in positive effects on the testosterone/cortisol balance. However, combine a restrictive diet with regular heavy weight training and add in additional repetitive cardio sessions and the result is overload on the body systems and elevated cortisol levels and subsequent muscle loss.
• Impaired recovery from workouts - Combining 4-6 weight training sessions per week on a restrictive contest diet is enough alone to lead to burnout and increases the time it takes to recover. This is one of the reasons we feel so drained during contest prep. Increasing the time working out by adding in more and more cardio sessions gives your body that much more to recover from. Recovering from an HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) work is nearly as hard for your body as it is to recover from a heavy weight workout, steady-state cardio, while not as bad, also delays recovery, particularly when done every day for long periods of time.
• Increased fatigue and muscle depletion – Much in line with the previous two, the overall combination of a low-calorie diet and multiple or long training sessions has a high chance of leaving you drained and your muscles depleted, weak, and soft. Particularly on a contest diet, your body doesn’t have the time or nutrition to recover from workouts.
An ideal approach to a contest diet is to first, start prep a little sooner. The longer you have to cut down, the better chance you have to minimize the loss of muscle on your way down to contest weight. Begin the prep with just restricting the diet and increasing weight workout volume. Burning more calories from weight workouts has two main benefits. It both preserves more muscle (since you are working these muscles directly) and also gives you more time to focus on weak points heading into a show. Adding cardio in stages will then allow you to find the minimal amount you can do weekly while continuing to trim fat. Begin with three to four 20 minute sessions per week or two to three HIIT sessions (or a combination of both). After a week, determine if this has accelerated your fat loss and make a determination if more cardio may be needed, as it will range widely for everyone.
Overall, nearly everyone in contest prep will need a combination of diet and cardio. All diet and no cardio for most people will get them lean, but generally not quite lean enough to look your best on stage. Too much cardio and not enough diet will often leave you burnt out and flat and with less overall musculature. Be sure to get in tune with your body and make a realistic assessment of what you will need to do. Despite what is ideal, many people simply can’t lose the fat necessary without lots of cardio. Figuring out how to get ultra-lean with less cardio than you did last prep will most likely leave you harder, fuller and feeling more fresh come contest time.