Contest prep for bodybuilding.

This sentence can be intimidating for the rookie bodybuilder or even the veteran who has done ten shows.

Contest prep aka “pre-contest” is one of the three seasons that occur in bodybuilding.  The other seasons are known as the offseason and the competition season.

The offseason is for building muscle and improving weak areas on your body.

The pre-contest season in is for retaining the muscle you built in the offseason while simultaneously dropping as much body fat as possible.

The competition season is when you show off all of your hard work on stage from the offseason and the pre-contest.

Contest prep for bodybuilding is a difficult, but worthwhile process.  Seeing your body change in ways you might not have thought were possible is amazing.

Contest prep will typically last anywhere from 6-32 weeks depending on the current condition of the bodybuilder or figure competitor.

I have personally experienced 6 contest preps in my career but I have overseen many more than that including the winner of the 2019 Ms. Natural Philadelphia Johanna Blume.

Today I’m going to share with you the 4 rules for contest prep training in bodybuilding.

I will address the rules for contest prep nutrition and recovery in separate future articles on my website.

Training Mythology

Unfortunately there are many ridiculous myths in the game about contest prep for bodybuilding.  They all are totally unconscionable.

Some of these ridiculous myths are:

• You should only lift light weights for high reps to get more cut and ripped

• Lifters should perform only isolation movements to trim the fat in specific areas of your body

• Bodybuilders should only do long duration “cardio” every day for 1-2 hours each session or even multiple sessions of “cardio” per day

• You should train your abs every day in order to develop a “6-pack”

To the untrained bodybuilder, these myths may seem like great ideas but when the grass is cut, the snakes will show.

All of the myths from above will bite you in the arse like a Texas rattlesnake if you follow them blindly like many a bodybuilder has.

Johanna Blume followed none of these myths and she absolutely obliterated the competition at the 2019 Mr/Ms. Natural Philadelphia which was her first ever show.

On the other hand when I prepared for my first show in 2011, I bought the snake oil.

I did not look my best on show day or any day.  The fake hustle theories I mentioned above got me nowhere except looking weak, skinny, stringy, and flat.

For my third through my sixth show, I used the 4 rules for contest prep training.  I was able to build my skinny body into a respectably lean and muscular physique.

I was able to stand side by side with future natural professional bodybuilders at the 2014 Mr. Natural Philadelphia and finally place top 5 in my class.

By implementing these rules into your contest prep training you can ensure that you show up as lean and muscular as possible.

4 Rules For Contest Prep Training

1) Do Not Stop Lifting Heavy

The term heavy in relation to the weights you will lift is relative.

When your offseason ends, you should theoretically be at your strongest.

Ideally your bodyweight will be a little bit higher because you should have been in the habit of consuming more calories to promote more muscle growth.

In this scenario you should also be lifting heavier weights during the offseason.

In the typical, ridiculous pre-contest scenario a bodybuilder stops lifting heavy and they only lifts light weights for high reps during the prep period.

This combined with an extreme caloric deficit and excessive “cardio” results in a very deflating, but predictable loss of muscle and strength.

This bodybuilder will lose points on stage for lacking muscle fullness.  The small and deflated guy will always lose to the guy who looks bigger, fuller, and pumped up.

The way to prevent this loss of muscle is to continue to lift as heavy as possible throughout contest prep.

This does not mean lifting near-maximal loads (90 percent plus) like a powerlifter for 1 or 2 reps per set.  This means if you owe a set of 5-12 reps on the squat, it should be 5-12 hard reps.

You should not have a weight on the bar that you can squat 30 times for a set of 12.  There is absolutely no value in that type of protocol.

Lifting heavy while on a caloric deficit (protein still high) will force your body to hold on to that precious muscle.  This is how you can show up on stage looking bigger than you actually are.

Your overall training protocol should include periods of heavy and moderate weights anyway, so if you program correctly you will arrive full and ripped on contest day.

If you program your training like a dodo, your presence on stage will be that of a dodo: non-existent.

2) Do Not Stop Using Compound Exercises

There is absolutely no reason why any bodybuilding competitor (or anyone) should stop performing the basics and their variations during contest prep training.

These are the movements that have forged your physique so it is a great idea to keep using them.  What you will want to do though is have a variable training program so that every session is not a lame 3 x 10.

The RP-21 Training System and various other protocols can be used in cycles to ensure your body is always progressing throughout the year.

When you are in a caloric deficit, it is even more important to continue to use movements that target so many muscle groups at once.

Remember one of your main goals during contest prep is to retain as much muscle as you can.

Yes, you will still and should have isolation movements like sissy squats, biceps curls, and dumbbell triceps extensions in your program.

But these isolation movements cannot be prioritized over the big compound movements especially during pre-contest.

If you were going to specialize to build certain muscles the time to do it is in the offseason when your calories are higher.

3) Do Not Perform Excessive “Cardio.”

This is asinine to the highest levels of asininity.

Of the 4 rules for contest prep training this is the one that gets many competitors in the bodybuilding game into deep waters.

Bodybuilders performing way too much cardio is the most common sin.

Do NOT relegate yourself to this as it is beyond unconstitutional.

I have personally seen bodybuilders performing excessive “cardio” in an attempt to “get shredded.”

I have also seen competitors at shows coming in stringy, flat, and gaunt.  They have obviously prioritized “cardio” over pumping iron and building muscle.

In bodybuilding, “cardio” is used to burn more calories and to ramp your metabolism but it was not always this way though.

Back in Iron Guru Vince Gironda’s day, he promoted that a proper diet and lifting weights were the main factors needed when trying to get super lean.

Based on how his clients looked, Gironda was right.

The bottom line is if you are lifting hard and heavy enough while working at a brisk pace you are still getting a great conditioning effect while building muscle.

Ultimately, the main driver of your reduction of body fat will be your diet.  But to get super lean, separate conditioning sessions can help.

With that being said you need to do the right type of conditioning to build or retain muscle.

Save yourself some time and perform shorter, more intense sessions that promote muscle growth.

These high intensity sessions could be sprinting workouts or sled pushing.

Many bodybuilders are so conditioned to spend all of their time in the “cardio” section that they don’t realize they could get better results in significantly less time.

“Fasted” training caught on as a way to burn more body fat during a workout, but the point of training is always to build or retain muscle mass.

“Fasted” training will end up costing you muscle mass.

Yes you can go for a walk with a weighted vest on in a fasted state to eat up some body fat.  Walking is so low in intensity that you will not sacrifice your muscle mass.

But you have no chance to perform a high quality sprinting or hard conditioning workout while fasted.

Your numbers will suffer and your workout intensity will be absolutely lousy due to the lack of fuel.

You can do 2 or 3 days of sprinting and 1 or 2 days of other conditioning like sled pushing to take care of your “cardio” needs during the pre-contest.

They can be done on separate days or post-workout.  This style of conditioning will keep your furnace burning long after the session is complete.

You could also use a high-low format for your conditioning.  An example of this would be to alternate sprinting and walking for your conditioning sessions.

The main differences between high and low intensity conditioning is effort and duration.

Sprinting is dramastically more difficult than walking and takes about 10-25 minutes based on what sprint workout you are doing.

Walking is much easier than sprinting but you will need to commit to at least a 45 minute session to get any true effects from it.

A lifter on a high-low program would do 2-3 days of sprinting and 2-3 days of walking.

Walking has zero effect on your system.  If you are going to walk throw on a weighted vest to make the walk more challenging.

While high intensity conditioning sessions are great, you have to be mindful of where you put these conditioning sessions.

You do not want to perform a tough sprinting workout right before a hard and heavy lower body workout in the gym.

This will cause your performance in the gym to drop a bit due to the massive amounts of energy used in the sprinting session.

4) Do Not Focus On Abdominal Training To Reveal Your Abs

A ripped midsection is necessary on the stage.  If your stomach is soft, you have no chance to place high in bodybuilding.

Many bodybuilders and figure competitors understand the importance of having a lean midsection.

The problem is that the majority of them approach revealing their abs the wrong way.

The common scenario, just like with “cardio” is that they start training their abs 5 or 6 days per week.

While this can make your abs stronger, training them frequently does absolutely nothing to reveal your abs.

If you look at any anatomy chart you will see that everybody has abdominal muscles.  The key to revealing them is a combination of low body fat and genetics.

Some bodybuilders do train their abdominals after every workout and some bodybuilders do not do any direct abdominal work.

If you have consistently trained properly throughout your lifting career, you will have already built the abs you want to reveal.

Your abs are heavily involved in exercises such as pull-ups, sprints, and safety bar squats.  They are also involved in any other compound exercise you can think of as well.

Abs are not revealed through doing more abdominal exercises.  The abs you already have, like everybody else, will be revealed as a result of your adherence to your diet.

You can always tell if someone is lean based on the definition of their abs.

arnold schwarzenegger abs

Genetics are no joke.
Peak Arnold only had a 4 pack and he did abs often.

Your upper back, shoulders, and arms can be lean and your abs can still be fluffy.  I’ve seen it all throughout my career.

What will decide if you have abs on show day is a combination of diet and genetics.  Some people despite being super lean, cannot attain a 6 pack.

Arnold, who is regarded as the greatest bodybuilder of all time had a 4 pack at the peak of his powers.

He did a great amount of abdominal work and has also taken anabolic steroids.

I’ve trained young boys who have never worked out in their life.  But some of them have abs because of their genetics and also their body fat is so low.

One of my training partners and great friends Jazmane Jenkins always has razor sharp abs while in contest condition.

In contest shape he has almost has an 8 pack and he does very little direct ab work.

Let your adherence to your diet plus some extra conditioning take care of revealing your abdominals.

If you want to train your abs to make them stronger stick to the basics like barbell rollouts or hanging leg raises.

If you want a real challenge you could even try to perform dragonflags like Rocky Balboa.  They are no joke like Rakim.


These are the 4 rules for bodybuilding contest prep training.

Do not fall for the smoke and mirrors and other gimmickry when preparing for a contest.

There are plenty of ways to prepare poorly, show up flat, feel like a loser, and look like one too.  That does not have to happen to you.

Lift heavy, do your compound exercises, and make your conditioning short and intense.

And also forget about doing 500 crunches a day during your contest prep training.

The next edition of this series will cover the nutrition and the mindset needed to survive the grind of contest prep.

I’ll holla at you next time.
The People’s Trainer,

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3 Comments. Leave new

  • Thanks for sharing your insight, a lot of good info here! I definitely wouldn’t recommend HIIT for maintaining muscle mass. Low-Intensity cardio takes longer but is definitely the better choice when trying to preserve muscle while getting very lean

    • Harrison,

      Thanks for reading my article and leaving your comments. I appreciate it!

      I will however respectfully disagree with you on the thought that higher intensity forms of conditioning do not do a good job of retaining muscle mass.

      We exclusively use higher intensity conditioning like sprinting and pushing the Prowler for our contest prep. If a client has limitations that prevent sprinting we even use options like swimming.

      In my years of doing contest prep for natural bodybuilders there has not been one person who had any issues with retaining muscle mass during the process.

      I will say this though. If you overdo HIIT while on a caloric deficit then yes you will sacrifice some muscle mass. But the same thing will happen with low intensity conditioning as I have seen many stringy bodybuilders and figure competitors at shows who lived in the “cardio” section during contest prep.

      I have found that following these 4 rules presented in the article have consistently produced the best possible results for natural bodybuilders.

  • […] of elite, contest-prep bodybuilders, who train/diet to lose as much body fat as possible, sprinters are the leanest athletes on the […]


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